Wonderful, Magical, Magnificent Mile

09/16/2014 - 16:32

By Teri Saylor

EliteWomen.JPG When I was in college, all freshmen were required to pass a physical education exam that ensured we could swim, tread water or float for 10 minutes and run a 10-minute mile. While I was an active kid, I was not very athletic, so I was as nervous about the freshman sports challenges as an English major in a chemistry lab.

I trained for an entire semester to make it. Colleges and universities mostly did away with those requirements, but thanks to a team of runners and journalists, the mile is making a comeback.

Bring Back the Mile aims to replace the 1500 and 1600 high school middle distances with a true mile – 1,760 yards, and to encourage Americans to include a mile run in their everyday exercise routines.

The group’s website describes the mile in poetic terms: “magic, iconic, classic and timeless.” And here in Raleigh, we have our own description: “popular.”

The popularity of the mile race in Raleigh is due to the imagination and hard work of a handful of folks, a couple of quirky races, and one revered Englishman who set the bar for a fast mile pretty darn high.

Here are their stories.

The Sir Walter Miler
On a recent cool, rainy night on a soggy track at Meredith College, a field of elite athletes set out to make some history at the inaugural Sir Walter Miler, a mile race with a nod to Sir Walter Raleigh, for whom the city of Raleigh, NC is named.

On Aug. 1, three of the male runners broke a 4:00 mile, with Ford Palmer, from the New York/New Jersey Track Club, winning in 3:57.61, while logging the second fastest mile in North Carolina history. Donnie Cowart of Winston-Salem finished in 3:58.43 and Isaac Presson of Asheville rounded out the top three men, with a 3:59.77.

Track and Field News keeps a chronological list of runners who have broken the 4:00 mile, starting with Don Bowden in 1957. As of Aug. 7, there were only 425 runners on that list.

At the Sir Walter Miler, a field of 10 women were also on a mission, aiming to break 4:30, and while none of them did, Heidi Gregson of Furman Elite finished in 4:34.05, logging the fastest women’s time in North Carolina history.

The Sir Walter Miler was a brainstorm cooked up by Pat Price, a local writer and blogger who loves running, Sandy Roberts, a local runner on a quest to break the 4:00 mile, and Sandy’s brother Logan, a local running coach.

In 2013, the three staged “The Sandman,” a mile race to give Sandy an opportunity to break 4:00. Paced by Logan, Sandy was the only runner in the race. Four hundred spectators showed up to cheer, and the local newspaper covered it. Sandy crossed the finish line in 4:06.

This year, the trio planned a real event, complete with a field of elite runners who traveled to Raleigh from all over the country to participate. They recruited sponsors, and a Kickstarter fundraising campaign raised $3,500 which was used as a purse for the winning athletes.

The race also fielded a group of local runners, put up by running groups, running stores and other organizations. The field included Barbara Latta, who holds the longest women’s running streak in the United States, and former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker who has an impressive running resume of his own.

Nearly 1,000 people turned out to cheer, and most of them lined each side of the track, settling in tight, like a gauntlet.

Sandy Roberts
Sandy Roberts got a whiff of his dream coming true on the 4th of July when the Raleigh Running Outfitters store hosted a mile race.

Sandy, who ran a mile in 4:01 five years ago as an athlete at Georgetown University, had long harbored a deep desire – really an obsession, to break 4:00.

On that boiling hot July day, he crossed the finish line in an astonishing 3:51.

There was just one catch.

The mile was all downhill.

Even though the fast time will never appear in any record books or even count as a real finish, for 26-year-old Sandy it was a breakthrough, both mentally and emotionally.

His 3:51 finish boosted his confidence, and sharpened his hunger to finish an official mile race in under 4:00.

“When I crossed the finish line, it felt great. I couldn’t believe it at first and thought the course might have been short, but it wasn’t,” he said. “I couldn’t believe my legs carried me that fast.”

On Aug. 1, he set out to make his dream come true on a flat, outdoor track in the Sir Walter Miler.

“I know I can do it,” he said in a phone interview, four days after completing the race in 4:05.

Sandy, who grew up in Raleigh, was a household name in high school as a six-time state champion, and the whole city is pulling for him to make his goal.

His next race is the Magnificant Mile, a road race in downtown Raleigh on Sept. 14. He will not even attempt to crack 4:00, but he’s competitive enough to try to win the race.

Afterwards he’s planning take time off to rest, reflect on his experiences, and enjoy reveling in appreciation for the journey that has taken him to this place in time. He knows reaching his ultimate goal will not be easy, that it is a journey of frustration, disappointment faith and hope.

“I know I have achieved many other successes, and I do feel disappointment, but also gratitude. This has been an incredible journey,” he said.
Stay tuned. Sandy’s not done yet.

Lyndsay Harper
The photos are heartbreaking.

A young runner, on the final turn in a race that might propel her into the London Olympics, is freeze framed in mid-air. Her arms are up, her left foot is cocked inward, and the horrified expression on her face tells the tale.
She’s going down.

“I remember thinking ‘seriously?’ Lyndsay Harper said on a rainy, unseasonably cool afternoon in August. “I had never fallen in a race before, so of course, my first time falling would have to be a face plant during the Olympic Trials.”

Lyndsay had traveled to Raleigh all the way from Berkley, Calif. to run a mile. Four hours before the start-time, she took a few minutes to talk about her sport, and her infamous face plant, captured on film and splashed prolifically across the Internet.

With 100 meters to go in a preliminary race leading up to the finals for a spot on the United States team in the 800, a woman near Lyndsay tripped, and Lyndsay fell too.

Like a true champion, she got up and kept running, finishing the 800 in 2.08.

In one stumble, an Olympic dream was dashed - for now. She plans to try again in 2016.

Lyndsay, 25, ran for the University of Virginia, and over time settled into the 800-meter distance. Her P.R. is 2.03. Today, she runs with the Bay Area Track Club. The Sir Walter Miler was her first track mile, and she finished in 4:57.19.

Lyndsay’s goal is to continue running short and middle distance races for as long as possible. She doesn’t have the patience for long distance and visibly blanches at the thought of running an ultra marathon. “I’d rather run 200s on a track than do long runs – they are monotonous,” she said, and laughed. “I run for two minutes. That’s my specialty.”

Sarah Roberts Witt
I think of Sarah Witt as the mother of The Mile here in Raleigh.

She brought that distance to life back in 2006 on a freezing cold November day on the campus of North Carolina State University. Many of her friends in the running community bundled up and turned out to support her on that frosty day and to run the very first Magnificent Mile race.
Just two years before that race, Sarah, a runner herself, had been diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis, a motor neuron disease related to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Nine years later, Sarah is doing well. She uses a wheelchair to get around, and is constantly on the move as a full-fledged active soccer mom and well-respected race director.

The 2014 Magnificent Mile, now in its ninth year, takes place on Sept. 14 in downtown Raleigh. During its lifetime, the race has attracted more than 7,000 runners and raised over $450,000 for research into finding cures for motor neuron diseases and disorders.

This year, Sarah expects around 1,200 runners to register, including a healthy field of elite men and women for the Magnificent Mile’s two competitive races. A recreational walk-run, two kids’ runs, and a street festival will round out the activities.

Sarah admits to having mixed feelings about other mile-long races joining the running landscape in Raleigh.

“It has been nice being the only game in town,” she said in a telephone interview. “But actually, I’m glad the mile is growing in popularity.”

She believes the Sir Walter Miler made a good lead-in to her Magnificent Mile, and the Sir Walter’s track format and invitational fields made it a completely different type of race.

Sarah realizes other mile races will increase awareness and participation overall, including in her Magnificent Mile. As the old saying goes – “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Pat Price
Pat Price doesn’t run as much as he used to in his younger days, but he still harbors a deep passion for the sport.

A writer and blogger, he ran on the Providence High School cross country team in Charlotte, and his team was ranked fifth in the state. As an invited track and field walk-on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his running career was derailed by injuries, but he picked it back up and ran on an East Carolina University club team while pursuing a master’s degree and has run the Boston Marathon.

For the past two years, he has teamed up with Sandy Roberts and Logan Roberts to create a mile race that is getting noticed. Last year, the race came together quickly, designed specifically for Sandy to attempt to break a 4:00 mile. Thanks to social media, news traveled quickly, and The Sandman event attracted 400 spectators and made the local news. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, Pat teamed up with Sandy and Logan again and developed a four-month planning window.
The Sir Walter Miler was born. By all accounts it was a success, and Pat is pleased with the way it turned out – three sub-4:00 miles for the men, and a state record for the women.

An estimated turnout of 1,000 spectators on a rainy Friday night was a predictor of growing interest in a race like the Sir Walter. “There are tons of 5Ks but not everyone wants to run a 5K,” Pat said in a phone interview. “The half marathon is growing in popularity, but a mile is different - a change of pace.”

Roger Bannister
On May 6, 2014, runners all over the world celebrated the 60th Anniversary of Roger Bannister’s historic sub-4:00 minute mile on a wet, windswept track in Oxford, England.

Roger Bannister, at the age of 85, celebrated, too.

He was a 25-year-old medical student on May 6, 1954 when he set his world record and set the stage for thousands of runners to follow in his fast footsteps. No other human being had ever run a mile in less than 4:00.

On the 60th Anniversary of his epic run, he told a reporter for the Guardian Newspaper that he very nearly did not run at all that day because of gale-force winds blowing up to 25 miles per hour.

According to reports, his training was sparse (he averaged 35 miles per week), and the track was constructed of unforgiving cinder.

Still, he finished in 3:59.4.

Bannister predicted his record would not last long, and six weeks after he cracked the 4-mile barrier, his biggest rival, John Landy, ran an even faster mile in 3:57.9.

Just months later, on Aug. 7, the two fastest milers in the world raced each other at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C. in an event that has become known as “The Miracle Mile.”

As the story goes, the rivals were neck and neck coming down the stretch for the final 100 meters when Landy glanced back over his left shoulder to look for Bannister, slowing down just enough to give his rival the edge he needed to pass him on the right and win the race.

And yes, both men finished with sub-4:00 times.

Teri Saylor is a writer and runner who lives in Raleigh, N.C. Get in touch with her at

Top Photo: The elite women line up to give it all they've got in the Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, N.C.  Heidi Gregson won in 4:34.05. From left: Caitlin Bullock, Durham; Amanda LoPiccolo, Durham; Andie Cozzarelli, Raleigh; Stephanie Garcia (pacer), Greenville, S.C.; Ericka Charles, Durham; Heidi Gregson, Greenville, S.C.; Cydney Ross, Highland Park, N.J. and Lyndsay Harper, San Francisco, Calif. 
Middle Photo: Barbara Latta of Raleigh, who holds the United States Women's Running Streak Record with over 30 years of everyday running congratulates Sandy Roberts of Raleigh, who finished the Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh in 4:05.02.  Barbara led the field of local celebrity runners and Sandy attempted to run the mile in under 4:00.
Bottom Photo: Ford Palmer of Atlantic City, NJ became the first runner to break a 4:00 mile in North Carolina in 40 years on August 1 when he ran the Sir Walter Miler in 3:57.61.

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