In the ‘Mile of the Century,’ Josh Kerr adds fuel to the Olympics’ hottest rivalry


EUGENE, Ore. — With about 700 meters to go in the Bowerman Mile, Josh Kerr, Great Britain’s star middle-distance runner, flipped the script in one of track’s most riveting rivalries. Because a message needed to be sent. Because Kerr had heard enough from Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the superstar from Norway, declaring he had no equal. Because beef brings something extra out of competitors.

So Kerr made his move early.

“I think it scared the coaching staff because they told me specifically not to do that,” Kerr said afterwards. “And I said, ‘If I feel like it’s time, I’m gonna go.’ … I don’t really listen to other people when it comes to race strategy. I’m going to go with my instinct.”

By the start of the second turn, Kerr was in the front. He’d surged past the UK’s Jake Wightman. Past American Yared Nuguse. Past Ingebrigtsen. Past Kenya’s Abel Kipsang. For the final 600 meters, in the marquee event and ultimate race Saturday at Hayward Field in the Prefontaine Classic, Kerr put his fiercest foe behind him. A rebuttal without words. He flaunted his confidence and training. He dared the world No. 1 to catch him.

Ingebrigtsen couldn’t. Not on this day.

Kerr’s 3:45.34 established a new world-leading time in the mile and set a new British record. Most intriguing, though, was the layer of novelty it adds to the rivalry. Kerr’s move Saturday tweaked the board in this developing chess match between the greatest middle-distance runners in the world, adding more suspense to what’s possible when they duel for medals in Paris this August.

What a run by Josh Kerr!

It’s a new British record in the men’s mile race.#BBCAthletics #EugeneDL

It was Ingebrigtsen’s second consecutive loss to his fellow elites. So you just know his A-game is coming. The reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500-meter will respond as champions do.

He ran 3:45.60, in Saturday’s mile, his first action since an Achilles tendon injury forced him to skip the indoor season.

“I tried to fight him,” said Ingebrigtsen, whose last race was the 3,000-meter at the 2023 Prefontaine Classic in September. “But to me, today was all about time trial. Of course, we’re racing but it’s definitely some difference in terms of approach to this race. For some people, this is their final test even before the Olympics in Paris. But this is not my final test. So it’s definitely a big difference the way that we all kind of see this race. But it’s a good fight.”

This race was so stacked with talent it was being dubbed the “Mile of the Century.” Amazon is following Ingebrigtsen around with cameras, documenting the Norwegian star’s run-up to Paris. This was the most hyped showdown of the year. The eyes of a global sport were on them. And it was Kerr’s Prefontaine debut.

He made it abundantly clear Friday that he came to the University of Oregon looking for some Norwegian smoke.

“I’m not here to settle tension,” Kerr said. Sitting to his left when he said it: Ingebrigtsen. Kerr’s stern expression, the absence of reconciliation in his tone, revealed his level of fed up.

“I’m here to run a fantastic mile that will hopefully go down in the century. I’m here trying to be the best in the world. … And if that annoys people or ruffles up competitors, I’m sure it will because the whole world is trying to do what I’m doing.”

Settle tension? Nah. This is the hottest beef since Kendrick Lamar and Drake.

And, yes, Kerr listens to Kendrick.

“Yeah, of course,” he said, smiling to affirm he understood the reference.

Kerr had every intention of turning the tension all the way up. He is convinced of his superiority in the discipline. Going out front so early was the kind of flex that fuels this juicy soap opera.

He usually plays the role of the kicker. It’s Ingebrigtsen who takes off early and dares the rest to keep up with him. It’s a power move. If his competitors get to conserve energy while he bears the brunt of pace-setting, and they still can’t catch him, it only proves his dominance. But Kerr didn’t hang back this time. He was trying to strike a chord, and it would likely be major.

“I’m having fun with it,” Kerr said. “At this point in your career, you’re always going to look back and think, ‘Those were the glory days.’ And I know they are right now. So I’m just enjoying it as much as possible.”

It was a stacked field. The world-leading time — the best in the calendar year — entering Prefontaine was 3:47.83 by Nuguse at the Millrose Games in New York in February. Saturday at Hayward Field, Wightman matched that time and finished fifth. Seven runners posted sub-3:49.

But after three of the four laps, Kerr, Ingebrigtsen and Nuguse had moved out ahead. It was underscored how this trio, heading into Paris, is the Big Three of middle distance.

Nuguse, the American record holder, finished third at 3:46.22. He is for sure the J. Cole in this. Easily the most delighted of the trio, Nuguse has stayed out of the animosity. He keeps a smile worthy of an amusement park, as if it were painted by a caricature artist. Fitting for a future orthodontist. He consumes positive vibes only. He’d much rather break down Pokemon or vibe out to Taylor Swift than get into the competitive banter.

Getting to run in the shadows as an underestimated threat is, Nuguse said, one of the benefits of all the attention focused on the tension between Kerr and Ingebrigtsen. He believes it makes him dangerous in Paris.

“I’ve always believed that happiness is such a stronger emotion than anger,” Nuguse said Friday. “Especially when you race. Anger is something that kind of comes and goes and peters out really fast. But I think if you’re really enjoying what you’re doing, having fun, I think that’s what propels you on to keep moving and what really helps those last 200 meters. I’ve always thought that, and it’s always worked out for me.”

The track and field magazine Citius has a full timeline of the Kerr-Ingebrigtsen beef, which began in earnest in August 2023.

But for the sake of a crash course, it began at the Tokoyo Olympics in 2021. Ingebrigtsen became a global star when he blew away the field to win gold in the 1,500 meters in 3:28.32, besting Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot. Kerr used a late surge to capture the bronze.

Then at the 2022 world championships in Eugene, with Ingebrigtsen still sparkling from golden glory, Wightman stunned him in the 1,500, pulling away in the final 300 meters to snatch the gold from Ingebrigtsen.

Josh Kerr leads Jakob Ingebrigtsen during the 1,500-meter final at the 2023 worlds. Kerr bested his rival again Saturday in Eugene, Ore. (David Ramos / Getty Images)

This made the 2023 world championships in Budapest the next massive stage for Ingebrigtsen to reclaim his status as superior. But a late surge by Kerr, similar to Wightman’s, pushed Ingebrigtsen to silver again. After he lost, Ingebrigtsen said he wasn’t 100 percent, taking a bit of luster from Kerr’s breakout victory.

When asked later if he looked forward to the rematch with Kerr, Ingebrigtsen revealed he wasn’t fully healthy and dismissed the notion of Kerr being on his level by calling him “just the next guy.”

In November, Kerr fired back. He said Ingebrigtsen’s ego is pretty high and he had major weaknesses he’d better address or he wouldn’t win gold in Paris.

In February, Ingebrigtsen told a Norwegian-language publication he’d win “98 out of 100 times” against Kerr and Wightman.

Then two weeks later, after Kerr set a new world record in the two-mile in the Millrose Games, Ingebrigtsen — out with an injury at the time — declared he would’ve beaten Kerr blindfolded.

In March, Ingebrigtsen declared his rivals irrelevant and said to The Times UK, “The biggest issue is giving people like Kerr attention. That’s what he is seeking. He is missing something in himself that he is searching for in others.”

Yeah, the tension has been building for nearly a year now. Saturday was not the time to tone it down. But let feet do the talking. The packed house of savvy race fans at Hayward Field all but salivated over the palpable tension. Olympic-level drama at a Diamond League meet. What went down at Prefontaine on Saturday only makes it more captivating when they meet again in August.

“Some of my competitors,” Ingebrigtsen said, “have clearly taken a step in the right direction. But not as big of a step that maybe is needed to be a favorite in Paris.”

(Top photo of Josh Kerr beating Jakob Ingebrigtsen Saturday in the Bowerman Mile: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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