Discover more from My Life, in Color
How the Drake Relays got a shot at Iowa's first 4-minute mile
A distance showdown brought Drake its first out-of-state champion since 1940
Simeon Birnbaum, a star distance runner from Stevens High School in Rapid City, South Dakota, crossed the Drake Relays Elite mile finish line in 4 minutes 2.36 seconds.
In one of this year’s most talked about performances, he edged Dowling Catholic’s Jackson Heidesch (4:02.76) April 28.
Two of the nation’s top high school milers put on a great show for fans in a Relays first.
Meanwhile, I raced to Drake’s history books.
Jackson Heidesch, a Dowling Catholic senior, talks to media Friday after running a 4:02.76 in the Drake Relays Elite boys’ mile. (Photo by John Naughton.)
My question was this. I spent a lot of time covering the Drake Relays (my first job reporting on them occurring in the mid-1980s) and while I knew no out-of-state high school performer had won a Drake event in a very long time, I knew it had happened.
I found my answer. From 1923 to 1940, non-Iowa high schools took first in four boys’ relays: the 4x100, 4x200, 4x400 and 4x800 (using current metric names for the races). During that span, runners from seven states captured 27 championships.
The states: Illinois, South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and Mississippi. (I’ve often wondered why Greenville, Mississippi, won the 4x400 in 1933 and 1935.)
The out-of-state streak ends in 1940. I spoke with Dave Mills, a longtime Drake Relays committee member and historian, and we discussed why the state’s most historic track meet seemed to block preps from outside Iowa from 1941 to 2022.
While we didn’t come up with a clear cause, we noted that the Relays hired Bill Easton as its director in 1941. Perhaps Easton’s reign started a ban that continued until current director Blake Boldon broke with tradition this year?
Simeon Birnbaum, a high school runner from South Dakota, ran 4:02.36 to win the Drake Relays Elite boys’ mile. (Photo by John Naughton.)
Thus, I became a man with a mission. I wanted to know why and how the Drake Relays broke new ground by bringing in Midwest athletes in the Elite boys’ and girls’ mile runs.
I interviewed Birnbaum and Heidesch after their race and spoke with Boldon following the Relays.
The short version: Heidesch and Dowling’s boys’ cross country coach, Timothy Ives, pitched to Boldon the idea of a Drake Relays boys’ mile that would feature Heidesch, an outstanding runner with a national reputation who will compete at Duke, and the alluring prospect of him racing against Birnbaum, an Oregon recruit who had already run a sub-4 minute time last summer.
My Life, in Color is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Boldon researched and weighed the possibilities. The potential of an Iowan breaking the 4-minute barrier — one of track’s most thrilling feats since Roger Bannister became the first to shatter that mark in 1952 — was tempting. Adding a companion girls’ Elite mile with a similar field made it a special attraction on Friday night.
Birnbaum thus ended up making history as the first non-Iowan to take home a title in a boys’ race on the Blue Oval since 1940.
Des Moines Roosevelt’s Adrienne Buettner-Cable, a Boston University recruit, won the girls’ race in 4:49.58. Ballard of Huxley’s Paityn Noe, who will run at Arkansas, was second in 4:49.91.
The girls’ field also included: Jordyn Arens of Crofton, Nebraska; Marley Turk, Ames; Lydia Sommer, Pleasant Valley; Libby Castelli, Sioux Falls (South Dakota) O’Gorman; Josie Baker, Kirkwood, Missouri; and Addi Dorenkamp, West Des Moines Valley.
The boys’ field also included: Wyatt Haughton, Shawnee Mission (Kansas) East; Ford Washburn, Iowa City High (a Northern Arizona recruit); Noah Breker, Robbinsdale (Minnesota) Armstrong, a North Carolina recruit; Andrew Hauser, Columbia (Missouri) Rock Bridge; Hobbs Campbell, Joplin, Missouri (a Kansas recruit); Daniel Watcke, Hinsdale (Illinois) Central (an Oregon recruit); Caden Peters, Shawnee Mission (Kansas) East; Carson Lane, Johnston.
Roosevelt’s Buettner-Cable was cheered on by a Friday crowd known for its Distance Carnival atmosphere.
“It was really exciting to run against people from outside the state,” Buettner-Cable said.
Birnbaum’s mother is Sarah Pluim, a Drake Relays champion who attended Unity Christian of Orange City. He grew up admiring her Drake pennants and earned his own one.
“She was probably more excited than me,” Birnbaum said.
He said he contacted Drake officials a year ago to ask if he could qualify for a race. He said he was told no, since he didn’t attend an Iowa high school.
Boldon said Ives contacted him last fall, as Heidesch appeared to have the potential to join 17 high school boys who have run sub-4 minute miles since Jim Ryun completed the feat in 1964.
Boldon said he did not race to a quick decision. He talked to high school coaches, state athletic associations and Drake Relays committee members. He wanted to be sure that the events honored Iowa high school runners.
“We would do it if Iowa high school kids were the center of the storm,” Boldon said.
Another consideration was that adding events would not take away opportunities for Iowa preps to compete at the cost of out-of-state runners getting their chance.
That was accomplished, as the races were added (along with a high school wheelchair race this year). The added events allowed several opportunities for more qualifiers, since all mile participants couldn’t compete in the boys’ 1,600 and girls’ 1,500.
It was enticing to have the opportunity to see an Iowan with the chance of running a sub-4 mile on an Iowa track. The race isn’t normally held in Iowa meets, and no Iowa prep has reached that milestone.
“If we don’t do it now, then when do we do it?” Boldon asked himself.
So, the field of runners was built. Athletes from Iowa’s bordering states and Kansas were eligible to meet qualifying standards.
Boldon compared the Elite races to the 1961 Drake Relays special 100-yard dash to feature Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics.
Rudolph became the first woman to win an event at the Drake Relays. She beat a field of Iowa high school runners — since track wasn’t a high school or college sport at the time for women.
The race paved the way for today’s Relays, which feature many prominent girls’ and women’s events.
Boldon called the Elite miles a success.
Heidesch didn’t reach his sub-4 goal this time. But the fans watching the unique race loved it.
“It feels like the whole state of Iowa was cheering me on,” Heidesch said after the race.
Boldon said his big focus is building up the college competition at the Relays. While the fans were excited, it doesn’t mean Drake will continue to invite out-of-state competition in the mile or other events.
“One change in one year” does not mean the doors closed since 1941 will reopen, Boldon said.
Iowa Writers’ Collaborative Columnists
Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Nik Heftman, The Seven Times, Los Angeles and Iowa
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
Pat Kinney: View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
Fern Kupfer: Fern and Joe, Ames
Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
Kurt Meyer, Showing Up, St. Ansgar
Kyle Munson, Kyle Munson’s Main Street, Des Moines
Jane Nguyen, The Asian Iowan, West Des Moines
John Naughton: My Life, in Color, Des Moines
Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
Barry Piatt: Piatt on Politics: Behind the Curtains, Washington, D.C.
Macey Spensley, The Midwest Creative, Davenport and Des Moines
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices, Kalona
Cheryl Tevis: Unfinished Business, Boone County
Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines