Craig Engels said it best when he described Sir Walter Miler:
“[It’s] one of the best atmospheres of any track meet ever.”
From packed stands to a packed track, the Sir Walter Miler allows fans to feel closer to the elite athletes and turns the event into a community party rather than an elite track meet. This is not to say, however, that the meet does not produce elite results. In this year’s women’s elite race, Reebok Boston’s Josette Norris led nine women under 4:30.00 in the mile as she ran a world-leading 4:25.9. Seven of those women had never dipped under that time barrier before. In the elite men’s race, Geordie Beamish of On Athletic Club led ten men under 4:00.00 in the mile, three of whom had never broken the barrier before.
What makes the Sir Walter Miler so special, though, is not the elite times it produces–although that certainly helps. Instead it is the closeness it offers to the fans, amateurs and professionals alike. In addition to the elite miles, the 2021 Sir Walter Miler hosted an Olympic Marathon Watch Party, a Coaches Clash mile, a Run Club 4x400m, and an “afterparty” at Raleigh Brewing, the same place where the Marathon Watch Party was held.
The event was free to attend, and fans were allowed onto the track during the elite races, offering extra hype for everyone involved. Each elite athlete that we spoke with, whether they had a phenomenal race or were left wanting more, commented on the atmosphere of the event.
With a hat tip to the winner of the women’s race, Josette Norris has been on a tear this season. Norris has been dropping personal best times in most of the races she has run, and she continued that trend with her win at Sir Walter. About the experience, Norris said that she “couldn’t hear anything but the fans screaming” and that it was unlike any other race she has run. Coming off of the year of shutdowns and cancellations that Covid-19 brought, these interactions with fans were especially missed and craved.
We at The Oval consider ourselves *big* Norris fans, and it isn’t hard to figure out why. Her kindness, humble attitude, and gutsy racing make her easy to root for.
Nikki Hiltz finished second in the elite race with a time of 4:26.48. It’s easy to see their impact on the running community, as so many young fans flocked to Hiltz’ side for a picture, a chat, or to tell them how much they inspire runners globally. Our chat with Hiltz showed why they are so revered as they were humble, grateful, and overall excited. After their first experience at Sir Walter, Hiltz said that even striding out at the beginning of the race was “so electric” and that the home stretch energy helped them to surge on every lap.
When it came to the men’s side of things, the transparent and electric Craig Engels was the man of the night in Raleigh. A North Carolina native, Engels had hometown hero status along with Raleigh’s own Elly Henes. The love the crowds gave for him was impossible to miss. From the deafening cheers when they announced his name to the throng of people in Engels shirts vying for a picture, the crowd surely had a fan favorite. Engels’ infectious laugh and kindness towards his fans of all ages gave some insight into why he is so loved — he took the time to ask about his fans rather than just talk about himself.
Engels said his goal since the trials has been to have fun as he planned a little tour of mile races around America. He marked another tick on his tour with a win at the Brooklyn Mile on August 8th, just two days after running 3:56.00 at the Sir Walter Miler.
The women’s hometown hero of the Sir Walter Miler was 2021 NCAA DI Outdoor 5000 meter champion Elly Henes. With Wolfpack in her family, Henes called Sir Walter Miler her “going away party” as she prepares to move to Flagstaff and continue her career with Adidas. Henes’ genuine attitude both in-person and in social media makes her a joy to cheer for as she is open and honest with her fans.
Following the race, Henes’ dad had her loved ones put together a video of well-wishes and goodbyes which was played on the big screen. When asked about that, Henes said “I had no idea that was coming… being able to see them and share this moment with them was really special.”
As she heads into a bit of downtime following her move, Henes gave us one last tip regarding how she keeps her eyeliner so picture-perfect through races (and maybe a few video-driven tears on the night of the Sir Walter Miler): “Waterproof everything. I spend way too much money on makeup and food but, you know, for good reason.”
We also had some time to talk to two of the Bowerman Babes in Sinclaire Johnson and Emily Infeld after their race. Though they both came up just a bit short of breaking 4:30, each of them expressed how they were looking forward to future races. Even if this mile wasn’t quite the race they wanted, there is still more to come this season.
When asked about their racing experience, each of them spoke to the electric atmosphere and energetic running community that Sir Walter Miler cultivates. Their positive demeanor and willingness to speak with each and every fan speaks volumes to the culture the Bowerman Track Club strives to cultivate with their athletes.
The June edition of the Oval magazine featured Eric Holt, who has become a bit of a breakthrough star this spring. His reaction to running 3:57.70 at the Sir Walter Miler was incredibly outwardly focused, as he said “It’s crazy that I’m finally getting into these big time races and I’m racing these talented runners.” His humbled response showed that he is hungry for more, and he followed up the Sir Walter Miler with a third-place finish at the Brooklyn Mile.
His gratitude to be where he is shows that he has a lot left to give and his willingness to take the time to interview with us highlights his character.
Not to be forgotten, Oregon Track Club Elite’s Vincent Ciattei has been on fire these past few weeks.
In every race he has run since the US Olympic Trials Ciattei has finished in the top three, something he said he was not doing in the first few years of his professional career. He finished second in the Sir Walter Miler, saying “I thought I was gonna win for like, two seconds, and it was great. But I saw Geordie going by me at 5000 miles an hour in lane five. But I’ll take second. I’ll take a PR.” Ciattei also spoke to the atmosphere of Sir Walter and how energizing (and nerve-wracking) it can be. He has some more races lined up for the summer and is hoping to collect a few wins to go with his Liberty Mile Title. Ciattei’s determination coupled with his explosive summer miles show that he has a lot more to give.
Furman graduate Gabbi Jennings made her professional debut at this year's Sir Walter, where she ran a new personal best in the mile. Following the race, a whole crowd of Paladins gathered around her to congratulate her on a stellar beginning to what we are sure will be an incredible career.
She, like Henes, is preparing to move out West as she heads to Boulder, Colorado to join Team Boss. Jennings’ wide smiles and gratitude at all of her supporters make her easy to cheer for, not to mention her success. Jennings said that the crowd at the race “really pumped her up,” which helped to take some of the edge off of the nervousness associated with her professional debut.
Recent Ole Miss graduate and current Brooks Beast Waleed Suliman ran one of the gutsiest races of the evening, putting himself in front for a large chunk of the early stages of the race. Though he didn’t come away with the win, he did snag another sub-4:00 minute mile for his resume and a continuation of his burgeoning professional career. He reminisced a bit on his first experience at the Sir Walter Miler, exactly four years ago when he said he was a “fanboy” and took pictures with the athletes who raced. He said being a fanboy wasn’t his proudest moment and that “it feels good to step on the starting line with everybody and just go out there and kick some ass.”
Suliman’s outgoing demeanor, healthy mindset towards running and love for Cookout are discussed further in the July edition of The Oval Magazine.
We want to extend a heartfelt thank you to the race organizers of the Sir Walter Miler and to the professional athletes who competed. Not once were we shrugged away in our pursuit of an interview, and we only saw athletes interacting positively with fans. The Sir Walter Miler is a special event in many ways, and it is made even more so by the fans and racers it attracts.
Be sure to try to check out future Sir Walter Milers and, if you do, look for The Oval Magazine, because we certainly plan to be back.