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Thoughts Around The 124th Penn Relays

The world’s oldest relay track and field meet is underway at historic Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The Penn Relays Carnival has hosted most the the greatest US track & field athletes over the years, and many of the world’s best as well.  It’s a chance for fans to see live performances of both current and future Olympic competitors and world record holders.  Two of the local high school stars from my town of Haddonfield, NJ, Erin Donahue and Marielle Hall competed here as high schoolers and collegiates before representing the USA in the Olympics. A lot of fans flock to the Relays each year, with attendance for the three day meet usually topping 100,000, and there is a good and very vocal crowd this evening.

April is a big running month locally, and for nearly forty years the Penn Relays have been followed a week later by the Broad Street Run. This ten mile race beginning near LaSalle University and finishing at the Philadelphia Navy Yard draws roughly 40,000 entries and six figure crowds of fans along the longest street in any US city. The region also received some great track and field news just before the Relays began this week. The USATF, the governing body of track & field in the country, awarded the next two Indoor T&F Championships to the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island, NY.  Many of the athletes we are watching at Penn over the next few days will be competing there as well for a spot on the US team at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, UK.

And speaking of venues, Franklin Field is a key part of the Penn Relays experience. Especially this year, following the Eagles Super Bowl Championship a couple of months ago. The big guy in the Eagles Underdog sweatshirt stood near the edge if the infield educating the fans seated at the far turn,  of the fact. It was overheard in various forms around the stadium all day. Another interesting story I overheard was about a patient from a cancer ward at the hospital across the street. It seems rather than walk in boring laps around his floor each day, he’d sneak out and walk around the track in Franklin Field instead. Not necessarily a better therapy, but he loved the place, and it worked for him. The stadium’s unique mixture of charm, history, and partying coalesces with the great competition to make the meet truly a “carnival” experience. From the smell of the legion of food trucks in the area, offering everything from cheesesteaks to Jamaican fare, to the sea of both prep and collegiate school colors in the stands, the Relays are as unique as the sport they host. Track & Field (along with swimmers) are not only competing against the clock, their opponents, themselves, but history itself. Every time the starters gun fires, the runners are racing against the best of all time, the throwers and jumpers doing the same in their events.

There are meet marks, that if exceeded earn you a place in Penn Relays history. And the same goes for national and world records. If someone runs faster than Usain Bolt this meet, they are the new Fastest Man on Earth. In other sports the records are subjective and dependent on the current competion. So you can never know beyond a certainty if you are better than Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky or Diana Taurasi or Joe Montana, even playing at the professional level. But in track and field it is all about inches and split seconds. And every time an athlete races, throws or jumps this weekend it is potentially a world record attempt to become the best of all time.

Casey Stengel once said that the reason you go to a baseball game is that you might see something you’ve never seen before. And at the Penn Relays that is almost guaranteed, and that thing you see might even be a new world record. I may or may not get to see something like that over the next couple of days, but like the Zen master said “We’ll see”.

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