The Wanamaker Mile’s Glorious History

Bernard Lagat is the king of the Wanamaker Mile. Photo; IAAF

James J. Connolly won the inaugural event in 1926.

From: NYRR Media

Last year, New York Road Runners sponsored the men’s Wanamaker Mile for the first time. Matthew Centrowitz took charge to win his professional debut at the distance in 3:53.92.

On Saturday night, Centrowitz will return to the New Balance Track & Field Center at the Armory for the 106th Millrose Games, not only to defend his NYRR Wanamaker Mile title but also to chase Bernard Lagat’s meet record of 3:52.87.

It could be yet another entry in the long and lively logbook of the race, which in its 87 years has featured the best milers on the planet, world indoor records, revenge, a last-lap tussle, and a race that took 10 months to decide.

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It began in 1926, when the 10-year-old Wanamaker 1.5-Mile Run was shortened and the Wanamaker Mile, named after the department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker, was born. Winning the first edition of the race was James J. Connolly, in 4:17.20. Three years later, the great Paavo Nurmi—owner of 12 Olympic medals, nine of them gold—lined up, only to be beaten by Ray Conger of the Illinois Athletic Club. “The band struck up ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever,’ men and women stamped and cheered, officials patted each other on the back and threw derby hats into the air,” wrote Jesse Abramson in the morning Herald-Tribune, according to a recounting in The Wanamaker Millrose Story, a book written by longtime meet director Fred Schmertz and published in 1967. Schmertz’s son, Howard, would take over as meet director in 1975.

In 1932, on the 25th anniversary of the meet, Gene Venzke of the University of Pennsylvania won in a world indoor record time of 4:11.2—the first of four set in the Wanamaker’s history— but it was the next year that ushered in a new era. In 1933, Glenn Cunningham, whose legs had been severely burned in a schoolhouse fire when he was 8 years old, won the first of his six Wanamaker Miles (1933–1935, 1937–1939). Even the gap in 1936 has a story behind it: In a race the week before Millrose, some observers thought that Cunningham should have been disqualified for bumping Joe Mangan. Instead, he was named the winner. Mangan vowed to avenge his defeat, and did.

Then came what truly must be the longest mile ever run. After protests and reversals, it took a vote by the Amateur Athletics Union 10 months after the 1950 Wanamaker Mile to finally declare a winner after Don Gerhmann of Wisconsin and Fred Wilt of the New York Athletic Club finished in a dead heat, with each given a time of 4:09.3. The decision allowed Gerhmann to notch four consecutive wins from 1949 to 1952, a feat that would be matched by Ireland’s Ron Delany from 1956 to 1959.

The year 1955 brought what race director emeritus Howard Schmertz, on the 100th anniversary of Millrose in 2007, called his most memorable Wanamaker, in which Denmark’s Gunnar Nielsen broke the world indoor record with a 4:03.6 win but hardly anyone noticed. That’s because, behind him, Americans Wes Santee and Freddy Dwyer wrestled their way across the finish line after Dwyer tried to pass Santee on the inside as they rounded the final turn.

The first Wanamaker under four minutes was recorded in 1974, when Tony Waldrop of the University of Carolina passed Marty Liquori on the last lap to win in 3:59.7.

Then along came Eamonn Coghlan. The great Irish indoor miler would win his first wooden-track Wanamaker in 1977, after a last-lap sprint against Wilson Waigwa of Kenya and world record-holder Filbert Bayi of Tanzania. In 1981, Coghlan notched his fourth win in a meet-record 3:53.0, which would hold up for 24 years. Coghlan would go on to win again in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1987 to become known as “The Chairman of the Boards.” His record of seven victories would stand for 23 years.

In 1992, another Irishman, Marcus O’Sullivan, won his fifth Wanamaker in seven years; in 2001, Bernard Lagat, then of Kenya, won his first.

RELATED: 5 Questions With Bernard Lagat

Lagat, who became an American citizen in 2004, broke Coghlan’s meet record in 2005, running 3:52.87 in a solo chase. In 2010, the new “President of the Boards” won for a record eighth time, with Coghlan there to congratulate him.

And if Centrowitz breaks the meet record on Saturday, Lagat can emulate Coghlan. The two-time Olympic medalist will be in the house, competing in the two-mile.

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