When the Fifth Avenue Mile was
Wait. Who sponsored what now?
WHEN THE 5TH AVENUE MILE WAS YUUUGE
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 002, October 2018
Written by: Liam Boylan-Pett
Illustration by: Scott Allison
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-four-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 N.Y.R.R. 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 forty-fifth 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 one-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. 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 four-hundred N.Y.P.D. officers on duty, the event topped the amount of officers on hand for the Simon and 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,” Eamonn Coghlan, who finished ninth in 3 minutes 57.32 seconds, said of the 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.
Pepsi sponsored the first two editions of the race. In 1983, the Fifth Avenue Candy Bar lended its support. The “bunches of crunches” candy bar was in the midst of an ad campaign rebranding the treat as “bigger, thicker, better”—and even put ads in the NY Daily News for the mile. The partnership of the race and candy bar named after the same street lasted only three years, though.
In 1986, Mercedes Benz became a steady partner, with the Mercedes Mile running until 1991. In those years, a brand new Benz was on the line for a repeat winner or anyone who broke a course record. (Maree’s record from 1981 is still the course record today, PattiSue Plummer set a course record of 4:16.88 in 1990 that was broken by Jenny Simpson in 2017.) But, the N.Y.R.R. sponsorship car dealership eventually sold out. Mercedes ended their partnership with the race in 1991, and without a sponsor to bankroll the event, prize money and new-car offerings dwindled—and the elite field shrank.
Over the next three years, the N.Y.R.R. still attracted a respectable field buttressed by local elites by offering small pots of prize money, but the cachet of the event wasn’t the same. As the New York Times previewed before the ’91 race: “It’s a month or so late and a few hundred thousand dollars short, but the Fifth Avenue Mile, formerly the Mercedes Mile, formerly the Fifth Avenue Mile, formerly the Pepsi Mile, will be held for the 11th time tomorrow afternoon.” A headline from the paper in 1992 put it even more bluntly: “FUN REPLACES FAMOUS AND FAST IN FIFTH AVE. MILE.”
Winning the race was no easy task, still. The slowest winning time of the women’s race in those non-sponsored years was 4 minutes 43.07 seconds. The men’s winner had to run at least 4 minutes 00.37 seconds to win. For a race that had been a crown jewel for runners, however, the Fifth Avenue Mile wasn’t living up to its billing.
In 1994, the marketing team at Discover Card was making a push to unseat American Express as the premiere credit card at restaurants. The company decided to attach itself to the Fifth Avenue Mile, sponsoring the race and hosting a “Manhattan Dine Out” so restaurants could offer samples to fans at the half-mile mark. The influx of money jacked up the competition level immediately thanks to appearance fees for top athletes. Jason Pyrah won the 1992 men’s race in 3 minutes and 52.3 seconds as Regina Jacobs raced to the women’s win in 4 minutes and 27.8 seconds.
Isaac Viciosa of Spain gave Maree’s course record a scare in 1995, running 3 minutes and 47.8 seconds, and then won again in 1996. Paula Radcliffe joined him in the winners circle, taking the women’s race in 4 minutes 26.69 seconds. The Fifth Avenue Mile was once again a premiere event in the running world and in New York.
Not only were the elites back, but there were numerous waves of exciting races. High school runners flocked to the streets for a chance to prove themselves on the same course as the pros. Master’s runners put on a show, wowing crowds like 103-year-old Ida Keeling does today. There was even a “celebrity” race that included many media members.
But after the 1996 race, the marketing team at Discover Card opted out of sponsoring the race.
Scott Lange was the Executive Vice President and C.M.O. at N.Y.R.R. at the time. He helped bring in sponsors and had been around to bring Discover through the door. Now, however, he needed a new sponsor to keep one of the world’s most famous road miles on pace.
Then one day in the fall of 1996, he got a phone call from a friend he had met in the running world. “Are you still looking for a sponsor for the Fifth Avenue Mile?” The friend asked.
“I am,” Lange said.
“Well,” the friend said, “Donald Trump might be interested.”
“Yeah, I know about Donald Trump sponsoring the Fifth Avenue Mile,” Scott Lange told me over the phone the first time we spoke, “I’m the one who made the deal with him.”
We met in early September at the Coffee Shop in Union Square after our phone chat. Lange no longer works with N.Y.R.R., but he still works as a business development manager. He talks about the his early days at N.Y.R.R. with fondness—smiling when he brings up the late Fred Lebow, who remains a central figure in New York City running long after his 1994 death.
Lange started at N.Y.R.R. in 1991, and, as he tells it, was tasked with monetizing the company. At that point, the New York City Marathon was essentially a foot race, but the people within N.Y.R.R. knew there was an opportunity to bring in cash. Lange’s coworkers made fun of him for wearing a tie his first day of work—the N.Y.R.R. was more of a wear-your-running-clothes-to-work-type office—but he started bringing in money right away.
He helped bring larger sums of money into the marathon, and he helped book the Discover deal. Once that dried up, he was there to make the call to the guy who owned a building about five blocks from the mile’s finish line.
He dialed the phone number his friend gave him for Trump sometime in the fall of 1996. “Mr. Trump,” he said, “this is Scott Lange with the New York Road Runners.”
“Call me Donald,” Trump said. Then he asked, “What do you got for me?”
Then the deal-making started. Lange showed up at Trump’s office. To sponsor the mile, Lange said the N.Y.R.R. wanted $500,000. Trump said he’d give $50,000, and that he also wanted the finish line moved down from 62nd Street to finish in front of Trump Tower, all the way down on 55th.
“I can’t even get the city to close down 59th for the marathon,” Lange said, saying that he couldn’t change the race course by the time of the 1997 race. But that didn’t sour the deal—Trump was still interested, even if the N.Y.R.R. was a non-profit that wouldn’t give him a return on his investment.
Both Lange and Trump were willing to budge on certain details, and by the end of the meeting it was decided: Trump would pay $250,000, and the race would be branded the Donald J. Trump Fifth Avenue Mile. According to Lange, it was a six-year deal with an option to extend to ten.
So, in September 1997, Isaac Viciosa won his third consecutive Fifth Avenue Mile crown, and Paula Radliffe won her second title in as many years. Instead of the car they would have won as repeat winners if Mercedes was still sponsoring, the winners posed for pictures with Trump and his daughter, Ivanka.
The race was a spectacle: Along with the gold signage—which was difficult to read on television—Trump brought a larger-than-life name and brand to the stage. Mercedes had its own cachet, but Trump’s bombastic character that would eventually earn him the trust of millions of voters made the race an event. As Newsday reporter John Hanc wrote:
“Isaac Viciosa!” cried public address announcer Steve Scott as Viciosa crossed the finish line to win yesterday’s Fifth Avenue Mile for the third time, in 3 minutes, 53.66 seconds. “You own New York!”
Actually, that claim could more rightfully be made by the tall fellow in sneakers and a baseball cap who held the finish-line banner Viciosa broke: Donald Trump.
Trump was a man of the people that day. Viciosa, speaking through an interpreter said he thought Trump would be hard to get to. “But he talked to me,” Viciosa said, “and was nice.”
Ivanka Trump almost ran in the celebrity edition. George Clooney and Puff Daddy were supposed to race, too, but neither did, and Ivanka ended up skipping out on the race. She told reporters: “I run once in a while.”
Trump’s biggest concern that day was the finish line. Despite Lange telling him he couldn’t get the race to end past 59th street, Trump was insistent about it. “Trump said it would be wonderful if the course were altered next year so the races finished at 55th Street in front of a certain building bearing his name,” the New York Times reported in the 1997 race report.
And the thing is, Trump almost got his way. In the 1998 edition of the Fifth Avenue Mile, the entire race shifted two blocks south. No longer would the race begin at 82nd and finish at 62nd—this was an 80th to 60th race now. The N.Y.R.R. couldn’t get the race down to Trump Tower, but it could, at least, make it closer to the building that would one day have secret service on full alert twenty-four-seven.
Other than the two-block shift south, the 1998 race was much like it was the year before. Viciosa won his fourth consecutive title and Regina Jacobs won on the women’s side.
“This race is mucho prestigio,” Viciosa told reporters after the race. “I’m very happy to run in New York every year and make history. Winning four years in a row is very hard. I hope next year I can come back and win a fifth time.”
“He’ll be back,” Trump said.
But the proclamation fell flat. In 1999, the four-time victor was not on the start line and there was no gold-glittered banner at the finish line. Two years into his six-year agreement to sponsor the Fifth Avenue Mile, Trump backed out.
“I got a call the Monday after the race,” Lange said, referring to the 1998 Fifth Avenue Mile. “And Donald was upset.”
According to Lange, there was an issue with the newspaper coverage of the race.
Most papers had at least a small story about the race. The Times gave it billing. So did the Post. Newsday ran a story where race-winner Viciosa invited Trump to Spain—playing up the show the two would put on: “Can you imagine the toasts [between Trump and Viciosa]? Viva Viciosa. Viva The Donald. Viva The Mile, Mucho Prestigio!”
However, the Daily News didn’t have much about the mile down Trump’s favorite street. The tabloid did have something about another race, though.
The Donald J. Trump Fifth Avenue Mile was run on Saturday, September 26. The day after, there was another race in the park: the Race to Deliver, which raised funds to feed HIV/Aids victims unable to prepare foods themselves. Cindy Crawford was there. So were Ivana Trump, Trump’s ex-wife, and Blaine Trump, his sister-in-law. Ivana ran four miles in 39 minutes, according to the paper. It wasn’t her best effort, she said, because she had to give two speeches in Cincinnati the day before and her plane home was late, so she was running on little sleep.
On Monday, the Daily News didn’t have a story about the Fifth Avenue Mile. The paper did, however, give the Race to Deliver some ink.
“IVANA KEEP GOING, BUT…” the headline read. There was a picture of Ivana at the finish line. There was a photo of Blaine holding the finishing tape as the race-winner crossed. And there was a picture of Crawford, too.
The Donald J. Trump Fifth Avenue Mile, though? No, there were no pictures of the race.
By the time Lange walked into the office on Monday morning after the races, there was already a message waiting for him. He needed to call Trump, who was apparently furious. Lange said he called, and Trump yelled and yelled and yelled. Why weren’t they in the Daily News if the other race was? Why weren’t they covering the race?
“I don’t control the newspapers, Donald,” Lange told him.
Apparently the answer wasn’t good enough. According to Lange, he was in the Trump offices by the end of the week negotiating an end to the six-year deal that still had four years remaining on it. Lange said the meeting was somewhat contentious—that Trump threatened to sue the N.Y.R.R. at one point, for what, Lange did not know—but that at the end of it, Trump agreed to pay a kill fee. While there are reports of Trump skipping out on bills due to other companies and the federal government, that wasn’t the case with the N.Y.R.R. “We never had trouble with him paying the bills,” Lange said. Once he paid to get out of the deal, that was the end of it.
After two years, the Donald J. Trump Fifth Avenue Mile was no more.
The mile struggled the following few years without a sponsor. In 1999, Ben Kapsoiya won the men’s race in 4 minutes 5.4 seconds and Alisa Hill won the women’s race in 4 minutes 41 seconds. By 2004, the winning times of the men’s and women’s races were a pedestrian 4 minutes 10 seconds and 4 minutes 51 seconds, respectively. Without a sponsor, the race couldn’t attract the sport’s stars.
The race was declared “back” in 2005 when Continental Airlines stepped in to sponsor. Craig Mottram and Carmen Douma-Hussar brought credibility back to the race. And each year since, some of the world’s best fly down Fifth Avenue at breakneck pace.
Just after noon on September 9, Colleen Quigley, sprinting at about 15 miles per hour down Fifth Avenue, came up on the left shoulder of Jenny Simpson. For a brief moment, it looked as if she was going to pass by her and go on to win the thirty-eighth running of the Fifth Avenue mile. Simpson had won the previous five editions of the race, however, and had one more burst of speed in store, pulling away from Quigley to take her sixth consecutive, and seventh total, Fifth Ave crown.
The women’s race was the twenty fourth of the day. Jake Wightman of Great Britain won the men’s race in 3 minutes 53.5 seconds in the day’s last race. Starting at 7:25 a.m., runners and wheelchair racers flew down twenty city blocks on the street that divides Central Park from some of New York’s most expensive realty. Despite the rain spitting down and wind hurling through the trees of the park, 7,704 racers finished the mile. NBC Sports broadcasted the thrilling race, showing off the throngs of hardcore running fans lining the street from 60th to 65th.
The Fifth Avenue Mile is thriving. This year’s sponsor appeared to get its money’s worth.
The Trump administration has not been too involved with the sport of running. Running Twitter did erupt when it discovered Trump Aide Stephen Miller reportedly jumped into the finishing stretch of high school girl’s race when he was in high school to prove his athletic superiority over the opposite sex. That ridiculous story aside, running has not been as intersected in politics as many sports have with Trump in office. Many lament that the popularity of the sport is waning, but is the political circus really something the sport needs?
Back in 1997 and 1998, Donald Trump sponsored the Fifth Avenue Mile. He thought it would be good for his brand. In 1999, he decided it wasn’t. He reportedly paid his way out of it and that was the end of it. (The White House initially responded that they received Løpe Magazine‘s request for comment, but never responded to specific questions.)
The Fifth Avenue Mile continued on, and so did Donald Trump. His picture is in the paper plenty, now.
When it comes to the race, it makes the paper sometimes. Sometimes, it doesn’t—the Times didn’t post a story this year.
The race has changed from it’s first run in 1981, including the two-block shift south thanks to the president. There are no Mercedes Benzes. There are no candy bars. There is no Trump. But it has remained the same. At its core, it is simply a race down one of the most famous streets in the world.
A fast one, at that. With gold signage or without.