How Can You Not Be Romantic About Running?

Words by Joshua Dwight. Photos by Brett Villena.

Out of the thirty days in June this year, there are five Tuesdays. On four of those Tuesdays is when you can find nearly a hundred runners of all ages gathered on the infield of a high school track. The start of our summer in Raleigh isn’t quite complete without the Sir Walter Running Pop-Up Miles. This isn’t a scene where you’ll find any professional athletes or any runners making paid appearances. There aren’t even any prizes for the top finishers. You run your race, you make your way over to the sign-in table, and as sweat incessantly drips down the pen onto the paper: you write down your time. The good old honor system, baby! Sir Walter Running has created a series of summer track nights that have transcended into the epitome of why I feel butterflies about running in this city. Each and every person who attends these Tuesday nights is a brick in the foundation of our running community. The thrill of racing on a track is hard to come by in Raleigh if you’re not a college athlete or a professional runner. Not everyone is privy to jumping a couple fences or running in the darkness just to get a track workout in nowadays. The price we pay to get our feet on a track isn’t usually worth the scavenger hunt to find somewhere that we won’t be kicked out of by security. For some folks, it’s the first time since college and for others it’s their first time ever running on a track in their lives. None of that matters here. There is no experience necessary for stepping onto the track at the Sir Walter Running Pop-Ups. There’s a sign-in sheet, a foldable table with a water cooler, and a couple guys with stopwatches calling out splits. Track meets do not get more stripped down to their core than this. For a city where you’re more likely to find Bigfoot than public track access, runners across Raleigh jump at the opportunity to toe the line on a handful of June nights. The Sir Walter Running organization continues to do great work to secure a track for several nights in June. To be present at almost every single one of these over the last few years, I can’t help but frustratingly wonder: Why is Raleigh still without a track for the public? Why are we not fighting for this? And for those of us who have been fighting, why is it a fight that is taking an eternity? In 2021, Raleigh was the 10th most moved-to city in the nation. The Wake County Public School System currently operates at least 22 schools with tracks in Raleigh. Out of 22 tracks, there are zero that are open to the public. 

Yep, you read that right. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Every time June rolls around, you can find Pat Price and Sandy Roberts of Sir Walter Running setting up their own clock near the finish line of Athens High School’s track on Tuesday nights. Pat carries the clock down from his van in one arm and one of his daughters in the other as Sandy finishes a workout before changing back into his cowboy boots. Some say they’ve seen Sandy do mile repeats in his boots, but we’ll dive into that one another day. On the faded black track, runners of all backgrounds do warm-up laps and laugh with one another about how it’s not the heat, but the humidity that gets you. Friends encourage friends while strangers encourage strangers who only showed up to watch to also give their shot at a mile run. Yeah, they’ll probably let you use their shoes too. There’s a long jump pit on the back turn of the track just waiting to be jumped in that is equal parts overgrown grass and dirt. There’s football equipment placed at random across the field, each piece probably right wherever the last tackling drill ended last Fall once the football team’s season ended. The gravel parking lot at the top of the stairs fills up with cars, dust, and Vaporflys every Tuesday evening. Traditionally, each summer the Sir Walter duo host their annual Pop-Up Miles in Raleigh. The community-focused night of racing leads us into the build-up to the Sir Walter Miler race in August. Anyone and everyone is welcome out at the Pop-Ups. There’s an over 5:30 mile time heat, an under 5:30 heat (beware: these folks get spicy), and each Tuesday there is a new miscellaneous event for anyone to hop in if they’re feeling up to it. The top ten mile times throughout the series for men and women get their own championship in July. Winners get a spot in the highly coveted Sir Walter Miler elite race. At the Pop-Ups, it’s possible that you might end up in a 5K, maybe an 800 meter race, or even a mile in Crocs. The night at the track ends with a 4×400 meter relay because, well, of course it does. Runners meet other runners for the first time here and end up on a relay team together. The beauty of it is that there are some teams with one runner splitting a 54 second lap and another runner who splits a 94 second lap. A 57-year old woman passes the baton to a 12-year old girl. For some of these people, they aren’t being introduced to one another through a handshake or a fist bump, but rather with a hand-off. You can run on a relay team of four people and you might only know two of their names. But that’s just until they finish their lap, then they’ll tell you. Running on your own day after day can start to feel like a reclusive task to undertake. It’s unbelievably easy to become so engrossed in our own running. The camaraderie that gets created on the track is invigorating when everyone around you is just as excited as you are. There’s a magnetic energy that permeates from the moment you leave your car all the way up until you hear Sandy yelling out new mile PR’s. It’s an uplifting scene to watch someone cheer on a stranger for a 6:30 mile and then go out to run a 4:30 mile for themselves. I remember a moment in the film Moneyball, where Brad Pitt who plays the role of Billy Beane says, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Well folks, I feel the same way on my way home from the track on Tuesday nights every June. How can you not be romantic about running?

If watching a father hand off a baton to his son on a 4×400 relay doesn’t make you want to advocate for more of this happening in our city on a public and safe track year-round… Well, I’m not sure what will.

But when the clock hits 8pm on the final Pop-Up Mile, why should we have to wait until next summer to do it all over again? The work that Pat and Sandy have put in to create this environment for all of us bestows upon the community a debt that we can only repay by showing up for them every single time. The behind-the-scenes work that Sir Walter Running takes on is strictly to make these kind of nights happen. There isn’t wads of cash going into their pockets after each race. They pay $250 a week to rent the track for us to all come together on. The running community in our city is already one that’s like no other. The only thing we’re missing here is more frequent track access. We need a track to call home. When Alex and I discuss the future of running in Raleigh, we envision a track as the epicenter. The future for us holds nights like these every week. Adults and kids with a place to run their hearts out without having to worry about traffic or having to wear a headlamp. Over the course of June, there’s always an elation in the air from Tuesday to Tuesday. It’d be easy for me to say that the folks who run at these events just like having a race to look forward to, but it’s much more profound than that. It’s never been about racing. Tuesday night Pop-Up Miles have always been about the good times we share with one another, not the good times we try to run against each other.

Thank you, Sir Walter Running.

The Pop-Up Miles championship races will take place this Friday at Meredith College. There will be an open mile at 7pm, women’s championship at 7:10pm, men’s championship at 7:20pm, and it will finish up with a 4×400 relay. All are encouraged and welcome. As always, it is free to attend and participate. Most of us will wander across the street to Raleigh Brewing for a post-race cold one after the cool-down. There’ll be laughs about someone bonking 500 meters into the mile and smiles about new PR’s. If this last one happens to be your first one, pull up a seat and stay a while. We’d love to see you around all the time. Trust me y’all, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

If you’re able to help out the Sir Walter fam on Venmo, their username is @SirWalterMiler and you can follow Sir Walter Running on Instagram for more updates and happenings: @sirwalterrunning

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