Today is a landmark moment for the elite mile road race on Front Street as it reaches its 30th anniversary.
For three decades the drama and excitement of the event has brought hundreds of spectators into Hamilton to line the sidewalks and cheer on the athletes.
In the early years there was the added tension to see if any athlete could break the magic four-minute mile barrier to claim a $10,000 prize.
Leonard Mucheru, of Kenya, came closest when he won the 2002 race in 4min 02.6sec, only a heartbeat away from the jackpot.
And while there will be plenty of competitive drama in this year’s KPMG Invitational Front Street Mile races, one of the men involved at the very beginning has said he would love to see the spectacle reinvigorated with the return of a jackpot prize for the first runner to break four minutes.
The first elite mile race on Front Street was held January 13, 1989.
Lee Tucker and current race director Mike Charles were part of the team that helped incorporate the mile race into the race weekend programme. During the 1980s, Tucker watched the Fifth Avenue Mile Road Race in New York City. He was visiting his brother, Wendell, who worked in the city as a tourism representative for Bermuda.
“I saw the race and I thought that it would be good for Bermuda and help lift our event,” said Tucker.
At the time the Bermuda Marathon Weekend consisted a 10K on the Saturday and a marathon on the Sunday.
Tucker remembers it was “very difficult” trying to persuade the Corporation of Hamilton to divert traffic away from the city’s main thoroughfare on a Friday evening so that a road race could be held.
“I spoke to the Corporation and I pursued it for a year and a half. I wanted to lift the spirit of Hamilton,” he said. The dogged approach paid off and the event went ahead. However, Tucker remembers that in the years immediately before the elite event was first held, there was at least one race along Front Street that featured a mixed bag of island personalities.
“The first year the course was a little different than it is today. We started opposite the ferry terminal and the finish line was in a different place. We invited some of the island’s celebrities to take part. So there were top politicians, representatives of different business sectors, musicians and others.”
The quirky nature of the celebrity line-up drew large numbers of spectators curious to see who would be the fittest of the bunch.
“People were booking restaurant tables with a view onto Front Street to watch the races.”
The next step was to bring an elite line-up of milers to the island to compete. Over the next few years the lure of a $10,000 prize for a sub-4 time, offered by Butterfield Bank, who at the time were the event sponsor, was successful in bringing some of the fastest athletes to Bermuda, including the then mile world record holder Steve Cram in 1991.
The inaugural elite race in 1989 was won by Dave Lamont, of Canada, in 4min 11.3sec. Two years later Cram, whose world best was 3:49, set a new course record of 4:04.6. Afterwards he said he believed it would be possible to run a sub-4 on the course.
That feat has yet to be achieved, and that has led to some opinions that the course, which includes tight turnarounds at the Birdcage and Longtail statue, is too challenging for a four-minute mile.
However, Tucker points to the words of Pete Squires, a renowned runner and coach in the US during the 1980s and 1990s.
“He said it was achievable, but you would need the right runners, and they would have to run it like they would an indoor race,” said Tucker. By that he meant that the runners should go wide at the turns, rather than cutting in tight and losing momentum.
Tucker believes a return to the days of a jackpot for a sub-4 mile would elevate the elite event and likely attract more international athletes capable of challenging for the big prize.
“For a sponsor, it would attract worldwide attention if the prize was won,” said Tucker.
“The challenge would be to bring in a whole lot of runners, and also the quality. There are guys out there who want to come.”
He believes spectators would be delighted to see star names, even if they were no longer at the pinnacle of the sport, and if the incentives are there he envisages closely-matched pair ups between athletes capable of a sub-4 mile on the streets of Bermuda.
Of course, this evening is not just about the men’s elite race. An elite race for women was introduced in 2009, and the course record stands at 4:33.1, set by Jamaica’s Kenia Sinclair in 2011.
There are also races for primary, middle and senior school students, as well as local men and women races, and co-ordinated waves of mile races for competitors competing in the weekend-long Bermuda Triangle Challenge.