By Len Johnson

Every person who has ever climbed a ladder has experienced the feeling. Once you start to come down, your first step is blind, your foot searching for something solid. You’ve taken every precaution; you know you will find a sound footing, but it’s still a relief when you do.

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At the Victorian Milers Club we’ve had that feeling two consecutive years now. The first competition meeting of a new season is always a little fraught. It’s not just the athletes who are a little rusty, shaking off the cobwebs. The same applies to the officials, the electronics, the lighting, and so and so on.

 

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In the past two years, Covid has heightened these pre-season anxieties. A year ago, the first Milers Club meeting was virtually the first athletics competition since the previous summer. Winter sport in Victoria never got going at all in 2020.

This year was less anxiety-inducing, but only by a thin margin. Winter sport got under way this time, but was postponed as the pandemic surged and, finally, abandoned. Again, our first Milers Club meeting had to be postponed but Athletics Victoria summer competition resumed on 13 November and our first competition followed 12 days later.

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In reality, the experience of last year was one factor mitigating the nerves. By summer of 2020-21 we were already experiencing entries in the low 400s and competitors in the high 300s. Unsure of how the health restrictions would impact on our operations, we deliberately chose to start then with a meeting limited to 250 competitors to test the waters.

To our pleasant surprise, the restrictions mostly were in the head. Even better, the manner in which fields had to be marshalled heat by heat and the competition venue kept relatively clear helped smooth the running of the meeting. One of Milers Club’s virtues has been that we have always been able to set a tight schedule, and stick to it, but the imposition of a little more structure nudged us a little bit further in the direction of organised and away from organised chaos.

Having gone through that process a year earlier, we felt confident enough this time round to schedule a full meeting and athletes, coaches and officials responded. Our first meeting for 2021-22 drew a record number of entries – just over 440, and a record number of participants – 418. The latter number needs to be revised down by a handful to allow for the likes of national championship 1500 silver medallist Abbey Caldwell, who ran, and won, both the 800 and 3000 metres.

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Now, though, we are contemplating a different numbers problem that could require management. This time, it’s growth or, more precisely, the limits of growth. We managed 400-plus this time, but it helped that one of our events was the 3000 where it is possible to have bigger field sizes.

The men’s A-heat of the 3000 ultimately went round with 19 runners, but the other nine heats ranged from 20 starters to 24. It will be interesting when we move to 800 and 1500 for our second meeting. You can’t have 24 in a 1500 though, of course, you can have more 1500s in the time it takes to run ten 3000s.

Our three meetings in 2005-06 – Milers Club’s first season – had 77, 110 and 72 competitors, respectively, in six races. In our fourth season, we cracked 200 entries for the first time; it took another six years before we averaged that number over the full five meetings. If 2021-22 continues to play out in line with last season, this could be the first year we average over 400 per meeting.

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It’s an amazing success story and none of us involved are quite sure how we got here. The support of athletes and coaches tells us we are on to a good thing and, like all the specialist sprinters, jumpers and throwers clubs, we are grateful for the support we receive from Athletics Victoria, particularly in processing entries and results. These days the results are online quicker than the time it took to walk around and pin them to the notice board at the back of the Olympic Park grandstand.

The Milers Club will keep on supporting the athletes and coaches who support us, but if numbers keep on increasing, we may have to consider how we deliver that support. Maybe we consider staging competitions over one distance only – a night of 800s, say, or 1500s. Or maybe one distance is offered to all along with a limited number of races at the other distance.

We’re not at that point yet, and perhaps we won’t get there. If we do, I’d much sooner be dealing with growth management issues than the opposite. It’s something we didn’t see coming when we set out on this journey and struggled to get our entries into triple figures.

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