Jeansonne: What happened to the high school mile?

North Shore's Samantha Nadel claims first place in North Shore's Samantha Nadel claims first place in the girls one mile run in a record time of 4:46.19. (Feb. 11, 2012) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

Valentine's Day is as good a time as any to ask whether America's romance with track and field has died. And whether the long-cooled grass-roots relationship to the sport's most historically charming event, the mile run, has anything to do with it.

"We're searching for ways to celebrate and elevate the mile and the sport of track and field," said David Monico, who brainstormed with fellow West Coast runner Ryan Lamppa to start a "Bring Back the Mile" initiative. "And we felt that one of the unfortunate things in the United States is that, at the high-school level, they run the 1,600 meters. To us, that's an abomination."

The 1,600, which long ago became the standardized replacement for the mile because of the National Federation of State High School Associations blanket use of metric distances, is 9.344 meters (slightly less than nine yards) short of a mile. For all practical purposes, it is the same race as the mile, born some 30 years ago as the country's high schools converted from 440-yard tracks to 400 meters.

But to go the whole nine yards (so to speak) with this "Bring Back the Mile" plan, "they'd have to butt heads with the national federation, which likes to have all their ducks in a row," said Bob Busch, the track and field chairman of Section XIII (Nassau County). "Many of the tracks are marked with the mile line on them. It's not that difficult to measure back from the finish line. But I don't see it happening."

To further complicate matters, in New York State, boys run the 1,600, girls the 1,500 (the so-called "metric mile" that is on the Olympic program.)

Tony Toro, Section XI (Suffolk County) track chairman, is himself a former high school miler, for Port Jefferson in 1966. "I like [the mile]. I prefer it over the 1,600," Toro said. "But, nowadays, with schools in such a tight financial squeeze, they're not going to want to be making any kind of changes."

A return to mile races on a regular basis "is a good idea," Toro said. "I just don't know if it would take off."

The discussion -- encompassing nostalgia, practicality and change -- is yet another reminder of the odd divide between track's place as a fading spectator sport, on a stage dominated by football, baseball and basketball, as opposed to a participation sport, with the latest NFSHS survey documenting that only football players (1.1 million) outnumber high schoolers involved in track and field (1.05 million) during the 2010-2011 school year.

Saturday night's reincarnation of the 105-year-old Millrose Games appeared to sum up the dichotomy. What once was the winter athletic formal on the New York City calendar -- spectators and officials wore tuxedos to the annual sold-out event that played Madison Square Garden far longer than either the Rangers or Knicks -- the new Millrose was dramatically downsized this year at Manhattan's 168th Street Armory, which seats barely a quarter of the Garden's capacity. And received scant media attention.

Yet the storied Wanamaker Mile remained in the meet's marquee position, the last race of the night and won in world-class time (3:53.92) by Matthew Centrowitz, a second-generation miler whose father, Matt, ran for New York City's Power Memorial before starring at the University of Oregon and on the world stage.

Furthermore, there was both a boy's and girl's high school mile on the program (the latter won by North Shore's Samantha Nadel). To the "Bring Back the Mile" boosters, the buzz over those races, at that classic distance, was the kind of thing that could expand track's allure beyond the stopwatch and tape-measure crowd.

The intent, Monico said, is "to launch something sorely needed for the general public and the media" to pay more attention. Monico, 30, ran the 1,600 in high school, "but my mom will say that I was a miler," he said. "The mile is something everyone can relate to. Everyone understands what a sub four-minute mile is. Everyone has probably run a mile in elementary school."

The new Web site, rolled out late last month, is bringbackthemile.com. Its organizers have acquired endorsements from such widely known old milers as Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori. Almost 58 years since England's Roger Bannister first broke the four-minute barrier, and 50 years since Jim Beatty was the first to do so indoors, there clearly are those in the sport who would like to be shown a little more affection.

But those last 9.344 meters are the toughest.

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