The Planet Wave: The Best Finishes in Road Racing
by Bob "Wish" Wischnia on January 19, 2012
I don’t know about you, but my favorite part of any road race is the final mile. By the time I get to that last mile, I just want to get to the finish as quickly as possible and get the darned thing over and done with.
Plus, the crowds are usually thickest in that last stretch and if I have run well, I can savor the applause and acknowledgement from the spectators. To hear my name called is even sweeter as I hit the finish line. It makes all the hard racing worth it.
When I think back on most races, the final mile is all I ever even remember. For me, that last mile in just about every race is special, but some are even more special in my memory banks.
I’ve run all over the world and in some of the biggest races in this country. Some I ran well; some not so hot. But I’ve always loved that final, celebratory mile.
Here are my 10 favorite final miles in road racing (with the 2012 dates):
10. Manchester Road Race (November 22). This 75-year-old race in Connecticut is one of New England’s classics. Held on Thanksgiving morning, the entire town turns out to support the runners who come from all over the world to race this odd distance (4.7 miles). Most racers try to wait for the last half mile before unleashing their kicks straight down Main Street which is lined 10-deep on both sides with wildly cheering spectators who have been coming to this race for generations. Equally cool, the last stretch is a gentle downhill.
9. The American Mile (July 4th) in Longport, New Jersey. This is one of those small-town races that just brims with a mixture of fun, speed, hot dogs and Americana. I love this smallish, out-of-the-way race which starts in early evening. The American Mile (it’s also known as the Longport Mile) is in a ritzy, beach community where every able child, woman, man and dog runs this flat road mile which starts at the southern end of town and finishes at the fire department. The course is dominated by a huge American flat on the finish line that you can see for the entire second half of the race. After the race, there are hot dogs for every runner. After that, there are fireworks and parties that go long into the night.
8. The Eugene Marathon (April 29). When I did this marathon, it was called “A Gathering of Eagles” and believe it or not, it was free. (Shows you how long ago that was.) Over the years, the course has changed, but one constant has been the inspiring finish that is on the hallowed Hayward Field track where such immortals as Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, Bill Dellinger and Mary Slaney trained and raced. Finishing on the University of Oregon track, once again the site for the Olympic Track Trials, is one of the most thrilling moments in road racing that every marathoner should get to experience.
7. Congress Avenue Mile (May 19). My hometown road race in Austin, Texas is a completely downhill road mile where a PR is all but a certainty. The course starts near the Texas State Capitol and hurtles down Congress Avenue--the main drag in Austin—to the finish on the Ann Richards Bridge. The first 400 meters is so steep you have to hold yourself back or you’ll go out too fast and flame out. There are about a dozen heats in the Congress Avenue Mile, culminating with the best boys and girls high-school milers in Texas competing just a week after the State Champs. If you want to relive your high-school mile days, Congress Avenue is the race to do it.
6. Falmouth Road Race (August 12). This gem of a race on the southern tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, goes 7.1 miles from Woods Hole to the spectacular downhill finish in Falmouth. The finish is dominated by the biggest American flag in Massachusetts and the thousands of wildly enthusiastic spectators who cheer for the recreational racers just as loudly as they do for the world-class runners who have been making a pilgrimage to this race since 1976.
5. Chicago Marathon (October 7). I love Chicago and its marathon. I’ve been coming here since 1982 and although the course has changed over the years, the finish has always been in Grant Park, right along Lake Michigan. The Chicago course is almost entirely flat until you make a sharp right turn in the final mile off Michigan Avenue onto Roosevelt. The hill on Roosevelt isn’t much, but in the last mile of a marathon, any incline can feel like a mountain. Fortunately, the Roosevelt overpass is short and makes the last few hundred meters to the finish along Columbus all that much sweeter in front of the adoring spectators who welcome every runner back.
4. Carlsbad 5000 (April 1). Since 1985, the fastest open and masters 5000-meter road racers have been coming to this small, coastal town in northern San Diego County. It is the fastest road race in the country (16 world records have been set here) and most assume it’s because the course is lightning fast. Not so. Although there are some nice downhills, the second mile is mostly uphill and usually into the teeth of a sea breeze. But once you make the final turn for home back into the village, there’s nothing better than the closing 400-meter-downhill in front of thousands of fans. Even though the course is tricky, it’s still a solid PR course (although I never did). Making it even better, there are seven separate races and by the time the elites run, all the recreational racers have made it back to the finish for the grand finale making for an unforgettable party.
3. Marines Corp Marathon (October 28). This terrific course starts in Arlington, Virginia, right near the Pentagon and, once in Washington, passes by all the memorials, museums and national landmarks. For the final 10-K, the course returns to Virginia before winding up on a short uphill to Marine Corps War Memorial which is better known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. Even though that little hill at the finish is tricky, it’s more than worth it with the gorgeous view of the capital and the Iwo Jima statue.
2. Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon (September 16). Traditionally, the Philly Half is one of the fastest half marathons in the country and a perfect tune up for the big fall marathons. But what I like best about Philly is its amazing last mile. In that grand finale, the course flies down along the Schuykill River and then makes a short climb up to the Museum of Art (and the famous “Rocky” steps). From there, the course flattens out as it enters the Benjamin Franklin Parkway past glorious fountains, numerous classical sculptures (including The Thinker), memorials and museums. The entire parkway is lined with flags of countries from around the world, creating an international feel all the way to back to the finish. It’s hard not to kick it in with that type of world-class atmosphere.
1. Boston Marathon (April 16th). There is no greater emotion in road racing than running the final stretch along Boylston Street to the finish in Copley Square in central Boston. After a short uphill on Hereford Street, Boston marathoners take the familiar turn into the pageantry and sheer excitement of coming down the sweet downhill that is Boylston--the most iconic road in marathoning. With thousands and thousands of screaming fans tightly packed onto the sidewalks, the roar from the crowd is deafening as each runner approaches the finish at Exeter Street. Every runner should have the privilege of running Boston at least once. There’s no better feeling in our sport.