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Americans getting more bang for their buck with the mile

Tony Casey • Dec 24, 2015 at 8:42 AM

What’s the difference between 1,500 and 1,609 meters on a track? A lot more than 109 meters.

Even though the mile is longer, it might be the precise distance needed to grab the attention of American sports fans.

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human being to crack 4 minutes in the mile, setting a benchmark for human athletic achievement, offering both fans of the sport, and those outside of its following, a taste of middle distance running. Since then, in the United States, the mile has become a figure that just about any person can relate to.

Gym classes across the country use it as an ability marker. Whereas runners race the mile, or at least run the mile constantly, soccer players, early season out-of-shape baseball players — in my experience — and even football players run a timed mile at some point of their athletic upbringing, all knowing exactly where on that time spectrum they reside.

This is the reason the mile is so important to many Americans. Outside of the U.S., though, and especially at the World Championships and Olympic Summer games, for which so many of America’s best middle distance runners will try to qualify, the 1,500 is the international standard.

Recently, the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association decided to ditch the 1,500-meter run at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and have its qualified competitors race the full mile. The sole purpose of the switch is an attempt to improve the marketability of the sport of track and field, which, unfortunately, since the days of Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar, has dwindled.

Johnson City’s very own Ray Flynn, originally of Ireland, has 89 sub-4-minute miles on his resume, having started his most elite running at East Tennessee State University under legendary coach David E. Walker. Flynn says the mile is most important to Americans, and it should be. He keeps his opinions within the U.S., which is the country where he serves as one of the top track and field agents in the business.

Many of Flynn’s athletes, like himself, whose personal best mile time is 3:49.77 — that’s right, under 3:50 — consider themselves milers, but Flynn’s lot have run many more 1,500-meter races than they have miles. Flynn is the exact opposite. In his heyday, there were many more mile races than there were 1,500-meter competitions.

Remembering back to the day when he joined the sub-4-minute club at the Penn Relays, clocking a 3:59.3 mark, Flynn still recognizes the prestige that goes along with it.

“I knew I could do it for a while, but to actually do it was great,” he said. “It's a special club.”

And more people know about this special club because of the notoriety of the mile, thanks to the quick footwork of people like Bannister.

The mile joins the 100-meter race and the marathon as the most approachable and exciting events to follow for those who aren’t fans of the sport, Flynn said.

The traditional lack of mile races as opposed to more frequent 1,500s could change as marketing and the popularity of the mile reemerges. The vast majority of the America’s best milers are coming up through the NCAA system, and having the ability to run two track seasons — indoor and outdoor — along with their cross country season, should have something like a dozen chances to crack that 4-minute mark each calendar year.

Now that seven high school runners have cracked that magical mark — three alone in the past five years — there’s a chance that this momentum will continue to go the extra distance, 109 meters, to be exact.

Email Tony Casey at [email protected]. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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