Bringing back the Mag Miles!


Above:  Greg Kalinowski, who ran at Eastern Michigan and then trained with Nick Willis in Ann Arbor as part of Ron Warhurst’s group, wins the 2015 Mag Miles at Saint Ignatius College Prep.  Loyola’s Sam Penzenstadler and St. Olaf’s Paul Escher, NCAA Division III 1500 champion, chase him through the guantlet finish.  Kalinowski went on to win the Polish national 1500 championship last summer.

The following story appeared in the latest and, sadly, final edition of the Cross Country Journal.  Thank you to Knowles Dougherty for his labor of love on that publication and for his encouragement and support in writing this story!  It has been a while since I have written anything I could use on this blog.

Saint Ignatius College Prep is located just southwest of downtown Chicago, blocks from where the O’Leary cow kicked over the lantern,  in a building so ornate inside and out that students sometimes call it “Hogwarts.”  We have a regular 1.5 mile run each way to the Sears Tower, officially the Willis Tower, of course, and that building and the city skyline tower above a row of tall trees on the east end of the campus—and our track.  The black track and green field-turf athletic field nestle into what is actually a grove of trees behind two blocks of buildings along Taylor Street and Chicago’s Little Italy.

It is a spectacular spot, which we sometimes forget because we practice there every day.

In the summer of 2014 the school administration decided that Friday night home football games would provide a boost to school spirit and a sagging program, and so they added towering light poles at the four corners of the newly renovated Mailliard Track and Fornelli ’51 Field.

We embellished the next part of the story just a little bit in a press release announcing our new event:

“When they put up light towers around our track last summer, the idea popped into my head, just like in the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’” said Saint Ignatius boys track coach Ed Ernst, one of the Magnificent Miles race organizers.  “Imagine a full night of mile races in Chicago under the lights!”

On Friday night, June 5, 2015, Saint Ignatius College Prep inaugurated a new event in the post-season high school and collegiate distance runner track season for the Chicago area—and a new event to kick off the elite summer professional calendar.   We organized a night of one-mile races in our spectacular setting, under the lights and against the backdrop of a Chicago skyline just a mile away.  Spectators watched the races “gauntlet-style,” standing right on the track.

Our event followed just a day after the much more established St. Louis event, the Nike-sponsored Festival of Miles, where Grant Fisher ran 3:59.38 to become the seventh high school runner to run a sub four-minute.

It was actually a surprise when we realized that we could bill our Chicago event as an assault on the first-ever outdoor four-minute mile in Chicago history.

Loyola University’s Sam Penzenstadler had ran 3 minutes and 58.21 seconds at Notre Dame’s indoor Meyo Mile in 2014, a Chicago runner breaking the barrier in nearby South Bend.  Loyola’s Tom O’Hara, also a Saint Ignatius alumnus, set his world record indoor mile of 3:56.4 at the Chicago Stadium on March 6, 1964.  Jim Spivey ran 3:59.4 outdoors in the nearby Chicago suburb of Naperville in 1994 at a North Central College meet.

But our research did not turn up a single official mile under four minutes outdoors run in the borders of the Second City.

We also conceived the event as something that would bring youth, high school, collegiate, and professional runners together in one venue—something that seldom ever happens.  Illinois has strong collegiate track and field traditions at Loyola, the University of Chicago, North Central College, and the University of Illinois, to name a few.  The Illinois High School Athletics state championship meet at the end of May at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston is one of the best high school meets in the country, year in and year out.  Many of the stars of that meet go on to collegiate careers, and some go on to professional success.

But once the high school state meet stars go to college, their younger high school teammates and their fans almost never get to see them run again, especially if they go to college out of state.

Working with assistant track and cross country coach Nate McPherson, co-director of the meet, we began our planning with what we know best—assembling a high school field.  We wanted it to be an elite meet, with top runners—but we also wanted some numbers, which we thought would bring fans, friends, and family as spectators.  Assistant coach Steven Bugarin came up with the idea of a flight mile.   We would recruit three-runner teams from ten to fifteen schools and have them race in flights—number ones against number ones, twos against twos, threes against threes.  Then we would score the flights cross country style—low score wins.

We successfully ran the meet with twelve boys’ flight teams—but no girls’ teams.  We felt badly about this, but part of the problem is that we coach boys and we know boys teams and coaches.  Note for next year:  Recruit a girls coach to build the girls field.

We also recruited a high school freshman mile, which has been a successful event in other area post-season meets.

Finally, we assembled a post-season elite mile, with top high school runners, boys and girls.  We ended up with two heats of boy runners, one for the girls.

Building professional and collegiate races proved more difficult.  We had hoped to run multiple heats.  In the end we ended up with one heat for collegiate and professional men and one for the women.

We sent out a batch of emails to college coaches in March, and we got one enthusiastic response from the University of Illinois coach Jake Stewart.  His ace runner Bryce Basting had run 4:02 indoors for a mile when an injury sidelined him.  He was redshirting in the spring, and he might be looking for a fast race right around NCAA championship week.  Stewart figured he might also have a few other Chicago-area runners who would not qualify for NCAAs but would want one more race.

So we started shopping  Bryce Basting’s name to a list of runners that included Lex Williams, former Michigan runner who was coaching at Illinois State University.  Williams had run 4:01 at Nick Willis’s Michigan Mile the previous summer, and he was looking for a race to start his summer, yes.  And Williams was looking for a race for red-shirting Illinois State runner Kelly McShea.  So we recruited two elite runners with one email.

Once we got our web site up and running,, and started recruiting by word of mouth at track meets, some more names came in:  Andrew Nelson, back in Geneva after completing college at Syracuse, where he ran close to 4:00 in the mile, signed up online.

A friend and Ignatius alumnus named Tom Coyne, formerly an administrator at Western Michigan University, had to remind me several times to get in contact with Nick Willis, whose Michigan Mile run was a little bit like the event we were constructing.  Coyne provided me with email addresses and phone numbers for Willis and Ron Warhurst.   I finally got an email off to Willis, and his response was supportive and polite.  His training and competition schedule was pretty tight; he was aiming, of course, at the World Championships 1500 in August.   “Congrats on getting this event off the ground!!!” he wrote.  “At this stage my plan is to race sparingly in this world championship year, and will start my racing on June 13th in NYC.  If I talk to anyone looking for a race, I will be sure to let them know about your event.”

Two weeks before our event, Willis came through.  He training partner Greg Kalinowski was looking for one more race before returning home to Poland after five years in the United States.  Kalinowski , formerly junior national 1500 champ in Poland, ran at Eastern Michigan before joining Ron Warhurst’s training group in Ann Arbor.  Willis figured he was ready to break 4:00 in the mile.  By the way, were we offering any prize money?

We did have prize money–$500 for first, $300 for second, $100 for third.  More to the point, however, we could send Kalinowski a train ticket to bring him in from Ann Arbor and book him a room in Chicago for the night.  He would be leaving just a few days later for Poland, and a race in Chicago, a big Polish town, after all, seemed like a good fit.

We had one more difficult group to recruit.  One goal of our race was put some of our local collegiate stars on the track for the current high schoolers to watch.  Our list of possible runners included Saint Ignatius alumnus and Stanford runner Jack Keelan, who was Illinois cross country, 1600, and 3200 state champ in 2012-13; 2011-12 Illinois cross country champ and 1600 champ Leland Later, from New Trier High School and now from the University of California-Berkeley; Will Crocker of Belvidere North and the University of Missouri; and Michael Clevenger, 2011-12 state champ at the 2A level in Illinois in cross country, 1600, and 3200, from MacArthur High School, now at Notre Dame.  We also thought it would be great to recruit Sam Penzenstadler from Loyola, who hails from Wisconsin—close enough to Chicago.

But recruiting these guys in early May was a sensitive project:  They all had big hopes for NCAA qualification.  We had to invite them to run in Chicago in early June, while wishing them the best at NCAA regionals in mid-May.  But they could only run our race if they failed at the regional.

From the group, only Clevenger, as it turned out, made it through to NCAA nationals.  Keelan, who missed qualifying in the 5000 by just one spot, still had to decline because Stanford was still in school; he would be taking his finals.  But Later, Crocker, and Penzenstadler signed on quickly after they missed out at regionals.

Finally, on a lark, we made one more pitch, sending an email to St. Olaf coach Phil Lundin.  I had interviewed Lundin for another article in Cross Country Journal.  His team featured four of the top ten NCAA Division III 1500 meter runners in the country.  D III nationals took place two weeks before our event in May.  Maybe one of his guys would be interested in coming to Chicago for another race?

It was a big surprise when I got a return email from Paul Escher, D III national champion at 1500, asking for a spot in our meet.  No, he assured me, we could not help him with transportation or housing costs.  D III rules don’t allow that kind of support, even in the summer.  But we would see him on the starting line on June 5th.

The night of June 5th turned out to be a little bit cold for the season—and Chicago winds were blowing a little bit hard.

Performances weren’t quite as fast as we hoped in any of events.

But as race organizers, we felt a tremendous response from the runners in terms of positive energy.  Our announcer, Billy Poole-Harris who coaches at nearby Whitney Young High School, introduced our elite high school milers one by one before their races, as they ran up the track from the 100-meter start to the finish.  The spectators in the gauntlet crowd on the track cheered wildly.

The winner of the high school boys mile was Sean Torpy of Sandburg in 4:18.35.  Conner Madell of Lyons Township finished second in 4:19.99. Brooke Wilson of Prospect (5:03.56) outran Audrey Ernst of St. Charles (5:07.22) in the girls high school mile. In the women’s collegiate and professional mile, Jessica Watychowicz of the Wisconsin Runners won the women’s race in 4:54.88.  She overtook second-place finisher Alyvia Clark (4:56.71), running unattached after a career at Loyola, with a strong kick over the last 200 meters.  “The crowd support was amazing,” said Watychowicz.

The main event of the night, of course, was the men’s mile—and their attempt to break the 4:00 minute barrier.

With 200 meters to go Grzegorz Kalinowski was literally right on time.  The Mailliard track stadium clock at Saint Ignatius College Prep blinked 3 minutes and 30 seconds.  With a 29-second 200 Kalinowski would become the first runner in history to break 4:00-minutes outdoors on a Chicago city track.

He ran a 34-second last 200.

“My coach is going to make fun of me,” said Kalinowski, who runs for former University of Michigan coach Ron Warhurst’s Very Nice Track club out of Ann Arbor, shaking his head after the race.  “That was really slow the last 100 meters.”

Kalinowski finished in 4 minutes and 4.07 seconds.   Closing fast in the last 200 meters, recent Loyola University graduate Sam Penzenstadler was second in 4:05.37.  Paul Escher of St. Olaf College finished third in 4:05.37, with Lex Williams of Brooks Running fourth in 4:05.63.

As the race professionals, Kalinowski took home the $500 first prize, Penzenstadler $300, and Williams $100.

Leland Later was fifth in 4:06.21, with Will Crocker sixth in 4:09.20.

The meet crowd, as it happened, included Saint Ignatius and Loyola University alumnus Tom O’Hara.   It was a busy night, but we had a few minutes to talk.  I wanted to confirm something with O’Hara.  Our research into sub-4:00 minute miles in Chicago, especially an outdoor sub-4:00 mile, had turned up a story.  In the spring of 1964, after he had set the indoor world mark and as he was preparing to make the U.S. Olympic team that year, O’Hara ran a workout at the University of Chicago.  The workout was a sub-4:00 mile—solo. Was the story true, I asked O’Hara? Always a humble fellow of few words, O’Hara just smiled.

1 Comment

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One response to “Bringing back the Mag Miles!

  1. If you want another opportunity to run a mile, check out the 4th Annual Grim Mile Sat. June 11 at Luther North College Prep. Age group mile races held on Luther North’s track facility. Chip timed. Elite division as well.
    For more info, check out the event page.

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