The Penn Relays Amplifies The Underappreciated Greatness Of Track And Field

If you haven’t been to the Penn Relays, you need to.

Track is not just a sport; it’s an experience.

For those of you who have never run track, it’s an experience you need to partake in. And based upon the fact that an 80 and up Master’s division was held at the Penn Relays this past weekend, there’s no reason you can’t start now.

To me, track is the hardest sport in the world. It’s an individual sport that has a team component. It’s a sport with many cliques and attitudes, yet when your teammates are competing, divisions no longer exist. Nothing compares to watching runners exploding down the track at blistering speeds, the crowd screaming as they blow by. Watching coaches run from one corner of the infield to the other, yelling out encouragement and split times, is a strange yet exciting sight to watch. And seeing all of the teams, colors and jerseys sprawled across the infield, within the stadium and even in the stands talking to friends and family, all makes track special.

It’s a vastly underappreciated sport, particularly in the United States where the traditional ball sports dominate the sports landscape. Outside of the Olympics every four years, track doesn’t get the attention it so rightly deserves.

That’s why the Penn Relays is so special and so necessary, as both an event and an experience.

The Penn Relays bring together some of the best athletes in sports period. They come from places such as the U.S., Canada, Jamaica and Kenya. They come from high schools, colleges and the pro ranks, all showcasing their amazing talents and, many times, their unique personalities. Outside of the Olympics, where can you go to see Olympic stars like Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell, Michael Johnson, Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Merlene Frazer in one location?

Answer- you go to the Penn Relays.

(Photo credit: Yussuf Khan)

This past weekend fans witnessed domination by the University of Houston, which took both the men’s 4×100 (39.23) and 4×400 (3:02.61) College of America Invitation events in a blur of red and white.

Another great race was the USA vs. the World Men’s Sprint Medley, where Kenya pulled off the victory after being in last place for almost the entire race, until the last lap of Collin Kipruto’s 800m anchor leg run. This demonstrated the fact that track isn’t just about running as fast as you can. There’s so much strategy involved, but it’s not x’s and o’s. No, it’s watching where to make the move, recognizing when your competitors are slowing down and where to kick it in. You go to soon or too fast too early, and the dreaded refrigerator could come crashing down on your back, slowing you down to the point where the gas tank runs out and you hit that imaginary wall.

Kipruto watched and waited, running a split that put him in striking distance and then passing the U.S. for first and never looking back from there.

But the highlight of the Penn Relays are the sprints featuring the world teams, where it’s all about the U.S. vs Jamaica. This is as intense a rivalry as there is in the sport, and the excitement never subsides. Just walking up to the stadium and you’re engulfed by signs of Jamaican pride. Green, black and gold flags and bandanas, complemented by reggae music and the charismatic sound of Jamaican accents flowing around the stadium, lets you know who’s in the building immediately.

(Photo credit: Yussuf Khan)

It’s all love outside, as fans are here to celebrate cultural pride and cheer their teams on.

But on the track, there is no love lost.

Once the spike are on, the smiles are gone, the intensity cranks up, egos swell and it’s all about the red, white and blue or green, black and gold.

It’s a rivalry that runs across both the men’s and women’s teams, and it’s steeped in history.

Since “The USA vs. The World” program was officially founded in 2000 at the Penn Relays, only the U.S. and Jamaica have captured gold in both the men’s and women’s 4×100, a race many consider THE event at the Relays.

On the men’s side, the U.S. is the undisputed leader in head to head matches, 15 to 4, respectively. But while the former holds the head to head record, the latter holds the event time record with a blistering 37.9 set in 2010 with Usain Bolt as the anchor leg.

On the women’s side, the U.S. also holds the edge by a margin of 12 to 7. And while the U.S. holds the event record with a 42.19, set in 2012 with legends Allyson Felix and Carmelita Jeter, Jamaica has taken the last two gold medals.

At this year’s event, the Jamaican women dusted the competition with a time of 43.19, taking their third gold medal in a row behind the team of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Natasha Morrison, Shillonie Calvert and Shasha Lee Forbes. USA Red finished third (44.90) behind Canada (44.37) and USA Blue came in fourth (44.60).

On the men’s side, USA Red took gold with a time of 38.80. They were followed by Team Canada (38.94) and USA Blue (39.16). Jamaica Green (39.26) and Jamaica Gold (39.84) finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

The weekend isn’t just about the pros and college athletes. There are plenty of high schools competing to be recognized by the next level, and they come from all over the U.S., Canada, the Bahamas and, of course, Jamaica. In some cases, the high schoolers are running times that put them in competition with, or even best, the college athletes.

While there are too many events to mention, one of the most entertaining events was the Masters Mixed 100m dash for runners 80 and older. The winner clocked in at 15.34, at 82 years old!

Track is an amazing sport, but unless you run, it’s hard to explain the thrill, pain, exhaustion, excitement and speed of a track event; you have to be there to truly experience and feel it.

Until you’ve watched a runner blaze through the pack to go from last to first, seen a runner give everything they have before the “fridge” lands on their back or watch a runner get reeled in an walked down in the last 50 meters on the anchor leg to clinch the win for their team, you haven’t witnessed one of the greatest experiences in sports.

My advice is to make plans to head down to Philly next April and spend the day watching some of the greatest athletes in the world at different levels do what very few can do.

And that’s to inspire and entertain simply by running….fast.

Back to top