Millrose Games, 2009: Behind the Scenes, by Larry Eder


I arrived in New York Thursday evening for the Millrose Games, which happens on Friday night, January 30. This is the 102nd version of the Games, and this is the fourth building that has housed them. The current Madison Square Gardens has housed the meet since 1969, according to meet director extraordinare (emeritus), Howard Schmertz. who has been coming to the meet since 1933, when he was seven and one half years old, on the hand of his father, Fred Schmertz, the meet director from 1934 to 1974!

(The late Wilma Rudolph won the 60 meters at the 1961 Millrose Games!
Photo courtesy of adidas.)

Howard Schmertz, is a part of a tradition that barely exists anymore. Following in your fathers' footsteps. His father, Fred Schmertz, was the meet director from 1934 to 1974. Howard managed Millrose until 2003! When I asked Howard, how many Millrose Games he has seen, he said," Oh, about seventy-five!" His wife, Judy, has not missed one Millrose Games since 1953! The Schmertz father and son team managed the meet for seventy years, until 2003, when Howard made made meet director emeritus!

(Typical track spike, late 1920's, used outdoors-although some indoor tracks were made of dirt. This was an early adidas model. Photo courtesy of adidas archives..)

In sitting with Howard, it was evident, that while he has slowed down a tad, at his spry eighty-two years, Mr. Schmertz has a love for this sport few have ever seen! During dinner, with Greg Foster sitting with us, we asked Howard how many times Greg had won hurdle races here, and he noted, " Oh, Greg Foster won ten hurdle races, Harrison Dillard won nine." Amazing, two of the greatest hurdles of all times raced here that often.

My first time attending the Millrose Games was in 1986, when we had just moved to Pennsylvania with Rodale Press, after they had purchased Runner's World. MIke Perlis, the publisher at the time, had me attend the meet, and I was planning to run the twenty miler in the Park the next day. I have never forgot that experience!

Christine was pregnant with Adam at the time, and she was as excited as I was about seeing our first real indoor meet. I remember when they announced, " Ladies and gentleman, the Wanamaker Mile!" I had read about it for years, but to see Eamonn Coglan and Marcus O'Sullivan line up was pretty cool. That night, Sergei Bubka's brother had beat him in the pole vault as well! And to cap off the evening, Lynn Jennings set a new American record at two miles! As we walked out, I was able to introduce Christine to Coach Billy Squires, who I had met the summer before at Falmouth. It was geek heaven!

This year, Bernard Lagat is going for his eighth win at the Wanamaker MIle, a new record! Kara Goucher is running and the big guys of the shot, Christian Cantwell, Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson are here to compete! Add that five more hours of prep, college, open and elite action, and you have one exhausting night of track & field.

Howard told me the story about Paavo Nurmi running the mile here in 1929 and being beat by Ray Conger, which was a total upset, even though Nurmi was near the end of his career ( he would be banned from competing in 1932, accused of having taken money in a competition!) "When Conger won in 1929, most of the men wore hats, and the track was covered with hats after Conger beat Nurmi!" noted an enthusiastic Mr. Schmertz, as he dug deep into his storied memory for some great tales of the hallowed meet.

The Wanamaker Mile was actually a 1.5 mile race from 1916 to 1926. They shortened it in 1927, and held it just at 10 p.m. as it was broadcast live on the radio by famed sports announcer Ted Husing. That tradition has continued for the mile, now in its 83rd edition. The Wanamaker mile has been won by Glenn Cunningham, Tony Waldrop, Ron Delany, Marti Liquori and Eamonn Coglan, to name a few. Eamoon Coglan has the title, "Chairman of the Boards", as he won here seven times in the Wanamaker Mile and two times in the Master's Mile.

(Jesse Owens won the 1935 60 meters at the Millrose Games. That spring, he set four world records in one afternoon! Photo courtesy of adidas.)

Today's Millrose Games opens at 5.45 pm with the Womens one mile walk. The Wanamaker Mile concludes the meet at 10.15 p.m. If you can not be there to see the meet live, please watch the meet on ESPN 2 from 7PM to 8.30 PM on January 30. On NBC, on January 31, you can watch the highlights from 1.30 PM to 2.30 PM!

Most telling of all, over the past one hundred and one years, 122 Millrose Games champions went on to win Olympic medals! The best of the best have competed at this cathedral to indoor track & field!

Special thanks to Mark Wetmore, Rich Kenah and Global Athletics & Marketing for their management of the meet and their support of the sport

Special thanks to the major sponsors: VISA, Hersheys, adidas, Ticketmaster and USA Track & Field.

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