How Sir Walter Miler Became The Track Meet You Can't Miss


You can attend Sir Walter Miler this weekend at Meredith University's Track.  Racing begins at 8:00PM.  If you can't attend, you can watch the Sir Walter Miler live on FloTrack.  You can check out plenty of pre-race content over on SirWalterMiler.com including 31 athlete bios!

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Let's face it: track and field is not always the most spectator-friendly sport. 

"I'm a track guy, but track's boring," said Sandy Roberts. "If someone [says] 'Hey, you want to come to a 10-hour, all day track meet in the blazing sun?' it's like 'Yeah, I'm gonna go do yard work instead.'"

But Sandy, along with his brother Logan and friend Pat Price, have created a Raleigh track event that can convince many people to put away the lawn mower and leave the yard work for another day.

Starting in 2014, each year on the first Friday in August, thousands of spectators flock to the Meredith College track in Raleigh to watch elite athletes toe the line at the Sir Walter Miler.

The Sir Walter Miler is no ordinary track meet. It's held under the Friday night lights and lasts a mere hour and a half. It only features four running events: a pro men's and women's mile, a local club team relay, and another chosen race. But perhaps what's most exhilarating is when fans line up along the track outside of lanes one and three, cheering on the professionals as they round the oval in the elite mile races.

"We want to make this very different than any other track meet," Price said.

How the nationally acclaimed Sir Walter Miler came to be is a story in itself. It started back in 2013 with Sandy as the single racer, Logan as the pacer, a clock, and a sizable number of interested spectators.

Within just a few years, an impromptu local race headed by three guys turned into one of the most captivating track and field events in the whole country. 

Breaking four

4:01.

That's the time that haunted Sandy as he finished his collegiate running career. One of the most elusive feats in running for men is to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, first accomplished by famed distance runner Roger Bannister in 1954. And after running a 4:01 mile in college competing for Georgetown University and NC State University, Sandy wasn't ready to give up on his goal just yet.

"I always had a desire to break it," said Sandy.

So Sandy tried to set his plan in motion. He searched for races to compete in to pursue the coveted sub-four mark, but as a non-professional runner, races were hard to come by. At the time, it was either go to Europe and compete, or not compete at all.

But then Sandy and his brother had an idea in 2013: why not put on a race of their own in Raleigh? Logan, who competed in college at Baylor University, agreed to set the pace for Sandy the first two laps, and then Sandy would attempt to bring it home. Their friend Price, who originally met Sandy at a Bluegrass concert, pitched in to promote the small event.

It was a scramble to actually put together some sort of organized race. The three tried to invite more runners to compete in the mile race, but no one could travel to Raleigh for a last-minute affair. For spectators, Sandy and Logan simply invited a handful of friends, family, and former high school teammates.

The most important and obvious piece they needed to fit into the puzzle was a facility to host the meet at. Sandy approached the Cardinal Gibbons track and field coach hoping to use the facility at the private school. The coach and the school's athletic director gave him permission to use the track, but there was a catch: the Gibbons football team would be using the facility until about nine o'clock at night. Sandy and Logan would have to wait to race until after the team was finished with their second practice of the day.

But in the span of just a few days, Sandy, Logan, and Price somehow managed to create what they came to call the Sandman Mile. And word spread throughout Raleigh about how a local runner was attempting to run an acclaimed sub-four minute mile-come race day, hundreds of people showed up to cheer Sandy on. Even the Cardinal Gibbons football team stuck around to watch after their evening practice, curious as to what all of the hype was about.

"We're hoping 50 people came," said Price, "And three or four hundred people came, lined the track and yelled at him."

People crowded around the track in lane three as they watched an event featuring just one racer, a pacer, and Price announcing on a microphone. The mile began with Logan pacing Sandy through the first two laps, coming through the 800-meter mark in around 1:59. Logan stepped off the track and the lone racer tried to finish it off. A sub-four time seemed possible after Sandy finished three laps in a time of 3:01.

Unfortunately, Sandy faltered on the final lap and finished off the mark in 4:06. Although Sandy missed achieving his main goal of running under four minutes, he succeeded at putting on a successful race that brought out members of the Raleigh community.

"It's very much a grassroots kind of thing that we did," said Sandy.

Price's wife recorded the Sandman Mile on her iPhone and Price uploaded the video footage to FloTrack. People saw the video and were instantly drawn to the engaging atmosphere of the race.

"Athletes all over the country started seeing what happened," said Price. "They saw it was really cool putting people real close on the inside of lane one and then outside of lane three or four."

Runners across the nation then wanted to see a somewhat larger version of the Sandman Mile created, something that could potentially attract many more elite athletes and spectators. Even though the Sandman Mile consisted of just two brothers, a friend, a microphone, an iPhone video, and a race against the clock, other athletes wanted to possibly take part in a similar event.

"We started getting interest from athletes of doing this on kind of a bigger scale," said Price. 

The inaugural event

After the unanticipated success of the Sandman Mile, the Roberts brothers and Price realized they could potentially turn the event into something bigger and unique, still featuring the engaging atmosphere that made the Sandman Mile stand out.

"I think we realized that we had something special in terms of being able to connect with the crowd," said Sandy.

The three then sat down in 2014 and engaged in serious talks about putting on a similar entertaining track event, only much larger.

"We really talked about putting together our perfect idea of a short track meet, meaning having a good pre-party, post-party, and then just a couple of short races," said Price. "We all know track meets can be extremely boring and our goal was to get people out there."

What they came up with was a simple event outline-a meet consisting of a local race or two and an elite men's and women's mile as the main races. Their ultimate goal was to feature fast professional mile fields, in hopes of showcasing times under four minutes for the men and under 4:30 for the women.

"I think most people can agree, when you a see a sport at that level, it's really cool," said Price.

They set the date for the event as the first Friday in August. In North Carolina, the first day of the high school cross country season is around the beginning of August, and the three hoped to attract younger runners looking for motivation going into the season.

"We wanted to make sure all of the high school kids come out, get inspired," said Price.

Next came adding the other parts to the equation, but it took some convincing. The Raleigh Brewing Company had just opened up back in 2013, and what other way to make a track event fun than by adding beer into the mix? So Sandy, Logan, and Price partnered with Raleigh Brewing to host the pre-meet and post-meet parties they had envisioned. The brewery is just a quarter mile away, across the street from the Meredith College track and field complex, making it the ideal venue for the event. Price's mother and wife both attended Meredith, so his connections to the school helped him convince the athletic directors to allow him and the two brothers to use the track.

The group also was able to put together all of the behind-the-scenes elements, including prize money, security, USATF certification, and even porta potties. Additionally, they decided to make it a free event in hopes of attracting a larger community presence and spreading the word about track and field.

All the three needed then was a name for the event. Something catchy, something fun. After throwing out names leading up to the event, they decided on a name that was both fun and catchy that pays homage to Raleigh's namesake: the Sir Walter Miler. 

"[It was] just us sitting around brainstorming like we usually do," said Price. "Shooting down 40 other things and landing on [Sir Walter Miler] and liking the sound of it. 

Everything seemed in place to showcase one of the best track events ever brought to Raleigh. But of course, people had their doubts. The athletic staff at Meredith kept the three under their watchful eye, and people at Raleigh Brewing seemed doubtful that anyone would want to watch a track meet. Even Sandy, Logan, and Price weren't sure if people would show up.

"It was a pretty large undertaking and we didn't know if this was gonna succeed," said Sandy.

In its first year, the Sir Walter Miler did nothing less than succeed. About 1,500 fans showed up to the inaugural event, more than double the number that watched the Sandman Mile. And the hope of displaying fast mile times came to light-three runners finished in under four minutes. The last time any male runner had run a sub-four mile in Raleigh was 40 years earlier. To have not one, but three athletes break the barrier was a true accomplishment.

The Sir Walter Miler was not just a meet-it was an engaging event. Completing the spectacle were food trucks, beer, and the promised pre-race and post-race parties at Raleigh Brewing. Fans again lined up along the track to encourage the racers as ones had done previously at the Sandman Mile. And just like before, someone took video of the race-a wedding videographer and father of a member of the band Pico Versus Island Trees-and uploaded it to FloTrack.

"People thought it was awesome," said Price. 

The startup running event in Raleigh received praise from both people within the community and outside of it. Running website LetsRun.com called out meet organizers across the country, saying that the organization of the Sir Walter Miler is "how you put on a professional track meet." And even after just the first Sir Walter Miler, a partner with the meet came back with great commendation, comparing it to some of the most notable sporting events of all time. 

 "[The partner] said 'I've been to The Masters, I've been to the Indy 500, I've been to the Ohio State-Michigan game, this is one of the coolest sporting experiences I've ever been a part of,'" said Sandy. 

Sandy, Price, and Logan understood they had something really exceptional taking shape, something that was helping build a rock solid Raleigh running community. "We realized that there's something special to to what we're doing," said Sandy. 

Appeal on a national level

What really helped put the Sir Walter Miler on the map was a feature story written by Sports Illustrated about the occasion back in 2015. Reporters traveled to the event and said that it "provides [the] best glimpse for the future of American track." When people see high profile, national stories such as this about the Sir Walter Miler, it intrigues a larger population of fans and athletes alike. And for the Sir Walter Miler, that was huge.

"That was really what cemented where we are now and has allowed us to kind of continue every year," said Price. 

More professional athletes wanted to come down to the unique track meet in North Carolina. But to keep the Sir Walter Miler truly an elite event, Price and the Roberts' wanted to keep the cap at 15 athletes per gender, just one heat. Among the 15 racers, it's a mix of both faster racers and ones still striving to break four minutes for the men or 4:30 for the women. They also try to put racers with local connections into the field, crowd-favorite runners that add to the appeal of the event.

But even with all of the publicity Sir Walter Miler has received over the years, recruiting is key to convincing some of the faster runners to travel to Raleigh. The Sir Walter Miler doesn't boast the largest amount of prize money, so appealing to the athlete is crucial. Every year, Price travels to either the U.S. Track and Field Championships or the Olympic Trials, in hopes of visiting with some of the best athletes in the country and convincing them to race the Sir Walter Miler.

What also brings so many of the athletes back to Raleigh year after year is the unprecedented hospitality that they receive from the Sir Walter Family. Instead of staying in hotels when arriving in town, the competing athletes stay in the homes of local host families, adding a unique and welcoming touch.

"I think the runners also really enjoy the weekend and they enjoy coming back because of how they're treated," said Sandy. "I just feel really strongly that we need to serve the athletes well."

But the selling point for the Sir Walter Miler is the electric race atmosphere. It's something different, exciting, and electric.

"That's always going to be a huge part of our race and we're not going to change it, because the athletes love it," said Price. "We hear them after the race and they're just like 'This is crazy. It's the loudest I've ever run in at a track meet and I love it.'"

The atmosphere is just one part of what makes the Sir Walter Miler appealing to both racers and fans. That, combined with the before and after parties at Raleigh Brewing, the local races, and clever PR materials makes it truly an event in a class all of its own.

 "We want to make this very different than any other track meet that you're gonna go to," said Price.

Community connections

One of the trio's main goals with the Sir Walter Miler is to appeal to both the avid track fans and people who have never experienced track and field. Sure, the passionate running fan will come out to an elite, highly publicized track event, but it's about drawing in those interested in learning more about the sport 

"We keep inviting more people into that moment and they're realizing what a unique and special thing it is," said Sandy.

They've found many unique ways to do just that. After the success of the first Sir Walter Miler, the three co-founded Sir Walter Running, a non-profit organization that hosts a variety of community events and road races. 

Just one of the events they host each summer is the popular Pop Up Miles. Held at various tracks across the Raleigh area, the mile races are open to all members of the community. And at the end of the summer, they hold Pop Up Miles Championships, with fields consisting of qualifying athletes that met certain specifications. The title of Pop Up Mile Champion comes with a notable prize-the men's and women's winners are placed in the elite races at the Sir Walter Miler in August.

And Sandy, Logan, and Price have found even more ways to make local connections through the Sir Walter Miler. Sandy and Price host the Summer of Miles Podcast, which features more of the history of the Sir Walter Miler and interviews with competitors. Additionally, the Saturday morning each year after Sir Walter, there is what is called a "Run with the Pros" event at Umstead Park. This unique opportunity allows runners all across the Triangle to run with the professionals that raced the night before.

The Roberts brothers and Price found a way to reach out to the community, and they've also successfully affected the community through the Sir Walter Miler and Sir Walter Running. And it's not something they do for their full-time job; it's more of a hobby. Sandy, Logan, and Price all have other jobs and personal lives to attend to. But running and the Sir Walter Miler is something that they are dedicated to.

"[We] put the hard work in of making money through our day jobs so we can do our passion projects," said Sandy.

A race you can't miss

This Friday, athletes will yet again race through the tunnel of fans at the fifth annual Sir Walter Miler. The event this year features a club team 4x400 relay, a club team mile, and the classic men's and women's elite mile races.

The elite fields look to be the most talented and deepest ever displayed at the Sir Walter Miler. They include five Olympians, as well as North Carolina running icons such as Craig Engels. And as always, the meet plays to its Sandman Mile roots by featuring athletes still looking to break the four-minute and 4:30 barriers. 

One of those racers looking to get down below four minutes is Henry Dwyer, this year's men's Pop Up Mile Champion. Dwyer just started training post-collegiately and hopes that this year's Sir Walter Miler will allow a good chance to see if he has what it takes to run at an elite level.

"[The] main thing was to give this whole thing a test run, after collegiate running, see if I can do it," said Dwyer. "And I definitely think I can."

Ultimately, Dwyer's goal is to go sub-four, something he never did while running at the University of Georgia, but he is looking forward to enjoying the Sir Walter Miler. "I've heard so much about it," said Dwyer. "There's such a great tradition." 

Megan Mansy, a member of the women's elite mile field, has already experienced the Sir Walter tradition herself, having watched many times while competing for NC State. The Hoka-sponsored runner even raced at the event last year, finishing eighth. What drew her back to the Sir Walter Miler this year was the electric race atmosphere the makes toeing the start line exhilarating. 

"With the crowd that they have that lines the track, I feed off of that," said Mansy. "I love that so much."

She also appreciates the level of effort that goes into taking care of all of the athletes racing, from posting athlete bios in advance of the race online to placing them with host families to stay with when they get in town. "It becomes very personalized and you're not just some athlete. They care about each person," said Mansy.

Now in its fifth year, the Sir Walter Miler truly is a staple local running event in Raleigh. The Roberts and Price met their goal of taking what is typically a long, drawn-out sporting event and turning it into something entertaining for everyone of all ages and all backgrounds.

"It's taken a sport that didn't get a lot of attention and made it a super fan-friendly event," said Eric Gamble, a local high school track and cross country coach and avid runner.

But for each runner that walks up to the start line and each spectator that lines up along the clay-colored track, the Sir Walter Miler is not just a track meet. It's a community occasion that brings together professional racers, local runners, passionate track fans, and people who know nothing about track and field. One unified group is created each year under the lights on the first Friday in August at Meredith College, unified around a single moment, a single sport. 

And founders Sandy, Logan, and Price hope to continue to promote the sport they love in such a unifying fashion for as long as they possibly can.

"Our goal now, in year five, is to keep this going as long as we possibly can," said Price. "Because we know it brings a lot of people joy, including ourselves."

 


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