Since its inception in 2008, the HOKA Festival of Miles has embraced a dual personality. On one hand, it showcases the mile — that most anachronistic of distance races. On the other hand, it has a heart, raising money for athletes in need.

After hosting more than a dozen Olympians, national record holders, and U.S. champions, staging more than 50 sub-4-minute miles, and raising more than $143,000, it has succeeded. And branched out further.

“It’s grown so much,” said Jim Lohr, head track coach at MICDS High School. “The sponsorships, pyrotechnics, music, and quality of the field. It has gone top-level.”

At the outset, though, the founders at Big River Running and St. Louis University High (SLUH) set unassuming goals. They were eager for someone — anyone — to run a mile in Missouri in less than 4 minutes. That feat hadn’t been accomplished since the 1963 Amateur Athletic Union championships at Public School Stadium. They wanted to revive the romance of the distance, so they organized races for all ages at the SLUH track.

But they also wanted to help Saint Louis University runner Brigette Schutzman, who suffered traumatic brain injuries in a car crash. Though none of the competitors broke 4 minutes, the event raised $8,000 for the Schutzman family.

The runners came through in 2009, when Leo Manzano led the top three finishers across the line in less than 4 minutes. Manzano represented the U.S. on six world championship teams, winning the silver medal in the 1500 meters at the 2012 Olympics.

“Leo put us on the map,” said Katie Sutton, board president of the Festival of Miles Foundation. “People started asking, ‘What is this event?’ We tried to build off that.”

Photo by Lily Dozier.

The organizers added prize money, a pace setter, and sanctioning from USA Track and Field as a qualifying race for national or world teams.

Fans grew just as enthused about the high school races. Scheduled every year for the Thursday after the state meet, the Festival of Miles showcased the area’s best. One of Lohr’s first athletes to compete was Amos Bartelsmeyer, fresh off his Class 3 title in the 1600 meters in 2012. With dozens of his MICDS teammates cheering him on, Bartelsmeyer won again. He later represented Germany in the 1500 meters at the 2019 World Championships and 2020 Olympics.

High schoolers from neighboring states caught wind of the event. Among the first to compete here was Grant Fisher from Michigan. He broke 4 minutes at the 2015 Festival, becoming the seventh U.S. high school athlete to do so. Fisher currently holds the U.S. records at 3,000, 5,000, and 10,000 meters.

By the time HOKA brought its cachet as title sponsor in 2021, the high school miles for boys and girls had gone national. Last year, four high schoolers in the race finished in less than 4 minutes. “HOKA put their money where their mouth was and elevated the field,” Lohr said.

Despite the growth at the elite levels, the event continues to include a Healthy Kids race and mascot race. And, unlike a traditional track meet spread over several days, the Festival features back-to-back events. “It’s a family-friendly, exciting event,” Sutton said. “Where can you see this much in two and a half hours for $10? It’s rockin’.”

Adding to the party atmosphere are a DJ, food trucks, and raucous fans. Area high schoolers show up en masse, sitting atop the grandstand wall. Lohr’s contingent of 20 to 25 sets up a tent at the finish line and brings a bass drum, cowbells, and whistles to share with the crowd.

Photo by Lily Dozier.

This year, the growth has come full circle. Because the high school miles attract national attention, organizers decided to refocus this year on the area’s best high school milers by adding the Big River Running Missouri Miles for boys and girls.

“We want to stay true to our roots and showcase our locals,” Sutton said. “This has been our passion project for two years.”

And because HOKA helps with athlete expenses, all ticket proceeds go to the Athlete in Need. Last year’s beneficiary was the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience. The school shares a campus with Visual and Performing Arts, site of a mass shooting in October 2022 in which cross country coach Jean Kuczka was killed.

“The event keeps getting bigger, but it’s been organized from the beginning by a small group that loves track and field and loves helping people,” Sutton said. “That’s what’s cool about the St. Louis running community.”


Top Talents

Former Festival of Miles competitors who have graced the international track scene include:

  • Emily Sisson (Parkway Central): 2020 U.S. Olympian in the 10,000 meters, 2024 Olympian in the marathon
  • Colleen Quigley (Nerinx Hall): 2016 Olympian in the steeplechase
  • Natalie Cook (Flower Mound, Texas): American high school record holder in the 5,000 meters
  • Jonathan Davis (Oakwood, Illinois): Silver medalist in the 1500 meters at the 2022 USA Championships.
  • Nick Willis (representing New Zealand): 2008 Olympic silver medalist and 2016 bronze medalist in the 1500 meters


HOKA Festival of Miles

6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30, 2024

Saint Louis University High School, 4970 Oakland Avenue

Registration: High school race entries are due at midnight EST May 25. The deadline to register for and be considered for the Junior Invite races is May 26. Online signup for Healthy Kids (grades K-5) and Middle School races (grades 6-8) closes at 11:59 p.m. on May 29; onsite registration for these two races opens at 4:30 p.m. on May 30.

Admission: $10

Free parking

More information:

Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.

Top Photo: Michael Gulledge.