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Lebow’s 5th Avenue Dream Still Alive

Once an elite-only event , the Fifth Avenue Mile has grown in leaps and bounds.

Written by: David Monti
(c) Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

New York Road Runners’ founder Fred Lebow had a keen sense of timing, and bravado.  The Romanian immigrant who spoke heavily accented English saw the potential to take the New York City Marathon to the streets in 1976, transforming the event into the prototype for all of today’s big city marathons.

But Lebow, who died of cancer in 1994 at age 62, also loved the track, and his idea in 1981 to gather most of the world’s best middle distance runners for a straight, downhill mile on Fifth Avenue was an equivalent stroke of genius. The race will be held for the 30th time on Sunday, September 26.

“A race down Fifth Avenue will be like a modern day equivalent to a race on Mt. Olympus,” said New York’s mayor at the time, Edward I. Koch, who embraced hyperbole as much as Lebow.  “It’s an exciting concept.”

The event was formally called the Pepsi Challenge Fifth Avenue Mile.  Lebow got the idea after watching the 1980 Millrose Games during which American Mary Decker set the world indoor record for 1,500 meters.

“My first thought was ‘what a shame that only 18,000 people could see this,'” Lebow told New York Running News in 1981.  “What would it be like to have 100,000 or 200,000 watching?”

Lebow mulled over the idea for a year, then pitched it to Irish middle distance star Eamonn Coghlan after he won the Wanamaker Mile here in 1981.

“As I was walking over to the Penn Plaza Hotel with Fred Lebow (he said) ‘it’s a shame we don’t get more people to see you guys compete,'” Coghlan recalled during an international teleconference  yesterday.  When Lebow told Coghlan about his idea to run athletes in a one mile race down Fifth Avenue, Coghlan said he replied, “‘Why don’t you finish it at the Irish Tourist Board where I was working at the time?'” 

The Irish Tourist Board was located at Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, which meant the race would block cross-town traffic at too many streets.  Instead, Lebow convinced the city to hold the race parallel to Central Park, starting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at East 82nd Street, and finishing at East 62nd Street in sight of the Plaza Hotel.  That would mean closing only a handful of cross streets.

“I though it was a great idea,” said Steve Scott, who held the American record for the mile until Alan Webb broke it in 2007.  “You really didn’t know what the reception was going to be like in the city.”

It was huge.  ABC set up nine cameras on the course and covered the race live.  Britain’s Steve Ovett, the world record holder at the time, committed to the race, and BBC agreed to carry it live, too (Ovett later cancelled at the last minute due to a viral infection).  Lebow, perhaps the greatest athlete recruiter ever, got Coghlan, Scott, Steve Cram, John Walker, Tom Byers, Mike Boit, Ray Flynn and five other top athletes to commit to the race. It was one of the greatest fields for a mile ever assembled.

“Miling at the time was perhaps the biggest story in the U.K.,” said Cram, now an athletics commentator for the BBC.  “There was huge interest, huge interest in this new event.  I don’t know if we felt like guinea pigs, but we didn’t know what to expect.”

The gun went off and the first quarter mile, slightly downhill, clicked by in 53.2 seconds.  Flynn recalls that everybody was running all-out right from the start.

“Miling was so exciting and a great many records had been broken at the time,” Flynn said yesterday.  “We had never run in a straight line.  We, as athletes, wanted to see how fast we could run in a straight line.  As Steve (Scott) said, we didn’t have experience.  We just went out at the gun.  Everybody just ran as fast as they could.”

The course has a small rise in the second quarter, cresting just before the halfway point.  Runners can see the finish line ahead, but the distance can be very hard to judge.  Scott found out the hard way.

“The one thing I remember is that you can’t see the finish line from the start line,” said Scott, now a college coach in California.  “You come over the hill and you can see the finish… and in reality it was over 800 meters away, and I just ran out of gas.”

But the South African-born American Sydney Maree still had plenty left in the tank.  Running on the left side of Fifth Avenue, he angled towards the finish line with 50 meters to go, dusting the field to clock 3:47.52, a time which remains the event record, one of the longest-standing significant marks in all of road running.  Boit was second in 3:49.59, and Dr. Thomas Wessinghage of West Germany was third (3:50.48).  Cram finished fourth, Flynn fifth, Walker sixth, Scott seventh and Coghlan ninth.  Former USATF CEO Craig Masback was 13th and last.

Yes, there was also a women’s race (Lebow was a fierce advocate for women’s running).  The University of Oregon’s Leann Warren got the win in a swift 4:25.31 over Canada’s Brit McRoberts (4:28.34) and England’s Christina Boxer (4:28.90).

The race in its current form, now called the Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile, consists of 16 heats (last year’s event had 3,796 finishers).  The racing begins with open sections in the morning, then moves to age-group competition before the four invited sections in the early afternoon.  The New York Road Runners Road Mile Championships showcase the best locally-based athletes, then the professional women and men provide the grand finale.  This year’s event has two-time Olympic medallist Bernard Lagat of Tucson, Ariz., facing off against 2008 Olympic silver medallist Nick Willis of New Zealand, USA indoor 1500m champion Leo Manzano of Austin, Tex., defending champion Andy Baddeley of England, and USA mile record holder, Alan Webb of Portland, Ore.  Last year’s world championships 1,500-meter bronze medalist and defending champion, Shannon Rowbury of San Francisco, leads the women’s field.

Like Lebow and Allan Steinfeld before her, New York Road Runners president and CEO Mary Wittenberg is equally committed to elite athletes AND fitness runners.  Looking back yesterday, she is still awed by what Lebow had accomplished with the Fifth Avenue Mile.  He set the bar high, right from the start.

“When you look back on the first race that you four were in… you made it something spectacular from the start,” she said.