From Boston to Brooklyn, Is the Mile the New Marathon?

Credit: Photo Courtesy Tracksmith

Next to the marathon, the mile may be the most iconic of all race distances. Short enough to inspire an all-out push, but long enough to require stamina, the humble mile — 5,280 feet, in case you’re wondering — has stood as the measure of human running ability at least since Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier in 1954. In high school and college track meets, runners have competed in the mile for decades, but now the road-mile race is seeing a slight uptick in popularity. This weekend, the Trackhouse Mile is taking place for the first time in Boston, sponsored by the Tracksmith apparel brand, and on August 20, the second annual Brooklyn Mile will see more than 1,000 runners cruising through the Williamsburg neighborhood. Men’s Journal recently spoke with the organizers of these races —Josh Rowe, Tracksmith’s head of marketing, and Matt Rosetti, owner of the Brooklyn Running Co. — to find out whether the mile really is the new marathon.

What goes into putting on a good mile race?

Matt Rosetti: That’s not a sound bite question—that’s a tough one! You know, I just finished ordering a bouncy slide, so… [Laughs] It goes back to what you want it to be in the first place, which is to introduce the sport of running to a wider demo. And we felt that the mile is sort of the gateway drug of running. It’s a very accessible distance for folks. You can’t just focus on the fast people, you need to approach and attract a very wide demo, including the beginners and intermediate runners.

There’s a tremendous amount of work in terms of permitting and city, state organizations we also have to deal with, from insurance to EMTs to FDNY to emergency vehicles to meeting with your local captains and inspectors of precincts that the race course runs through, and your local community boards. It’s not for the faint of heart. My to-do list on my Excel sheet on my desktop now is 172 items long. It’s a crazy endeavor.

Josh Rowe: Having a great mile on a very cool section of road makes a big difference, whether it’s on a cool street in Brooklyn or certainly Newbury Street, where they don’t shut down the street for races. People are running on Newbury Street for the very first time—it’s a very cool thing. When you’re thinking about putting on a mile race, the cooler the race course, the better. When you’re able to run through places you’ve never been able to run before, it just gives it that much more excitement. Our fortune for getting to run down Newbury Street has added a lot to the cachet. People have been trying to run down it for years and years and years, and it’s just not easy to shut down. But now they’re shutting down the street anyway [for the Open Newbury Street fair], so we piggybacked on that.

MR: Think of how many races are out there — just general road races on the calendar. It’s a very competitive sport, and you have to be an entertainer, producing an event, curating an experience. Josh’s point about the aesthetics and the uniqueness of running on Newbury, or Fifth Avenue, or what we believe our course to be—that’s a huge part of it. There has to be a hook. We run down the main artery of Williamsburg, one of the coolest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, with the Williamsburg Bridge behind you. It photographs very well.

How does running a mile in a race fit into training schedules? We have the fall race season coming up. Does the mile need to fit into a plan, or is the mile short enough that you can run it and not worry?

JR: People often ask me, “How do I run faster? How do I improve my 5K time, my 10K time, my half-marathon time?” And one of the things I tell them is: Just run faster. You jog the same pace every day, so at some point run a little faster, try to push it up a little bit. And the only way you can run a faster race is if you train a little faster. A mile gives people permission to push themselves a little harder. You’re only out there for 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 minutes—you’re not gonna die, right? So you permit yourself to run a little faster than you normally would’ve run, and that’s pretty cool.

MR: There’s a great history behind the distance, right? But it still baffles people. When you ask people to run the mile, they kind of turn their head to the side like a Labrador and look at you with this quizzical look, like “Well, I’m not fast…” Well, that has nothing to do with it! It’s a mile. Just shorter than what you’re typically [running]. It’s a problem for us, to be honest with you. It inherently caps the amount of people that are gonna run. We chose it because we felt there was a niche opportunity in our local race calendar, filled with half-marathons and 10Ks and marathons, to do a short race. But the reality is it’s inherently capped because it’s not a bucket list item, historically, to run a mile. We’re trying to create that. A lot of people are—we’re not the first ones. But this is a marathon town, New York. People are deep into their marathon training, and then we say, “You’re gonna run a mile now,” and they’re a little bit confused by that. It’s a curveball for a lot of folks.

JR: But every single person can relate to the mile. Most people ran it in high school or in gym class. It’s something so relatable. You tell somebody you ran a 4-minute mile, or a 5-minute mile, or an 8-minute mile—they understand what that means. You tell someone you did 30 minutes in a 10K, there’s no context there.

Just in the last year or so, a bunch of new road mile races have been popping up. Can we trace that to anything?

MR: I think there’s been some resurgence in the US distance running scene with some great milers, like Alan Webb. I think some smart folks in the industry have identified [...] that there is a niche opportunity to put on a mile race because it’s not proliferated everywhere like a 5K is, so they’re seeing an opportunity to put on a race that will attract a different demo or attract more folks, as opposed to just banging your head against the wall putting on a 5K. I think the folks at “Bring Back the Mile” have raised awareness as well.

Do you think there’s any kind of marathon fatigue going on as well?

JR: The growth has certainly slowed, for sure. The half-marathon was the event du jour for the last decade, and that growth rate has slowed. Fifteen, 20 years ago, there was a million 5Ks. I think this is the time for the mile.

MR: You also had charities that were driving a lot of the road running participation statistics. And their distance of choice was always the 5K, because they could get walkers, they felt that was the most successful distance to get the most people. So you had a ton of 5Ks that drove road race participation numbers significantly upwards, and I think what’s happening now is a lot of these charities are realizing: a) how hard it is to put on a race; and b) you really don’t make that much money! [Laughs] There’s a lot of work involved, and not a lot of return—there’s just too many of them. So the pendulum will swing a little bit.

I’m a bit skeptical in that I don’t think the mile will ever be a bucket list item. For an office worker to come in after a weekend and brag to his co-workers that he ran a mile over the weekend, that’s not gonna get him any office cred, right? But then the onus is on the race producers to create an experience. We’re looking at it as getting on the roller coaster and run the Brooklyn Mile. You should finish, you should cross the line and feel like, Holy shit, I just got off a roller coaster.

I saw the Tracksmith course: the way you’re looping around on Newbury, you’re gonna get that same feeling. There’s gonna be a ton of energy.

JR: We’re giving a little bonus for the person who runs the last quarter the fastest.

MR: Ahhh! I love it.

JR: After three quarters, you pass by the start line, and the last quarter-mile is timed. So we’re gonna give a little bonus for the male and female who have the fastest last quarter. To add that roller-coaster feel, that’s exactly what we’re going for. It’s kind of a little adrenaline, but all right, last quarter, let’s see what you got!

MIs the swag different for this race?

MR: We give out a Run Brooklyn pint glass, and then it’s a T-shirt. This year, Nike is one of our sponsors, so it’s on a really, really nice Nike T-shirt. That’s the swag. You can’t charge what you do for a half-marathon or marathon, so you’re capped on your total revenues that are coming in.

JR: What do you charge?

MR: We’re charging $40.

JR: We’re at $30, but with our Greyboys [a Tracksmith T-shirt that normally costs $55], it’s $60.

If you could run a mile anywhere on Earth, where would it be?

JR: Times Square comes to mind—Times Square would be pretty cool.

MR: I try and run away from Times Square!

JR: Over the Sydney Harbor Bridge would be pretty cool. The Golden Gate Bridge would be cool.

MR: The cheesy answer would be the Brooklyn Mile, of course. The Central Park Reservoir, that’s my loop. Been doing it for 15 years. A mile up on there, at night, with a view of the city skyline is incredible. 

Click here to up for the Trackhouse Mile, and here to sign up for the Brooklyn Mile.