Fast-Paced Road Miles In Festive Atmospheres Are Gaining Popularity
By David Hunter
When the one mile footrace on the street emerged as a new road racing event in the 70’s, most runners didn’t know what to make of it. Unable – or perhaps unwilling – to appreciate the potential the new event presented, many saw the road mile as too short, considered it a competition more suited for the track, and questioned whether it was worth the effort. The new street event struggled to get traction. And perhaps the nadir of the road mile’s early days came just before the 1999 addition of the 5th Avenue Mile when now-President Donald Trump abruptly pulled the funding for the event.
But things are different now. It has taken a while, but the road racing community has now embraced the mile race on the street. “No other event has a Roger Bannister or a Roger Bannister moment,” explains Bring Back The Mile Founder Ryan Lamppa as he outlines the magic created when Bannister ran his historic 1954 mile race on Oxford’s Iffley Road Track, the event he identifies as the primary thrust behind the road mile’s success. “His sub-4:00 mile – the first ever – is recognized as the greatest athletic achievement of the 20th century. And it is understandable: the simplicity of 4 laps in 4 minutes. Roger Bannister, an English gentleman who later became a world-famous neurologist, is a truly wonderful story. The allure is also attributable to Bannister breaking barriers, doing the impossible,.” And Lamppa enthusiastically adds, “And Bannister’s feat still resonates 65 years later.”
And there are numbers to back up this surge in road mile popularity. In 2010, U.S road miles generated 70,000 finishers. Now the annual U.S figure of road mile finishers is around 160,000. “In 1999 there were approximately 330 road miles in this country, and I’m not including the one mile walks tied to a 10K. I’m talking about either a stand-alone mile or a mile that has a competitive element to the race,” states Lamppa. “By 2018, that number had grown to over 800, closing in on 900. Currently, there are 25-30 brand new, competitive street miles that start up in this country in any given year,” offers Lamppa. The New Balance 5th Avenue Mile – Manhattan’s early fall road mile from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Grand Army Plaza – survived the ’99 funding debacle, is now considered the Grand Pappy of the Road Mile, and last year drew over 7700 athletes who competed in over 25 sections of its one mile scamper down 5th Avenue. The 39th edition of New Balance 5th Avenue Mile – the largest road mile race in America hosted by the New York Road Runners – will take place September 8th
And with all due respect to Lamppa’s enthusiastic and persuasive advocacy of Sir Roger, what other factors have contributed to the road mile’s commendable growth in popularity? A dissection of the one mile road race and all that surrounds it uncovers at least 10 factors that make the event’s success much more understandable:
- The Attainable And Familiar Distance.The fitness level necessary to be able to start and finish a mile run is low. “The vast majority of people can finish a mile. It’s not too daunting,” declares Lamppa who notes that most runners – and even non-runners – are familiar with the mile distance and can appreciate what a good finishing time is. “Compared to other event distances, a mile time is something that is understandable. People know that, say, a 6:10 clocking for the mile is a very solid time. But few know that, say, a 42 minute 10K mark is also a fine time.” Notes New York Road Runner’s Senior Vice President of Events and Race Director Jim Heim ““It’s only a mile.But everyone who’s run one knows what their best mile is.”
- The Mile’s Appeal To Athletes Of Varied Performance Levels. If you’ve just recently embraced running, a road mile is the perfect, non-threatening opportunity to experience a competitive event and see if it suits you. If you’re more experienced, you can test your speed, perhaps go after a mile PR. And for elites, a road mile can be a break from the 1609 meter grind on the oval and an opportunity to tackle an event where the focus is more on winning than on the clock. “I think a lot of the elites are doing it because it can be less pressure because you don’t get caught up in the times as much,” notes Kyle Merber, an elite middle distance athlete who serves as co-director of Hoka One One Long Island Mile. “Generally, it’s really just about kicking and winning.” Jeff Sigmund, one the founding Directors of Cleveland’s Guardian Mile cites the different challenges posed in racing a mile on the road versus on the track. “The road mile is going to play to the strength of different athletes,” states Sigmund in noting the road mile’s varied terrain. “It is a really fun thing to see who has strength on hills? Who is better uphill? Who is better downhill? Who is better at recovering? All of those things mean a lot. And it is a different skill set than just ‘how fast can I run?’”
- Minimal Staging Challenges. As Race Directors know, the bureaucratic hurdles that must be cleared to stage longer road races are many and frequently are time-consuming. Addressing municipal obstacles are less troublesome and meet less governmental resistance when the race is only 5280 feet and can be staged in a few hours. “That mile event is not going to take up that much space in a city due to road closures and the like,” Lamppa points out. “So setting up a road mile is much easier than a longer race.” Adds NYRR’s Heim, “When you gather people together en masse in civic centers, it is not easy to close down portions of the city for a course. With the mile, though, it is much easier to shut down a single street for a mile than it is to shut down a whole bunch of streets for a half marathon or a marathon.”
- Road Mile Racing Does No Violence To Training Schedules. If you are a more serious runner and have targeted goals for later in the season, fitting in a road mile race will provide a break from your training and allow you to see if those weekly track intervals have boosted your speed. Go for it! You’ll pin on your bib, reacquaint yourself with competitive racing, learn how your speed is coming along, and be back to your scheduled training the next day.
- Road Mile Racing Requires Little Or No Taper Or Recovery. When competing in road races of longer distances [e.g. a half or full marathon], it is wise to factor in a training taper prior to race day and to schedule a certain recovery period after the competition. A well-grounded recovery practice is to take one day of easy running for each mile you have just raced. A road mile minimizes those concerns. If so inclined, athletes of all fitness levels could elect to run a series of street miles at high performance levels with much less concern about poor performance or injury. A goodly number of elite athletes annually race The Long Island Mile and four days later compete in The 5th Avenue Mile in Manhattan. No worries!
- Participants Enjoy A Unique Athlete / Spectator Duality. In other road races, you have a choice: you’re either running the race as an athlete or you’re watching the race as a spectator. The conventional road mile format features athletes competing in a series of sections or waves [e.g. age group or wheelchair sections] of mile races and concludes with the event-ending crescendo of the women’s and men’s elite mile competitions. So a road miler can have his cake and eat it too. Unless you are a show-closing elite, you will run the road mile in your assigned section. And after your arrival at the finish line, you’ll essentially have a front-row, quality vantage point to watch subsequent road milers including the elites come roaring across the line. “The duality of the street mile allows you to do both. You can go run it yourself and then end up spectating, watching the elite athletes,” notes Andy Smith, Program Manager for Road Runners Club of America. “For people who are new to the sport and interested in participating in live events, [the street mile] has a really nice duality to offer as part of the race experience.” NYRR’s Heim also sees another special road mile experience.
“The 5th Avenue Mile is a choreographed task, because we keep pulling people through all day,” explains Heim. “What’s really cool about it is that you get to run on the same course at the same time as the elites. After their own race, a lot of people stick around for the last heats of the day and they get to see what a 3:51 mile looks like in person. And they get inspired.”
- Fast-Paced Presentation Pleases All. Race day for a marathon can essentially be a day-long grind of transporting, racing, and recovering for the competitors. And it often is a long day for standing spectators who can wait for hours with only a fleeting glimpse or two of the elite field, a competing friend, or a family member. Race day for a road mile is quite different as the event presentation offers not one race, but many – a steady stream of competitive entertainment in a program, which in nearly all cases, lasts less than 2 hours;
- Post-Race Interaction Among Runners Of All Performance Levels. In a manner unmatched by almost any other sport, road miles provide immediate post-race opportunities for runners to interact with other athletes of all ages and levels of success:a budding high school cross country athlete can secure pointers from a collegian; a master’s athlete can obtain training tips from a professional, and so on. “One of the reasons I think the road miles are so popular right now is because they can connect the greater road running community with the elite milers and the track world,” observes Merber. “It’s where worlds collide.”
- There’s Room For Race Day Whimsy. Even the most sophisticated road miles have a more relaxed nature to them. It’s not the Olympic Trials. No one is competing to make a world team. As such, there are many opportunities for some lighthearted whimsy. No one is going to wince if someone wears a crazy messaged t-shirt or even a costume. Santa Barbara’s State Street Mile features a section dedicated to milers with leashed canines as running companions. Earlier this summer, Odessa, a German shorthaired pointer, and his human companion Dan Wehunt won Santa Barbara’s “Dog Mile” in 4:07, setting a new world record, the fastest ever documented owner/dog time for a mile race. What does BBTM’s Lamppa think? “Next year, we’re shooting for a sub four minute Dog Mile!”
- Top Flight Post-Race Parties. Street miles almost always feature a post-race party. Because the entire event is completed quickly, more runners are inclined to hang out, enjoy a local band, and to quaff a beer or two.Because the entire event is completed in a compact period of time, most everyone makes the party. And unlike some of the longer road races, post-race milers are less whipped and more exhilarated by the race they just completed than, say, road warriors after competitions at longer distances.
“Part of our objective is tied to the health and fitness aspect. One of our goals is to get people off the couch,” states BBTM’s leader. “Virtually anyone can do a mile. In every survey I have seen about health and fitness, if you ask people why they don’t work out, the number one reason is time. I think our sport has promoted that 30-minute or one hour run too much. The vast majority of people are not going to do that. They’re not going to do a 5K a 10K, or a marathon – and they probably shouldn’t,” explains Lamppa. “Ah, but the mile! 10 or 15 minutes out of your day a couple of days a week – you can do that! That’s attainable. You can do a mile. We all can do a mile. It’s the perfect gateway distance to health and fitness.”
And as you toe the starting line in anxious anticipation of your one mile adventure, remember this: you’re only 1760 yards away from a party… / Dave Hunter /
Dave Hunter is an award-winning journalist who is a U.S. Correspondent for Track & Field News. He also writes a weekly column and serves as Senior Writer for www.RunBlogRun.com, and covers championship track & field competition domestically and in such global capitals as Moscow, Birmingham, Zurich, Brussels, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Zagreb, and Ostrava. Hunter frequently serves as the arena or stadium announcer for championship track & field gatherings, including the Ivy League, the Big East, the Mid-American Conference, the NAIA, the Big Ten, and the Millrose Games. Hunter has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments.. He ran his marathon P.R. of 2:31:40 on the Boston Marathon course back in the Paleozoic Era. To find out more about Dave, visit his website: www.trackandfieldhunter.com He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org