Making the Most of Your Mile: Grand Blue Mile
USA 1 Mile Road Championships returns to Des Moines, IA under the leadership of new Franklin P. Johnson Drake Relays Director Blake Boldon; $30,000 overall prize purse welcomes the country’s best Milers to the BBTM Grand Prix #Tour2017 opener
By Bring Back the Mile
One of only four sub-4 minute Mile born and bred Iowans, Blake Boldon didn’t seek out to become a Race Director. However, an initial reluctancy led to a career path that has bred one of the new, young and successful directors in the United States seeking to grow the appeal of Track & Field. Boldon began his post-collegiate career as a coach, first at University of Alabama Birmingham and then getting an opportunity to head the University of Pennsylvania Men’s & Women’s Cross Country programs as well as involvement in the iconic Penn Relays.
After some nudging by friend, John Little, he took over the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 2012 growing it to a Top 20 Marathon and transforming it into a robust community experience. It was announced in October 2016 that the Iowan would become the 12th Director of the historic Drake Relays, taking the Franklin P. Johnson Drake Relays Director seat.
We sat down with Boldon for an intriguing interview gaining insights into his philosophy, his love for Iowa, the incredible field for Tuesday evening’s Grand Blue Mile and getting rid of the 1600m at the Iowa state level. The site of the 2017 USA 1 Mile Road Championships features a $30,000 prize purse and with 4,000-plus participants taking to the downtown streets of Des Moines, it is the 3rd largest road Mile in America. The 8th edition also kicks off the Bring Back the Mile Grand Prix Tour 2017.
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BBTM: Let's start with you history as an Iowan. Am I saying that correctly? Are you guys Iowans?
Boldon: Yeah, Iowans. I joke that we're Iowegians sometimes, but Iowan I think is the more term and nomenclature.
You were state champ in the 1600 meters. You're one of a handful or just four, sub-4 Milers born and bred in Iowa. I don’t think there is a fifth yet.
Yeah. Not yet. I'm sure he's out there training right now probably.
What does it mean to you to be at the helm of the Drake Relays as an Iowan with your track experience and background?
Sometimes when you're in the middle of doing something, it's hard to have the external perspective. Right now, I'm doing my job. That's what I'm focused on and doing that. Every once in awhile I have moments where I am able to fully appreciate and maybe privately celebrate the fact that I get to do what I've always wanted to do. A job that I literally can define as a dream job. To lead America’s Athletic Classic, one of the world’s most iconic, and truly one of the world's more iconic track & field events and do it well. Growing up in the Des Moines area, growing up in a small town outside of it, running the high school state meet here.
Although I do focus on doing the job and learning all the main details involved, occasionally I'm reminded. As an example, I’ve got a radio interview in the morning, and a friend of mine sent me a message tonight to say, “What time are you on the radio tomorrow?” Before I thought about it, I answered. Then I realized, “How in the heck did you know I'm on the radio tomorrow?” Apparently they've been running commercials about my interview tomorrow, most of the day today. I had no idea. He joked, “Maybe you’re a little bit bigger deal than you think you are here in Iowa.”
I think he’s just kind of teasing me, but sometimes when we have a large event and all of what goes into it, I get caught up in it, just making sure we’re crossing as many of the Ts and dotting as many of the Is as possible without really taking a step back to celebrate how special this really is for me.
Let’s take a step back and discuss the Monumental Marathon. You’re coaching at the University of Pennsylvania and the Race Director job comes up. Was that a move you had been thinking about for your career?
It's a long story… The Indianapolis Monumental Marathon started in 2008, so it wasn't even in my sphere of consciousness at that point. In 2009, I got my first head cross country coaching job at University of Alabama Birmingham. I was in that role for just more than a year when I got a call from a friend who was coaching at Penn and said, “Hey, we really think you should look at coming here to be our head cross country coach for the men and women.” Which was just an unbelievable opportunity.
I jumped at the chance to go. You had the Penn Relays, and it was a significant change for their program to combine the men and women's position in a head director role.
Within my first month that I was there, a good friend of mine, truly one of my best friends in the world, John Little, got a hold of me. He and I had run at the U.S. Championship together years before, and we'd stayed in touch. He reached out to me to let me know that they were hiring someone full-time at the Monumental. I told him, “No chance, man. I just got to Penn and this is where I'm going to be.” I remember specifically after a meet was over at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, the last runners were cooling down, we're waiting for the four by four runners to cool down, and he called me. I remember standing there telling him, “John, don’t even ask me this again. I’m glad you called me, but I’m going to be at Penn for at least five years.”
My predecessor at the Monumental was there in her position about a year. That was probably January of 2011, well then March or April of 2012, John starts calling me again. “Hey Blake, you gotta come, you gotta come,” and I told him “no”. He said, “Come on,” and we figured it out. He was on the board of directors, but was going to roll up his position. He had enough faith in me to go to his peers on the board of directors, the senior leaders in the city of Indianapolis who had gotten together to form this non-profit and mention, “I have so much confidence in Blake Bolden that if we can get him here, I’ll be the president of the Board of Directors,” even though he was due to roll off.
Really, I credit my opportunity there and the success I had in Indianapolis to John Little taking a chance on me and having faith. He knew I didn’t know how to do the job. He knew I’d never been in marketing. He knew I’d never sold sponsorships. He knew I’d never been a race director, but he knew at my core I worked hard, was competent enough to manage the position, and I had a drive to build something great. He put his name on it and went out of his way to make it happen. Then I got in this position, and all of the things: not-for-profit leadership, marketing, sponsorship, race director, managing a staff, filing a 990, working with an accounting firm, I knew none of it. I just knew I loved running, I worked hard, and I wanted to build something, but then over four and a half years, I learned all of that and built the staff.
When I started there, I was working from home; the only employee. We quickly added Casey Collins as a half-time employee. He did an extraordinary job. I didn’t even know what my job was going to be, let alone his job. What I knew about Casey was whatever I needed him to do and whatever the job was, he would do it to the best of his abilities. That’s the way we approached it, and we jumped in.
We both learned a lot, starting the youth running program and starting the Monumental Mile, which kind of comes full circle here. Being a Miler and seeing the way the marathon and half-marathon industry interacts with the community, I wanted to bring a Mile event to Indianapolis. We did that successfully, and we’re very thrilled to be able to do that, to have a live 90-minute television broadcast in our inaugural event, which we thought was pretty dang cool with the ABC affiliate right there in Indianapolis, RTV-6.
It was really special for me, because it was game one of the NBA finals and we were the lead show. We led into the NBA finals on the ABC affiliate. It was 90 minutes of the Monumental Mile in Indy; much credit to their president and general manager in taking a chance on an inaugural event. I learned a lot about that too - television production, what goes into scripting that and making sure we were in the event, according to the predetermined time script and all of that.
Having jumped into all of this and learning on the job, have you found that you have an overarching philosophy that guides your mission?
Yes, and I think at the core, without hesitation, it’s the participant experience. I can say it’s true when I jumped into Indianapolis and I had to learn about that industry from day one. In Indianapolis, I learned quickly that word-of-mouth marketing is the key ingredient. If you have a passion for kid’s events, then have a fire lit inside them for your event; you will have success. It sounds like a simple equation and it sounds like a simple process, but it’s anything but that. You have to have a personal connection with the participants. No one has 100 percent, but when you set that as a goal, you accommodate all requests, you provide the extraordinary customer service or participant service, and every decision that’s made is made with the best interests of the participants in mind. Success is much easier to find.
Do you find, especially as an Iowan, that taking the reigns of the Drake Relays was the next logical step in your career?
It’s hard to know. I don’t know why or how, but just at my core, growing up here, wherever I’ve lived I’ve always identified as an Iowan and kind of proud of that. For example, when I was in Philadelphia, I probably wore my cowboy boots that were my grandpa’s, I probably wore them more in Philadelphia than I do when I was in Iowa, just almost as a way to connect with being an Iowan in Philly. Just proud of that when I was there, and the boots were just a way to manifest that.
A couple years ago, a friend and mentor, the director of Track & Field at Boise State Corey Ihmels asked me a similar type of question, not necessarily related to the Drake Relays, but saying, “Hey, what are you going to do? Where do you see yourself? Are you happy in Indy? What are your goals?” I love Indianapolis, still do to this day, it’s fantastic. I miss it dearly, I loved the people I worked with, the event, the organization, everything there, really almost a dream job in and of itself, and I was fortunate enough to be able to create that world for myself. It was great, so I was very happy.
I told him then, “Well, I only see myself leaving here for two jobs,” because I’d narrowed the criteria in saying it’s going to be in the Midwest. I want to stay in the Midwest, I want to stay in the industry, and I want to stay in a leadership position. I want it to be an organization no less prestigious than the one I’m already leading, which was a top 20 marathon in the U.S. If you look at that list, well if Chicago Event Management ever called, well I’d love to talk to them about that. That would be one, and then the other one was the Drake Relays. Corey and I talked for 30 minutes or so about what I love about it. The universities, the high schools, the pros, the road race, the road Mile, the vault. I’m not a vaulter, never vaulted in my life, never coached it, but I love watching it and being a part of the street vault that we organized in Indy.
All of these things that I love about Iowa and Drake and where they intersect at the Drake Relay. It’s really a dream job, and a destination for me. I don’t know if it means it’s my last job in my professional career. I don’t view it as such, but I look at it as one that every day I need to appreciate how lucky I am to be in my dream job at such a young age.
The Drake Relays has been a leader in keeping Relays and Track & Field in general relevant with community events, access to the professionals and various events the public can participate in like the Grand Blue Mile. This year there is even a $10,000 grant being made to the county with the most participation in the Mile. How has the Drake Relays accomplished this?
That particular project we’re thrilled to be a part of through the Grand Blue Mile. Really, it’s spearheaded and led by our co-presenting sponsor of the event, really our partners there, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. A health insurance company that has just really, truly committed to creating opportunities for wellness and fitness in the community. They partner with another organization, the Healthiest State initiative. To really see that take shape, that event has partnered with the Iowa Kids Strong program, and has been transformational in schools here in Des Moines. I’m proud to be a part of that, and I think you’re speaking to what's made the Drake Relays different; these community partnerships, corporate or university or athletic department, and then into central Iowa.
With Hy-Vee’s support, we've had a high jump in a grocery store, Brian Brown’s brainchild. The way Brian and Hy-Vee reinvented the Drake Relays has really reinvented Track & Field in America in a way. It’s not very often that you sit back in any industry anywhere, and you look at Des Moines, Iowa for innovation. Because of Hy-Vee and Brian Brown, and hopefully now me at the helm, we’ll be able to do some things here at the Drake Relays that around the country people look to Des Moines and say wow, they’re vaulting in a mall. What should we do? What's a creative location in our current city for us to do a vault?
We’ve seen that in the Twin Cities, Kansas Relays has added some out-of-stadium components. When Sacramento hosted the USA Championships, they put the shot put by the state capitol building. When you really look at in the United States where a lot of these ideas started, they were here a decade ago with some ingenuity and creativity in Des Moines. It’s thrilling to be a part of that, and I say this regularly. Because of the size media market that Des Moines is, no major professional franchises, no NFL, no NBA, no major league baseball, no MLS, and I don’t think that's fair to the city, because we have wonderful sports fan.
With all of those factors in mind, there are only two cities in the country where a track & field star walks into a grocery store and gets asked for an autograph. That’s Eugene and Des Moines, that’s a real thing. Having lived in Philly and coached at Penn you could have Bernard Lagat walk through downtown Philly in center city and there is no one asking him for autographs. When he’s outside of the Marriott in Des Moines, there are folks looking for him for an autograph. He leaves there and he bumps into somebody at the airport or wherever it might be. I just mention Bernard, because I know he’s at both places, and I’ve seen him interact in both places or know of him interacting in both places. That’s what makes Des Moines unique and Drake Relay so special.
Brittney Reese, long jumper, world class long jumper, #1 ranked long jumper in the world. She’s been an Olympic gold medalist, went to Rio, won the silver. She’s going to throw out the first pitch at the Iowa Cubs baseball game. They’re going to bring her up in the second or third inning, they’re going to have her sit and interview and maybe be part of the play-by-play for a couple innings. We love Track & Field here in Des Moines.
Let’s enter the last lap of the interview by discussing the Grand Blue Mile. You have incredible fields and some of the athlete’s like Clayton Murphy are on fire already this year. In the Men’s race what are you looking for as a fan?
I think 18 guys have run under 4 in this race. There’s only a half dozen of them or so that have PRs that are over 3:40 or 3:59. That’s thrilling, the depth of the field, to see that, and then you look at it and you go, well you’ve got the defending champion, Chad Noelle, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano, one of the greatest American middle distance runners of all-time. The depth goes on and on. 2013 champion Riley Masters, the defending Bring Back the Mile Grand Prix Tour champion in the field. It’s just stacked.
Do you think it's possible for a sub-4 on that course if the weather cooperates? The record stands at 4:02.
You know, I don’t think the weather’s the issue. I think it’s a matter of these 25 guys, if somebody decides they want to get out. That’s a little bit of it, if everybody's intimidated by Clayton, or somebody decides they want to go out and run. This year in a unique way, for the men and the women, we’ve added a bonus for the leader at the halfway mark if they are under specific times. If you’re the first person across the half-mile split mark, and your split is 1:59.9 or faster, so under two flat point zero, we will give you a thousand dollars if you finish in the top half of the field. You don’t even have to finish in the top 10 if you’re on the men’s side. It just means you can’t sprint 800 meters and then walk, because it is a championship race, and we don’t want to change the dynamic of the race, but we did want to encourage the field to pursue that middle split, to put a little bit of coin back in someone’s pocket. They’re not going be able to throw it in the bag, they’re going to have to race the second half as well.
What are you looking for in the Women’s race? Is their 4:32 event record by Heather Kampf reachable?
Both Atlanta Track Club and Team USA Minnesota will be well represented. That women’s side is deep too. When you have women who have have PRs of 4:14, 4:15 for 1500, and we’re not even talking about them. That’s how good this race is going to be. The shame is that Heather Kampf is out. She’s won three in a row here, she’s won three USA road titles in a row. She appears to be unbeatable at times on the road, so I was thrilled personally to see Heather go head-to-head with Shannon Rowbury, because Shannon obviously, American 1500 record holder, fourth in the Rio Olympics, you can't say enough about her, but then Heather’s injury, it was heartbreaking news.
We’ve lost out on some other Olympic gold medalists, some outstanding world class athletes in a variety of events, but personally, I was attached to Heather's participation as a defending champion. She’s a six-time Drake Relay champion. She’s a fan favorite here, having run in Minnesota, living in the Twin Cities, and being so dominant on the roads. That was maybe one of the competitors I was most excited about, but I do think Katie Mackey, who was a late add, opens the door where she could potentially surprise Shannon. We’ll see. I think Shannon obviously added that sub-4:30 excitement to the field or to the race, but we do have that same incentive for the women at 2:15.
In the Mascot Division are you going for the Maniac, the Surge or Rosie the Reader?
You know, I’ll plead the fifth, because that would be, that’s like asking a parent which one their favorite child. I want to see all of them fast. I’m anxious to see that one. I’m hopeful that we'll see that one in the livestream. I’m worried that USATF is missing the show on that, and they’ll only be broadcasting championships, but I'd love to see that one on the livestream too.
The homestretch question: You’re a 1600 meter Iowa state champ. What do you think can be done, if anything will be done in Iowa to switch that to the Mile?
Well, I continue to be surprised by how many people involved significantly in the sport that don’t know there’s a difference. Those people, I remember when I was told that, probably at 16 or 17, didn’t believe it. Didn’t understand. I was running the Mile, I’d been running a Mile in PE class for years, but it was 1600 meters. That’s probably the first barrier. I think it is a conversation that can be had at the association level. I don’t know. It’s one of these things where it almost takes some kind of silly, almost an unbelievable story, like one of your famous April Fools Day stories, where it’s like, there'd have to be a grant to paint the extra line on every track in the state of Iowa.
Because to pay somebody to come out and re-certify that nine meters, or to tie it down to the centimeter or inch or whatever, eighth of an inch to put that line on the track. As silly as it sounds, but to do that at every track in the state and educate everybody would be a pretty significant effort. It’d almost take a government grant or some kind of federal mandate, like having Trump sign an executive order on it. It almost comes to, it seems like it’s almost insurmountable in trying to educate people and convince people. Ultimately, I think the sheer existence, in and of itself of the 1600 is a complete challenge. In Iowa, interestingly, the boys run 1600 and the girls run 1500. It’s like New York.
If we were to abolish the 1600 at the high school level, that would be a first step. Then everyone would be forced to choose to either run the 1500 or the Mile as it’s done at the NCAA. Then we’d have an interesting conversation, because I think spectators, officials, everyone, want to see a 4-lap race. They understand the symmetry of that and the four laps plus nine meters I think has a special appeal. I do think that running a full Mile has a greater significance. Ultimately, nobody ever gets excited about running a 4 minute 1600. It doesn't exist.
Thank you Blake and good luck next week with the Grand Blue Mile and Drake Relays!
Thank you very much.