Feature11 Jun 2024

Eugene mile clash intensifies Kerr-Ingebrigtsen rivalry ahead of Paris


Josh Kerr wins the mile in Eugene from Jakob Ingebrigtsen (© Matthew Quine)

With a lap and a half to go in the Bowerman Mile at last month’s Prefontaine Classic, Josh Kerr made what he described as a “dumb decision” – on purpose.

The world 1500m champion raced to the front at the Wanda Diamond League meeting, ahead of Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Yared Nuguse, the third- and fourth-fastest milers of all time, a move whose intention was daring them to chase him down. When neither could, Kerr burst through the line with a world-leading British record of 3:45.34 and bragging rights – for now.

Having said at the pre-event press conference that he was racing to win, not settle tension between himself and Ingebrigtsen after months of banter between the overnight rivals, Kerr settled who was best over one mile at least on this day at Hayward Field. As to who will be the best in the long run, that remains to be seen – because each runner left declaring confidence for their presumed rematch at the Paris Olympics.

“I was just excited to go out and race against a world-class field and show that I’m still the best 1500m runner in the world,” Kerr said. “The training I’ve done is not anywhere near my peak. 3:45 right now is good enough but we’ve got to make some progress moving from here.”

“It’s a good fight,” Ingebrigtsen said. “Some of my competitors have clearly taken a step in the right direction but not a big step – not as big of a step that maybe is needed to be the favourite in Paris. But I think if anything, this is going to be an exciting summer. For me, I think it’s very good.”

Kerr entered the race with full health and full confidence. After outkicking Ingebrigtsen, the Olympic champion, to win the world title in Budapest last year, Kerr set a world indoor best over two miles in February, then won the world indoor 3000m title in March in front of fans from his native Scotland.

Josh Kerr celebrates his world indoor 3000m win in Glasgow

Josh Kerr celebrates his world indoor 3000m win in Glasgow (© Dan Vernon)

Ingebrigtsen ended last season by winning the Prefontaine Classic mile in 3:43.73, just ahead of Nuguse, but then battled an achilles tendon injury during the winter. That did not necessarily mean he kept a low profile. Comments in the press by Ingebrigtsen began a back-and-forth.

When asked about his relationship with Ingebrigtsen at the press conference ahead of their recent clash in Eugene, Kerr responded: “I wouldn’t say this is a counselling session.”

No, but the race did prove to be a strategy session. The athletes at the front felt that the time through 800m, 1:53, was not too fast. With 600 metres to go, Kerr made his move.

“I thought it was a dumb decision and I knew if I thought it was a dumb decision then it probably was and that was going to scare myself and everyone else around me,” said Kerr, whose previous personal best of 3:48.87 was set two years ago.

Did such an early move surprise Ingebrigtsen?

“A little bit,” he said. “Because historically people have a tendency to not do what they say they’re going to do so they can feel very confident when they have to hold their mask but when we start racing everybody’s very insecure so I think it says a lot about their preparations. I think it was as expected but maybe still surprised that someone is deciding to all of a sudden start racing so I think that’s very good.”

Considering his delayed start to training, Ingebrigtsen was pleased with the time.

"If you do the conversion [to 1500m] it’s a pretty good start," he said. "I’m not a fan of the mile event by itself because it has nothing to do with my culture, definitely something British and American, which I’m not that familiar with, but I think it’s a very good start. I have lost quite a lot of training this winter."

While commentating inside the stadium for the BBC, Steve Cram watched as Kerr broke his 1985 British record of 3:46.32, then had a word with Kerr following the race.

“He said it was a long time coming and he was very proud of me and the way I raced today,” Kerr said.

Jake Wightman, the 2022 world champion at 1500m who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, was fifth in 3:47.87, just behind another British middle-distance specialist, Neil Gourley. Those fast times and gold medals since 2022 were the background to why Kerr said the sport is “heading into the golden era of 1500m running in the UK and in Europe”.

Ingebrigtsen, the day before, had said that being available to race often against top competition was something he considered part of an athlete’s job. Asked if he needed to reassess how to race Kerr tactically given Kerr’s bold and somewhat surprising early move to the front, Ingebrigtsen pointed to his literal track record.

“The last couple of years obviously I have been the only one racing for many of the races so when someone all of a sudden decides to participate other than just following, it’s something different,” Ingebrigtsen said. “So it’s not surprising but it’s just something different.”

Asked if he was suggesting Kerr – who claimed his first Diamond League victory Saturday – had not raced often enough, Ingebrigtsen asked a reporter about the September 2023 meeting in Eugene, when Nuguse was in the field, but not Kerr.

“What about the last time we were here?” Ingebrigtsen said.

Nuguse was third in Eugene in 3:46.22, and while that was behind his 3:43.97 personal best from September, that race occurred at the season’s very end. To run 3:46 in May, at the start of a long season, left Nuguse smiling afterwards, even as he noted he needs to train to be more capable of closing quicker in the final 100m.

“I definitely feel a lot stronger and more comfortable being closer to the front,” Nuguse said. “In a race with so many great guys I think just to come out with third and still be pulling away from it is really huge. I’m feeling really good compared to last year.”

Andrew Greif for World Athletics

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