When the Fifth Avenue Mile was YUUUGE
Two years into his six-year agreement to sponsor the Fifth Avenue Mile, Trump backed out.
By Liam Boylan-Pett, LopeMagazine.com
For Jake LaSala, mostly everything about the Fifth Avenue Mile in 1997 was business as usual. As the start-line coordinator for many of the New York Road Runners races not named the New York City Marathon, he knew how to handle the pressure of a race with multiple waves and start times. In the midst of the controlled chaos of runners gathered at 82nd Street in front of the steps at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—not to mention all the tourists and New Yorkers—LaSala corralled and directed runners throughout the day. He calmed eager youths itching to burst from the start line and patiently gathered Masters competitors who gingerly made their way to the race course. There was a media race, too, which sometimes brought in some minor celebrities. Plus, there was the elite race, where there was bound to be a sub-4 minute Mile on the men’s side, and the women were likely to dip under 4 minutes and 30 seconds.
LaSala, who today is the owner of a road racing consulting firm, was too busy to notice anything out of the ordinary—except that there was something about the start and finish line banners hanging about twelve feet above the street. Those were different this time. They normally weren’t so…
The race had a new sponsor this year, and the signage was not the blue with white-blocked letters that had become the standard at NYRR. races. This sign was white with gold, glittery lettering that sparkled as the sign swayed in the wind. It had a graphic of a runner dressed in a suit (presumably depicting the sponsor) crossing finish line tape with his arms raised in victory, too. The gold on white was difficult to read from far away, but it did make sense with the sponsor. In fact, it seemed like it would have fit right in at an Atlantic City casino.
The sign wasn’t something LaSala was worried about though. The sponsor had been around the start line at one point in the day, and he had been quite pleasant. LaSala had seen some demanding celebrities in the past—like the one who needed a tent for meditation at a charity race—but this guy seemed easy, walking around in his hat, chatting and posing for pictures with runners and fans on the street.
Little did LaSala know: In about twenty years, the sponsor would be the most powerful person in the world.
That’s right, long before he became the 45th president of the United States of America—and long before he said he could shoot someone on a certain avenue in New York and not lose any voters—Donald J. Trump was the title sponsor of the New York Road Runners Fifth Avenue Mile. Gold banner and all.
In September 1981, Sydney Maree and Leann Warren blitzed the twenty blocks from 82nd Street to 62nd in 3 minutes 47.52 seconds and 4 minutes 25.31 seconds, respectively, to win the first ever installment of the Fifth Avenue Mile—a race that almost never happened. Even though the New York Road Runners Club (they would drop “Club” from the name eventually) had put on many races in the city with Fred Lebow at the helm, the idea of putting on a Mile race down the famous New York street was somehow revolutionary to some in the sport… and not in a good way.
“When plans were first discussed earlier this year to stage a major Mile race down Fifth Avenue,” The New York Times reported, “Adriaan Paulen, then president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, threatened life suspensions for those who participated.”
Paulen eventually walked back his words, but nonetheless, what was supposed to be a simple Mile race turned into all sorts of headaches for Lebow and his team. The race being in New York, there was a worry that it would be too commercialized. In fact, Lebow scrapped plans to have two giant Pepsi signs at the finish line. There was also worry that the already crowded New York street would be completely overwhelmed with spectators. At one point, the New York Police Department reportedly threatened to cancel the race because of an erroneous report that two million people would line the streets on race day. Olympic champion Sebastian Coe, who at that point was the world record holder in the Mile, reportedly skipped the race because of worry that the race would have a circus atmosphere.
The race itself was anything but a circus. With 400 NYPD. officers on duty, the event topped the amount of officers on hand for the Simon & Garfunkel concert in Central Park one week earlier. Plus, with Pepsi tossing in $175,000 and The New York Times adding $45,000 of sponsorship money to the pot, there was plenty of prize money for the top finishers—amateurism be damned.
And the runners loved it.
“It’s just a wonderful spectacle,” legend Eamonn Coghlan, who finished ninth in 3 minutes 57.32 seconds, said of the inaugural race. “You can’t compare it to any four-laps-to-the-Mile track, but we all respected it. They were cheering us all the way down. It was like Bislett Stadium in Oslo when they cheer you around the track. Here it was like a funnel.”
Lebow loved the races, too. “Of all the events I’ve ever been associated with, from the marathon, to cross country and 10-kilometer races,” Lebow said. “I’ve never had this kind of tremendous warmth from runners and spectators.”
That warmth was not always there from the sponsors, however.
Continue reading at: lopemagazine.com
1997 race summary video below.