Adam Merry brings diversity, joy and empathy to ultra running
By Henry Howard
Adam Merry thrives when he is putting his best foot forward joyfully.
That sentiment is expressed in a line he wrote on his website, "It is earned through hard work, dedication, finding joy in the process of training. Let's have fun while we're doing it." While that sounds like his coach and mine, David Roche, Merry developed that outlook long before he became a competitive trail and ultra runner.
Growing up, he participated in the typical team sports and played slot receiver for the football team at Claremont McKenna College, a Division III school in southern California.
“I've always thrived when I'm doing things in a joyful way for me, whether that was playing football or lifting weights or skateboarding or playing basketball,” he says. “I’ve always excelled when I was having fun.”
Merry is fully loaded with fun on the trails. He has a collection of strong performances, including a second-place finish at Never Summer 60K and winning the Run the Rock 50-miler last year.
But, as is this case with so many ultra runners, he discovered the sport by accident.
‘A really eye-opening experience’
Merry had been doing some recreational road running until a friend encouraged him to go for a trail run about six years ago.
“He said it was only going to be four miles. It ended up being eight and he kind of tricked me with it,” he recalls. “But I had so much fun and was honestly pretty surprised at how quickly the time passed. I grew up on Monterey Peninsula, so there's many different towns, but you can connect between all of them through the woods. It was just a really eye-opening experience at how much of a connected natural experience you can get right outside of town.”
A few months later he signed up for his first 50K, the Woodside Trail Run 50K on Jan. 1, 2017. He ran it with the same friend who took him out on the initial trail run.
“I just felt really supported and it was just a fun day out with a great friend,” he says. “I feel like I really got a taste of classic trail running. I went out feeling really good but definitely didn't have enough training or volume in my legs. I was still a total beginner at that point with respect to understanding how to train properly for these types of events. I was cramping and hiking, and then got a second wind then started running again.”
The race experience and community support planted a seed. “This is a really cool community that I want to be a part of," he remembers thinking. “Over the next two to three years, I slowly became more and more immersed in the community and the culture. I methodically increased my training and commitment to my goals in sport.”
His football experience helped prepare him for ultra running.
“It's so funny because when I was playing football, I would've never believed that a decade later I would be a professional ultra runner,” he admits. “One of the things I learned in football, especially in high school, was how to train with this championship mindset, but be very comfortable with losing.”
The team had a great season during Merry’s junior season but only won one game during his senior year when he was a captain.
“I learned a lot through that season about how to be a leader and how to be there for your team and lead by example and to become very comfortable with being optimistic, going into every game, but also being able to accept defeat graciously.”
Improving diversity in ultra running
Merry, who has a Black mother and white father, felt immediately accepted by the ultra running community.
“At every race I've done, I've had the good fortune, unlike some of my mixed race and Black trail running colleagues to always have a positive experience,” he says. “I've never experienced racism at a race. But I've experienced it out training by myself.”
Still there is a noticeable lack of representation among Black trail runners and those from other minority groups. (Here’s a look back at a recent post where I detail my offer to help bring more minorities into the ultra scene.)
But what more can be done?
“That's such a great question. The fact that you, Henry, are asking that question and so many other people are starting to ask those types of questions is the first place to start,” he says. “It always starts in dialogue, whether it's dialogue with people who are different than you or dialogue with yourself. One thing that is true, at least for American trail runners and just Americans in general, is we've all grown up in a racist context in society. So we all have internalized racism in different ways.”
Merry suggests runners of all races take a deep look within themselves. “I think starting there and then really reflecting on your own experience, with your own racial identity is the foundation of being able to ask the right questions, and then build bridges in trail running.”
He notes organizations such as the Running Industry Diversity Coalition that are having an impact. “They've been partnering with organizations, athletes, coaches, and they're trying to create resources and support for folks that want to do more to make sure those opportunities or solutions to increase diversity and inclusion are well-thought-out and considered from all angles.”
It's worth pointing out that Feb. 23 marks the two-year anniversary of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
“Ahmaud's case certainly was very tragic and I think touched all communities, not just the communities of color, and runners in general,” he says. “It’s caused people to understand that some runners don't experience running in the same way that I do and maybe don't feel safe in the places that I feel safe.”
Merry is quick to point out that extends to women runners, too.
“It's not just a racial thing. I think that increased empathy and awareness is a really positive silver lining out of a very tragic situation with Ahmaud. I think it's caused, on a more industry level, increased desire from brands to visibly support BIPOC communities and runners and increase diversity and allocate financial resources to exposing more people to running.”
Among those women runners is Merry’s inspiration, his mother, Teresa Merry. She recently completed her second trail race.
“A lot of people inspire me, but my mom and I have a special relationship,” he says. “She recently ran the Fort Ord 25K trail race. I posted a little proud son moment on my Instagram story like with a video of her running up the last hill. I got more DMs from that of people stoked on seeing her run than ever DM me about my stuff.”
Even though she was physically active much of her life, Teresa didn’t find trail running until her 60s.
“It's just really inspiring to me to see someone like that, but especially my mom, embracing and trying new things,” he says. “She's a really hard worker. I think part of my work ethic and discipline and attitude came from watching her and how she carried herself in our family with her friends and peers and at her job of 35 years.
She's worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for 35 years. She's inspiring on a lot of different levels.”
Another inspiration in his life is his coach, David Roche, who he started working with three years ago.
“One thing I learned from David and saw really clearly, was how powerful, truly centering joy and fun in the training process on a daily basis can really change the experience of the runner that you're coaching or the people around you,” he says. “I certainly make a concerted and deliberate effort in my coaching practice to replicate that. I was really buoyed by David’s enthusiasm about my running. I try to do that for my athletes as well.”
Educated as a lawyer, Roche is a teacher as much as he is a coach.
“I'll start with the human aspect first,” Merry says. “I'm always learning from him, whether it's in the training log or when we correspond via email or when we go on runs together. He's just very old soul-wise. I think one thing that he has benefited from is being able to coach so many runners and interact with so many people in his life. He is the most selfless person I have ever met. Hands down. That guy has been so much for me, in my life and asked absolutely nothing in return. I think seeing that is so rare in this day and age.”
Roche has also helped Merry understand how to approach training more effectively. Before they joined force, Merry admits he would do track workouts one training cycle, then flip over to high volume.
“Before I was coached by David, I was all over the place,” he admits. “Sometimes that can work, but other times it can lead to injury. We're all very driven, hardworking and often pretty intellectual. We like to read about different training methodologies and philosophies and all this stuff. He's done a lot to not only structure my training, but help me truly stay dedicated to the long game and embrace and celebrate that I'm not selling out right now in training at the expense of my long-term potential.”
Merry credits Roche for encouraging racing sub-ultra races as a way to use a race as a good training day without sacrificing the training that follows.
In 2022, Merry is signed up for the Moab Red Hot Ultra 33K, Way Too Cool and The Canyons 100K, among others.
“I'm also registered for CCC,” he says. “I raced OCC last year and getting to extend the distance around Mont-Blanc is very exciting. Just going into that with curiosity and just the mindset of I'm going to be running out there for 10-plus hours and embracing that is another A race.”
Merry freely admits he’s still learning about ultra running. He’s in a good position to do so.
“One thing that stands out to me about David that a lot of people and coaches specifically in ultra running could learn from, is at the end of the day, we are all creating deeper human connections, whether it's trail racing, trail running, the coaching relationship, being out with your friends on the trails,” Merry says. “I think the goal is to be great humans first and then aspire to be a professional trail runner, aspire to be a great coach. Like everything in life, it's all about relationships and just really trying to give people grace, be empathetic and try to just have good self-awareness when you're communicating and carrying yourself out in the field, whether it's as a coach or an athlete or a friend.”
Name: Adam Merry
Hometown: Monterey, Calif., but currently reside in Golden, Colo.
Number of years running: Six on trails!
How many miles a week do you typically run: Usually about 80 to 100 miles in six days.
Point of pride: Being emotionally intelligent and vulnerable!
Favorite race distance: 50 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Well, my FAVORITE, I reserve for a little extra incentive when I'm on the treadmill: Sour Patch Kids!
Favorite piece of gear: Saucony Endorphin Edge trail running shoe (launching fall 2022)
Who inspires you: My mother!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: A Tale of 2 Citiez
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: You got this!
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @amerryrunner
• Strava: Adam Merry
• Website: runmerry.com