Shortly after running in an indoor track meet on Jan. 27 in Boston, American middle distance runner Yared Nuguse called his father Alem back in the family’s hometown of Louisville.
“Dad. I won,” Nuguse told his father.
“Oh, what did you do?” Alem asked.
“I had a good run,” Nuguse responded before the conversation turned to other things.
It was only later after watching a replay of the meet that Alem Nuguse realized his son hadn’t just won in Boston but had also taken down Galen Rupp’s American record at 3,000 meters.
How come you didn’t tell me you broke the record, Alem quizzed his son during a follow-up call.
“Oh, yeah, I did that,” Nuguse said nonchalantly, almost as if breaking a record that had stood for 10 years and set by a two-time Olympic medalist was an afterthought.
Two weeks later, Nuguse narrowly missed breaking the world indoor mile record at the Millrose Games in New York, snapping Bernard Lagat’s 18-year-old American record with a 3-minute, 47.38-second triumph.
Not only was Nuguse, 23, just 47 hundredths of a second off Yomif Kejelcha’s world record, but the former Notre Dame star had also run faster indoors than Hicham El Guerroui, widely considered the greatest miler of all-time, Noureddine Morceli, the Olympic and four-time world champion, and Ireland’s Eamonn Coghlan, a miler so dominant indoors in the 1970s and ’80s that he earned the nickname the “Chairman of the Boards.”
“Wow, this guy is the real deal,” Alan Webb, the American record-holder in the mile, recalled thinking when he watched Nuguse in the Millrose Games. “He’s going to do amazing things. I was just blown away by his ability to take it to the next level.”
Nuguse opens his outdoor season with an 800-meter race at the OnTrack Festival on Saturday night at Mt. SAC, the trailhead of a 14-month journey toward the World Championships in Budapest in August and next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris filled with the promise of medals and more record-setting nights.
“I believe he has all the abilities to compete for medals at Worlds and the Olympic Games,” Webb said.
Nuguse has also set his sights on the Great White Whale of U.S. middle distance running: Webb’s nearly 16-year-old American outdoor mile record of 3:46.91.
“He has the ability to run that fast,” Webb said.
Webb joined Steve Scott, the American mile record-holder for 25 years before Webb, and Matthew Centrowitz, the 2016 Olympic 1,500 champion, in bearing the weight of being billed as the next Jim Ryun, whose world-record exploits in the ’60s transcended the sport.
Nuguse, however, begins his odyssey toward Paris not burdened with a sense of history.
“I didn’t care about running at all until I started and even then I didn’t really care about running as a whole,” he said. “I never knew that Centrowitz won the 1,500 in the Olympics until like 2018 or ’19.”
“What has made him successful, especially at the collegiate level, and he’s super competitive, is that he’s completely oblivious to that,” said Tim Holman, Nuguse’s high school coach. “And he has quiet confidence for sure. He’s going to go out and win races but I don’t know necessarily that he knows who he’s going to win them against.”
‘That killer instinct’
Nuguse might be the next big thing in American track and field, but he pursues the sport on his terms, refusing to be bound by the expectations of others. He is not so much a reluctant superstar in the making as much as he is an indifferent one.
“I start by not seeing myself as that too much,” said Nuguse, who is now a member of the On Athletic Club, a world-class training group based in Boulder, Colorado, and sponsored by the Swiss running shoe company. “I’m definitely confident in my abilities, but I wasn’t really a huge fan of the pressure and like the popularity that comes with it all. I’m more like keeping to myself. ‘Cool, thanks, or no thanks.’ I’m just always going to be running to have fun and doing what I want to do and when I’m ready to be done, I’ll be done and that’s just how it is. So I don’t really know any of those older runners anyway so it’s never been my goal, ‘Oh, man, I want to be that next person.’ So because of that, that helps me focus on why I came into running, just have a good time and see what I can do. It’s cool but it’s not my main focus.”
Said Holman: “He is competitive. He wants to do well. He wants to succeed. He wants to sort of see where his limits are but at the end of the day he has an incredibly strong sense of self and I think that puts him at the start line, (former Notre Dame coach) Sean Carlson said it best one time, that (Nuguse) probably goes to the start line with the lowest resting heart rate of anybody because the other folks, their entire identity is wrapped up in running and athletics and their sense of self and being is wrapped up in that and his isn’t. And that doesn’t make him any less competitive or wanting to go out and fight and work, but at the same time, I think it does give him an edge and always has to a certain degree because many times he’s lined up against people and being completely overlooked and this happened a lot in high school. He’d line up against some stud from Indiana or Tennessee and just blow them out of the water. Who is this kid?”
He is a young man whose easygoing nature and indifference to fame belie a killer instinct, work ethic and toughness that was evident from early in his running career at duPont Manual, a magnet public high school in Louisville.
The toughness and resiliency have carried Nuguse through the disappointment of making the 2021 Olympic team only to be prevented from competing in Tokyo because of a calf injury, and another injury that derailed his 2022 outdoor track season at Notre Dame.
“From a toughness standpoint, and I don’t know if it’s innate or learned, but he had that from the beginning,” said Holman, a former University of Washington runner. “Like ‘obviously I’m going to work as hard as I can.’ So he was somebody that went to the well immediately. And if it was a tough race, he was going to go where he needed to go to win that race. And it’s a very hard thing to coach. I’ve had so many kids (where I say) ‘it’s got to hurt a little bit, man’ and he went there almost immediately.”
Dathan Ritzenhein, head coach of the On Athletic Club and a three-time Olympian and former U.S. record-holder at 5,000 meters, said what attracted him to Nuguse was as much his ability to close in major races as it was the times he had posted at Notre Dame.
“He’s definitely got that mindset of he likes to win and that was the thing that was most impressive to us because we had seen him run 3:34 (for 1,500 meters) in the prelims of the ACC meet,” Ritzenhein said. “We knew he was talented. We knew he was fast, but the amount of times he’s had that lean at the line, that dip to win a conference or national meet. That was the stuff we really liked to see because at Worlds, people run fast all the time now. People who have that killer instinct, that’s what we really like to see.
“He has that real killer instinct at racing, but he doesn’t worry about a lot of things. At least outwardly. He might internalize some things that we don’t know, but he’s pretty go with the flow, just likes to race. I think that’s going to be a huge attribute at the world stage when he’s standing on the line at the World Championships.
“With Yared, pressure doesn’t seem to get to him as much as other people and I think that is one of his superpowers.”
Holman recalled a regional cross-country meet during Nuguse’s sophomore season at duPont Manual. Nuguse lost a shoe just 200 meters into the race.
“He ran three miles with one shoe on and it was 25 degrees and I was so worried that he was going to break his foot,” Holman said. “At some point I yelled at him, ‘Yared, you can stop!’ You know, a kind of ‘health first’ kind of thing. But that shows the internal toughness that he has. The uncompromising ‘it’s just what I do.’
“After that, before every race we made sure every race his shoes were tied, double knotted, triple knotted. At that point, he was just learning the sport. And apparently how to tie his shoes.”
In finishing that day, Yared Nuguse showed that he is very much his father’s son.
‘Instilled in me’
Alem Nuguse and his wife, Mana, are from Tigray, a war-torn region in northern Ethiopia.
“I think I definitely owe a decent amount of it to my parents,” Nuguse said. “I think obviously Ethiopians are known for being fast runners and both my parents being Ethiopian I think that has helped somewhat.
“But I think more than that, the hard work ethic my parents instilled in me, I feel like running is not just how talented you are but more so how strong your mind is. I know everyone talks about it but especially for distance running, focusing on getting through the run, getting through the moment, pushing on. And I think that is something my parents always instilled in me and all my siblings and it definitely really, really helps when it comes to running. It lets me keep pushing on when things get really hard. I’m not the kind of person that’s going to stop.”
Neither is his father.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, Tigray was the center of an armed conflict for control of the country between the Ethiopian government run by a Marxist military junta and the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were imprisoned by the government, often without cause. Alem Nuguse, a school teacher, was imprisoned twice.
“He doesn’t really talk about it a lot and even when they do talk about it they don’t talk about how bad it really was. They just talk about it like it was something they did, but in reality that must have been so scary,” Nuguse said of his father.
But in a recent phone interview, the elder Nuguse agreed to talk about his imprisonment.
“Everybody was being put in jail,” he said. “The government didn’t need a reason. Anybody they think might have different ideas. I was a teacher and I was from Tigray. So probably both those reasons are why (he was imprisoned). I was tortured. They punched you, whipped you, hit you. But luckily it wasn’t as bad as it was for some. Some people lost their legs, they lost their hands, a lot of hitting.”
After Nuguse was released from prison a second time, he and three other men, risking death, fled to Sudan.
“If they find me, they probably kill me right there,” Alem said, referring to government troops.
Government soldiers weren’t the only thing of which the group had to be mindful.
“You had to be careful you didn’t run into lions or other animals and be attacked,” Alem said.
To avoid being spotted by government troops, the group slept in the woods during the day and walked at night, hoping to avoid wildlife either during the day or at night.
After three days and nights, the group finally reached Sudan.
Alem was granted refugee status by the Reagan administration and settled in Arlington, Virginia. He got a clerical job with an insurance company and later with the post office. He met Mana, who he had not known in Ethiopia.
Eventually, the family settled in Louisville, where Alem owns a liquor store. Yared is the fourth of six children.
“We have a lot of problems in the history in Tigray since when the Italians invaded Ethiopia (in the 1930s) and that was the region,” Alem said. “When you have a problem, you have to survive somehow so that doesn’t mean that we are special people or something like that. But in order to live, you have to fight to survive.”
The region was also the site of an armed conflict from November 2020 to November 2022 between the Ethiopian government and TPLF following years of escalating hostilities. The conflict has left an estimated 800,000 dead, nearly 900,000 refugees, 2.75 million internally displaced and 13 million in need of food and water.
Yared Nuguse was active in protests supporting Tigray people, referring to the conflict as “genocide.”
“The last four or five years the government was bombing us, using Turkey drones, Russia and China drones and we still make them sit down and talk with the help of the United States,” Alem Nuguse said. “Right now the peace process is not 100 percent. We still have like a million people who are displaced. Yared was going to rallies to stop the war and he was doing all that he can do. We always have problems and we always fight back. Yared doesn’t want to lose and he always works hard.”
‘This boy has a future’
Alem and Mana Nuguse were initially skeptical when Holman approached them about their son joining the track team.
Nuguse had been referred to Holman by a P.E. teacher. At the time, Nuguse was on the school’s bowling team.
“It’s your classic immigrant story in that they lived through a civil war and went through a lot of real difficulty to get there, so their focus for their children was education and his sisters had already done very well in school,” Holman said. “The whole family is very bright. They weren’t people who understood sports were an option or it could complement education. I think initially they thought it might be a hindrance to the education, it might take time away from his studies.”
Eventually, the parents gave their blessing
“I remember his mother, classic coming up to me after races, ‘Did he do good?’” Holman said. “And I would say, ‘Yes, yes, he just broke the school record, he did very well.”
Alem and Mana weren’t the only hard sells.
“He came to me during one of my classes and I was like, ‘Hey, who is this guy?’ And he was just like, ‘I do track,’ and I was like ‘Nah.’ ‘No, you should really do track,’ I was like, ‘Fine, whatever,’” Nuguse, laughing, recalled. “He was pretty convincing, I guess.”
Nuguse’s first race was an indoor 2-mile at the University of Kentucky during his freshman year.
“I didn’t even know what spikes were,” he said. “I didn’t really know what running shoes were really and I was wearing these Nike tennis shoes that I had worn around for like the last year and they were so run down and so it was just like ‘I’m racing in these shoes too.’
Halfway through the race, he was clipped from behind and lost a shoe.
“Then I immediately chugged a bunch of water and I just puked out right after my race because I drank so much,” Nuguse said. “So I was just like, ‘What the heck? You should have told me this before I was downing like five cups of water.’”
So why didn’t he walk away from the sport then?
“Because it was fun,” he said. “That’s always been the thing that keeps me in running and keeps me in it now. It was just run to just go out there and give it everything I had. I never do anything in my life that lets me go all out in a sense. I love school, but it was more like a mental thing not like a physical thing where you put all the strength that you have into one run. There’s just something really special about that feeling, putting it all out there and just seeing what you can really do.”
By the end of his freshman year, he was one of the top runners in Kentucky.
Alem recalled watching his son run with one shoe at the regional cross country meet his sophomore year.
“And he finished and I said, ‘Wow, this guy is not going to quit,’” the elder Nuguse said. “When he finished that race, that’s when I said, ‘Damn, this boy has a future.’”
He won the Kentucky state cross country title as a senior, then swept the state 800, 1,600 and 3,200 titles on the track later that spring.
He had a breakthrough year as a Notre Dame sophomore, anchoring the Fighting Irish to the NCAA distance medley title indoors, then winning the NCAA 1,500 crown outdoors by three-thousandths of a second.
A year later, he set the NCAA outdoor 1,500 record, running 3:34.68 in the ACC Championships heats and then made the Olympic team, finishing third at the Olympic Trials in Eugene.
But Nuguse suffered a quadriceps injury shortly after arriving in Japan.
“It was just a shake-out workout after the flight, some fast 200s, 300s, randomly through one of them my quad seized up like I had never felt before,” he said. “And … I couldn’t like walk or finish the rep for a little bit. Just in so much shock. ‘What just happened?’ I was very confused. I didn’t really do anything that different or wrong, but it doesn’t look too bad on the surface.
But while warming up just minutes before his Olympic 1,500 prelim on a practice track, he realized he wouldn’t be able to race. With the Olympic Stadium just meters away, his Olympic dream, at least for the time being, was over.
Nuguse recalled thinking, “‘If I can do a stride, I’ll do it. If I can’t do a stride, I won’t.’ And I couldn’t do a stride. If I can’t do a stride, there’s no point of me trying to do this.”
“It was definitely very hard coming to terms with. A goal that many have dreamed of, I was still like very down, maybe I could just try, because I usually find a way, but at the end of the day it’s like you have to be really true to yourself and I was like I can’t really do it so there’s no reason for me to really try and continue.
“I thought the worst part was going to be telling my parents, like they were just totally supportive of me.”
Back in Louisville, family and friends had gathered at his alma mater to watch his prelim.
“Truthfully the hardest thing for him is we had set up a viewing party at Manuel and all of the kids came,” Holman said. “His minister, guy in robe, everybody was there and we were kind of gearing up and I get this call from Yared and he said ‘Coach, I can’t run. Can you tell the group?’ And I said, ‘Of course I can, buddy.’ I don’t know if (not racing) was the biggest letdown because he is super competitive. He wants to compete. If there was any possibility if he could have run with that injury, he would have run, but it created a hitch in his stride. He couldn’t fully stride.
“The feeling of letting down a community and now everybody who knows Yared wasn’t let down. That was hard. I think that whole year was sort of an adjustment for him and he hit his first period of setbacks and I think that’s important for every athlete to learn how to deal with that. Luckily his self-value isn’t grounded in his accolades athletically. He knows who he is, so again he could walk away from it at any time and be at peace at a greater level than most would be. Running is not the most important thing for any of them.”
Ups and downs
Nuguse’s final season at Notre Dame would provide more tests. Another injury would essentially cost him his final outdoor college track season and leave him without the fitness to make it through the rounds at the U.S. Championships and onto the Team USA squad for the World Championships at Hayward Field. He finished 11th in the U.S. final.
He joined OAC after a recruiting trip to Boulder with Spain’s Mario Garcia Romo, a former NCAA mile champion at Ole Miss and fourth at the World Championships.
“They’ve been joined at the hip ever since,” Ritzenhein said.
The group also includes Australia’s Ollie Hoare, the 2022 Commonwealth Games 1,500 champion, an Olympic finalist and former NCAA 1,500 winner at Wisconsin.
“We think we have the best group of milers in the world right now,” Ritzenhein said. “He knows he’s training with the best guys and that’s part of the power of the group.
“If you’re with the best athletes and you surround yourself with the best athletes, you’ll elevate to that level. That’s really what we sell to people we recruit now. If you come into this team, you’re going to be surrounded by athletes that will elevate you to the next level.”
Ritzenhein increased Nuguse’s mileage from 70 to 80 miles per week at Notre Dame to 85 to 90 in Boulder, although Nuguse has yet to take on Magnolia Road, an iconic run in distance running circles.
“Dathan keeps saying we will,” Nuguse said.
Finally healthy, Nuguse rebounded to run a then-personal best 3:53.31 to win the Sir Walter Mile in Raleigh, N.C., in August and then clock another PR a month later in winning a 1,500 in Padova, Italy in 3:33.26.
“Definitely been an interesting slingshot. I’d be at a point where I’d do something huge and then ah, shoot, something would happen. It’s been kind of hard, I guess,” Nuguse said, referring to the last three years. “It’s been hard to try and stay focused and stay consistent when you always had these gaps. But I was able to come back no matter what through each of those and I feel like now that I’m at a place where I feel pretty confident about my training and not getting injured that I will just be able to have a long and really consistent season that I always wanted to. So definitely always come back. I just think it will be nice to just be there for a long while.
“(The Sir Walter and Padova races) definitely gave me confidence that I’m still the person I always thought I am. I always knew that and none of those races changed that, but these races just kind of reaffirmed that for me in a sense and just helped me come back from the so-so year that I had. Had some good moments but also some bad moments.
“Those races I had in the summer were just like a taste of what I can do when I go all-in on running and this last indoor season has doubled down on that for sure.”
Rupp’s indoor American 3,000 record had not been on Nuguse’s radar before he stepped to the starting line that night in Boston.
“The 7:28 was definitely a surprise,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to do that until like halfway into the race.”
His record-setting time of 7:28.24 is roughly the equivalent of running a 4-minute mile and continuing that pace for nearly another mile.
Two weeks later, he broke Lagat’s American indoor 1,500 record, passing the metric mile in 3:33.22 en route to his world mile record-threatening victory in New York in which he covered the final 200 meters in a blazing 25.94.
“I definitely felt like I was in a position to get the American record in the mile at the very least,” Nuguse said. “The way I ran it was pretty dramatic, but I was pretty confident that I could run under 3:49.”
So can he drop another half-second to break Webb’s outdoor U.S. mile record?
“I’d like to think so,” Nuguse said. “When I have the right race and I have another year of just pro training under my belt, I think it’s definitely something I would be able to do. Yeah, I just feel like it’s a goal, right timing kind of thing.
“It’s such a small difference honestly. I just think another year of training can just definitely pump me up to that level.”
The Diamond League schedule might preclude an attempt at Webb’s record in 2023. The mile doesn’t appear in a Diamond League event until the Prefontaine Classic, the circuit’s season finale in Eugene in September. Nuguse makes his Diamond League debut this season in Rabat on May 28.
“We’re not going to put any pressure on those kind of times,” Ritzenhein said. “He’s going to run fast when we get to those big races whether it’s this year or next year. He’s definitely capable of it. You often can’t script things. It will probably happen in a race maybe not when we least expect it but when everything comes out right. But he’s definitely capable of it.”
So the focus will be on the World Championships, where whether Nuguse is successful will be determined not by others but his own sense of satisfaction.
“Definitely want make it to Worlds and get into the final and run a race that I can be happy about,” he said. “I don’t necessarily need to medal, but if I did that would be fun. So to be very happy with my performance. I want to one, I want to get there, and two, just perform in whatever way I do perform. And that’s pretty much the long and short of it.”
ON TRACK FEST
When: Saturday, 5:45 p.m.
Where: Hilmer Lodge Stadium, Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut
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