Years ago, in 2008, when the Festival of Miles was first incepted, it was a small meet with a few middle school milers, a wheelchair race, an open "Masters" race, and two Championship Miles. There was no High School division at all, because it was run in early April. A cold evening, no one broke 4:00 in the Mile, but an abundance of money was raised for a St. Louis University runner who had been badly injured in a car accident a few months earlier.
Fast forward to 2023. Now the event is held the Thursday after the Missouri State Track and Field Championships, allowing for the best of the best high schoolers from around the state to attend. There are now high octane two High School miles per gender, one lightning quick High School 800 per gender, several Middle School and Elementary Miles to whet the racing whistle, a Mascot 400, and then two star-studded Championship Miles two finish it all off. Each year, the stakes have only gotten higher and the standards have only gotten faster. Heading into 2023, the event has produced 48 sub-4:00 Miles, including 4 High School boys. It's an event that also see as many 13 High School girls under 5:00 in one race in any given year!
This year's event was set to be the fastest of all-time and it lived up to the billing. Many Missouri athletes either stayed home or didn't make the cut, but the ones who did make the trip to St. Louis University High School had to contend with many of the nation's best, with athletes arriving in St. Louis from California to New Jersey to South Dakota to Texas and everywhere in between. In 2023, the HOKA Festival of Miles has become a proverbial who's-who of national and international middle distance running.
Cottone did not have much of a track season in 2023, but she entered the meet coming off a fantastic cross country season and a 5:01.77 1500 at the Hot Feet Summer Classic on May 20th. She led wire-to-wire, impressing the crowd with strong a solo effort in 5:14.18 for the full mile. It was a state record full mile for Middle School girls, per the Milesplit database and US No. 40 all-time. To put it in perspective, some Middle School mile alumni at Festival of Miles include Carolyn Ford, Mae Walker, Julia Ray, and Mary McKenzie, among others, and Cottone ran faster than all of them. It remains to be seen where the Christian Fellowship School student will land for High School, but wherever she lands, she should make a massive difference there. Not to be outdone, Academie Lafayette's Ella Messner was close to defending her FOM title, but fell just short with a 5:22.65 personal best. Only a 7th grader, she will have another shot at the Middle School crown next year.
Lost in the shuffle of the High School and Professional madness was a National Record in the Middle School Mile on Thursday. St. Louis Blazer Jackson Miller blazed the SLUH track to a new MO and US No. 1 all-time 4:22.33, unseating all-time great Brandon Miller (no relation) and his former US No. 2 4:25.02 as well as former national record holder Josiah Tostenson (OR). The meet record was impressive from Miller who closed in 60.78 to hold off Illinoisan Landon Harris and El Dorado Springs standout Wyatt Klaiber. Miller, a Kirkwood native, will be heading back to the St. Louis University High School track permanently when he joins the historic program this fall.
The High School races kicked off with the Spewak Training Elite Development Mile, featuring Missourians Josie Baker, Natalie Barnard, Grace Tyson, Kayleigh Norris, and Elissa Barnard. Among those 5 girls, there were 15 all-state medals from this past weekend's State Championships, including 6 golds between individual and relay events. The overall race would go to Nebraska's Berlyn Schutz, whose impressive third lap pushed her to the front group heading into the bell lap and a 70.31 final lap sealed the deal. Just behind Schutz was Kirkwood's Josie Baker in a new personal best of 4:49.32. She became only the sixth Missourian to break 4:50 for the full mile and the en route 4:47.55 1600 mark is MO No. 5 all-time behind only Hannah Long, Taylor Werner, Anna West, and Megan Thompson. Kayleigh Norris came across as the second Missourian and ninth girl overall with a personal best 4:55.33. The Class 4 1600 State Champion was just ahead of Natalie Barnard and her first career sub-5:00 mark, as well as 10-time All-Stater and 5-time State Champion Grace Tyson and the third of the Lafayette trio Elissa Barnard.
In the Boys edition of the Spewak Training Elite Development Mile, five more Missourians toed the line in the sixteen athlete field. They were Ian Kemey, Hobbs Campbell, Sean Forquer, Keion Grieve, and Jaxson Copelin. Among this group, there were 11 All-State medals, including 3 golds between the individual and relay events. The Missouri boys got swallowed up early and put no one in the top 5 when all was said and done, but Kemey and Campbell were able to secure Top 7 finishes in 4:11.56 and 4:12.49, respectively. For Kemey, it was a nice encore coming off of his Class 5 State title in the 3200. For Campbell, it was surely a nice recovery from his near miss in the Class 5 1600 and a big personal best to cap off a phenomenal high school career. Forquer came across 13th in 4:16.80, Grieve - the Class 5 800 champion - came across 15th in 4:21.69 and Copelin crossed just behind him in 4:22.87. Columbia (IL)'s Ethan Hogan was the winner, keeping the victory somewhat close to home, as the southwestern Illinoisan ran a personal best of 4:08.36, a second ahead of his lifetime best from New Balance Nationals Indoor this winter.
After the Hickman Kewpie brought home the Mascot 400 meet record in a blazing 56.18, the Final Surge 800s were ready to go.
The girls race featured one Missourian, Elyse Wilmes. Wilmes ran her previous personal best of 2:08.99 at this meet last June, but has since bettered that stellar mark at last weekend's RunningLane Championships, running a blistering 2:06.97 for the win there. The Sophomore was coming off Class 2 State Championships in the 800, 1600, and 4x800 Meter Relays, with the latter two races being Class 2 meet records. On this evening, she was able to stick with the quick pace through the first lap of 62 seconds, but faded as they headed toward the finish line and ended up finishing behind Illinoisans Becca Heitzig and Ahry Comer. Both Heitzig and Comer dipped under the 2:10 mark, but Wilmes had to settle for a 2:10.88 mark, her fourth mark at 2:10 or better this spring.
Festus senior Ian Schram was the lone Missourian in the boys race as this section was dominated by Illinois half-milers, as well. Schram, coming off wins in the Class 4 800 and 1600, and a runner-up in the 3200, would finish 10th in his third sub-1:55 mark (1:54.81) of the year. Three boys would end up breaking 1:50 in this race, with Dan Watcke, Patrick Hilby, and Alex Waldie all clearing the barrier and propelling themselves to US No. 1, No. 3, and No. 12 status, respectively.
The Big River Running High School Championship Miles were easily the most competitive in the meet's history. Though the Girls race didn't feature any Missouri girls, it still brought the heat with 10 girls under 4:50 and 14 of the 15 girls in the race under 5:00. Fifteenth place ran 5:00.54. North Carolina junior Charlotte Bell took the tape with a US No. 4 mark of 4:41.33.
The boys race featured sub-4:00 miler and state record holder Connor Burns. Burns, who ran the junior class national record 3:58.83 in last year's Professional Championship race, was looking to lead as many boys as possible under 4:00 in this year's High School Championship race.
The race was out on pace for the sub-4:00 attempt as all-time University of Iowa great and professional middle distance star Erik Sowinski led the field out in 59.2, with Burns right behind. A cavalcade of stars followed close behind as they rolled through the 800 meter mark in 1:59.1, chugging along toward the 4:00 barrier. After Sowinski stepped off, South Dakota phenom Simeon Birnbaum and Iowa State Champion Jackson Heidesch overtook Burns heading into the bell lap. All three boys were sitting at 2:59-3:00. Birnbaum would throw down his famous finishing kick to close the race in 57.68 and cross the line in 3:57.53, the fourth fastest mile for a high school boy in US history. North Carolina's Rocky Hansen would cross second, both boys running their second ever sub-4:00 miles. Two newcomers to the sub-4:00 club would cross next, though, with Maryland's Tinoda Matsatsa becoming the first Black American high schooler to break 4:00 (3:58.70) and Heidesch next in 3:59.08. Burns would end up 7th in 4:03.25.
It was a historic event and the first high school-only race in which 4 boys broke the 4:00 barrier. Twelve boys crossed under 4:08, as well, marking this race as quite probably the deepest mile race in US history.
The Drury Hotels Men's and Women's Miles provided the kind of fireworks that should close out such a momentous occasion as 3 women broke 4:30, 6 went sub-4:40, and 13 of the 14 competitors broke 4:50. High schooler Tatum David ran a US No. 2 in the Mile and 1600 with her 4:37.79 and 4:36.14 marks. The University of Virginia commit now has meet records in the Middle School Mile and the High School Mile. Missouri natives showed out, as well, with the famous New Covenant Academy McCune sisters (Claire and Katie) and former Rockwood Summit standout Melissa Menghini lining up with the rest of the international talents. Katie McCune would be the top finisher as the Arkansas Razorback crossed 5th in 4:37.66.
The Men's Mile featured some of the best the world has to offer and, similarly, did not disappoint. Kansas native Brett Meyer was the only one under 60 through the first lap and pulled away to a two second lead through the 800 with recent El Dorado Springs graduate Daelen Ackley, Jake Gillum, Liam Back, and Olin Hacker all chasing. Meyer would hit the bell lap three seconds ahead of the field, but Hacker would not be denied. He chased down Meyer with 150 meters and sprinted down the final straight to cross the line in 3:56.59 with an eye-popping 55.19 final lap. Meter settled for second in 3:57.06, Gillum third in 3:59.26, and Back fourth in 3:59.48, matching the same number of sub-4s as the High School Championship race. Ackley was the top Missourian native in fifth in 4:00.97, with Helias Catholic alum Jack Crull crossing in 4:01.18 and FOM favorite Jordan Mann hitting 4:01.65.
A fantastic 2023 Festival of Miles brought the fireworks on the track, but one should not forget the cause for which it raised money and support. This year's athlete in need was Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience Cross Country and Track teams. The following statement was pulled from stlfestivalofmiles.com:
The 2023 beneficiary of Festival of Miles Foundation's annual charity meet will be the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience (Collegiate) Cross Country and Track Teams. The teams include students from Collegiate and Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (CVPA), both magnet high schools in the Saint Louis Public School District (SLPS).
On October 24, 2022, tragedy struck when a gunman entered the shared campus and opened fire inside CVPA. A CVPA student of dance and a beloved teacher were killed. The teacher was Jean Kuczka, who served as both the CVPA PE teacher and the Collegiate cross-country coach.
Steele said, "Ms. Kuczka was in her first year of coaching and doing an excellent job of rebuilding our team. She is greatly missed. Every time we step on the track, we remember her grace, courage and commitment to her students and we look forward to honoring her through the sport that she respected and served so well."
The Festival of Miles Foundation looks forward to bringing the St. Louis community and national running community together in support of the runners at Collegiate and CVPA and in honor of Jean Kuczka, a dedicated educator, active person, beloved family member and ultimate supporter and protector of her students.