Profile: Armory Foundation Yearbook

The following is a piece that was originally published in the ‘2015 Armory Yearbook’ as printed by the Armory Foundation. I was honored to be included, and was extremely happy with the way the author, Dave Hunter, was able to convey my personal journey. Enjoy!

“Local Boy Makes Good – Meet Kyle Merber”

By Dave Hunter

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Pacing at the 2016 Wanamaker Mile (Photo: @ShaneFord14)

How Kyle Merber – lifelong New Yorker and now member of a world-record-setting relay team – became interested in track may sound like a Hollywood movie, but it’s true nonetheless. “I started elementary school in 1996, right after the Atlanta Olympics,” said Merber, who grew up in West Hempstead, Long Island. “In October of that year, Derrick Adkins, who had attended the same elementary school and had won the gold medal in the 400 hurdles in Atlanta, came back and spoke at an assembly for the whole school. And I basically just listened to it in awe, spoke with him in person, and shook his hand. Right after that, I went home inspired and basically told my Mom I wanted to run track, so she signed me up.”

Adkins’s Olympic spark ignited the young Long Islander. “I had run in and out of school for a number of years. When I entered high school at Half Hollow Hills West, they had a kind of a sprint-oriented program,” Merber said. “But my coaches knew I wanted to be a distance runner. So we figured it out together, how to make it work. Of course, it meant a lot of running alone for a while. But together we just figured out the plan – what worked and what didn’t work,” he said.

“I was a solid freshman – nothing crazy – but probably a little bit better than average. I hardly broke 5:00 for the mile. It was a steady progression. By my junior year, I was becoming competitive enough to be recruited by colleges. And my senior year really took off – I won (state) cross country, won the mile indoors, won the mile outdoors, and just really, really found my stride,” Merber said. “It was just a matter of steady progression and figuring things out.”

Armed with solid academic credentials and a high school best of 4:11.6 (1600), Merber headed across town to Columbia University. “One of the things I really liked about Columbia is that I could come in and – while not the best on the team – be able to make an impact,” he said. “During my high school experience, Half Hollow Hills West got a lot better. And I really, really enjoyed that process and in seeing that development. So it was really important to me in college to be able to be a contributor to that growth again.

“In my freshman year, Columbia did not make the national meet – and we never had,” Merber said, describing the team’s goal of getting the Lions to the NCAA cross country nationals. “But by my senior year, we qualified for nationals for the first time. That sort of progression is something that I am really proud of, to have been a part of. And so for me in going to Columbia, that was a huge, huge factor.”

Columbia never finished worse than third in the Ivy League cross country championships in Merber’s four years in Morningside Heights – 2nd in 2008, champions in ’09, 3rd in ’10 and runnersup in the fall of ’11, with Merber finishing second individually and the team making Nationals.

As was the case in high school, Merber’s unwavering commitment to running continued to generate further progression: running a sub-4:00 mile as a sophomore to set a new Ivy record, and collecting three Heps titles along the way – 1st in the outdoor 1,500 in 2010 and 2012, 1st in the indoor 3,000 in ’10. The capstone of his college career was his unexpected 1,500-meter performance in a most unlikely setting: a Last Chance meet at Swarthmore College in May 2012.

“There were a bunch of professionals that were going for the Olympic standard. And so I was able to sneak my way into the race as probably the last entrant in the field,” Merber said. “The pace was quick. Nick Willis was rabbiting his teammates. And I just kinda got in line. They were going way faster than I had ever gone out before.

“But I just got in line and hit my time and realized that I was good to go, feeling way better than I had ever felt despite being really faster than I had ever been. I just got competitive and tried to win the race. The time came – and I did it.” Merber won in 3:35.59 – roughly a 3:52 mile — the second-fastest collegiate mark of all time and not far from the collegiate record of 3:35.30, set by Sydney Maree of Villanova 34 years ago.

“I was really, really lucky to be in a race like that. I don’t think a lot of collegians ever even get into 3:35 races. I think it was a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, and feeling good at the right time.”

After an ill-fated, injury-riddled 5th year at the University of Texas, Merber returned home to New York. “When I finished up at Texas, there were no shoe companies knocking down the doors to get me anymore. So I came back to the New Jersey/ New York area and joined up with Coach [Frank] Gagliano and ran for the [New Jersey/New York Track] Club.” Merber said he now thrives under Gagliano’s tutelage.

“I think Gags’s greatest asset is his ability to make you think you can do things that you didn’t previously believe to be possible. When Gags tells me that I can run a certain time or beat a certain person, I trust him. And that’s a huge mental barrier that athletes are always working to get over. For Coach to instill that sort of confidence in you, it really aids in jumping to that next level.”

Merber – who turned 25 in November — is also a disciple of the Gagliano training approach. “The thing Gags always says is, ‘You put strength and speed in a bowl, you mix it up, and you get a champion.’ We at all times of the year touch all systems. Monday would be strength work, long intervals. Wednesday would be a tempo in the morning and hills in the evening. And then Friday would be speed, turning it over. I do a two-hour run on Saturday. And with everything in between, I hit about 90 miles a week.”

The high-water mark of Merber’s young professional career is his leadoff leg on Team USA’s world-record-setting performance in the distance medley relay at this spring’s World Relay Championships in the Bahamas. After opening with “a tactical 2:53” 1,200 leg, Merber waited nervously as Brycen Spratling [400] and Brandon Johnson [800] got the baton around to Ben Blankenship [1600]. “I realized with 200 to go that we had a really good shot at not only the win but also the record,” said Merber, who was mentally calculating splits during Blankenship’s anchor leg. “It was awesome,” he said of watching Blankenship’s determined drive to the line. The USA’s winning mark of 9:15.50 shaved .06 seconds off Kenya’s 2006 world record.

The internet is replete with photos capturing the Americans’ post-race celebration – as relay mates can be seen restraining an exuberant Merber. “I get a little excited,” Merber admitted sheepishly.

Merber knows that his homecoming to New York – along with Gags’ oversight and a sponsorship with Hoka One One – has given him the stability he needs to go to the next level. “I am officially still a Long Island resident. But I split my time between Clinton, N.J., Long Island, and New York City, where my girlfriend lives.” With 2015 serving as another year of progression – an indoor PR in the 2000, outdoor lifetime bests in the 1500 (3:34.53) and the 3000 (7:52.95); a 6th-place finish in the tactical USATF outdoor 1500, and the world record in the DMR – Merber embraces his post-collegiate life as a professional athlete. “It is even better than I imagined,” he said. “With just everything that you do, you can focus entirely on becoming the best athlete possible. It’s really, really easy to put your energy in when you wake up in the morning and the only goal is to get better.”

Merber has no hesitation proclaiming that when his elite racing days have concluded, he wants to find a way to give back to the sport that has been so good to him. “I don’t know the exact best way. I’m sure after my career I’ll jump around to a number of different opportunities in track and field until I find a place where I can help contribute the most. I’ve got a lot of ideas,” said Merber, who was the mastermind – and 3rd-place finisher – at last fall’s successful Hoka One One Long Island Mile.

For the upcoming season, there’s the ambition of trying to make the U.S. Olympic team, where his competition will include the reigning American champion, Matthew Centrowitz. The last New Yorker to make the men’s team in the 1,500? Matthew’s father, Matt Centrowitz, 40 years ago.

via /r/advancedrunning

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Photo: Jim Crossin

Q: So, what exactly is Merber’s priority in a race like that mile?

Pre-race, his instructions were to go 3.50 pace. He takes it out right there, and no one goes with him. So he looks over his shoulder and then slows down in laps 2/3 until they regain contact. And then when he speeds up again in lap 4 … same story: no one goes with him. What’s a rabbit supposed to do with that kind of field?

I guess it looks like his #1 job is to pull whoever is running 2nd, and then his 2nd priority is to hit 3.50 pace through 1200. Or did he improvise? Genuinely curious here.

Note that I’m in no way criticizing the guy, because he sure seemed to have the legs to go ~2.53 through 1209.

A: Honestly, it is an extremely difficult position for a rabbit to be in, but I think I handled it as best as I possibly could. I spoke to Centrowitz earlier in the week and he told me to get out and run 56.0 but he’d rather me be faster than slower. So I went out with that intention, and assumed he’d be on me. For everyone else in the race, they make that same assumption. They’ve heard he requested 2:52 and so they expect him to take second duty and for it to be strung out and rolling. Centro was apparently feeling a bit sick and so when I realized he didn’t get out as hard as he planned and Garrett finds himself in the lead I have to slow down. But if I put the breaks on too hard that’ll be a disaster so I just immediately fall into 29.x and wait for them to attach. I tried on a couple occasions to press a bit, but a gap would open so I just kept that pace rolling until it was time to step off. I squeezed it down a bit the last 100 in hopes of winding them up (a move Willis preaches and taught me at Swarthmore). I felt great, and believe I did the right thing. The mistake a lot of people would probably make is to just run 2:52 like they were told, never look back and the field would jog a 3:00 and kick. After the race, the meet director and a lot of people whose opinion I really respect knew it was a tough situation to be put in, but that I did everything right and were happy with the job.

My plan to rabbit this race came a couple months ago as I was hurt in the beginning of the fall, but have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly my fitness has come along and was a bit disappointed I didn’t get in a fast race like at the other top US guys. But I wanted a low key indoor season without much excitement and that’s what I am getting. The perks of rabbiting is that afterwards everyone is really appreciative and it’s good karma. Obviously at this point, I am really good friends with the majority of the field despite being in constant competition with them. One day they’ll probably get me back, ideally by coming to the Long Island Mile.

Still had a full week of mileage and right after the race (about 7-8 minutes later) I did a quick workout of 2x1k (2:51-2:52) and then 400/300/200 (58-42-26) and got in a long cool down. Next weekend I am going to do a low key 3k in Staten Island and call it a season. Glad to have gone through the race-day routine today and walk away with confidence.