Donnie Cowart glanced at the clock across the field at Meredith College before thrusting both arms in the air as he crossed the finish line. It was just 48 hours earlier that he had woken up feeling sick and unable to eat, but after running one of the best races of his life at the Sir Walter Miler track meet in Raleigh, N.C., last year, Cowart could hardly stop smiling.
With a personal-best time of 3 minutes 58.43 seconds, he had just become the 425th American ever to run a sub-four-minute mile.
“It really didn’t hit me until a couple days later,” Cowart said. “I was like, ‘All right, you really did that, and it can’t be taken away.’ ”
Cowart, a standout runner at Virginia Military Institute from 2004 to 2009, will be one of the elite runners lining up Sunday morning on Pennsylvania Avenue for the inaugural Navy Mile in Northwest Washington. The event, which benefits the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, the Safe Harbor Foundation and the Navy Memorial, will kick off the U.S. Navy’s 240th birthday week.
“Anytime I’m able to support [the military] and run at the same time, it sounds like a great opportunity for me,” Cowart said. “It’s exciting to do.”
It will be the first organized mile road race on Pennsylvania Avenue since the Pennsylvania Avenue Mile was held from 1995 to 2004. And despite the weather forecast, the race will be canceled only if there’s sustained lightning and winds over 45 mph throughout the morning, race director Lyman Jordan said.
Bring Back the Mile, a movement launched in 2012 to help promote mile races in the United States, is featuring the race, a USA Track and Field-certified course, on its calendar and hopes to include it on its tour next year.
“There was a lot of interest in bringing back the race,” said Charlie Hautau, president of the National Capital Council Navy League and one of the race organizers. “I think the mile is something that means a lot to a lot of people.”
The Navy League initially wanted to plan a 5K race, but Hautau and his team decided to do something a bit different. As a runner for the Naval Academy in the late 1970s, Hautau, 58, was drawn to the mile. He ran a personal best 4:11.2 at an indoor track meet in 1978 and was aware of efforts to help popularize mile races in recent years.
Hautau sees the successful Fifth Avenue Mile race in New York City as an inspiration for the Navy Mile.
“I think every great city should have a mile event,” Hautau said. “Those type of activities should be sprinkled across the country so that people could participate in the mile every week if they wanted to.”
Cowart, 29, did not want to be a runner while growing up in Rustburg, Va. It wasn’t until he got cut from his junior varsity basketball and baseball teams in middle school that he gave running a try. At 5 feet 3 and weighing less than 100 pounds, Cowart did not take long to realize his coaches had made the right decision.
“My friend kept telling me how much fun cross-country was, so I joined the cross-country team,” said Cowart, who set several school records at Rustburg High. “That season I was the number one cross-country runner as a freshman. . . . Then after that, I kind of just got a bug for it.
“I look back at it as nothing was going to stop me from being good at something.”
By the time he reached college, Cowart grew to 5-6 and 120 pounds, heavy enough that his coach at VMI questioned whether he was doing the necessary summer workouts. But the extra weight did not slow Cowart, who resides in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a volunteer assistant cross-country and track and field coach at Wake Forest.
He holds VMI school records in the indoor mile and the 3,000-meter steeplechase and received all-American honors in the steeplechase at the 2009 NCAA championships.
“In college, I really wanted to be a good miler,” Cowart said. “Coach put me in the steeplechase, and I was really reluctant at first. But I ended up as the fastest steeplechaser as a freshman, so I just kind of got stuck with it. . . . And now I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Cowart’s career highlight came at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, where he placed fourth in the steeplechase in 8:27.49, just missing an automatic qualifying spot for the Olympic team. He now trains with Wake Forest assistant coach Brad Hunt, whom he met while living in Charlottesville briefly after college, and is sponsored by the Saucony Hurricane team.
Next season is an Olympic year, and Cowart is hopeful that he can make the team in the steeplechase, but the mile still holds a special place in his mind.
“There’s just this allure to it and this mystique around it,” Cowart said of the mile. “If you can run a four-minute mile, everyone knows what that means. That means something to everybody. . . . I think the gravity of the mile is what makes it so special and [why] it relates to so many people.”