by Russ Ebbets
The battery to my large digital clock had crapped out. I was on my way to Battery World in Syracuse to get it replaced. On the drive I figured this was the third time since I owned the clock I had to get the battery replaced. And then I realized I bought the clock over 30 years ago. How time flies.
I bought the clock along with a ladder system finish line structure for the first Bijou Mile. For those new to the area the Bijou Mile was a one mile run down Broadway in Saratoga Springs. Those were the days when road miles were a new wrinkle to road racing. In the seven years we ran the race it was one of the fixtures of the Capital District’s racing schedule.
The original plan for the Bijou Mile was to run a series of four races over the course of the summer. But I needed a sponsor first. Downtown Saratoga had a few possibilities. The problem was getting the finish line to end in front of the establishment which in turn affected where the start line would be up North Broadway. If we finished too close to the Post Office we’d have to settle for a narrow start up near Skidmore College.
Finishing in front of the Bijou Bar was just right. But I didn’t think the management would go for it. The Bijou wasn’t quite a biker bar but the women in there had tattoos before women had tattoos.
I met Ralph Spillinger, the Bijou owner and gave him my pitch. Road race, ends in front of your place, we video the race, show it after the race on your TV’s, big crowd, big night for you. Back in 1985 video was still a “new” technology. Being able to see yourself on TV would be a novelty. We could plan a beer special, have the awards ceremony on the back stage, make a night of it.
Ralph was not a runner. He owned the Bijou and played in a band called The Students. They were a hot local group, had a large following and one of the members, Dave Tworg, was a good local runner. Ralph gave my pitch a moment’s thought and said, “Yes.”
Now all I needed was the OK from the City. For that I was directed to the Director of Public Safety, Chief Cole. My mother’s family was from Saratoga and we spent every summer of my childhood there. More specifically I spent every waking moment at the Wright Street Gate of the Saratoga Race Track.
It all started with Lucky Pencils as a 5-year-old. Then came tip sheets, club house passes, used racing forms and programs, handing out flyers, finding lost cars – if we could turn a buck on it, we did it. Broadway Pete, Clocker Wilson, the guys who rented chairs, “taxi-car-taxi” guys, professional gamblers, hookers and homeless hangers-on, Wright Street had them all. And the man who kept the lid on the pot was Sgt. Cole.
Sgt. Cole rode a tri-cycle motorcycle. Before you think that was a point of ridicule, think again. At 6’4” and over 300 pounds he rumbled down Wright St. like Ben-Hur in a Roman chariot. If there was anything that was not supposed to be happening, it stopped immediately. To get chased was one thing, to get caught led to banishment, an expensive possibility.
I sat in Cole’s outer office convinced he would remember me, and not in a good way. The ability to run fast served me well but now there was nowhere to run. I formally introduced myself and explained my plan. I mentioned that the Bijou was on board and noted all my race management experiences throughout the Capital District and then shut up.
Chief Cole’s first words were, “I don’t want to do this.” His concern was the traffic congestion it would cause. I assured him, start to finish, it would be over in one-hour. He objected to the four Friday nights, particularly during Track season. I floated the compromise of doing it just one Friday night before the Track season got underway. I told him if the event was a bust, I wouldn’t be back. He was silent.
“I guess we could do this one time,” he said.
My heart leapt and then the work began. The course was measured, the Saratoga Stryders were hired to do traffic control. Saratoga Video was contracted to do the video of the race. Officer Harry Redgrave, a childhood neighbor, was assigned to coordinate the race with me. On The Road’s race crew included Matt Jones and Mike Lochner with wives Cathy Jones and Laurie Lochner hired to handle registration duties. All we needed was some runners.
And we got runners. Through flyers at the Colonie Summer Meets, Empire State Games trials and word of mouth we got runners. The first year we ran a men’s and women’s divisions. The races drew about 40 and 20 runners each. The lead-up to the race went smoothly. My only miscalculation was the race start time.
I wanted to capitalize on the downtown night life so I figured running the races at 8:45pm and 9:00pm would be a good idea. While we had a well-lit finish area, the start was in the dark. At 8:45 the light for the women was two shades darker than dusk. At 9:00pm the start for the men was pitch black.
As I gave the guys the obligatory pre-race directions a voice from the abyss cried, “Which way do we run?” It was a good question.
North Broadway looked like a dark tunnel with the red and white car lights 1000 yards away. All I could say was – “See those lights?”
Remember, 1985 pre-dates all cell phones. Even walkie-talkies did not carry for a mile. To time the race we had to start the watches with the gun shot and somehow beat the runners to the finish line. Bicycles were the obvious answer and that is what we wound up using for the 400/800 splits. The lead police vehicle had an open seat so that is what we used to get the watches to the finish.
With the gun shot the police car sped away. And I mean sped. Downtown Saratoga has a different vibe when you are traveling down Broadway at 60+ miles per hour. All the traffic was stopped and 45-50 seconds later we’d slow to the finish line, cue the video guy, set the overhead clock and wait for the runners.
The first year no one knew what to expect. The downhill was steep enough to give everyone a boost but not so much that one felt like losing control. Former UNH star Kathy Brandell from Plattsburgh began the evening with a 4:46.3 effort. The guys hit the 400 in 53 with no idea if that was fortuitous or the prelude to a disaster. Merrick Jones, a former Syracuse star, outlasted what would be the Bijou Mile’s deepest field, narrowly missing the 4-minute mile with a 4:00.5 time. Seventh place was a 4:07.9.
The races ended, the runners were exhausted but pumped. Virtually everyone got a lifetime PR by 10-12 seconds. The video worked to perfection and all that was left to do was the clean-up. And then the fire siren went off.
In all my planning for the worst-case scenarios, a fire call was right up there with a car accident. The Saratoga Fire Station is on Lake Avenue about 200 yards from the Post Office. As the fire engines pulled out of the station I could see their lights reflected on City Hall. I was praying they would continue straight up Church Street away from us. No luck. They turned south, down Broadway, straight for us.
Remember I had invested $3000 in a finish line structure and clock and we had the whole street blocked off in front of the Bijou. This was not going to have a happy ending if we just stood still. The crowd went quiet. I looked at Matt Jones and we instinctively moved in unison as we pivoted the whole finish line structure 90 degrees to allowing the fire trucks to zoom through. I laughed a nervous laugh at the close call. The crowd gave us a standing ovation.
We got some good press, the runners got lifetime PR’s and even the police were psyched to be part of this event. In my review meeting with Chief Cole he noted that his “reports” came back positive and we were given the OK for a year two.
The Bijou Mile ran for six more years. It became a summer race fixture strategically placed between Empire State Games Trials and Finals. Merrick Jones came back three years later to run the first sub-four-minute mile in upstate New York. In the seven years the race was held we had over 35 ESG champions compete in all the divisions.
As word spread we would get runners from Buffalo to Maine, from Pennsylvania, Philly and South Jersey. We were one of the first races to allow wheelchairs with guys scooting the mile in 3:23. Eventually the program was expanded to nine races that were run over 75 minutes. Through juggling the schedule and using staggered starts we were able to have a continuous stream of finishers all recorded by Saratoga Video.
In all the years the Saratoga Police were instrumental in making the race a success. Yearly we recognized local people and groups who made contributions. If you are ever in the Saratoga Police Station you can see a Bijou Mile plaque behind the registration desk.
Winners and placers for both the men and women’s races reads like a who’s who of area running greatness. Queenbury’s Quinten Howe eventually set the men’s record with a 3:56 in the final Bijou Mile. Saratoga’s Cheri Goddard was a multiple time winner in both the open and high school divisions holding the records in both. Colonie’s Todd Orvis held the high school mile record while Bill Robinson and Pennsylvania’s John Serro share the masters record at 4:13.0.
As fame of the race spread Bijou Mile winners were eventually invited to run the 5th Avenue Mile held each fall in New York City. While the reluctance of that race’s organizers was initially vexing the success of our master and high school division winners made the Bijou Mile a legitimate proving ground for the NYC race.
Politics, politics and politics eventually ended the race. Chief Cole was sympathetic and supportive to the end but to the disappointment of many, the race disappeared in the summer on 1992. The Bijou moved on and only the memories remain. But I’m willing to bet that if you do run into somebody who ran the race their lasting memory will be – “The Bijou Mile, yeah, I got my mile PR there.”
From the July 2010 Pace Setter issue:
July 1985...Twenty Five Years Ago • The first Annual Bijou Mile is held on the 12th in Saratoga Springs and directed by Russ Ebbets. The course goes from near the entrance of Skidmore College down Broadway and finishes in front of the Bijou, which was a bar/nightclub. The cool, dry, windless weather and a generally downhill course all contribute to outstanding times. Merrick Jones almost breaks four minutes with a blistering 4:00.5, with the top ten men going 4:13 and under and the top three women going under 5:00.
Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the High Peaks STR8 Maps trail guide to the Adirondack 46 High Peaks. Time and Chance, the sequel to Supernova is due out in the May of 2018. Copies are available from PO Box 229, Union Springs, NY 13160. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT A MEMORABLE RACE YOU RAN IN THE PAST, CLICK HERE.