Benefield: Runners rejoice, the mile is returning to Santa Rosa

The Santa Rosa Downtown Mile will be part of a four-day event, Sonoma Vita, headlined by Levi's Granfondo.|

Carlos Perez thought he had a bright idea for a new running race in Santa Rosa. But when he pitched a 5K or 10K (to be staged on the first weekend in October) at a meeting with Sonoma County’s largest running club, he was hit with stony silence. Crickets.

Perez, founder of event management company Bike Monkey and the guy behind Levi’s GranFondo and a slew of other cycling events, is a bike guy. So the less-than-enthusiastic reception to this plan for a 5K, perhaps on the Prince Memorial Greenway, in a room full of Empire Runners was a mite bewildering.

“This is the beating heart of the running community,” Perez remembered. “And the room was a little quiet.”

But races at those distances are a dime a dozen. And there are races on the Greenway all year long. No one’s imagination was captured.

And then someone said it.

“I don’t know who it was in the room, but it was, ‘Let’s bring back the mile,’” he said.

And let’s stage it on the streets of downtown Santa Rosa.

Crickets turned to something else entirely.

Val Sell, a longtime member of the 800-member Empire Runners club, said the room went from wary to almost giddy. After all, this group had tried in recent years to bring back to downtown Santa Rosa a mile race. But the logistics - street closures, official course certification, etc. - proved troublesome.

But Perez said he’d handle all that if the runners would handle the race - design it, get the word out, sponsor a prize purse.

“So we said, ‘You think you can get the city to close the roads?’” she said. “You just want to pick our brains?”

Yes and yes. You can almost hear her hands rubbing together in anticipation. The mile is coming back to Santa Rosa.

The Santa Rosa Downtown Mile will be held on Oct, 7, one piece of a larger four-day event headlined by the 10th riding of Levi’s Granfondo, an event that for a decade has drawn thousands of cyclists to Sonoma County’s roads. Newly billed Sonoma Vita, the four-day event will be held Oct. 4-7 primarily on Old Courthouse Square and include the massive bike ride that is the Fondo, the mile footrace, as well as a beer and wine festival, paella festival and live music.

“We are building something new in Santa Rosa,” Perez said. “We are trying to create big pieces to the whole thing.”

And a running race was envisioned as part of that. So the bike guy turned to Empire Runners to steer the ship on the footrace piece.

“They were really fired up for creating something new,” Perez said.

Or, more accurately, bringing back something old.

The mile is a classic distance. The club has tried in years past to lure speedy people to mile races to beat the four-minute barrier. But it’s been awhile. Sell and Perez think that, as a piece of the larger event and with a significant prize purse, the Santa Rosa Downtown Mile could grow into something that elite runners are drawn to.

“We are not under any illusions that it’s just going to be huge because we have a purse out there,” Perez said. “We are trying to build a model, build something that in a year’s time has the potential to be really big. But we also don’t want to half-ass it and not invest in the race’s future. We are looking long term with it.”

So there will be a $9,250 prize purse for elite racers, including $1,000 bonuses for winners who run the two-lap downtown circuit in under four minutes for men and 4:30 for women.

At this level, runners are sending Sell their resumes.

“Then we decide, how big do we want that field to be and what would it look like? Do we want it 15 deep?” she said. “What we don’t want is a whole bunch of people around 4:10 and then some at 4:30. We are trying to make it a tight, competitive group.”

Some obvious contenders come to mind, namely Kim Conley. A Montgomery grad, Conley is a two-time Olympian, the 2014 U.S. 10,000-meter champ and the 2015 U.S. Half Marathon champ. She finished 20th in 4:34 at the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile in New York Sept. 9.

But Sell said the race on Oct. 7 emerged too late for Conley to work it into her schedule.

That is the caliber of racer Sell wants this race to eventually draw. She wants to see people fly.

“The elusive four-minute mile has never been broken in Sonoma County,” she said. “We want it to be done.”

And she wants people there to watch it, to enjoy the spectacle. She envisions spectators “hooting and hollering,” even sprinting across the expanse of Old Courthouse Square to see the runners pass multiple times in the two-lap circuit.

“In general, across the United States, there is growing fever of ‘bring back the mile.’ It’s just gaining momentum,” she said.

That is music to Ryan Lamppa’s ears.

Lamppa is a guy who loves the idea of the mile race so deeply that he founded “Bring Back the Mile,” a Santa Barbara-based campaign to return the mile to the “premier event in the sport,” according to the group’s mission statement.

Begone, pesky metric-distance races, Bring Back the Mile means to “create a national movement for the Mile as America’s Distance, to inspire Americans to run the Mile as part of their fitness program and to replace the 1,600 meters at high school state track and field meets across the country.”

Lamppa sounds nearly breathless when he talks about the mile.

“When Roger Bannister broke four minutes, I’m not exaggerating, it was such an epic moment, not only in sport but beyond,” he said. “That moment is still a resonating, cultural icon. And it’s not all tied to sport, some of (it) is tied to doing the impossible.”

So while the club of sub-4-minute milers is relatively small, Lamppa and others love the mile for its accessibility: Nearly all of us can run a mile. Nearly all of us have done it some time or another in P.E. class. We have a relationship with this distance, he said.

“It’s something we understand,” he said.

Lamppa said there are 30 new mile races cropping up across the U.S. each year.

And that is where the Santa Rosa Downtown Mile hopes to attract attention. Not only are organizers dangling a prize purse for elite men and women, they are opening the race up to all comers. Runners can give the course a go and try to snag prizes.

And even before that, the downtown course will be open for a family walk and roll before “real” racing begins.

“There is going to be something for everybody,” Sell said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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