Unless you’re a big fan of wine, you may not have heard of Lodi, California.
The town with a population of nearly 65,000 is primarily known for its wine industry but often sits in the shadow of better known wine grape growing regions in the nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
“We still have a small town feel even though the population has grown in recent years,” said Dave Phillips, co-owner of Michael David Winery, Lodi’s preeminent wine-making company. “Everyone is very proud of what we’ve developed with Lodi now being recognized as a great wine region.”
While runners are much more likely to down a beer than a glass of wine after a race or training run, the blue-collar spirit Lodi prides itself on has more similarities to distance running than you’d think.
“For both running and wine making, it takes a lot of hard work, grit and determination to produce something great,” said Jeff Merrill, race director of the Lodi Mile. “Distance running and Lodi’s culture go hand in hand. Neither of them may know that right now, but we’re trying to make that connection.”
A Lodi native, Merrill first found his love for the sport while running on the local high school cross country and track teams. Those teams drew from what Merrill affectionately described as “a nucleus of nerds and outcasts” that over time banded together as a team while developing a fondness for the sport.
“We had a decent football team, but it didn’t match what our cross country team was doing. So it made us wonder why we weren’t getting any attention,” Merrill said. “It made us think what we needed to do to make this sport popular and translate what we love about it to let other people get excited about it, too.”
That’s the genesis of the Lodi Mile started. Shortly after finishing his collegiate running career at the University of Michigan in 2010 (including competing at the Maccabiah Games, a.k.a. the Jewish Olympics, in 2009), Merrill began contemplating about how to bring an elite race to his hometown.
But having an idea for a race and learning the logistical hurdles to actually putting one on were two very different things.
“I had no idea what I was doing when we started it. I just assumed if I put this thing on lots of people would show up,” Merrill said. “I was pretty naive, which helped in some ways because I simply cold called and Facebook messaged different pro runners asking them if they wanted to compete.”
The first two editions of the race in 2013 and 2014 were run out on a country road that cut through plots of vineyards, inspired by the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City that runs between Central Park on one side and city’s iconic skyscrapers on the other.
The remote location of the country road, however, made it challenging to get large numbers of spectators to watch the races.
Starting with the 2015 edition of the race, Merrill opted to move the race to the heart of downtown Lodi, which has helped the event become an attraction whether you’re a running fan or just out on the town for a few glasses of wine on a warm summer day.
“There are a lot of road races and track meets, but there aren’t many that are real spectacles that people go to like you go to a concert, movie or sporting event,” Merrill said. “You plan your day around it because you want to see a show.”
For the 2018 edition of the race, a big goal is on the mind of race organizers — a sub-four minute mile on the roads of Lodi.
Despite having the likes of Garrett Heath and the late David Torrence as past men’s race winners, the Lodi Mile has yet to produce a sub-four minute time.
If it was to happen this Sunday, it would be the first sub-four minute performance in San Joaquin County since Don Bowden became the first American to break four minutes in the mile when the Cal-Berkeley athlete ran 3:58.7 in Stockton in 1957.
Whether a sub-four mark is achieved, Merrill has grown the race, now in its sixth year, into something that is uniquely Lodi. Rather than traditional trophies, race winners are awarded decorative grapewood branches. The winning teams in the high school team competitions have their names engraved on large oak wine barrels, Stanley Cup-style.
For Merrill, it all comes down to athletes and spectators alike having an experience as unique as the spirit of Lodi itself.
“I want them to walk away saying, ‘Well, shit, that’s something I’ve never experienced before.'”