Kyle Merber jogs lightly under the stands at Madison Square Garden.
He’s 17 years old, a senior at Half Hollow Hills West High. As a native New Yorker, a kid from Long Island, he’s been here plenty of times before, but on every previous visit he’s gazed down on the arena floor to find a hockey rink or a basketball court— Rangers or Knicks. Maybe a circus or a concert stage. But tonight, the self-described track nerd peers down the concourse walkways, through the gaps in the stadium scaffolding, blinks past the overwhelming arena lights, and sees a track.
A beautiful, historic, 11-laps-to-the-mile oval.
Even the sight of the Mondo surface sets his heart beating faster. He’s run on plenty of tracks before, but never this one. Never at Millrose, where you have to be invited, where the high school milers compete in the same meet as the professionals.
And now, deep in the bowels of this venerable arena, he’s preparing for that race.
Maybe the biggest race of his young life.
He's been keeping a journal of his preparation for DyeStat.com, a Web site where — if he’s honest — he probably spends too much time, especially on the message board known as The Playground, where he goes by the handle: g2g4gold.
He agreed to participate in the blog — called the Road to Millrose — before he’d even qualified for the meet, which seemed like a reach, possibly hubristic, but it worked out.
Lots of things have worked out this season.
He’s put in the miles and pursued his goals and taken care of the small things. All the stretches and striders and nutritional choices. The habits that provide the advantages someone needs in order to qualify for a race like this.
Years from now, when he thinks about himself at this age, he’ll say he was “the kid reading Once a Runner and Running with the Buffaloes, doing 50 push-ups before bed every night, calculating splits during class. The quintessential, obsessed, high school running nerd.”
That’s Kyle Merber at 17.
He had run in another invitational mile a week earlier in Massachusetts, the Reebok Boston Indoor Games. There, he found himself in the most competitive high school field he’d ever faced, dropped a three-second PR, and didn’t come close to winning, but the highlight might have been meeting Australian distance star Craig Mottram. Kyle and some of the other high schoolers called Mottram’s room at the event hotel, got his autograph and peppered him with questions.
And now, in the cramped warm-up room at the Garden, there’s Mottram again.
Bernard Lagat and Nick Willis and Galen Rupp. All of them, somehow more human and more imposing in person. Kyle observes their routines, absorbs their preparations, admires their kits, covets their spikes. Files away the small things. The manner in which these stars ready themselves for the same 11-lap contest he’ll be running against fellow teenagers.
In a few minutes, he and the other prep invitees will burst into the glare of the lights.
Kyle will bounce through a quick lap on the track, finding his friends and family in the crowd, hearing the hometown cheers, the shouts of G2G4GOLD! aimed at the kid from The Playground.
The only kid from New York.
When the gun goes off, he’ll block out everything — the noise and the fans and the rumble of the feet on the track — and focus on staying in contact. He’ll handle the elbows and cover the moves and notice the pain and keep an eye on Robby Andrews and his notorious kick.
He’ll make a bid for glory with two laps to go, and hope it sticks. On the homestretch, he’ll sense daylight and dig deeper.
Lanky legs in full stride.
Crowd thundering to its feet.
Steps from the line, his face will be all joy. The celebration, poster-ready. An expression caught between a gasp and a grin. Arms spread wide, finish tape about to be reduced to tatters, fingers pointing to the cheap seats, the nose bleeds, the rafters.
Letting all the hometown fans know what place their boy is about to finish.
In this race. In New York. On national television.
On the NBC broadcast, Lewis Johnson will exclaim, “And what a moment for Kyle Merber, the only New Yorker in the race. And he’s able to come through the last 400 with a great kick and drop Robby Andrews for the Millrose win!”
Kyle will stagger in a half circle, extend his palms in salute to the roaring fans, allow his forearms to fall languidly over his head. Still struggling to comprehend his accomplishment.
“I crossed the line,” he’ll note in his final entry for the DyeStat journal, “and just looked around in disbelief. I looked into the crowd and I saw a ton of people yelling and clapping. I was in complete euphoria and I just put my hands on my head, wondering to myself, ‘What did I just do?’”
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