Q&A with Kyle Merber: Gearing up for Millrose, training and being a New Yorker
I hopped on the phone with my friend and former teammate, Kyle Merber, to chat about his upcoming appearance in the Wanamaker Mile. I figured I’d write up a tidy little page-long narrative about how good he feels, and how he hopes to win.
What instead transpired was a sprawling half-hour conversation about training philosophy, the future and what makes someone a New Yorker (that last part was cut short because Kyle had to go eat sushi.) Here are some key excerpts from the transcript.
Paul Snyder: You grew up on Long Island. You went to Columbia. You now live in Hastings on Hudson, after a few years in Clinton, NJ. Besides your nine-month stint in Austin, TX, during your fifth year at UT, you’ve spent your entire life within about a 60-minute drive of the Armory. Is anyone in the field this year for the Wannamaker Mile that is as New York as you?
Kyle Merber: Johnny [Gregorek] would be the only person in the field who could rival me in terms of New Yorkness. His grandparents are from Brooklyn and his dad’s from Long Island, but he roots for the Pats and Sox, so he’s disqualified. What ultimately makes me the most New York is the fact that I’ve traveled a ton and still think the rest of the world is worse than New York. Plus I have immigrant grandparents and some Jewish in me. It’s very important to have at least a little in you. I know latkes, ya know?
PS: Oh. I know. So with that in mind, how important is Millrose to you? You won the high school mile in 2008 and I’m pretty sure nobody’s won both the high school and pro miles there.
KM: Everyone comes to the Armory and says this “feels like home.” But like I said, this is actually my home, like, I did grow up racing here. The first couple of times I was in Wanamaker, I put a lot of pressure on myself; I thought about the fact that I won in high school and how cool it would be to do that again as a pro. But my history at Millrose is absolutely terrible. I think I’ve run 4:02, 4:05, and DNF’d as a rabbit. That’s my history. Especially indoors, in a race where there are so many good athletes, you can get stuck jostling, and I struggled with that as well as with the pressure I put on myself.
Watch Kyle’s high school mile run below:
PS: I take it your approach this year will be different?
KM: Exactly. My plan is to come in with much lower expectations; just aiming to feel really good for the first 1200 meters and then close hard. I mean, eh, I’m just gonna treat it like a normal race and try to run decently.
PS: Let’s talk about the race a little more. The field lacks a clear favorite, but it’s really deep.
KM: Right. This is a real race, anyone can take, which I think is really good for the spectators. It’s not going to be Centrowitz just running away from everyone and the only intrigue being how fast he runs. And as much as we as pros all talk a big game and say “Yeah, I could beat this-or-that person,” when Nick Willis runs 3:51 the week before, it’s one thing to say it, and another to believe it. Instead this year, lots of guys in the field have run 7:45-7:49 at various 3,000 meter races and nobody’s shown their hand in the mile. Everyone seems to be in good shape but nobody seems unbeatable.
PS: So your training’s been going well? You and your NJ-NY teammates have shirked altitude in favor of training in Tallahassee, FL, this winter.
KM: Yeah it’s been great. I’m running about 90 miles per week in singles. I feel my legs are fresher when I have 24 hours to recover between runs. I’d rather do 85 minutes than 50 and 35. That always gets a big shock factor because the elite lifestyle is so conducive to doubling. I obviously have the time to do it.
PS: Do you feel like a lot of pros rely so heavily on doubles, almost out of boredom, or to create the illusion of having a busy day?
KM: Maybe, to an extent. You feel like you’re working harder with doubles. You’re always getting ready for a run, running, or showering or stretching after a run. Personally, I like being able to have a normal day after my run, and try to keep busy with non-training things so I don’t drive myself crazy. It’s a lot of work to put on the race on Long Island (the HOKA One One Long Island Mile) and I help out with marketing for a startup called ShoeKicker.com. Anyway. The real biggest difference with running in all singles for me, is that it’s a different stimulus — I did lots of doubles in college so this is a big change that my body has adapted to really well. At some point I’m sure that will change and I’ll have to revert back to doubles to keep my body on edge, even if I don’t feel better doing it. Constantly changing stimulus and playing with variables is key.
PS: Do you think a lot of runners don’t change up their training enough? It’s so easy to stick with what’s worked, because you have anecdotal proof that it’s the right option for you.
KM: Well something that happens a lot is — Dathan [Ritzenhein] is a good example; he was training with Brad Hudson for years. Then switched to Salazar and suddenly set the world on fire. It wasn’t the change in coach, it was the sudden small change in stimulus that allowed the years of work to manifest and to sink in. It’s easy to abandon ship for a new coach if you’re feeling stagnant but sometimes all it takes is just mixing things up within your current system.
PS: So how do you know when a change is necessary?
KM: I couldn’t write a textbook on it. You just need to feel it out. People are shocked at how slow we’ll [Kyle and his NJ-NY teammates] run our average runs. We rarely average under 7-minute miles on recovery days, and sometimes we are even north of eight minutes, because we work out pretty hard every other day. This is the fourth year I’ve been in this system. It took a year or two to adjust to it. Now I’m benefitting. But in a year or two more, maybe I’ll need to make another change, fewer workouts, more hammering on “easy” days. I work with Coach Gag[liano] to figure it all out and I’ll be coached by him as long as he’s willing to coach me, though!
PS: Touching on that, something maybe one or two readers will find interesting is your take on muscular tension and how big a role it places in racing well.
KM: Muscular tension is huge and I learned about it from Steve Magness. Basically you see guys ripping tons of all-out strides the day before a race. Well sometimes I’ll go out and do one stride, then I’ll realize I feel perfect here and there before cutting it short. Or if you feel too springy, you can do a longer slower stride, then if you’re not springy, you might need some hard hills, or squats, to get that tension back. It’s about zoning in, listening to your body and finding the right amount of pop to be efficient and feel good.
PS: Speaking of listening to your body, you’ve been healthy for a bit now. What do you attribute it to?
KM: You have to obviously listen to your body with aches and pains, but often times you can just run it through it. You have to learn to guess accurately what needs rest and what doesn’t. 95% of the time I’m good at guessing. That 5% that I’m wrong is when injuries occur. The difference between those with longevity and those who lack it, is this. If you’re always throwing yourself against the wall you’ll break. Guys like Nick Willis take a day off each week and he’s still racing fast into his 30s. That’s what I want for myself. My goal is to run really fast but it’s also to run really fast for a really long time.
PS: Okay, potentially departing here: are you taking indoor more seriously this year than in years past?
KM: I take indoors as seriously as I am healthy and I’m healthy this year. Plus I had a good fall and winter block, so I’m trying to race more regularly. The more I do it, the better I deal with nerves. I don’t wanna pretend that I’m a tough guy who doesn’t get nervous; I used to vomit before every race due to nerves but it’s gotten better recently.
PS: What are the plans after Millrose? Does the outcome there inform that decision?
KM: Regardless of how Wanamaker goes, I want to race one or two more times this season before taking a couple of weeks down — but not entirely off. Then I’ll start gearing up for outdoor. I don’t like taking time completely off so I just do some jogging instead. My legs remained hardened and seasoned… training legs, ya know? I feel way less awful starting up again.
PS: Speaking of, what do you foresee on the docket for outdoors this year?
KM: I wanna run a 5,000 at Stanford. I think I can go in the 13:20 range. Plus, opening the season going up in distance should help direct my training toward strength in the early phases. Running the 800m early on always makes me wanna rush into speed work. Instead, at the end of outdoors when I usually always end up running six straight miles and 1,500 meter races. This year I wanna do an 800 when I’m sharp and not bogged down with mileage, instead of as an opening race when I’m slow. I really think if I time it right, I’ll have a 1:45 in me if I’ve been turning over and I’m not at max volume.
PS: Is your 5,000m PR still from your Columbia days?
KM: Exactly. It’s that 14:02 I ran as a sophomore. Honestly despite not racing the 5,000 at all right now, I think of myself as a 1,500/5,000 guy, and I could see myself doing the 5K at USAs in a couple of years.
PS: Last question, that requires us to double back a decent bit: Why Tallahassee? Why not go to altitude?
KM: I’ve tried altitude because it’s been so hyped up .When I went, I felt absolutely terrible for the five weeks I was there. I slept poorly and I have a notoriously weak bladder, which was a terrible combo, constantly waking up and being unable to fall back asleep. Recovery was tough. Additionally I thrive on feeling good. Mentally and confidence wise — if I know something is supposed to be fast and hard, I want to hit the paces, but slowing down at altitude… that messed with me.
Plus I prefer warm weather in the winter to snow. Warm weather versus altitude? I choose warm weather. It’s easier to stay healthy. You’re more loose. You can get to trails and you wanna do stretching and drills outside instead of going home and feeling like you need a three-hour shower. I understand why some people like Flagstaff but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone, and to pretend that that’s the only way to train is, I think, short-sighted. Plus Diablo Burger is very overrated.