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Bringing the Mile Back Isn't Just for Elites

The mile is making a comeback and not just on the track.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Track and Field has always struggled to attract viewers, especially in the United States. The reasons professional running has never quite caught on are myriad. It's incoherent with so many different events. Meets are often slow-moving and feature an unmarketable amount of inactivity. More recently, doping allegations have cast a cloud over the legitimacy of any performance.

But one reason that has gained traction in recent years is that the most relatable event in track and field--the mile--has largely disappeared from championship meets in favor of the 1500m. For the American audience, this has one major problem: No casual viewer knows how long a meter is. It also doesn't make much intuitive sense why people are running approximately 3.75 laps instead of a nice whole number like four.

So, a movement has started to Bring Back the Mile. The argument goes that the mile better captures the imagination of the viewer than the 1500m. A four-minute mile provides a legible benchmark for excellence on the men's side with the symmetry of running four laps of (just under) 60 seconds. As they put it, "the Mile is iconic, classic, and timeless."

For the record, I fully support this. Even as a relatively serious follower of the sport, I find myself translating 1500m times to their mile equivalents to make sense of the performance. I can't imagine that someone trying to get into professional track would care to go through this effort and might just walk away confused and uninspired.

But, Bring Back the Mile has more wide-ranging implications. Currently, the dominant distance of a road race is the 5k. 3.1 miles isn't that long for many of us reading this blog, but for the new runner, that distance can be daunting. While working in a running store, I interacted every day with people trying to get started running. Many of them seemed intimidated by the 5k and for good reason. When you haven't run since high school, it takes a while to intelligently build up to running over three miles.

The popular Couch to 5k training program--which I recommended to nearly every new runner--takes nine weeks to complete. The first couple weeks are an exercise in patience as completely new runners are asked to run a little bit, but mostly walk. It takes a lot of buy-in to postpone a first chance to reap the fruits of a gradual training build-up for nine weeks. That doesn't mean it's not worth it, and it is certainly the only smart way to proceed with the goal of a 5k in mind, but delayed gratification is something none of us is naturally great at accepting.

This is why bringing back the mile is important not just for growing the popularity of the professional sport, but for encouraging new runners to not only be inspired to get out the door in the first place, but to keep heading out the door day after day. Running a mile is significantly less daunting than running a 5k.

That's why races that are offering the option of a mile run are taking off in popularity. In a post on RunnersWorld yesterday, they attached some numbers to that boom. The number of finishes in the mile has gone up 31 percent since 2012. Even as running has grown in the last decade across the country, that growth in the mile is worth taking notice of.

It's good that road races are catching on that the 5k distance might be scaring some potential runners away. It's in everyone's interest to make signing up for one's first race a less-scary experience. Obviously, race organizers and others who profit on the growth of running would welcome more customers, but the biggest benefit is for the runner. Even if people still take up running with the goal of finishing a 5k, half marathon, or marathon, the availability of mile races will make that long build-up more rewarding. Instead of going through the soreness and adjustment of training alone for nine (or more) full weeks, the mile provides a tangible accomplishment earlier in the process to keep runners motivated.

Bringing back the mile started as a marketing campaign for elite runners, but it has the potential to introduce more people to running. The mile can help grow the sport, but maybe in a bigger and more meaningful scale than the founders of the movement envisioned.