Vintage one-mile race returns to Downtown

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In the world of corporate 5Ks, half-marathons, fulls and ultras, one group is attempting to revitalize a neglected distance in the running community: the classic one-mile race.

Made famous by Roger Bannister's first sub-4-minute mile in 1954 and perpetuated by grade school physical education classes, the mile represents an easily recognizable and relatable -- if cantankerously American -- unit of distance.

Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc. is hoping the association to the mile, the relatively short running distance and spectator-friendliness of the tight finishes will draw avid runners and casual fans Downtown to the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile and USA Masters Mile events the organization is putting on Friday, in conjunction with the Bring Back the Mile Tour.

Shunning the Olympic 1,500-meter distance and the almost-a-full-mile 1,600-meter race, the Liberty Mile is a vintage one-mile road race through the streets of the Cultural District. Starting on Penn Avenue near Sixth Street, runners race down Penn, turn right on 11th Street, then take the first right down Liberty Avenue and run back to Sixth, a slightly different course from last year.

"I've always adored the mile," said Jordan McNamara, a pro with Oregon Track Club Elite and Nike, who took second place in last year's race.

"It truly is America's premiere distance race. It is a beautiful test of endurance and speed."

A unique feature of these races is that the starts are staggered with the fastest runners going last, not first. Event organizers hope this will allow all fans to take in the exciting end of the race, which is certain to be a mad dash to the finish line. The top seven times in last year's event were less than 4 seconds apart.

"Last year's race was a fast one. The course was a flat point-to-point with only one slight bend around halfway -- ideal for milers looking to run fast," McNamara said.

"With a quarter mile remaining, I found myself at the front. I could literally see the finish, packed with a frenzied crowd.

"With 200 meters to go, I kicked hard, certain that I could sprint to the finishing tape. Unfortunately, my eyes were bigger than my stomach. With 5 seconds remaining, I realized that I had made the mistake of misjudging my kick. ... We few elite milers live and die by the finishing kick."

For runners, a 4-minute mile just has a connotation that metric distances can't compete with.

"It's just a cool distance, has been since we started running this sport," said Liam Boylan-Pett, a runner with New Jersey-New York Track Club who is eager to improve on his 10th place finish last year.

"We didn't think it was possible to get under 4 [minutes]. Everyone works to get under 4 -- 3:40 in a 1,500 doesn't have the same ring to it."

For Pittsburgh natives who have never seen a 4-minute mile run, Friday is their chance. The top three men last year were all under 4 minutes. McNamara posted a personal best 3:52.42 at an international meet in London at the end of July, and other runners are gearing up as well.

Races begin at 7 p.m., starting with a youth race and growing more competitive with each group. The USA Women's and Men's Masters 1 Mile Road Championships begin at 7:30 and 7:40 p.m., featuring some of the country's top over-40 milers.

The women's pro mile, for runners with times under 5 minutes, begins at 7:50 p.m.; the men's pro mile follows at 8 p.m., with a qualifying time of 4:17.

"It's way different running on a road. You have to be much more patient and have confidence in your kick," Boylan-Pett said. "It's a fantastic race to run, a great mixture of speed and endurance."

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Nick Veronica: nveronica@post-gazette.com and Twitter @NickVeronica.


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