By James Rogers
Kyle Merber is a professional runner for Hoka One One. On September 9, the first-ever Hoka One One Long Island Mile (Hoka LI Mile) will take place in Huntington Station, New York, at St. Anthony’s High School. Merber is the co-director of the Hoka LI Mile, which is a festival of races featuring an elite men’s and women’s mile that will follow an array of open miles and a 400-meter race for kids.
Merber, who is from Dix Hills, New York, ran collegiately at Columbia University and the University of Texas. While at Columbia, he ran 3:35.59 for 1500 meters. He has since lowered his 1500 personal record to 3:34.54. He has also clocked a 3:54.7 mile. Merber is one of America’s finest 1500/mile runners.
In May, Merber became a world-record holder. At the IAAF/BTC World Relays, Bahamas 2015, Merber ran the 1200-meter leg of the USA’s distance medley relay (DMR) championship team. The squad of Merber, Brycen Spratling, Brandon Johnson and Ben Blankenship ran 9:15.50 to set a new world record.
Merber took time to answer questions about the Hoka LI Mile, which RunnerSpace.com will stream live on September 9.
Hooray Run: When you approached Hoka One One with the idea of the event, how long did it take for the company to jump on board?
Kyle Merber: The idea came to life last year when I was in my first summer of racing as a professional. I was faced with the option of going back to Europe in late August to get a couple more races in before the 5th Avenue Mile. I was in good shape and wanted to race, but it’s expensive to fly over twice, and it can be exhausting. So the idea was kind of born out of that gap in the domestic racing season, and I saw an opportunity to help bridge it. My co-director Brendan Barrett and I have had multiple conversations through the years of ways to bring the pros to Long Island, and this was finally the way to do it. We wrote up a big business plan and met with Hoka in October, but before we could even finish the proposal they were already on board.
HR: Barrett, co-founder of the Sayville and Smithtown Running Company, joins you in co-directing the meet. Talk about the importance of Brendan’s commitment, and what have you learned so far as a first-time race director?
KM: Brendan was my boss at the Sayville Running Company from high school through college. He’s only a few years older than me, but right when he graduated college, he found a way to open up his own shop and to succeed as one of the country’s top run specialty stores. He has hosted multiple road races in the last nine years and is a stable in the local running community. He knows how to do all the little things that I would have completely forgot about. Like apparently you need insurance! I can get so focused on trying to make sure the best field possible is there to race, but there are so many other things that go into it. I know the elite side of the sport, but he knows how to put on an event.
HR: You’ve raced in, to name a few, the Falmouth Mile, Michigan Track Classic and Sir Walter Miler. In what ways were you influenced by those lively, community-driven events?
KM: Every time I have raced at a community-driven event, I walk away feeling like we have actually made a difference in the sport. It’s like my performance mattered, and the pictures I took with fans, and the autographs I signed may have inspired a high school kid for his next run. That’s a huge motivation in why I continue to run professionally, and that outreach is so much more palpable at these races. Having fans on the track in Michigan and at the Sir Walter Miler was so exciting, and I felt like they became part of the race. If they screamed louder, we run faster. You don’t want to quit that third lap when others are counting on you. Track is fighting to gain popularity, but with the lack of TV coverage, we need to build up the old-fashioned way; grassroots events that connect with new fans in one community at a time.
HR: You’ve stressed the importance of interaction with high school runners at this event. Can you elaborate on how you hope to inspire high schoolers with the Hoka LI Mile?
KM: I remember when I was in high school and I first saw a sub-4-minute mile at the Millrose Games. I had watched it on television, and on YouTube. But seeing it in person was an entirely different thing. From the day I first broke 5 minutes, I knew that I wanted to one day hit that next barrier. I knew it would be tough, but in much the same way [Roger] Bannister made it possible for those who came after him, I knew it could be done. Specifically, in my hometown I want to show the next generation of runners from Long Island that they can run fast, too. That maybe it seems like a far-out dream, but breaking 4 minutes is possible because if I can do it in my own backyard, then maybe one day it will be their turn to do it next.
HR: I’m impressed with the recently released elite men’s and women’s fields. How many total will be in each race? And you are also racing—any added pressure on performing well in a race you created?
KM: The fields are coming together quick, but this time of year can be a bit dicey as it is late in the season. Plans change a lot, and there are a few other big races in Europe that athletes are trying to get into. I think we will end up having 12 guys on the track, and probably 10 girls. My spreadsheet of who is racing has changed constantly the last week, but we will continue to release names as we approach the meet. It’s been fun being a meet director, but definitely stressful. I will get a call confirming that someone is in, and I’ll be celebrating and on a high for two hours, until someone else texts and says they’re injured and calling it a year. But I know I am racing! I am hoping the pressure, as well as the distractions, push me to do very well. Training has been good to me in August, and I am inspired by [Nick] Willis winning his own race last year.
HR: Considering the assembled fields, a sub-4:00 mile is likely to occur. That hasn’t happened on Long Island since 1998. You have to be pumped about the high likelihood of that 17-year drought coming to an end, right?
KM: I am hoping that we break 4 minutes by a good amount, and it hasn’t been done on the island since 1998 at the Goodwill Games. I’ll be doing everything in my power to make sure that there is a good crew of us who get well under. But there is a decent chance that by the time we step on the line that the drought will already be over. We have quite the unseeded section, and I know a few guys in there will be chasing the barrier.
HR: RunnerSpace.com will provide a live stream; that’s awesome. Did you approach RunnerSpace with the idea?
KM: RunnerSpace and Hoka One One have a great relationship, and it was a great opportunity for us to reach a larger audience with the event. There are 8 million people on Long Island, but there are track fans everywhere who we hope can tune in to yell at us from the comfort of their own homes.
HR: You’ll provide spectators with a comprehensive, informative program. What can spectators (and whoever else views the program) expect to encounter in the program’s pages?
KM: We are hoping our program just gives spectators a bit more of a storyline about the meet and helps make sense of what they are going to see. It’ll have enough information to hopefully give them someone specific to cheer for rather than just quietly watching with no invested interest. You show up to a horse race and get more information about a horse than you do about an athlete at a track meet. Athletes have personalities! They have a history, they have stories, but it’s our responsibility to help tell them.
HR: Jim Van Dine, former CEO of Hoka One One, said he hopes this event can become a “long-standing tradition.” What can you do to help achieve that goal?
KM: In our first year, the big goal is just to run fast and to put on a show for the fans that leaves them excited about the sport, and to hopefully want more next year. I don’t know how many fans will show up, but I am optimistic that the local running community here and the HS coaches will rally behind us and make it a great first year. All I can do is spread the word, and pray things run smoothly!
Spread the Hoka LI Mile word, and follow the event on Twitter @HokaLIMile!