This past year, more than 7,000 individuals ran the 5th Avenue Mile in New York City. They ranged from the best runners in the world to a 6-year-old girl and a 95 year old man. In almost 40 years of existence, the 5th Ave Mile has become one of the most popular events among both competitive track circles and America’s casual track fans alike. Its sustained popularity is a result of things both manufactured and organic: 5th Ave is a stunning setting, the prize money given to the leader at the half-way point of the pro race (an attempt to inject pace), and the iconic distance itself.
For the semi-invested running fan two distances surely stand out: the marathon and the mile. The marathon is a singular demonstration of human endurance while the mile is a race that everyone runs in their middle school P.E. class. But relate-ability isn’t the only appeal of the mile — the duration of the event is also enticing. At a brief four-ish minutes, this small bite of spectating circumvents the common complaint that running is too boring an activity to commit substantial time. In the case of the 5th Ave Mile, a short race becomes even easier to digest coupled with a unique venue. In a setting as dazzling as 5th Ave, four minutes can turn into 30 before you know it. I can practically hear myself telling an anxious friend that “we’ll leave after one more race.”
Two summers ago, Tracktown USA introduced its new Tracktown Summer Series. The Series is a grouping of dual meets intended to increase the public interest in American track and field during the run-up to the 2021 World Track and Field Championships. The subtext was as clear as it’s ever been: track needs to get more interesting if it ever wants the public to care outside of the Olympics.
In its infancy, the Summer Series branched out of the sport’s wheelhouse in a variety of ways. Teams were (seemingly) arbitrarily designated to cities, an attempt to create fan allegiances. Athletes were drafted by captains: titans of track Bernard Lagat, Sanya Richards-Ross, Nick Symmonds, and Allyson Felix. The series moved from city to city, holding meets in San Francisco, New York, and Portland. Offshoot community-oriented events, like a 5K road race in New York, were held. The series even delivered a mixed 4×400 meter relay, an event that has been staring meet organizers in the eyes for years. Thank God they finally blinked.
As an avid believer that track and field should always be looking to improve, I can’t help but appreciate the Tracktown Summer Series. (Although not hearing much about it for 2018 is a little disheartening.) That said, I also think that track needs to take bigger swings to garner broader interest. The Series itself is inventive, but not in a way that naturally reaches non-track communities. I am under the impression that the best way for track to develop is to be derivative of, yet stretch the boundaries of, previously successful events. Importantly, the fan base needs to scale with this expansion of events. As a public event the 5th Ave Mile presents an approach to doing just that. Track needs more events that spill out of it’s well sealed arenas.
The next sentence is the one I have been building up to. I wish there was a beach mile road race in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Specifically, a mile running south on The Strand ending at the Manhattan Beach Pier.
First, let’s get the obvious barriers out of the way. Is it possible to block off a mile of the Strand for needed amount of time? Maybe not. The Strand is a concrete, punishing surface, not particularly inviting to race on. A normal eight lane track is about 30 feet wide. By my estimation The Strand is 15-20 feet wide maximum. Parking is a nightmare in Los Angeles, and formal spectating locations may be hard to come by. Now that we’ve cleared the stale air of criticism, let me explain why a beach mile pushes in all of the directions that track fans (and non-track fans) want.
The venue itself is emblematic of the place, following the 5th Ave template. Previously discussed hangups aside, there is a (virtually) straight shot mile from 33rd Street in Manhattan Beach, that runs south to the pier. It’s unrealistic to think that the runners could actually hit the hard right turn and finish on the pier, but a victory lap around the Roundhouse Aquarium would be amazing. Even as a backdrop, the pier is an intoxicating finishing location.
As a consequence of a captivating venue, there would be a heavy flow of incidental viewers. Part of the draw of a day at the beach is that there is always something going on. Two weekends ago, I went to Venice Beach to do some reading, and I spent 90 minutes watching skateboarders and pick-up basketball before I actually got to the sand. In New York, you stop on the corner to watch a bucket-drummer. In LA, you pause on The Strand to see a kick flip, or catch the brief flurry of a mile race.
The counter point here is that track isn’t trying to reach passersby. But why? Why would anyone who isn’t already deeply dedicated to running go out of their way to watch a race? Track won’t appeal to the masses if it’s not willing to open its doors to random observers. The same way that a person has to try a food before it becomes a go to, they have to stumble into watching Robby Andrews shred a four-flat mile on the beach before they invest in watching a 5K.
Finally, there is a precedent and infrastructure for this type of event. The Manhattan Beach Open volleyball tournament brings massive crowds to the pier every year. The tournament is one of the largest events in beach volleyball every year. I’m don’t mean to dismiss the amount of work that went into building the tournament to this point, or ignore the fact that Manhattan Beach is the Hayward Field of beach volleyball. I’m only suggesting that there are local sponsors for similar events (Los Angeles-based Skechers as an obvious choice) and that a free-admission event already works here on a large scale.
To think critically about track and field is to understand that there is potential for growth. Namely track’s competitions are not always sexy or understandable to the outside fan. Fortunately, track has iconic and burgeoning, events to turn to as templates of effective expansion: The Boston Marathon, IAAF World Relay Championships, Tracktown Summer Series, and 5th Ave Mile. As the world of track and field digs in and takes shots at cultural relevance, like the beer mile, why not take a bigger swing at an event with more public appeal? There is precedent, obvious sponsors, and an undeniable venue. A Manhattan Beach mile is begging to be run.