By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission.
(14-Apr) -- On August 10, at Saline High School in southeast Michigan, a number of the world's best milers and 800m athletes will toe the line at the 2014 Michigan Track Classic, a meet organized by Olympic silver medalist Nick Willis.
For the second year in a row, Willis, 30, has helped put together a meet showcasing top talent on a grassroots level, hoping to garner interest and excitement in elite track. Featuring two races -- the men's Ron Warhurst Mile and an women's international 800m-- the meet program will be short but exciting.
Only in its second year, the meet is already growing by leaps and bounds. In 2013, an estimated 3000 to 4000 fans packed Saline High's stadium, overflowing from the stands onto the track's curve. They would see seven men dip under four-minutes for the mile, led by Willis himself in 3:56.57.
This year, the event will host a pair of professional races boasting fields with international medalists, Willis said.
"The hope is to have a sell-out crowd of 5000 people, after having a crowd of 3000-4000 people last year," wrote Willis in an e-mail to Race Results Weekly.
Last year, when the event was first established (called the Running Institute Mile), Willis's motive was to simulate a high level race before the IAAF World Championships in Moscow. Living in nearby Ann Arbor, Willis wanted a fast race close to home, especially considering he and his wife Sierra were the proud parents of newborn Lachlan Prior Willis, only four weeks old at the time.
"Choosing nearby Saline, was based on the huge running community in the town, and the huge track teams they have at the high school," said Willis.
After seeing how successful the event was and how much attention it gained in the community, Willis's motive in 2014 and beyond is to give the general public a chance to experience the excitement of elite track. Not many high-profile meets are held in Michigan, and the Michigan Track Classic is a chance to open the sport up to not only runners, but general sports fans as well.
"That is a huge part of our motivation now. We were blown away by the support last year - 3000 to 4000 people came to watch one race," wrote Willis. "It was the perfect storm of unforeseen factors that helped it be so popular. The location, the time of year (there is no track in late summer in the U.S.). During the spring, people are too busy to attend a track meet, but in late summer, people have a lot more time available to do family activities. And it was perfect timing for [High School cross country] teams to come along and make it a team bonding, and motivating experience before the fall XC season."
An added incentive for elites to come to Saline and compete in 2014 is the generous prize money, which was made possible by T-Mobile US CEO John Legere, a former miler and current marathoner. Both the men's mile and women's 800m will feature a purse that totals $10,000 a piece: $5000 to the winner, followed by $2500, $1250, $750, and $500 to places two through five.
Between the Ron Warhurst Men's Mile and International Women's 800m, many of Michigan's own homegrown talent will get to shine in front of their local fans. Among those entered are 2014 IAAF World Indoor 1500m bronze medalist Nicole Sifuentes, as well as 2012 Olympians Geena Lara (nee Gall), Nate Brannen, and Willis. All four are graduates of the University of Michigan; Sifuentes and Lara were inducted into the Michigan Women's Track Hall of Fame this year.
Speaking to Race Results Weekly from her current training base in Flagstaff, Ariz., Sifuentes expressed an eagerness and excitement towards the Michigan Track Classic. She believes the opportunity to watch a specially focused elite meet is something rare and unique, one that everyone could enjoy.
"Indoor meets, for example, you don't really feel comfortable inviting friends and family and people who are new to the track scene to come see because there can be delays, and there are heats, and you don't know who is winning. It can be confusing and overwhelming," she said. "This is the type of event that I would be really excited for someone to come who has never even watched a track meet. Everyone knows about the four-minute mile for men. And there are only two big headline races -- it won't last all day and there won't be a rolling schedule. It's a great way to introduce people to the sport."
Sifuentes, 27, was a 2012 Olympian for Canada in the 1500. She feels that exposing the general public --whether they are track fans or not-- to Olympic athletes close to home can only help the sport flourish. Creating personal connections between fans and athletes can be mutually beneficial.
"If you can watch one race and it's exciting and a great experience, then certainly I can see there would be interest in the future to watch another race, or come back next year and you know a little bit more about the race, you know how it works having been to this great event that is pretty simple to start and have no problem to understand," she said.
Willis wholeheartedly agrees. He hopes that with continued success, the event can drive greater awareness and interest in professional track.
"Most definitely. The key, in my opinion, is to only provide events the are entertaining. If you can only have one entertaining race, have one. We have the resources to have two great races this year," he wrote. "Hopefully we can grow that, but never at the expense of quality. I think it is also important to have a local star or two in each race for the crowd to get behind. Otherwise spectators have little investment in the event other than it being an exhibition event. I moved to Michigan from New Zealand, and I support the [Detroit] Lions, Tigers and Pistons. I cheer for the players on those teams because they represent something I am connected to - Detroit and the State of Michigan. This is what track needs. Having less races gives the meet and announcer an opportunity to educate the crowd about each participant, and giving them a reason to choose who they are going to cheer for."
Looking forward, Willis's vision is for the 2016 Michigan Track Classic to be held at Eastern Michigan University's Rynearson Stadium --which boasts 30,000 seats-- two weeks before the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"You have to have high goals, but I really believe the Michigan running community, and greater sports fans will get behind an event such as this if it is promoted and executed well," he said.
Cost of admission to the 2014 Michigan Track Classic will be $5, with tickets available in advance on www.freshtix.com/events/