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How a Mile Race Can Help Boost Enthusiasm in Running

Can running's marquee race rekindle some excitement in the sport?

I’m decidedly biased, but track and field is certainly one of the most exciting sports to watch—and specifically mid-distance to long-distance running races. Every event is entirely different, in its strategy, speed, drama and duration.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks like me.

One of the problems with track and field’s identity crisis in America is that not enough people get a chance to see the thrilling drama of those events play out. There are more than 30 million people who run recreationally in the U.S., but most of those people—all but a tiny fraction—don’t have any knowledge or interest in the sport. (And yes, if your only experience has been waiting hours on end for your kid/sibling/nephew/niece to compete in a middle school or high school meet, I totally get it.)

Golf, basketball, football and baseball certainly don’t suffer from the same problem, so what can we do?

“Bring back the mile,” says Kyle Merber, a New Jersey-based professional runner, echoing the slogan of a grassroots group that has been trying to revive interest in running’s marquee race both at the professional and recreational level. There are too few top-tier track meets in the U.S., Merber says, and very few in the summer months when athletes are really starting to peak.

The 24-year-old Merber, who ran collegiately at Columbia University and the University of Texas and now trains with NJ*NY Track Club, owns a 3:54.76 personal best in the mile from a race he ran in Dublin, Ireland, last summer. Racing in Europe is great, but it’s expensive for young American runners to get over there and it doesn’t do much for the sport in the U.S.

But his own personal progression—he’s just one of just 448 American men in history to break the 4-minute mark—isn’t his primary motivation. He just wants to help captivate new runners (and new running fans) with the excitement of watching a mile race unfold. And while he’s proud of his sixth-place finish in the 1,500-meter run at this year’s U.S. track championships—and will be a contender to make the U.S. Olympic team in that event next year—the slightly longer mile race (roughly 1,609 meters) is much more compelling.

The mile is a relatively short but very fast race, one that almost always includes a mix of tactical strategy and all-out speed. Most competitive races have loads of drama that often reaches a crescendo down the final straightaway—no matter if the race is at the high school, collegiate, national or international level.

“Everybody understands the significance of running a sub-4-minute mile,” Merber says. “It’s always the benchmark of what people consider to be an elite mile. And everyone knows what a mile is, plus it’s the right amount of time that no one is getting bored watching and everyone is constantly on the edge of their seat.”

RELATED: Master The Mile—A One-Mile Training Plan for Recreational Runners

Merber isn’t just barking at the moon, though, he’s actually doing something about it. He’s the primary organizer behind the Hoka One One Long Island Mile on Sept. 9 at St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington Station, N.Y. The event will include several all-comers heats for recreational competitors and youth runners—plus a kids’ 400-meter race—followed by professional women’s and men’s races.

Merber, a Long Island native who won three New York state titles while in high school, is modeling the event off the Sir Walter Miler track meet held Aug. 10 in Raleigh, N.C. That event included a variety of pro, recreational and community races, plus live music, food truck cuisine and numerous breweries serving up their best low-alcohol beers. The morning after the race, there was a special trail run where local recreational runners could run with the pros.

That event was called the “best glimpse of future growth for American track” by Sports Illustrated, in an in-depth piece that was published just hours after the events completion. In a preview of the event, The Sporting News said the event is helping to “redefine fan-friendly track and field.” Unlike many track and field events, the Sir Walter Miler allowed fans to stand on the fourth lane of the track and all over the infield; creating a unique viewing experience and intense atmosphere, similar to a NASCAR race.

“That was a great event. There were a lot of people there, screaming and yelling,” Merber says. “It made you want to run fast, but it was also fun and created a lot of interest.”

RELATED: The Mile—America’s Classic Distance

The Long Island Mile will feature several up-and-coming American runners, including Merber, David Torrence, Garrett Heath, Riley Masters, Ford Palmer, Duncan Philips, Daniel Winn, Peter Callahan, Brandon Hudgins and Jack Bolas. Maybe you’ve never heard of them before, but they’ve all broken 4 minutes for the mile and, like Merber, are working their tails off to make the final of the 1,500 at next summer’s U.S. Olympic Trials. They’ll be gunning for the Long Island mile record of 3:53.0 as well as part of the nearly $12,000 prize purse. (Aside from Hoka, Merber found support from Brendan Barrett, owner of the Sayville Running Co. and Smithville Running Co. stores on Long Island.)

The women’s race will feature a stacked field as well, featuring Treniere Moser, Heather Kampf, Heather Wilson and Amanda Eccleston—American runners who have all broken 4:30 in the mile. (Read more about the Long Island Mile on Merber’s blog post.)

Merber, Winn, Palmer, Kampt and Moser will also run in the New York Road Runners’ 5th Avenue Mile on Sept. 13, a much higher profile road race that also features recreational and professional sections.

Is watching a mile race as exciting as a slam-dunk contest in basketball or a closest-to-the-pin contest in golf? It might be better and more lasting, Merber says. He’s designed the Long Island Mile to have an intimate experience with special touches such as thoughtful introductions of each runner, the chance to take pictures with the pros and the opportunity to run cooldown laps with the pros.

“I really want to create an opportunity for high school kids to experience what a professional meet is all about and have them cheer on the professional runners as they fly by them,” he says. “One of the biggest goals is to get the kids excited and be a little bit more motivated for their own running and this fall’s cross country season. We want to create an environment that is inspiring and gets people excited about track and field and running in general.”

RELATED: Bring Back the Mile!