The servers at Zelo kept one eye on their outdoor tables and the other on a quiet Nicollet Mall as dusk approached on an early May evening. A stream of elite runners soon would pass the restaurant -- as well as the street musicians, the shoppers and the skateboarders -- as they ran toward a five-figure jackpot on the south end of the mall.

David Torrence dashed by the diners to win the men's competition at the inaugural U.S. 1-Mile road championship and the $10,000 bonus that came with breaking the 4-minute mark. That afternoon, the California middle-distance specialist noted how critical it is for track and field to come up with new concepts -- such as this evening race through downtown Minneapolis -- to widen a meager fan base. "We have to think outside the box and try things that aren't traditional,'' he said. "This sport is in dire need of dramatic changes.''

Doug Logan knows that, and as chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, he's committed to finding ways to stoke interest. Officials of the Twin Cities Marathon are running beside him. The organization is working with USATF to promote the sport at all levels, with new events ranging from the elite U.S. 1-Mile to Wednesday's introduction of National Running Day.

National Running Day aims to get people of all ages and fitness levels to lace up their shoes and run. It also showcases one of the sport's greatest assets: its democratic nature. Elite runners from the Team USA Minnesota distance running group will participate in six Twin Cities fun runs, including one in Kenwood Park that will include Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"[The 1-Mile] was a fun way to enhance an event we're trying to grow, as well as a way to give back to the sport and the athletes,'' said Virginia Brophy Achman, executive director of the Twin Cities Marathon. "We have a rich history with hosting championships and trying to grow the sport, but we support championships at the local level, too. We're fortunate to have the running community that we do.''

The Twin Cities Marathon will crown several national champions this October. Elite fields will run for the U.S. women's championship and the U.S. masters championship. The 10-mile race will determine the U.S. men's champion, and the total purse for elite men and women will be $145,000.

Yet TCM officials also know the lifeblood of their sport is found in the nonprofessionals who grind through training runs, hoping to gut it out for 26.2 miles in October just to earn a participation medal and a measure of personal satisfaction. Those legions of citizen runners buy shoes from the companies that sponsor the elite athletes. They pay the entry fees that fund purses for top competitors, and they root for their elite counterparts in such events as the Olympics and world championships.

USATF and such organizations as the Boston Athletic Association and New York Road Runners are co-sponsoring National Running Day as a means to get more people involved in distance running and celebrate the sport. The focus is on fitness and community, but by bringing elite athletes together with recreational runners, it also integrates the sport's diverse constituencies in a way that benefits all.

"Whether you're an elite athlete or not, we're still doing the same thing,'' said Carrie Tollefson, who rose from Minnesota high school champion to Olympian. "We go and run with different groups all the time, but they have the same goals, the same passions. If all the runners who come in [for the Twin Cities Marathon elite field] could run the River Road on Friday morning, they would see so many people who recognize us from the race. They're always rooting for us out there.''

Logan has ambitious plans to heighten the profile of track and field in the United States. He's pushing for new events, such as next year's dual meet between the U.S. and Jamaica, and he's exploring ideas to make meets more exciting for spectators and more attractive to TV networks.

The elite athletes at the Twin Cities 1-Mile supported those ideas and suggested some of their own, including more events that bring the stars closer to the public. The 1-Mile represented a step in that direction. More than 3,000 people ran down the Nicollet Mall to begin the evening then joined curious shoppers and diners to root for an elite field running through the middle of downtown for a big cash prize.

The next stride comes Wednesday with National Running Day.

"There's a local group I work with and help coach,'' said Darren Brown, fourth in the elite men's field at the 1-Mile. "If we want them to show support for us at the elite level, I feel like we need to get in there and support the people who are running every day, hitting the roads at their local 5Ks. Us bringing the sport to them, getting involved in their running and their lives, is something that needs to be done."

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com