THE GOOSE STAYED LOOSE in 2023. Better amend that to fun, fast and loose for the novice international campaign of Yared Nuguse, the miler of the avian nickname bestowed by teammates in his high school days.
Starting with American Indoor Records at 3000, 1500 and the mile last winter, the 24-year-old Notre Dame alum who flies in formation on the training track with coach Dathan Ritzenhein’s On AC outran his own expectations this year. All the way to the USA title, 5th in his first World Championships final and that 3:43.97 mile AR chasing Jakob Ingebrigtsen to the line in September’s Diamond League Final.
Along the way in the Oslo DL 1500, Nuguse also raced the fastest 1500 by an American, 3:29.02. (Though it’s not the official AR, which USATF credits to Bernard Lagat for a 3:27.40 he ran two weeks before collecting silver for Kenya at the ‘04 Olympics; that one’s complicated.)
“This is my first year as a pro,” Nuguse told the crowd at T&FN’s World Champs tour luncheon in Budapest. “I started last year in July and honestly I came in with a lot of really high expectations for myself, but most of which I kind of saw further down the line. I feel like I knew I was good, but you know, I still felt like I had a lot to learn still.
“But even so, I feel like very quickly starting off in indoor I just would be doing these things that I didn’t really realize I was capable of so soon and that kind of accelerated everything that I thought I was gonna be doing.
“It became more just, ‘Alright, now all of a sudden I’m getting records, so maybe I should be setting my goals a little bit higher.’ But it’s been really, really exciting and I’m having just a ton of fun.
“You know, even though last night [the Worlds Final] didn’t go exactly how I wanted, I still had a great time.”
As he did at the DL Final, where the mile developed over the closing 700m into a two-man duel with Ingebrigtsen, the world’s preeminent middle distance runner. Nuguse reached 1500 in 3:29.10, 0.34 behind the Norwegian. He had challenged for the lead around the final bend and their final times, 3:43.73 and 3:43.97, were the Nos. 3 and 4 performances all-time.
Nuguse had cut almost 3 seconds from Alan Webb’s 3:46.91 AR from ‘07 unfazed by Ingebrigtsen’s light yet dismissive jab in a press conference the day before: “Just stick to me as long as you can and we’ll get you sub-3:46.”
Nuguse chuckled and told the Olympic champion, “We’ll see, we’ll see. I might be closer than you think.” Very close, indeed.
Once across the line, Nuguse popped into the air and shot his right arm forward — an ecstatic “Yes!” kinda gesture.
“Coming that last 200,” he said, “I was like, I know I have a little more. ‘Cause I always do and I just gotta keep pushing it. And I thought obviously he would have a little more too. And I couldn’t really close that gap.
“But, you know, still I feel like I’m always confident in my kick and my ability to just keep pushing even when every cell in my body is screaming at me to stop. But yeah, it was crazy. Crazy.”
Nuguse has followed a remarkable career arc. Nobody was shocked when he won the ‘19 NCAA 1500 title as a Notre Dame soph. He had captured the USATF Junior crown a year earlier.
He joined the track team at Louisville’s Dupont Manual High as a frosh in 2014 — through a not unusual chain of events. In PE class, chasing a good grade and a meal at McDonald’s, he crushed the field in a timed mile.
As Nuguse told the story at the Budapest T&FN tour luncheon, “The PE coach tells my cross country coach [Tim Holman] and then he comes to me in the middle of my class and just said, ‘You should join track.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m not really a sporting person, sorry.’”
A year before at 12, Nuguse, a serious student who rolled on the bowling team, had already chosen his future career. He planned to become an orthodontist. Still does.
But Holman “kept persisting and being annoying about it,” Nuguse said, “so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ But it ended up being a really, really fun track season and one of a lot of learning.
“I will say, I had to learn everything from scratch, basically. It was kind of weird because there’s a lot of implied things that no one tells you. Like, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be doing 4s today.’
“And I’m like, ‘Four what? [laughs].’ Or, ‘You shouldn’t chug a bunch of water after your race, you’re gonna throw up.’ I did.
“It’s just little things like that. But I had a ton of fun that first year, so I kept doing it and here we are.”
Yet consider Nuguse’s beginnings in “Ingebrigtsen terms.” When the Norwegian, who is 15½ months younger, was 14 he raced 3:48.37 for 1500 — in an international B race at the Stockholm DL. At 17 Ingebrigtsen raced the mile in 3:52.28, and won European titles at both 1500 and 5000.
Nuguse at 17 PRed in the mile at 4:06.30. Still had some catching up to do, though he gave it little thought even when running paved his way to Notre Dame. Four years and out, he figured, on to 4 years of dental school and 2 more studying orthodontics.
After he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics — and then couldn’t run due to an injury — Nuguse decided to accept Ritzenhein’s invitation to join the On AC.
Late in the summer of ‘22, Nuguse remembers Ritz telling him, “‘The potential in you is there. You can medal, you can be the next big thing.’ It’s just about kind of achieving that point, having that training and then also having that confidence. So he’s always been very realistic and I think he’s pretty much exactly right on.”
Right on for a while, before Nuguse ultimately revives his dream of straightening teeth.
“I was always just kind of nerdy,” he explained on stage in Budapest. “[Orthodontics] is the doctor route that I want to pursue. For me, the reason I started running and the reason I stayed in running is because I had so much fun doing it, so much fun competing and hanging out with my teammates and just having a good time. I think a big part of it is just I want to have as much fun as possible with this for as long as I do it.
“And I know that’s gonna be a little shorter than maybe the average distance runner because I feel like if you’re really good, you keep going well into your 30s. But for me, I kind of want to get started with dental school soon. So for me, I think at 28, 29 I’ll kind of pinch it off a little bit. But you know, that’s still plenty of time to do a lot of things.”
If Nuguse’s training, talent and good fortune take him to the Paris Olympic final next summer he will draw on his experience in the Budapest final won by Josh Kerr. Nuguse, in 5th, finished 0.87 behind but 8 days later collared the world champ at the line to win at the Zürich DL.
Of Worlds, he assessed, “It was definitely a very interesting final and definitely now one of my favorite races that I’ve been a part of just because coming into that, obviously a lot was on the line. In a World Championships final you really want to give your all. Even through the heats, it wasn’t really exactly the same as that final was.
“I think everyone was just a little more just kind of on edge and kind of really trying to seize their moment a little bit. So I think a big part of that was just kind of staying confident in who you are and kind of establishing the space that you want to in that race — which I think was probably the one part I could have done a little bit better.
“I think if I’d gotten to a little better spot sometimes and just been a little more relaxed that maybe I could have had a little more coming into the final bit.
“But you know, honestly just to see Josh win that race was just really big because I feel like we keep getting told this narrative that Jakob is this insurmountable foe.
“But I just think that the 1500 is just so much more interesting than to have one dominant player. And I think that’s why we run these Championships and that’s why we do these races, just to see what happens.
“Honestly, I felt like I could be that guy that came down the final straight, and I think everyone in that final was thinking that.
“But I think the more I do distance running, the more I grow and the more miles I get under my belt, then the better I’ll be next year.”