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Kyle Merber Exit Interview and The Importance of Sharing the Athlete Story

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My guest for today’s show is Kyle Merber and this is his exit interview. He spent the past seven years running for the New Jersey-New York Track Club and just a few weeks ago took to Instagram to announce that he’s not done running but done getting paid for it. He finishes his professional career with personal bests of 1:47.23 for 800 meters, 3:34.54 for 1,500 meters and 3:52.22 for the mile.

I wrote in my newsletter: He made an impact on the current generation of American distance running by bringing humor, transparency and personality to the track and social media. He’s arguably one of the funniest professionals to follow but also posted with honesty when things weren’t going so great in his attempted comebacks from a series of injuries.

You’ll get that from this conversation we recorded this week as we go through his career but also his vision for change and fixes within the sport.

You can catch the latest episode of the podcast on iTunes so subscribe and leave a five-star review. We are also on Stitcher, Google Play and Spotify!

kyle merber citius mag podcast exit interview

SHOW NOTES AND QUOTES

How Would Have His Perfect Retirement Played Out Without the Pandemic

“The fairytale would have been I make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and then I return to the Long Island Mile and probably would have announced my retirement there. That didn’t happen. I’m OK with this. The more likely situation is I’m crying at The Wild Duck after the Olympic Trials and just decide to hang it up then. This is a little less dramatic but also the big blessing of it all is something I’ve had plenty of time to think about, consider all angles and options to really make sure that it’s definitely the thing I want. I can confidently say that it feels completely right and good and I’m really happy with that decision.”

Not using the word retirement

“I don’t like that because I’m going to line up probably in a road race at some point again. I would say a theoretical goal would be to make the 2024 Olympic Trials in the marathon. I don’t have to do it because I said that and that’s important too. That would be an idea I have. I don’t like saying retirement because there’s no black and white in running. You see it all the time in sense that collegiates, amateurs, high schoolers and pros all line up on a starting line together. There’s plenty of room for gray area and that’s probably where I’m going to exist for a little bit.”

“As fun as retiring was and having lots of nice messages from people, I don’t want to be Brett Favre and do it again and again and again. I feel like this does leave the door open for me to pop my head back in, run a mediocre half marathon and do whatever and maybe pop my head back in at the Trials one day.”

Being a Role Model as a Pro Runner

“I’ve always tried to carry myself as if I were the role model of the 15-year-old me. I grew up a running nerd. I was into it from the get-go. I started really, really young. In my sixth grade yearbook, my career ambition was to be a track star. I grew up looking up to professional runners. Everything I always did was with the intent that if a younger me was in the crowd, what I hoped the interaction would look like. If someone Instagram DMed me or sent me a message on Twitter or a random email, I would really do my best to respond to every person that I could because I sent those messages myself.”

What Got Him Into the Sport

“In 1996, Derrick Adkins came back to his elementary school on Long Island and showed everyone the gold medal he had won. I was in the crowd. I got to see it. I got to talk to him and touch the medal. I was immediately enthralled by the sport that I went home and talked to my mom about signing up for track. That left a really lasting impression on me because I know that he may not have wanted to go back to his elementary school a month after winning the Atlanta Olympics but he did it out of an obligation to his community. Whenever I’ve been invited to speak at camps or schools or any event, I always try to think of the fact that there’s a little kid there who may be sent on a different path just because he had the opportunity to hear my story.”

Starting His Own Running Career in High School

“I always say that I got addicted to the idea of chasing smaller numbers. You run a six-minute mile and you’re excited but the next day you think about where you could cut another few seconds off. That was really it for me whether it was racing the 400 meters or 800 meters when I was younger. Once you start becoming known for something and that’s your identity and everyone in your school knows that you’re the fast kid. Then, it’s really addicting. I just got into it and went all-out into it…That’s been consistent through it all. I know that a lot of people retire and they fully hang up their spikes and also their training shoes for a little while. Since retiring, I’ve had plenty of 50 to 70-mile weeks because I like running…It’s so easy to get caught up in this idea of chasing one specific goal all the time, especially when you’ve been doing it for 20 years. You lose sight of it’s really fun to run fast.”

The Impact of DyeStat

“I’m of the DyeStat generation and I was obsessed. My high school team when I came in had no real distance runners. No one would have worn short shorts and called themselves a distance runner. I knew that’s who I was and what I wanted to do. I went to cross country camp and finally found people there. The internet was the other place where I found myself. It was the DyeStat world of being able to be exposed to what other people were doing on other sides of the country and then also there was one part of the forums called The Playground, which basically meant you don’t post about running here and you just post about anything. I really hung out in The Playground. It was hours a day just talking to people like AJ Acosta or Chris Derrick. There were some really good runners in there. This became my social circle where I started to identify with runners. I was learning what people were doing but I also made a name for myself because I was such an active DyeStat talker.”

“It was definitely obsessive but that’s what you need to do in order to be a really great runner. I think if we’re going to fast forward to later parts of my career. I noticed that I had lost that obsession. The obsession is what differentiated me. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t talented. I was plenty talented but only barely broke five in my freshman year of high school having been a runner for years. The only thing that was my advantage was that I was so obsessive. I knew what I wanted and knew how I was going to get there.”

Losing that Passion/Obsession in 2020

“I think if you look at the start of the year, I’m really trying to convince myself that I have a chance to make the Olympic team. I’ve struggled with some injuries. 2019 was a shitty year of racing for me. I’m trying to convince myself about what I can do better or how I can change things up in a positive way that hopefully gives me an edge. I try everything I can. I have a decent training block in the fall and the winter. I go to race and I’m pretty bad. The pandemic hits and my first gut reaction was that this is an opportunity to do something totally different. I was training with Johnny Gregorek. We said that if you don’t leave your house and I don’t leave my house then it seems like we can run together…I have more time now to experiment. That’s when I decided I’m going to bump my mileage. I’ve been playing it safe and trying to run in the 70s because I wanted to stay healthy. It’s not working because I’m not running well so let’s try the opposite approach and try to start running 100-105 miles per week and see how it goes. Initially, what it did was reignite the flame again. I was pumped. I was so excited to be training. It was finally something different. I was doing workouts that I had never done before. I did a 10-mile tempo run under 5-minute pace, which for a miler is a pretty sign. I was just excited. Then, I thought the reason why I didn’t have the full flame in me this past year was because I just wasn’t fit enough. Now that I’m fit, it’s back. And then…I tried to race and as soon as I started to think about racing, I realized, ‘No. The flame is just missing.’

I didn’t have the competitive spirit any more. The few opportunities that I had in the spring and summer really allowed me to see that. What I think is an interesting aspect of my personality is that I’m just not that competitive as a person as is, which is why I’m friends with all of my competitors. My motivation has always been to be the best version of myself and not necessarily better than the guy next to me. Already my entire career has been talking myself into getting up for races and now it was even harder and harder. As I look back now, the writing was on the wall for the last couple of years.”

Brainstorming Ideas for the Sport

“A very important part of where the sport needs to go is decide what are the other races outside of the U.S. Championships that are going to be super important and almost treat them like U.S. Championships in a way – in the way that tennis and golf do. I think part of that is you need to go to things that already have a recognizable brand name. If I could do the easiest thing in the sport, it would be make the Drake Relays and Penn Relays different weekends. I don’t understand why they’re the same weekend. They’re two of the biggest races that everyone’s familiar with. It would be the best thing in the sport if you separate those two weekends and really build up the elite side of things like the USA vs. The World and Drake’s high performance stuff. Really let all of the attention go on these two things that people already know and treat them as if they are The Masters. People outside of the sport know The Penn Relays. Let’s not squander that opportunity. Let’s lean into it a little bit.”

“Back to the more grassroots events, the mile and the distance running community have done a really good job of creating mile pop up events. I think the next step is to do it for other events. Take that model and bring it elsewhere and maybe combine events. Maybe it doesn’t have to be just one mile. I’ve had this idea in the past where we can do the Long Island Mile and the 100. We’ll bring those two communities together. We’re going to run 100 meters with four guys surrounded by 2,000 fans standing in Lanes 1 and 8 yelling at them running through the tunnel. It would be really cool. I think we’re introducing the Long Island community, which is now very familiar with distancing running to the sprinters. Somewhere else on the other side of the world, we need to do that with the steeplechase and shot put. Rather than having this circus of 25 different events happening at one time, we need to focus on specific events in smaller communities where you can really engage with the storyline of what’s happening. The people who are involved in the storyline can really engage with the fans.”

The Importance of Sharing the Athlete Story

“It’s our responsibility to share them and tell them. I think track is super interesting. Trust me. I will be losing my mind at the Olympic Trials this year watching the races but that’s because I know everyone who is in the race. How do you get someone who doesn’t know the people in the race to care? Get them to know the people in the race. This is a two-pronged  problem where it’s the media’s responsibility…We need five CITIUS MAGs. We need more Flotracks. We need more Runner Spaces. We need more attention on the athletes to tell the story. Even more so, athletes need to tell the story. You have to be your own brand manager. If there are any professional runners listening, the one question I would ask is: Why should anyone root for you? What is your defining characteristic that differentiates you from everyone else on the line? Is it because you post pretty pictures of you running? That’s not enough. You need to be more specific of why people will relate and invest in your story and be able to feel that level of elation with you if you win.”

The YouTube Running World

“I would encourage people to do things that are in the best interest of their running first and foremost. The goal here is to run fast. If anything gets in the way of that, then maybe don’t do it. If it’s not a natural thing for you and you’re someone who doesn’t like sharing, then you might not do a great job at it. There are certain people who really do like sharing, are transparent and open so they’d enjoy that side of stuff. Those people would really benefit and help grow the audience because there’s no barrier of entry on YouTube.”

“I think one person who has done it so well is The Athlete Special. Spencer Brown does a really great job and people have seen the behind the scenes of him coming up through everything. I don’t know Spencer at all. I watch his videos…The only thing I worry about is at some point is a distraction to your own running? I don’t know what it’s like for him. If you’re so concerned with filming every single workout, are you not executing in the workout? Going into a race, there’s already a lot of pressure in a race. Now you’re in a race and you have to think of the thousands of subscribers you have and giving them good content along the way.”

“The person I am most excited for is Morgan McDonald. His videos are incredibly funny. He’s got that dry Australian humor. He just started and has a few videos. I would say for the most part when I watch YouTube videos, I’ll watch on 2x speed or I kind of flip through. I don’t really care about the running that much. Just tell me the splits of the workout. I want to hear you talk. I want to be there for the fun side of things. I know what it’s like for people to run on a track. Morgan had me completely enthralled the entire time. I watched every second of the 10-minute video and then I showed my wife right after…He also is one of the best in the sport so we want to see what he’s doing. He’s got a lot of opportunity right now to be a really successful YouTuber and pro.”

“I do think that what’s happening or will continue to happen is if the top athletes in the sport do not start sharing more, then the ‘middle class’ – someone once called me a middle-class athlete once, which is totally fair – will become popular because they’re willing to share. Maybe popularity is not a big deal, except for the fact that I think contracts are going to start to reflect the things that you’re doing off the track more and more, especially if you’re only racing a few times a year. If I’m a shoe company that wants to pay someone a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, I’m going to say OK but you have to post, start a YouTube channel and do this many appearances. You have to get more people more involved otherwise we’re going to be taken over by influencers.”

The Lasting Legacy of The Real Maine

“That was an opportunity to tell a story. At that point in my career, I had a story to tell. My sophomore year went really well. My junior year I stepped on glass and I missed an entire year. The Real Maine picks up with this kid who was really good and missed a whole year due to a freak accident but is now trying to get back. For me, personally, there was a story. That gave people something to think about and root for. People are always asking when The Real Maine will be re-released. Some of us want it. Erik (Van Ingen) doesn’t want to release it. A part of me kind of likes the fact that he doesn’t want to release it. He doesn’t want to release it because it was a college project and not representative of the talent he has today. He doesn’t want it out there. I think it would be way worse than people remember. In 2011, it was really good. Today, it would be disappointing. I like that it has this mythical element of it. It’s a time period piece where in 2011 it was groundbreaking. Today, Tinman Elite’s YouTube puts out better content every single week.”

Embracing the Good Times

“I’m really OK with the way things turned out in my career. I’m OK with my PRs. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of what I accomplished. I think that’s a big element of every aspect of the retirement process. I never wanted to retire and be really bitter about the sport and I think that happens to a lot of people. I didn’t want to go out because I was injured. I didn’t want to retire because there was no opportunity for me to continue. I went out loving running. I’m very happy and proud of my career. I’m happy to still be a participant in some side of the sport. I feel like I’ve made out OK and sleep really well at night knowing that I gave it a really good go and I’m OK not having won an Olympic medal.”

“For the most part, the way most people retire in track and field is they sucked for a couple of years or they dealt with injuries or they got dropped or it was no longer an option or they move up to the marathon and aren’t that good at the marathon and then retire. There aren’t that many great fairytale endings in track and field…I think the beautiful thing about track is that we have the tendency to remember people at their best. I really thought about this a lot when Leo (Manzano) retired. I was around in a lot of these races of Leo’s in the last couple of years and it wasn’t the Leo Manzano I grew up admiring, fearing and being completely awestruck by because he started to have some injuries and became inconsistent. I’ve done it myself. I know how frustrating it must have been those last couple of years of racing just trying to get to the level he was once at. And then he retires. All anyone can think of is all those U.S. titles and the Olympic silver medal and all of the amazing things he does. The history books won’t remember that the last couple of years were tough for him because that’s just the beautiful thing in which we remember people at their best. In other sports, sometimes you’ll remember the time the ball goes through your legs and you don’t get to win a World Series and that’s going to be the marking of your career and not all the home runs you hit.”


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