For those who may never make it to Amen Corner in Augusta or taste the strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, there’s a local option that should provide the same firsthand glimpse at athletic excellence.
More than two dozen emerging elite runners will gather Friday evening in Raleigh at Meredith College to try to break the four-minute mile barrier – or the 4:30 female equivalent – at the Sir Walter Miler.
“Running under four minutes is like winning three of the four majors in golf or scoring 100 points in an NBA basketball game,” said Sandy Roberts, who was the sole competitor in the event’s first year and now helps organize the race. “I think it’s the most exclusive club in all of sports.”
OK, so maybe it’s not quite that unique, but only 446 Americans have run sub-four minutes in the U.S. since Don Bowden became the first in 1957. And in Raleigh, it’s even more rare. For decades, the most recent person to go under the mark in Raleigh was Duke’s Steve Wheeler, and that was way back in 1974.
Roberts barely missed out in the mark in 2013 after 500 people came to cheer him on at Cardinal Gibbons, but the idea for the race stuck. With Pat Price and his brother, Sandy, the Sir Walter Miler was born.
At many track events, the spectators are too far away to make any tangible impact on the race. Roberts aimed to change that. As the competitors turned the final curve last year and headed toward the homestretch, more than 1,000 fans crowded onto the track and formed a human tunnel.
“It’s like being courtside at Cameron Indoor or being on that final stretch at Churchill Downs,” Roberts said.
In return, the runners got a bolt of energy that pushed last year’s winner, Ford Palmer, to end Raleigh’s drought of sub-four milers. He crossed the line in 3:57.61, along with two other runners who also finished under four minutes. Ahead of this year’s event, the professional runner called the event incomparable to any other race in which he’s competed.
“The crowd was so awesome; everyone’s screaming at the top of the lungs,” Palmer said. “It made me run faster, and it gave me a reason to run through the pain at the end of the race.”
And for Roberts, that’s the point of the race: to create a previously unheard-of experience for runners and fans alike.
This year’s men’s race will feature a competition between a North Carolina team, clad in state flag-patterned shorts, and a group from the rest of the country. The men on each team will have their times added together to declare a winner, which is just the latest twist Roberts has added to try to keep the event fresh for fans.
Don’t get Roberts wrong, he’s more than excited to welcome U.S. national team member Robbie Andrews and former U.S. Olympian Morgan Uceny to Friday’s event. But that doesn’t mean the event’s future involves targeting Olympians or paying appearance fees for stars to show up.
“That’s not who we are,” Roberts said. “That’s not what we’re about.”
Instead, he’s focused on a fan-centric, quick-moving evening at the track with a pre- and post-game at Raleigh Brewing Company, which crafted the Speedwork Session IPA specifically for the occasion.
Palmer, who won last year’s event, said his plans to run again this year have as much to do with the party as the race. The post-run activities allow runners to mingle with fans, and Palmer was so impressed with the kindness of those in attendance that he couldn’t stop talking about the event when he returned to his home in New Jersey. The walking advertisement for running worked: Several of Palmer’s friends will race in Friday night’s event, which should result in seven or eight men finishing in under four minutes.
“This is their chance to be elite,” Roberts said.
And it’s Raleigh’s chance to witness history.
DiLalla: 919-829-4835; @AricDiLalla
Sir Walter Miler
Pre-race music at Raleigh Brewing Company – 7:15 p.m.
Runing store battle – 8:30 p.m.
Run club mile relay – 8:40 p.m.
Women’s elite mile – 9:05 p.m.
Men’s elite mile – 9:15 p.m.
Post-race event music and food trucks at Raleigh Brewing Company – 10 p.m.