When Rachel Cliff beat the predetermined Canadian Olympic standard of 15:24 in a 5,000-meter run in June, the Vancouver native expected to be bound for Rio de Janeiro this August.
But after finishing fourth in the event at the Olympic trials in July, Cliff was left off of Canada’s team despite her preexisting better-than-standard time of 15:23.94. As a result, she’s headed to Raleigh instead of Rio this week, hoping to get her mind off the snub with a strong performance in the one-mile Sir Walter Miler race on Friday night.
“I was having just the best season of my life and was really enjoying racing and then to have it end with being denied a spot on the Olympic team and left at home, it’s an awful feeling,” said Cliff, 28. “I want to come (to Raleigh) and hopefully have a great race ... because I kind of need to finish the season on a high note.”
Cliff is one of 31 professional runners from across North America set to compete at the Sir Walter Miler, which includes one-mile races for both women and men and prize purses of up to $1,000 for each winner.
In just a few years, the event at Meredith College has grown from the brainchild of a few Raleigh runners to one of the U.S.’s most prominent and talent-loaded mile races — and they’re basking in the pre-Olympics track spotlight this month.
Quick rise to prominence
Four years ago, the Sir Walter Miler didn’t exist.
It got its start in 2013 when Sandy Roberts, a former state track champion at Broughton who later ran for Georgetown and N.C. State, attempted to break the elusive four-minute mile, attracting a crowd of about 500 to Cardinal Gibbons High School.
His time of 4:06 fell several seconds shy of the goal, but the large turnout inspired Roberts and a group of running friends to make the race an annual event.
In August 2014, they raised $3,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, convinced Meredith College to let them borrow their track and recruited a cast of 18 pros to make that idea a reality. After an eight-person women’s race failed to break the 4:30 mark — the equivalent of the four-minute standard for women — the ensuing 10-person men’s race led to the first three sub-four-minute mile runs in Raleigh since 1974.
The 2016 event will showcase some of North America’s best male and female runners, has a long list of funding sponsors and is expected to draw a crowd of over 2,000. Some runners were invited to participate; others reached out to receive a spot; and interest was so high this year that organizers weren’t able to accommodate everyone..
“We’ve always called it kind of like the Triple-A All-Star Game,” organizer Pat Price said. “But the word has spread and athletes seem to like the race, so we’re getting essentially everybody that doesn’t make the Olympic team. ...We’ve had to turn down plenty of athletes that, our first year, we would’ve begged to have come run.”
Has the Sir Walter Miler been promoted to the major leagues, then?
“That’s what it feels like now,” he said.
Four of the top eight finishers in the women’s 1,500-meter run — the approximate metric equivalent of the mile — and three of the top nine in the men’s 1,500 at the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this summer will run in Friday’s race.
They’ll hope to eventually follow the trend set by 2015 men’s race winner Robby Andrews, who since qualified to run the 1,500 in Rio.
Arguably the most famous runner this year is not one of the Olympics’ near-misses, however, but Mikey Brannigan, a 19-year-old from New York who has autism. He was profiled in an ESPN E:60 documentary last year and holds the International Paralympics Committee world record in the 1,500 at 3:50.05.
Friday’s race will also be the professional debut of Virginia native Drew Hunter, whose 3:58.25 mile time in February made him the eighth high schooler in American history to run a sub-four-minute mile. Hunter forgoed his University of Oregon eligibility to sign a 10-year adidas contract last month.
On the women’s side, Cliff won’t be the only runner to have narrowly missed out on a trip to Brazil. Amanda Eccleston, making her second consecutive Sir Walter Miler appearance (she placed second in 2015), was edged at the U.S. Olympic Trials by .03 seconds — 4:06.19 vs. 4:06.16 — for the third and final Olympics qualifying spot in the 1,500.
The presence of such top-flight talent will briefly focus the eyes of the track universe on Raleigh — via a worldwide livestream on Flotrack.org — as anticipation builds for the track and field portion of the Olympics, which starts Aug. 12.
“Track and field, they base their whole cycle on the Olympics,” Price said. “Every four years, you get this spotlight, and we’re happy to embrace it.”
Uniting local community
When the Sir Walter Miler ran its inaugural race in 2014, Burlington native and then-N.C. State track standout Graham Crawford was there to watch.
The 2016 N.C. State graduate and 19th-place finisher in the 1,500 at Olympic trials will be at the race yet again this year — but, this time, as one of the runners.
“This is actually a really important meet for me because ... I’m trying to run post-collegiately so I don’t know exactly where I’m going to be next year,” Crawford said. “This might be my last time getting to race in front of a lot of my friends and family and old teammates.”
The entire event is themed on direct fan-to-runner interaction, including a pre- and post-race party at Raleigh Brewing Company and a community jog alongside the previous night’s competitors on Saturday morning at Umstead State Park.
Local amateurs will also get their moments under the lights at Meredith College, with USA Track & Field’s official state championship and a relay featuring Triangle-area running clubs both preceding the professional races.
But the race’s calling card of fan involvement – which has sparked a trend among other races nationwide and earned the Sir Walter a feature in Sports Illustrated last summer – occurs during the main events, when fans are allowed onto the track to create a narrow “sound tunnel” of cheering.
With spectators leaving just a three-lane space for runners down the finishing stretch and cheering emanating from both sides of the track, 2014 men’s winner Ford Palmer (3:57.61) said at the time to LetsRun.com that he couldn’t even see that he’d broken four minutes until the finish line.
Price said Raleigh’s surging fan support for a sport that usually struggles to maintain popularity can be traced to the Sir Walter Miler’s streamlined offerings and inclusive sales pitch.
“One of the toughest things about a track meet is that there’s 18 events, and ... it’s really hard to present that much,” Price said. “If we’re telling the local community, ‘Guys are trying to break four (minutes) and girls are trying to break 4:30,’ and paint the picture that way, it’s pretty easy to understand. We’re really not trying to put too many things in front of people’s faces.”
For the runners themselves, however, Friday’s festivities are far more than just a celebration of the Triangle’s growing running community – it’s a highly competitive race to conclude, for many, their summer track season.
“I’m excited to go have the opportunity, but I’m definitely feeling nervous, so I really hope that, after everything I’ve been through, I still have everything that I had a few weeks ago,” Cliff said. “It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in such a deep field.”
Sir Walter Miler
6 p.m. Pre-party at Raleigh Brewing Co.
8:30 p.m. North Carolina championship race
8:40 p.m. Local running clubs’ relay race
9:05 p.m. Women’s race
9:15 p.m. Men’s race
9:30 p.m. Awards ceremony
9:45 p.m. Post-party at Raleigh Brewing Co.
If you go: Parking is available at Raleigh Brewing Co. and at Meredith College’s Faircloth Street lot. Parking and admission are free, but donations are accepted. No pets, strollers or alcohol are allowed at the track.
9 a.m. Community run alongside race competitors at Umstead State Park
Where: Reedy Creek entrance at 2185 Harrison Ave., Cary
If you go: The run will follow Loblolly and Reedy Creek trails through the park for 4 to 10 miles. Breakfast is provided. All speeds and skill levels welcome.