Josh Kerr gives a wry smile as he reflects on the solitary victory he managed to achieve at his specialist distance in 2023.
"Yes, I hadn’t won a 1500m race this year until the final at the World Championships," says the Brit who ripped up the formbook as he tore round the final 200 metres in Budapest on the evening of 23 August, outsprinting Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the Olympic and two-time European champion, European record-holder and overwhelming favourite.
“Everyone approaches the year in different ways. I’ve always had a major focus on the major championships.
“It doesn’t matter what my decisions are throughout the year. That’s always going to be my end goal. That’s what the approach was this year. I was calm. It was cool and collected.”
It was that. And it culminated in the calm, cool Kerr peaking to perfection to collect his first gold medal in the international arena since his junior days as the 1500m winner at the European U20 Championships in Eskilstuna in 2015.
When Kerr crossed the finish line, 0.27 clear of the crestfallen Ingebrigtsen, he beat his fists against the Great Britain wording on his vest and jabbed the index finger of his right hand against his temple.
If ever a runner had got it right in the head department, it was the 25-year-old Scot in the course of his tour de force performance.
Not just in the 3:29.38 of perfectly-judged racing, but in his mental preparation too. And in the holistic, painstaking preparation that brought him to a peak when it mattered the most.
All summer long, Ingebrigtsen had gone unbeaten at 1500m. Not only that; the young Norwegian had looked untouchable, improving his European record figures to 3:27.95 on home ground in Oslo and then to 3:27.14 in Silesia in July.
Timing his peak to perfection
Kerr, the Olympic 1500m bronze medallist behind Ingebrigtsen and Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot in Tokyo in 2021, had not just been beatable but well-beaten in the two races he contested at the distance before the World Championships.
He finished ninth in Oslo in 3:30.07, 2.12 seconds down on Ingebrigtsen, and third at the Lausanne Diamond League on 30 June, clocking 3:29.64 behind the Norwegian (3:28.72) and Ethiopia’s serial global steeplechase silver medallist Lamecha Girma (3:29.51).
What has proven to be his only 1500m victory of the year, outdoors or in, came courtesy of a striking replication of the blueprint forged by his Great Britain and Edinburgh Athletics Club colleague, Jake Wightman, in the 2022 World Championships final in Eugene.
Like Wightman thirteen months previously, Kerr struck with 200 metres to go, finding Ingebrigtsen’s Achilles heel fuelled by the potent combination of a superior finishing kick and sheer determination.
“I felt the opportunity was there with 200 metres to go,” says Kerr, whose training base has been at Albuquerque in the United States since he enrolled at the University of New Mexico at the age of 17. “I just went for it and gave it everything I had.
“On the start line I was saying to myself, ‘It’s my turn; it’s my turn.’ I knew I had the basic fundamentals to be a world champion.
“The training I’d put together over the previous couple of months had been unforgiving. I was on an insane diet that my nutritionist had written. I had a chef and mental coaches. It was an accumulation of a lot of hard work. There were no corners cut.”
Chasing times on the Diamond League circuit has always been strictly of secondary interest to Scot, who has acquired a canny knack of peaking for the year’s main event under the astute direction of his US coach Danny Mackey.
Playing the waiting game
Kerr has placed in the top six in the last four global outdoor 1500m finals: sixth at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, third at the 2021 Olympics, fifth at the 2022 World Championships in Eugene and now first at the 2023 World Championships.
Reflecting on his graduation to gold standard in Budapest, he says: “Over the last five years I’ve been to five major championships and that step from being world class to world champion has been the hardest step.
“It’s taken me a good few years, and now that I’ve made that step, I’m excited to be here. I’d like to stay here for a while.
“I know it’s hard to be a world champion or an Olympic champion going into an event, but I’ve conquered all the other levels of competition thus far. I don’t see this one as any different.”
It did not take Kerr long to discover what life would be like with a world champion target on his back. Chasing Mo Farah’s 3:28.81 British record at the Weltklasse in Zurich, he was pipped at the death by Yared Nuguse, finishing 0.02 down on the US champion in 3:30.51.
He subsequently finished his season on a high with a victory on the roads in the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York on 10 September, clocking 3:47.9, ahead of George Mills, who has been making rapid strides since missing out on selection for World Championships.
With the injured Wightman plus Neil Gourley, the Scot who took European indoor silver behind Ingebrigtsen in Istanbul in March, to add into the equation, merely gaining selection in the men’s 1500m in the British team for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris is going to be a challenge reminiscent of the days when the formidable four of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott would not go into a mere three places.
“Obviously for the Olympics we can only send three people and we will have two runners who have been world champions in the previous two years,” Kerr muses. “It’s going to be a hard team to make.
“But, you know, that keeps you motivated through the year. There’s no laziness around because we have seven or eight guys with the standard and if they finish top two at the trials, they’re going to go automatically. And then it’s going to be a tough call for British Athletics after that.
“You’re not going to get on the GB 1500m team if you’re not there to at least think about medalling. That’s what we’ve been doing, and that’s what we’ll continue to produce for the next however many years.
“I’m just looking to continue this level of competition and keep enjoying my running.
“To be Olympic champion is my next goal. And I also want the British record. They’re the two goals for the next year or so.”
Simon Turnbull for European Athletics