Sir Walter and the Quest for Sub-Four, The Story Behind the Sir Walter Miler, by Joanna Thompson


Joanna Thompson is an elite marathoner who runs for Reebok's ZAP Fitness training group. This past April, in conditions dreamed up only by Mother Nature, Joanna finished tenth in the elite race. After that race, Joanna sent us, at my request, a fine piece on her travails in Boston, "Racing on an Imperfect Day". We hope you take the time to read it if you have not, as of yet. Joanna captures the Miles of Trials and Triales of Miles, as writer John Parker made famous in his iconic novel, Once A Runner.

Joanna was going to cheer on her friends at the Sir Walter Miler. Here's her fine piece on the origins for this wonderful event. Again, our celebrations of sport around the world, especially ones like Sir Walter, show that the potential of our sport is endless. We hope to see more articles from Joanna Thompson, for, like her running, her writing continues to develop into a fine talent.

IMG_4271.jpegThe crowd, Sir Walter Miler, Number 5, 3 August 2018, photo by Jeff Benjamin

Sir Walter and the Quest for Sub-Four

Stop by Raleigh's Meredith College track on a Friday night in early August and you'll find the place swarming with people like ants on a picnic table. It looks like a scene from a football tailgate, maybe some kind of state fair. Most casual observers wouldn't guess the reason behind this odd congregation: a track meet. And a good one, at that.

Welcome to the Sir Walter Miler, the most laid-back high caliber race this side of the Atlantic.

Five years ago, Sandy Roberts wanted to break four minutes for the mile. At the time the Raleigh native was in stellar shape (having just wrapped up a solid collegiate running career) and hungry for more track despite not having a fancy shoe company contract: "basically, the definition of a sub-elite runner." Despite his talent, there weren't a lot of opportunities to get into fast races - especially on the east coast.

So Sandy decided to take matters into his own hands. His brother Logan Roberts, a distance runner for Baylor and assistant coach at UNC Chapel Hill, agreed to pace him for at least 800 meters in a time trial. With the help of friend Pat Price, they found a local high school track and picked a date for the attempt. The trio invited several college teammates to join the race, and although nobody was ready to spike up, they promised to come out for moral support.

Word got around. By the time the Roberts brothers got to the starting line, several hundred spectators lined the track. "It felt like an underground rap concert," Sandy recalls. And while the 4-minute barrier remained unbroken on that August night, all three men felt that they were on the precipice of something big. So they started planning for the next year, finding sponsors - notably Elliptigo and a bevy of breweries - and setting up an online Kickstarter.

In order to keep up with race details and expand their collective vision, they created a nonprofit foundation called Sir Walter Running with the self-stated mission of "bringing the Greater Raleigh running community together through innovation, activation, and inclusivity". In addition to the Sir Walter Miler, the foundation hosts a series of local "Pop-Up" miles, cross country races, Strava challenges, and a podcast (Summer of Miles).

What began as a grassroots time trial has quickly transformed into one of the most lauded track miles in the country. Each iteration has turned up stronger and stronger competition; this year's field was positively studded with distance running VIPs. On the women's side, reigning champ Amanda Eccleston went head-to-head with notables such as Lauren Johnson, Stephanie Garcia, and Sarah Brown. The men's field was no less impressive, featuring Olympians Lopez Lomong, Hassan Mead, and Ben Blankenship, as well as mustache master Craig Engels.

But the event's real charm rests in the way it manages to remain focused on community while still drawing such outstanding talent. Athletes stay with host families from the Raleigh area. They are also encouraged (read: required) to answer a "getting to know you" questionnaire for profiles featured on the meet website, and attend the Run With The Pros group run the following morning.

And, true to the race's roots, the athlete coordinators try to leave room for up-and-comers to compete alongside established superstars.

"At the end of the day, it's about going sub-4 or sub-4:30 for the first time," says Roberts. Athletes who do win a bonus cash prize. This year, six female and four male runners were eligible, including NJNY's Megan Mansy and the BAA's Jacob Thomson.

As the elites took to the track, spectators lined the outside lanes, creating a human hallway. Being this up close and personal gives track fans a true sense of speed - you could feel the wind whipping as the racers barreled past.

The women's race got off to an aggressive start as Sara Vaughn established a strong lead behind pacer Jamie Morrissey. Once Morrissey stepped off, the chase pack began inching forward. In the end, Charlene Lipsey of Adidas unleashed a wicked kick to clinch the win in 4:27.28, her first sub-4:30 race. The next four women were also under the 4:30 mark.

The men's race was won in an extremely impressive 3:53.86 - the fastest mile ever recorded on North Carolina soil - by Nike's Lopez Lomong. The real marvel, however, was the rest of the field's sheer depth: all thirteen finishers in the men's race broke four minutes. It was Sandy, Logan, and Pat's vision come to fruition in a major way.

After the award ceremonies, the winners diffused back into the crowd to talk and take selfies with spectators. Small groups of people lingered under the floodlights, discussing the feat they'd just witnessed. The atmosphere was relaxed, comfortable. Nobody quite wanted to leave, though the promise of the Sir Sandman Kolsch, a beer brewed specially for the event, was beckoning from Raleigh Brewing Company across the street. It felt, I think, like the platonic ideal of a track meet: a little surreal, a little inspirational. And ultimately, tangible.

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