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Feature12 Mar 2024

'Mailman' Kerr, determined to deliver again in Paris


Josh Kerr celebrates his world indoor title win in Glasgow (© AFP / Getty Images)

“I’m the mailman, I guess,” says Josh Kerr, reflecting on his ability to deliver – at least in the two most recent global track championships. 

First there was the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, and that thrilling finale to the men’s 1500m as he swept past Jakob Ingebrigtsen. Then there was the World Athletics Indoor Championships Glasgow 24, when Kerr almost took the roof off the Glasgow Arena as he powered to 3000m gold.

And we all know what comes next. 

The Olympics, and that showdown, not just with a certain Norwegian but with all the other men who stand in Kerr’s way. “I’m not worried about how many times I get beaten throughout the season as I’m sure it’ll happen,” he says. “I’m just excited for that Paris Games.”

That same excitement was with him on the eve of the world indoor 3000m final. “I was like a kid on Christmas eve,” says Kerr. “Like I had a secret in my head all day: I know I’m going to win this world title and I hope everyone is excited and ready to see it.”

The 26-year-old duly fulfilled the prophecy, powering past Ethiopia’s Olympic 10,000m champion Selemon Barega entering the final turn to strike gold after a vicious 25.19-second final 200m. 

Not long after the race, Kerr thought back to 2015, when he clocked 9:11.76 for 3000m at a British Milers Club meeting in that same arena. He was 17 at the time. Later that season, he went on to win the European U20 1500m title, then a new chapter began: Kerr spent the next three years at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, USA, for whom he won three NCAA titles. 

Josh Kerr wins the world indoor 3000m title in Glasgow

Josh Kerr wins the world indoor 3000m title in Glasgow (© AFP / Getty Images)

Still, for all his outlying talent, Kerr knows what it’s like to fall short. He got his first taste of how cutthroat it is at global level at the 2017 World Championships in London, Kerr finishing 11th in his 1500m heat. That memory came flooding back in Glasgow. “I failed in front of a British crowd,” he says. “And now I’m able to perform like that. It’s been a long process.”

Kerr took up the sport at the age of eight, joining Edinburgh AC, where one of his clubmates was Jake Wightman. Their careers ran on separate but relatively parallel tracks as they progressed to senior level – Wightman choosing Loughborough University in England, with Kerr plying his trade in the NCAA. 

They both had to take a few beatings before they cracked the code of major championships, with Wightman rising to the top of the world in 2022 in Oregon, Kerr doing so a year later in Budapest. And, of course, they both did so by toppling the same Norwegian. 

In Glasgow, Kerr was visibly reticent every time he was asked about Ingebrigtsen, aware that he’d likely heaped enough fuel on the fire in interviews in recent months.

“What’s great is there is a rivalry,” he says. “There’s a rivalry between myself, Jake, Ingebrigtsen, Yared (Nuguse), everybody. They’re all trying to go after that title. I’m going to work my way through the season and hopefully see those guys later in the year. You never want to be involved in an era where it’s boring in the 1500m, where you know someone is going to win it.”

Kerr is a student of his sport, and he grew up watching footage of the British middle-distance greats on YouTube. He’s aware that the one of the greatest rivalries in athletics history – between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett – thrived off the two being pitted against each other, both in the media as much as on the track. 

“We’re having a bit of fun back and forth, aren’t we?” he says. “Hopefully it keeps you guys interested, but I’m more looking forward to the head to heads (on the track).”

In Glasgow, anytime he was asked about Ingebrigtsen – which was a lot – Kerr always turned the conversation back towards himself. 

“I’m just focusing on myself and I’m confident, so things are going to come out (in interviews). He’s focused on himself as well and that’s going to end up in clashes. It’s a very high level of sport and we’re going to go head to head many times this season, I believe, especially with the races I’m signing up for.”

Kerr isn’t yet able to announce which races he’ll do, but rest assured he won’t be wrapping himself in cotton wool on the path to Paris. “It’s going to be a fantastic season of 1500m running and I don’t think I’m going to win them all, but I’m going to win the right one,” he says. “It’s my goal. That’s what I’m focusing on.”

His progress in the past year has been both physical and psychological. Last December, Kerr ran a 1:01:51 half marathon on a slightly downhill course in San Diego, proof that the endurance work he’s been focusing on is paying dividends. His approach to training hinges on consistency, with coach Danny Mackey steering his career with a sensible hand since Kerr moved to Seattle and joined the Brooks Beasts in 2018. 

“I run a pretty simple schedule of six days a week: two sessions, a long run, two gym sessions,” says Kerr. “We’re not recreating anything. We’re not doing anything wild. I don’t do lactate testing. I don’t do double sessions. I just focus on consistent work and I know what my body is capable of.”

On his workout days, Tuesdays and Fridays, Kerr also lifts weights which he says has “changed the game, not only in building strength and power but also staying away from injuries.”

Josh Kerr wins the 1500m at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23

Josh Kerr wins the 1500m at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23 (© Getty Images)

The heat of major championships can make many athletes crumble, but Kerr relishes that cauldron. “When the pressure’s on, the lights are on, I put my shades on and have a good time,” he says.

He left it late to commit to Glasgow. As much as Kerr wanted to compete at his home championships, Mackey insisted he could only do so if his body was properly assimilating the training, conscious that with the Paris Games just five months away, they would not push the envelope with unnecessary risks.

Kerr knows how many Scottish youngsters were in the arena and how many more were watching at home. He hopes his performance sent them a message. 

“It’s an amazing sport but it’s a very difficult sport and I hope people find inspiration from that,” he says. “That’s our job now, to help everyone from the grassroots level to get where they want to be.”

Still, Kerr knows this sport is not only about the medals. “For me, it’s the process,” he says. “I fall in love with the process and I’ve found what works for me.”

Can he get better? Of course. “I’m one of the worst 5km runners in the world, so that’s a pretty big weakness. There’s lots of ways to go, but I’m getting better every week.”

And given the level he’s reached, with those two global titles, Kerr now carries a certain swagger every time he lines up against the world’s best.

“I’m a sick boy with that, I can’t stop believing in myself,” he smiles. “There’s a funny feeling I’ve got anytime I step on that track – that anything is possible. I trust my feelings and my instincts and my fitness. Because it’s there every single time.”

Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics

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