How One Race Series Thrived During the Pandemic
Will Trials of Miles’ scrappy approach work after COVID?
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For many distance running obsessives, the phrase “Trial of Miles” will forever be a reference to John L. Parker’s novel Once a Runner, and the training mantra of the book’s hard-charging protagonist Quenton Cassidy. It’s an expression of one of the sport’s most fundamental, if banal, truths: if you want to get good at running, you have to run a lot. For Cassidy, the “secret,” such as it is, lies in “that most unprofound, and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.”
Back in the real world, the last fifteen months have given many would-be Cassidys plenty of opportunity to remove the rubber of their soles, with the pandemic apparently launching another running boom. At the same time, the tidal wave of event cancellations meant that, even as some individuals took their fitness to new levels, there were far fewer chances to put it to the test. Last year may have been great for solitary training, but if you wanted to race, you were mostly out of luck.
It was against this barren backdrop that New York City-based runners Dave Alfano and Cooper Knowlton launched the “Trials of Miles” race series in spring 2020. Initially, the project involved virtual challenges for competition-starved locals. Who could set the FKT for traversing the East River’s four iconic bridges in one go? After last summer saw a decline in COVID cases in New York, Alfano and Knowlton upped the ante by staging two in-person track meets for local sub-elites in October. The meets, dubbed the Night of the 5K and the Big City Invitational, respectively, were live-streamed on YouTube and sponsored by Bakline, a Brooklyn-based sportswear brand. There was live commentary as announcers mined runners’ Strava info to dish out random morsels on the mostly amateur fields.
“The races really felt like they were set up solely for the athletes, rather than some kind of ulterior motive,” says Brendan Martin, a New York-based runner who won the Four Bridges Challenge and subsequently competed in both of the October track events. For Martin, who works with Alfano at a physical therapy clinic in New York and is a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, the Night of the 5K was the first in-person race he’d participated in since everything shut down. In a sense, the event was a testament to the fact that the vacuum left by larger event companies who were unable to stage races during the pandemic had opened the door for others to try something new.
It wouldn’t be accurate, however, to claim that there would be no Trials of Miles if it weren’t for COVID. Knowlton, who works as an attorney at a small New York firm, told me that, prior to the pandemic, he had already secured a permit for an elimination-style mile race that he was going to stage in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn last spring. (The concept involved participants running a series of miles with cutoff times becoming incrementally faster until only one runner remained—hence “Trials of Miles.”) After his race was canceled, Knowlton was forced to reimagine what he might be able to do in the running space while working under the constraints of the COVID era.
“It’s hard to know what Trials of Miles would look like if it weren’t for the pandemic. That’s kind of where we got a foothold in the running community,” Knowlton told me.
After the Night of the 5K and the Big City Invitational (and a small-scale half marathon in Rockland State Park, New York) Knowlton and Alfano wondered whether it would be possible to put on a distance-centric track meet for a more professional-caliber field in 2021—an Olympic year where a number of high-level athletes would be looking to achieve qualifying standards for both the U.S. Trials and the Olympic Games. Their answer was a series of “Qualifier” meets that sought to turn Trials of Miles into a professional production while still retaining an athlete-centric ethos.
The first of these meets, the Texas Qualifier, took place in Austin on February 26 and 27 and featured some of the biggest names in American (and international) track and field, including Ajee Wilson, the American 800-meter record holder, and Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen, who ended up running a national record in the 10,000-meters despite warm and humid conditions. The YouTube stream featured multiple camera angles, a slew of sponsors, post-race interviews, as well as commentary from Chris Chavez and Kyle Merber of Citius Mag. The proceedings felt professional, but reassuringly unslick. The action on the oval was conveyed with a level of intimacy that is lost when major networks broadcast track meets only to cut away every few minutes to run ads or subject the viewer to yet another interview with USATF CEO Max Siegel.
After the relative success of the Texas meet—to date, the YouTube stream of the second night of the race has over 70,000 views—Trials of Miles put on two more qualifiers, one in Kansas City on May 1, and one in New York City on May 21.
Of course, if you’re not raking in ad revenue you have to find another way to make money in order to become a sustainable enterprise. While it’s remarkable that an upstart operation like Trials of Miles can, in less than a year, be attracting world-class talent to its events, it remains to be seen whether it can find a viable business model. Putting on a track meet with high production value is expensive and it can be tricky to recoup costs. (Knowlton told me that the qualifier meets cost between $10,000 and $20,000 just to bring in a professional production team.) Among other things, limited field sizes mean that track races can’t swell into mega events like some of the more prominent road races. What’s more, cramming in as many heats as possible to maximize revenue from entrance fees is often at odds with creating a compelling spectator experience. Even for die-hard fans, sitting through an all-day track meet is a tough ask.
“I would love to do a track meet that is one or two events and is over in 30 minutes, but that’s cost-prohibitive, even if, from a viewing perspective, it might be the most interesting thing,” Knowlton says. “The best way to make a track meet that makes money is to do a two-day, all-day event where you just pack the track. But no one is watching the D-heat of the 5,000 at 10:30 in the morning on a Saturday.”
Nonetheless, the plan is to keep putting on Trials of Miles events for many years to come. Other (non-track) races are already in the works, starting with another FKT-style challenge for a 3.6-mile loop in Eugene, Oregon, that will take place during the Olympic Trials, which are being held there later this month. A cross-country race is tentatively being planned for the fall. As for future track competitions, the hope is that, as pandemic-related restrictions continue to loosen, there will be more ways to make the business profitable. (Of the recent qualifier meets, only the New York edition allowed spectators—and that was capped at 20 percent of stadium capacity.)
“From early on, our goal was to grow whatever Trials of Miles is,” Alfano told me. “We figured if we focused more on creating this great experience for the athletes, the agents, and the coaches, then later on down the line, bigger opportunities can present themselves.”