New York’s Magic Road Mile Returns
As the Fifth Avenue Mile celebrates its 40-year anniversary on Sunday, here’s a look at the legacy of the race
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This Sunday, after being canceled for the first time in its 40-year history because of the pandemic, the Fifth Avenue Mile returns to New York City. It’s a race that boasts a reassuringly idiot-proof course: a 20-block straight shot along the eastern edge of Central Park, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the finish near East 60th Street. For the professional and amateur athletes who will be competing on the weekend, the challenge will be to correctly mete out their efforts so that, to paraphrase Once a Runner, they go broke at the precise moment they no longer need their coin. That may be the point of every race, but it’s especially acute in the Fifth Avenue Mile, where, thanks to an-ever-so-slight downhill in the second half of the course, the finish line can seem tantalizingly close with several hundred meters left to run. Short road races are their own special kind of beast.
Just ask Paul Chelimo, a shrewd tactician on the track who just won a bronze medal in the 5,000-meters at the Tokyo Olympics, who will be making his Fifth Avenue debut in Manhattan on Sunday. “On the track, it’s easier to gauge how much you still have to run,” Chelimo told me recently. “The roads are different. Sometimes, you got like 400 meters to go and try to kick. You get to like 50 meters to go and feel, like, uh-oh, it’s supposed to be over by now.”
Indeed. I have my own uh-oh memory from the last time I ran Fifth Avenue, in 2017. I felt supremely confident cresting the hill at the halfway mark and launched into a heroic push towards the finish, only to be caught by more prudent racers when I ran out of gas about ten seconds too soon. For such a short race, the mile can feel very, very long.
Two people who have managed to get it right at the Fifth Avenue Mile again and again are Jenny Simpson and Nick Willis. In 2019, Simpson won her seventh consecutive title (and eighth total) in a course record of four minutes and 16.1 seconds. The same year, Willis won the men’s pro race for the fifth time, making him the event’s all-time most decorated male athlete. Both runners have repeatedly displayed a preternatural ability to close on this course, saving a final burst of energy so that they can be a half-yard ahead of their competition just as they cross the line.
“The main advantage of a straight race is that you can pace yourself without concern of positioning,” says Willis. “You can get into the spots you want at any point without having to run wide on a bend.” (For a case in point, watch Willis come into the picture in the final meters of that 2019 race to take the win in a spectacular, dipping-at-the-line photo finish.)
While Simpson’s Fifth Avenue course record was set in the most recent iteration of the race, the men’s mark of 3:47.52 dates all the way back to the inaugural event in 1981, where Sydney Maree, a 25-year-old émigré from South Africa, bested a field of international elites that included New Zealand’s John Walker and Steve Cram of Great Britain. The first women’s race was won in 4:25.31 by the University of Oregon standout Leann Warren.
This was the early eighties. A prelapsarian Alberto Salazar was in the middle of his NYC Marathon threepeat. Road racing was all the rage and milers wanted in on the action. As the New York Times reported at the time, the first edition of the Fifth Avenue Mile drew “an enthusiastic crowd estimated by the police at between 100,000 and 150,000” that “formed a human funnel from 82nd Street to 62nd Street”—Wellesley College on the Upper East Side.
Back then, the event was officially called the “Pepsi Challenge Fifth Avenue Mile.” According to another Times article from that first year, concerns over “excessive commercialism” caused plans to feature two large Pepsi Cola signs at the finish to be scrapped, which, from a present vantage, feels endearingly quaint.
There have been other sponsors over the years. When she set a new course record of 4:16.88 in 1990, the American PattieSue Plummer won a brand new Mercedes Benz sedan, as did British miler Peter Elliott, who had already won a car the previous year. In 1997, the title sponsor of the Fifth Avenue Mile was none other than Donald J. Trump, who was holding the finishing tape with daughter Ivanka, when Paula Radcliffe (who had yet to make her debut in the marathon) won the race in 4:22.96. (As Liam Boylan-Pett recounts in a 2018 article for Lope magazine, the future U.S. president initially requested that the Fifth Avenue finish line be moved seven blocks south so that the race would culminate in front of Trump Tower, but the logistical nightmare of taking the race past the southern end of Central Park killed the dream.)
After signing a ten-year deal with the New York Road Runners in 2015, New Balance has been the chief sponsor of the race. It’s an arrangement that seems to have worked out well for the brand, given that Simpson, the undisputed queen of Fifth Avenue, is also a New Balance athlete.
Neither she nor Willis will be defending their titles this year, however. (Simpson is 35 years old. Willis is 38. Although neither runner has officially retired, both were already the oldest athletes in their respective pro fields when they triumphed in 2019.) Instead, the pro races on Sunday look like a potential showdown between the United States and Great Britain. Olympians Matthew Centrowitz and Jake Wightman, both of whom have won this race before, will be looking to spoil Chelimo’s debut. On the women’s side, Scotland’s Jemma Reekie, whose 4:17 personal best in the mile is the fastest in the field by far, will be looking to hold off Americans Nikki Hiltz, Shannon Osika, and Helen Schlachtenhaufen, among others. The Road Runners only released the pro fields for this year’s race on Wednesday, as a pandemic-era precaution, since last-minute scratches are more likely due to international travel restrictions and general wariness. Indeed, several runners slated to compete this weekend, including Reekie, Schlachtenhaufen, and Australia’s Ollie Hoare, will be doubling back from the Diamond League final that took place in Zurich earlier this week.
For his part, Chelimo opted to skip the Diamond League final to focus solely on racing in New York, where he will also be competing in the Dash to the Finish 5K in November.
“Every race in New York is big. It’s gonna be on NBC, so I get the Americans to support me racing live, which is better than me racing in Europe,” Chelimo says. “This is new territory for me. I don’t take it for granted, you know. I’m going there to get the win—it’s not like I’m going there to just run. I want to pass the message to the milers that I still got the speed.”
Can Chelimo get it done? Who will be the new women’s champion after seven straight years of Simpson domination? The answer to both questions will depend on whose race is over at the precise right moment—not a meter too soon.