Steve Prefontaine, Roger Bannister, Mary Decker. If you were to stop an adult on the streets of an American city, these names would likely invoke at least a hazy image of past fame and athletic prowess.
But for many Americans the sport of track and field does not hold the same allure it did a few decades ago.
By the mid-1980s, tracks around the country had switched from yards to meters, and the most iconic of the American races, the mile, had lost its place in the athletic landscape.
For the third year in a row, Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon Inc. and Bring Back the Mile, a campaign dedicated to reviving the mile, will be the host of the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile in Downtown Pittsburgh, part of a continued push to increase the popularity of the mile race.
The event, which starts at 7 p.m. Friday, will bring together some of the top American distance runners and Western Pennsylvanians of all ages in an effort to introduce more people to the mile and to give professional runners another venue to compete against high-level competition.
“Our goal with Bring Back the Mile is to further raise the profile of and celebrate the mile, the present and the past,” said campaign founder Ryan Lamppa, of Santa Barbara, Calif.
Liberty Avenue and Penn Avenue between Stanwix Street and 11th Street will be closed at 6:30 p.m. today for the race. There will be no parking available on Liberty Avenue and Penn Avenue after 4 p.m. and there will be no access to cars in lots on these streets until the race is completed. Roads are expected to be reopened by 9 p.m.
While comparable races are still run on tracks across the country — a 1,600-meter race, which is about 10 yards short of a mile, is run at the high school level and a 1,500-meter event is run at the collegiate and professional level — the mile holds a special place in the minds of running enthusiasts.
Bannister breaking the four-minute barrier in 1954 is, more than 60 years later, still considered one of the most iconic moments in sports.
“There’s not an American boy that has ever dreamed of breaking four minutes for 1,600 meters,” Lamppa said. “Why would they? There’s no history in that.”
For the people at the heart of the movement to return the mile to its past glory, it is not just the history of the event that is so important, but also the fact that it is a distance that is understood and used daily by most Americans.
“I think the mile is just a classic American marker and distance,” said Patrice Matamoros, CEO of Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon Inc. “If you think of the significance of miles — whether you’re driving, flying, running, walking — it’s just something that is relatable.”
While Pittsburgh is not known as one of the country’s major running communities, the Liberty Mile has been a major success over the past few years, attracting some of the top distance runners and drawing many locals.
Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano, who has run a personal-best mile of 3:50.64, headlines the men’s elite field, which includes many of the biggest names in track and field. This is his first time competing in the Pittsburgh event.
Manzano was in the 1,500-meter at the 2012 London Olympics, but is just one of 11 runners in the field that has run a sub-four-minute mile. He will face stiff competition from the likes of Jordan McNamara, who has run the mile in 3:53.42.
On the women’s side, Heather Kampf is searching for her third consecutive Liberty Mile title, after dominating the event in the first two years.
Manzano and Kampf will be competing for a share of a $25,000 purse, with the winner of each race earning $4,000.
For Kampf, the event is not just another opportunity to compete in a high-level event, but also a chance to mentor youth who are just being introduced to the sport.
She and a few other racers spent time coaching youth runners throughout the week.
“The fact they are starting all these programs to get kids in the door and not only just getting them running, but learning how to live a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity, I think is so huge,” Kampf said. “Because they are the future of these big events that we’re hosting.”
Before the pros hit the streets, locals from the ages of 5 to 76 will get the opportunity to run a mile in one of five races, which are organized by age and skill level.
“Run it fast, run it slow, run it with your kids, run it with your grandma,” Matamoros said. “Just come out and run a mile, and it’s a fun race.”
Participants can still register for the race today at Fleet Feet Sports on 1751 North Highland Road from noon to 7 p.m. or Friday in Market Square from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. The first heat of races begins immediately after registration, and the event finishes with the elite women at 8:20 p.m. and the elite men at 8:30 p.m. The start line is on Penn Avenue between 5th Avenue and 6th Street.
In a previous version of this story, the road closure time was incorrect.
Alex Nieves: email@example.com and Twitter @alexdnieves5