NCAA Mile Champion Josh Kerr Is Living The American Dream
The redshirt freshman from the University of New Mexico won his first NCAA title last weekend in the indoor mile with a thrilling upset over Edward Cheserek, the collegiate record-holder and 15-time NCAA individual champion.
Now, the 19-year-old from Edinburgh, Scotland, is celebrating with a spring break road trip across the western United States.
Three of his expat Lobo teammates are along for the ride -- Kristian Uldbjerg Hansen of Denmark, Jacob Simonsen of Denmark, and Jonny Glen, Kerr's roommate and fellow Scot. The men are taking turns driving a used Ford Fusion, owned jointly by Kerr and Glen.
"Me and Jonny share it," Kerr says from an Airbnb in Los Angeles. "We don't have quite the funds to have a car of our own. It works out quite well."
They ran through the Grand Canyon and took a detour in Flagstaff, Arizona, before making it to California. On Thursday, they saw the Hollywood sign. On Wednesday, they hung out on Venice Beach and watched the Clippers lose to the Bucks 97-96.
"We lost by a point, so we're all pretty gutted about that," he says.
The feeling shouldn't last long. Kerr has joined an exclusive club in defeating Cheserek at the NCAA Championships. Only Lawi Lalang, Eric Jenkins, Patrick Tiernan, and Justyn Knight have managed the feat.
"You gotta be honest here," New Mexico head coach Joe Franklin says of the pre-race expectations for Kerr's first appearance at the indoor championships. "There haven't been many people who have beaten Cheserek in a college race. The odds are against it. The goal was to make top three. Get in position and give yourself a chance. But the first goal was to make the final. And really, if you take it back four weeks earlier: you have to make the meet. This is a very difficult meet to make."
Let's take it back a year and a half earlier, to when Kerr first moved to America.
The teenager was a bit of a lucky find for Franklin, who has built his program on a consistent pipeline of top-rated athletes from the United Kingdom. Kerr is young for his grade and entered college at just 17 years old -- "I'm not sure he could go to an R-rated movie when he got here," Franklin laughs.
Kerr reached out to coaches at 16, when his 1500m PB was "just" 3:52.
"I had always wanted to come out to the States," Kerr says. "But I'm pretty young for my school year and hadn't clocked any really quick times. I was emailing a lot of coaches and getting negative responses. 'Work hard, give it a year, and maybe we can talk about recruiting you next year.' I got recruited by New Mexico and really grasped that with both hands and committed."
The summer before college, Kerr improved his stock by racing 3:44.12 in the 1500m and winning gold in the event at both the European Junior Championships and England Athletics U20 Championships. But his commitment to the Lobos was a done deal.
Watch Kerr kick from behind to win the 2015 European Junior Championships:
"I was really very glad that Joe trusted my ability when he recruited me first," Kerr says. "That's why I have a lot of respect for Joe, and we work very well together."
But when the mid-distance specialist arrived on campus, he wasn't fully prepared for the rigors of a 10K cross country race.
"I'm really not a high mileage guy; I'm more quality than quantity," Kerr says. "I ran about 60 [miles per week] through this fall, dropped to 50 for the races. But freshman year was 40-45, so that was where the issues lied. But you know what, I just wasn't used to doing high mileage and Joe wasn't needing me to do higher mileage because I would just get injured. I've been fortunate enough not to be injured the whole time I've been at New Mexico, so he's trusted me to know where I am with my mileage."
Kerr was consistently the No. 4 or No. 5 Lobo across the line and placed 37th at the Mountain West Championship. He didn't finish his race at the NCAA Mountain Regional.
Of Kerr's 2015 fall season, Franklin says, "It wasn't as athletically productive as we would have hoped. Whether you're from the UK or some state that's a six-hour drive away, it's an adjustment period wherever you go to school. For true freshmen to come in and do really remarkable things, that's just rare."
The lack of base fitness continued to plague Kerr throughout his track season. In the spring, the issue was his ability to run consistently through rounds and multiple races in consecutive days. He did advance to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 1500m and set a new PR of 3:41.08 in the prelims but managed just 3:50 for 10th place in the final. Kerr went home to Scotland for the summer and represented Great Britain at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Again, he ran well to advance out of the prelim but placed just 10th in the final.
The failure to perform in Poland hit Kerr harder than his NCAA run did.
"The thing is with NCAAs, those guys were on such a different level from me," he says. "At that point, with Clayton Murphy and Izaic Yorks, I couldn't see myself winning. But World Juniors was a different experience. I was able to close as hard as those guys earlier on in the season. If I had positioned myself well, I reckon I could have come top three. That hurt me the most, because it was also one of my last races as a junior for Great Britain.
"I didn't have enough base in me through fall, so I wasn't able to get through rounds [all year]. It was a big disappointment for me, but it just made me hungrier to get titles and that's what we're really getting paid to do. I knew something had to change."
After world juniors, Kerr took a week off from running. He and Franklin had already decided to redshirt the cross country season, so Kerr spent the fall building a strong base with his new roommate and Scottish countryman, Glen.
Kerr noticed a change in fitness on his regular 10-mile tempo runs. Whereas he often failed to finish tempos that long as a freshman, he now found himself churning out 5:11 miles. Don't forget -- the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is elevated 5,312 feet above sea level.
"We don't normally push ourselves to the point where we're really in a bad way on the track," Kerr says when asked to pinpoint a specific track workout in which he noticed a change in fitness.
Franklin, on the other hand, notes a repeat 400m session before the Mountain West Indoor Championships.
"It wasn't a particularly hard session, but we ran 8x400m off a minute starting at 63 and going down to 61," Franklin says. "We rested for a little while and five minutes after ran another 400m. It was nothing stressful, but he ran 55 seconds for that last 400m and was talking. And I thought, 'He's in a really good spot.' Now, having said that, four to five weeks earlier in the season doing that workout, I would have said he's not very fit. That was a struggle, and we had to change the rest."
Kerr reveals that when Franklin thinks he's "unfit," the coach makes him do 4x300m with 50 push-ups as recovery after each rep.
"The next couple days, I couldn't bend my arms," he laughs now.
We caught up with Kerr and the Lobos to film their last pre-NCAA workout in March:
It was an under-the-radar triple at the Mountain West Championships -- at altitude, no less -- where Kerr revealed a new ability to compete well through multiple races.
The Lobos went all-out in the DMR to nail an NCAA qualifier, and Kerr split 4:02 on the anchor -- with common altitude conversions, that's worth about 3:56.5. He won the mile prelim in 4:11, then returned the next day to win the final in 4:03.41.
"There's always talk about whether altitude conversions are real or not," Franklin says. "He had this series of races that were really good at conference, so we knew he was fit, but...we were going up against Cheserek, the best collegiate distance runner of our time."
The Lobos' DMR made nationals. Would Kerr run the relay anchor, focus on the mile, or attempt both?
"Up until this year [at conference], he had never doubled well at all," Franklin says. "Outdoors last year, he had a really difficult time running two hard races back to back. Day one, he could run great, but recovery into the second day at an elite level was difficult. That was a product of his NCAA outdoor finish, where he ran really well in the heat but couldn't back it up on the second day.
"When you get to the elite level, you have to be able to bounce back and run rounds. So there was nothing, no indication objectively, that it could happen at a high level. Subjectively, we thought it could happen. But objectively, we had no real evidence to suggest he could do that. His fitness is good. But we didn't know what would happen on day two."
It was decided about an hour after the mile prelims that Hansen would replace Kerr on the DMR anchor. The Lobos placed 10th in 9:46.87.
"He's a good runner, and I trusted him fully with that leg," Kerr says of Hansen. But it was still tough to sit out and not run the relay for his team. "We had six good guys with our reserves ready to run. Joe said, 'You've never shown me that you're able to do a double on the same day and be able to run the next day strong,' which I still think is the correct decision. I wanted to be able to challenge the leaders in the mile the next day."
Kerr, who said in the post-race interview that he gave himself a 25 percent chance to win, planned to surge with 550m left in the race. Cheserek beat him to the task, but Kerr didn't falter and instead took the lead at 1200m. He closed in 53.2 with a final 200m of 26.68 that put a gap of more than two seconds on King Ches, 4:03.22 to 4:05.42.
Watch Kerr upset Cheserek to win the mile at the 2017 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships:
"It was unbelievable crossing the line," Kerr says. "It was a bit different, because I've never really finished a race not believing I won. I had to shake everyone's hand and make sure everyone was across the line. They were all good and it was a really enjoyable experience, one that I won't forget for a long time."
"I was thrilled for him," says Franklin, who also coached Lee Emmanuel to win back-to-back indoor mile titles in 2009 and 2010. "To do that and have that race against arguably the greatest distance runner in NCAA history, I'm happy for him."
Odds are that the NCAA has a new 1500m favorite for the outdoor championships, and Great Britain has a young star on the rise for future world teams. But Kerr and Franklin are taking the Scot's new celebrity in stride.
"I think you know exactly what my final goal would be," Kerr says of the outdoor season. "But I have to take it day by day and week by week."