Photos by Phil Hospod
Olympians, World Champions and thousands of regular runners alike barreled down New York City’s Fifth Avenue in the Fifth Avenue Mile on Saturday, Sept. 24. The professional field this year was a doozy, with eight Olympians and four 2011 World Championship medalists among them. But what is it about running a mile that keeps runners, including professionals like Bernard Lagat, so entranced?
Bernard Lagat had just about every 1500-meter and mile honor a runner can achieve—except a victory at the Fifth Avenue Mile.
The American record holder in indoor and outdoor distances from 1500 to 5000 meters has 11 World Championship and Olympic medals, including four golds, five silvers and two bronze. He’s won the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games a record eight times. Still, the Fifth Avenue Mile eluded him. He’d run it three times to second and fourth place finishes, but never a win—until now.
“I said I’m coming until I win it,” Lagat said prior to the race.
He did just that. Starting his finishing kick with just 200 meters to go, Lagat crossed the finish line in 3:50.5, grinning his trademark grin, having just won his first Fifth Avenue Mile. He edged out last year’s winner, Amine Laalou of Morocco, who finished second. David Torrence of the U.S. finished third.
Jenny Simpson continued her victory lap around the world by winning her first Fifth Avenue Mile. Fresh off of a 1500-meter gold medal win at the 2011 World Championships in South Korea, Simpson won in 4:22.3, edging out Sally Kipyego of Kenya and Hannah England of Great Britain, who both finished in 4:22.6.
The race proved a rematch for Simpson and England, who won the 1500-meter silver medal behind Simpson at the World Championships earlier this month.
In addition to the pros, 4,700 local runners competed, myself included. Like Lagat, this was my fourth Fifth Avenue Mile. What is it about the mile that is so magical? The Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson wrote a great article about the tradition of running the mile in an increasingly metric world.
“For much of the early 20th century, the four-minute mile and the summit of Mount Everest were seen as two perhaps unreachable pinnacles of sporting achievement,” Robinson wrote. “When both were conquered in the early 1950s, they cemented their place in the public imagination.”
I wrote a bit about the mystique of the mile last year in Bernard Lagat and the Fifth Avenue Mile: What If? As American school children, we are trained to both love and loath the mile, depending on which end of the PE class curve you sit on. While the rest of the metric world—with their 1500-meter races—may not understand the allure, running the mile is like going back to basics. Sure, at 1,609 meters or 1,760 yards, the mile is as arbitrary a distance as the marathon.
But as Americans, the mile is our vernacular. While we runners may speak in terms of 5Ks and 10Ks, we’re still logging those as 3.1 or 6.2 miles, unlike our European brethren, who actually log them as—gasp—5 and 10 kilometers respectively.
Then there are the workouts we use to gauge our fitness, like Jeff Galloway’s Magic Mile and Bart Yasso’s Yasso 800s, which are essentially half-mile repeats. The common denominator is measured in miles. And the mythology of the mile is ingrained in running culture from the iconic status of Roger Bannister, the first mortal to break the four-minute mile barrier, to the cult-like success of Once A Runner by John L. Parker Jr., a novel about a college miler’s quest to do the same, and the recent success of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a book about Olympian and miler Louie Zamperini.
For my part, running a mile race feels like a novelty, and that’s the appeal. Adult runners rarely have the chance to race a mile. Most races for the masses are geared toward longer distance runs from 5K to the marathon or longer. To test yourself for just one all-out, guts-on-the-floor mile is a rare opportunity. And the Fifth Avenue Mile provides a dramatic setting running alongside New York City’s Central Park from East 80th to East 60th Street.
So how’d I do? A new 1-mile personal best: 6:46. I also got a high-five from Lagat as he ran his victory lap. Not too shabby.
Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.