How one small meet in Raleigh, N.C. serves as the best model for future growth of American track and field.
RALEIGH, N.C.—The community races kicked off at 8 p.m. and more than 2,000 fans were already surrounding the track at Meredith College for Friday night's 2015 Sir Walter Miler.
Standing by the finish line, it was impossible to see beyond the final turn as fans stood in the fifth lane of the track and wrapped around for 150 meters. Even as her tired legs began to falter, world championship steeplechaser Stephanie Garcia found a final gear and kicked off the night's professional action by crossing the finish line in 4:28.04 for the world's fastest women's mile this year.
“I couldn't have done that without the crowd tonight,” Garcia said. “Even the backstretch was covered which people sometimes forget about. It was such great energy. The local race beforehand really helped because when we came out, people came out and were really ready to support us.”
Amanda Eccleston (4:29.06) and Heather Wilson (4:29.09) joined Garcia atop the world standings for ‘15 with the second and third fastest miles of the year.
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The men's race was dubbed as a battle among some of the top milers from North Carolina and the rest of the United States. Robby Andrews, who will represent the U.S. in the 1,500-meters at the IAAF World Championships later this month, took the victory in a meet record of 3:57.38. The four men behind him also broke four minutes for the mile.
“That was wild and just absolutely electric,” Andrews said. “You really needed to control your emotions for the first three laps and in the last hundred, the fans just push you through the line.”
Fourth-place finisher Lex Williams came within .17 of a second of breaking the four-minute barrier at a similar meet in Ann Arbor, Mich., and knew the atmosphere in Raleigh would be conducive of a fast time. Brandon Hudgins, an Appalachian State graduate, also ran under four-minutes for the first time in his career with a fifth-place finish in 3:59.67.
“They handed out plaques to last year's first-time sub-four milers at yesterday's dinner,” Williams said. “(Race director) Sandy Roberts turned to me and said, 'Lex, I want you to be sitting at that table next to me and I'll hand you a plaque.' I was pumped up for today and the crowd added to that.”
In a time when the sport seeks to find a return to prominence, a small meet in North Carolina provided a glimpse of what the future of American track and field can look like.
The Sandman Mile
Two years ago, Sandy along with his brother Logan finished their warmup inside Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons High School gymnasium and got ready take the track. Just three days before, the brothers and best friend Pat Price started spreading the word to friends and family about “The Sandman Mile”—Sandy’s attempt to break the elusive four-minute barrier.
While 25 people were initially expected along with a football team finishing practice that may have been intrigued by the race, the Roberts brothers were greeted by more than 400 fans at the track.
“At that point it becomes much bigger than you,” Logan said. “It becomes much more about harnessing the energy from the people that support you. It still ended up being a magical night.”
Sandy held a personal best of 4:01 and found himself in an awkward chasm between an elite runner and emerging developmental athlete. He was not making the cut to race against top professionals in other meets across the country.
His brother Logan, an assistant coach for University of North Carolina, took on the task of pacing his brother through the 1200-meter mark. Due to his fitness, he made it through 800 meters in 1:59 before dropping off. The Sandman was alone for the final two laps.
Sandy was on pace through the 1,200-meter mark but got tied up in the final 300 before crossing the finish line in 4:06.
“It wasn’t about me trying to break four,” Sandy said. “There was something bigger there. There was something people wanted to be a part of. We thought we landed on something unique.”
There were no sponsors and no webcast of the meet. Going into the night, it was just two brothers on a track with a friend who provided automatic timing and a coach that allowed them to use the school's track.
“We left the track with an incredible sense of triumph and it was not because of what we saw on the track,” Roberts said. “It was what we saw in Raleigh. It was about the city and sport that we love and being able to share it with the people.”
They knew they had to capitalize on the idea and start looking ahead to the following year.
Iffley Road meets the Tour de France
The following year, Sir Walter Miler was born. The meet, named after 16th century explorer Walter Raleigh, was pitched to members of the community as a guaranteed viewing of the first sub-4:00 mile in Raleigh in 40 years.
“It was going to be really important for us to stay away from the boring parts of track,” Sandy said. “The goal was having a woman run under 4:30 and a man under 4:00. A community race would have people come out. And then we made sure to have a place at Raleigh Brewing for athletes and fans to have a beer together and really enjoy the event that just took place.”
Running can be simple. In its simplest form it's putting one leg in front of the other as fast as possible. Most people were forced to run a mile in physical education and can easily relate to the pain and energy toll to respect the distance. It's been 61 years, but Roger Bannister’s feat of breaking the four-minute barrier for the mile is still heralded as the stamp for a successful miler.
On May 5, 1954, the stands and hills, surrounding the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, were packed with fans to watch Bannister attempt to do what no man could. Entering his final 100 meters, Bannister entered a tunnel of fans who welcomed him into the record books.
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“I’d like to imagine it was like being courtside at Cameron indoor for a Duke–UNC game,” Sandy said to draw a local comparison to Bannister’s run.
“It’s that kind of excitement that we wanted to bring to the track—not to the stands and not even outside the fence. They are on the hallowed ground. There’s something magical and electric about that even if you’re not a fan of running.”
The track at Division III Meredith College in Raleigh was chosen as the site for the Sir Walter debut on Aug. 1, 2014. Ford Palmer, a graduate of Monmouth University who had previously run 4:00 miles, decided to go for his Bannister-moment in front of approximately 1,000 fans crowded into lane three and in the short hills surrounding the track. He crossed the finish line in 3:57.61.
“Last year there were so many people were on the track in the final 100 that I had to look down at the line to make sure that I was running straight,” Palmer recalled. “Going up the mountain in the Tour de France, fans are all over the road and you don't know where you're going. This is just like that and you have to do what you have to do to finish hard.”
After the race, Palmer put on a King of the Mountains hat and headed off to Raleigh Brewing to celebrate and thank the fans who were in attendance for his moment of history. It was also there that he committed to returning for ‘15.
Making track popular
Not much has changed for the sport of track. It has failed to keep up with the times and has fallen from an A-level sport in the Steve Prefontaine-era to a D-level event.
There are plenty of ideas for how to make the sport popular. At several summer track meets across Europe, open seating on grassy knolls surround the track where food trucks sell beer, fries and brats. American athletes flock to Europe after the U.S. Championships to chase fast times and the meet can be a model, but it is not the best.
In 2014, agent Paul Doyle launched the American Track League in various cities to bring attention to the sport by featuring the likes of Olympians Lolo Jones and Ashton Eaton. The ‘15 series was shortened to just one meet in Atlanta after an OK reception in its inaugural year.
Vin Lanana, president of TrackTown USA, aims to start his own series across the United States in ‘16. Portland and Eugene in Oregon are surely top candidates for meets, but will rely on the already present track and field junkies.
“A big thing about Raleigh is that we don’t recycle track and field fans. We build new ones,” Logan said. “Other communities in the country do a really good job of supporting the runners and have avid fans, but you can only count on a couple fingers where those are. Are they building new fans or just using ones that are already there?”
Another element to draw fans to any sporting event is the accessibility to drinking. Flocasts, a broadcast company based in Austin, Texas, has honed in on that element by hosting a beer mile world championship as well as its own track meet in Portland. When one of the slogans to the meet is “Food. Beer. Fast Times.” the performances on the track take a backseat to the other components offered to fans.
“In the very short span of our four races, I think alcohol distracts,” Sandy said. “We can enjoy a beer beforehand and we can enjoy a beer afterwards. During that short time, I want the athletes to be the focus and for people to understand the historic significance of what’s going on. I think there’s way to celebrate that after the fact with a nice beer.”
There is a sanctity to the track that Sir Walter Miler respects.
The meet also has a particular vision for its athletes and fan appeal. Bringing an Olympic silver medalist like Galen Rupp to a meet will draw some fans, but it can also be difficult to appeal to someone outside of the sport.
“Let’s bring out the local all-stars and let’s also bring in folks like Ford who get excited about what we’re doing,” Sandy said. “We feel like this is like a Triple A All-Star Game. We’re not the bigs and realize that. We don’t have the money for the bigs, but we’ve got the guys that are trying to reach that next level. We’re going to bring them all together and highlight them.”
For 45 minutes on a Friday night, track and field was an A-level sport in Raleigh.