Category Archives: Penn Relays

For Penn fans, a Penn Relays primer

Robin Martin, right, will be head coach for his first Penn Relays after taking over the men's track and field program from the reins of Charlie Powell, left, last December.

It’s that time of year again as runners from across the country (and Jamaica – a lot from Jamaica!) come to Franklin Field for the largest, oldest and perhaps most exciting track and field competition in the country.

Yes, the 118th running of the historic Penn Relays is here.

Earlier this week, I got the chance to discuss the meet with Penn interim men’s track and field coach Robin Martin C’00, a former Penn Relays champion who I featured in a recent Gazette issue.

With his help, I’ve pinpointed a couple of Penn storylines to watch for students and alums going to Franklin Field this weekend. (To see Penn’s entire schedule, click here).

College Men’s High Jump Championship

Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

Last year, Maalik Reynolds became the first Penn athlete to win the Penn Relays high jump title since 1955 (when Will Lee C’55 shared the title with three others in 1955). He later improved upon that winning jump of 7 feet, 3 ¼ inches to capture a Heps crown the following week, and the sophomore remains one of the nation’s best jumpers this year. Despite being the top seed and favorite, Martin expects stiff competition, especially from a pair of Indiana University jumpers in Derek Drouin and Darius King. Still, there are a lot of expectations for Reynolds to repeat. Martin said that many Penn alums decided to sit in the section in front of the high jump area just to watch Penn’s star sophomore.

College Men’s Distance Medey Championship of America

Friday, 4 p.m.

Penn's Ryan Cunningham will anchor the Men's DMR on Friday.

This is an event that is usually one of the most exciting ones at Penn Relays. It’s also won that has been dominated by Villanova, which has won the race two of the past three years and 25 times overall. But Martin believes his team consisting of senior Brian Fulton (1200-meter leg), senior Brian Rosenthal (400), freshman Mato Bekelja (800) and senior anchor Ryan Cunningham (1600-meter leg) can make a splash. Martin called Cunningham and Fulton “national-caliber” mid-distance runners, especially heaping praise upon Cunningham, who put in a lot of hard work to shave his mile time down from 4:24 to around 4:02 since coming to Penn. And since the DMR usually comes down to who runs the strongest mile, Martin is hopeful Cunningham and the Quakers will be able to stay with Villanova and the other national powers in this event.

High School Boys Discus Throw Championship

Friday, 10 a.m.

As the top seed, East Brunswick High School senior Sam Mattis will look to defend his Penn Relays title in the discus. Why should this matter to Quaker fans? Well, Mattis will be attending Penn next year, having passed up full rides from some of the nation’s premier programs to be the centerpiece of Martin’s first recruiting class as head coach. You might want to get a sneak peak at Mattis, who Martin believes has the potential to be a national champion and an Olympic thrower some day.

High School Boys Mile Run Championship

Friday, 6:05 p.m.

Staying with the high schools – which usually has some of the most exciting races at Penn Relays – another Penn recruit will be a competing for a national title: Upper Moreland’s Drew Magaha. According to Martin, Magaha is the best 800-meter runner in the country and would already be in the Penn record books for his 800 time. Now we can see how he does against the country’s best high school milers.

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There are other races to watch, of course. For Penn, the men have a good 4×800 relay team that has a chance to win the second Championship of America heat, and the Penn women will look to be competitive in the 4×100, 4×200 and 4×800, among other heats. And, of course, let’s not forget about local power Villanova going for gold in most of the distance relays, as well as the thrilling USA vs. the World races on Saturday that always electrify the crowd.

To see the entire Penn Relays schedule (and follow results live), click here. But if you’re in town, you should really try to make it out to Franklin Field to soak in the atmosphere and excitement of the country’s best track meet.

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Covering the Penn Relays: there’s a lot to love

Considering I covered almost every sport during my time at Penn, was the sports editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian for one year, have lived in Philly ever since college, and recently begun writing about Penn sports again, it seems almost strange to say that I had never covered the Penn Relays.

I’m thankful to report that changed this past weekend.

On Thursday and Friday, I ventured out to Franklin Field to write about the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States (for the Gazette and CSNPhilly.com). And despite not being much of a track guy, I found myself shaking my head in wonderment on more than one occasion.

Yes, I had been to the Penn Relays before as a spectator, but there was something different about watching from the press tables, interviewing some of the athletes and soaking in the entire atmosphere.

While what I’m about to write is certainly nothing new to those who make the Penn Relays a yearly pilgrimage, I still thought I’d share what I thought to be some of the coolest things about the famed track meet:

  • First of all, many kudos to Penn freshman Maalik Reynolds, who became the first Quaker since 1955 to win the high jump Championship of America. I was not able to be there Saturday when Reynolds made history for the home team, but you can read more coverage of his incredible accomplishment here, here and here.

    Reynolds won the Penn Relays high jump title Saturday (photo coutesy of Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

  • The races featuring athletes 60, 70 and older are a lot of fun. It’s probably the only time a guy 100 meters off the lead can hear wild cheers from the crowd, hold his arms up in celebration and be congratulated by Bill Cosby (who says he’s now been to Penn Relays for the last 64 years) upon finishing dead last. Many of the Special Olympians racing showed just as much excitement.
  • Even if you don’t love track, you have to marvel at the camaraderie displayed by relay teams. The baton passing by itself takes an incredible amount of teamwork, but there’s so much more to it than that. One day, I saw three members of one relay team carrying their injured teammate out of Franklin Field. The next day, I watched the anchor leg of one losing team give an entire interview while someone else on her relay team massaged her shoulders.
  • I love how malaise from the crowd can quickly turn into exuberance when a close race reaches the finish line. It doesn’t build up … it simply explodes.
  • It’s sometimes hard to pay attention to field events when there’s so much to watch on the track. But you can usually tell when a competition is nearing the end. In the long jump, for instance, the best competitors – and their rivals – began a slow clap before big jumps. The crowd usually joined in immediately.
  • As the announcer called out the teams competing in the high school girls 4×100 Championship of America, I enjoyed watching the Jamaicans in the crowd go nuts for each of the five Jamaican squads. They were soon silenced, however, when a school from California (Long Beach Poly) won the race and carried an American flag around the track. It’s a great rivalry.
  • Perhaps the most fun part away from the track is walking around Franklin Field, spotting the Relays participants, looking at their shirts to see where they’re from, and wondering what they’d be doing right then if they were in, say, Arkansas, instead of on Penn’s campus.
  • The distance medley relay is a really great race – and, if this past weekend was any indication, one that is wildly unpredictable. The Villanova women were supposed to not only win the race but also set a Penn Relays record, but were devastated when they ran poorly, dropped the baton at one point and ended up finishing in 13th place. The Villanova men, meanwhile, were not a favorite but used an inspirational anchor leg from Matthew Gibney to claim victory – which was easily one of the highlights of the entire weekend. You can read both of my CSN stories on Villanova here and here.
  • The Penn Relays Carnival is truly a well-oiled machine, and its officials, led by Dave Johnson, deserve a ton of credit for staying organized while, rain permitting, keeping the event on perfect schedule. The only thing, it seemed, that was ever out of their control was when the announcer asked fans not to stand so everybody could see. Nobody listened. Like so many other things, standing and cheering are what make the Penn Relays special.

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The Penn Relays in Pictures

It’s hard to explain what the Penn Relays was like on Saturday when Usain Bolt and the Jamaicans smashed a Carnival record in front of more than 50,000 fans at a pulsating Franklin Field. So I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll turn it over to my friend and newspaper colleague Tom Kelly IV, who I think is one of the best photographers in the area. Here are some of his best shots. If you want to see more of his work, you can visit his blog here. Enjoy!

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Putting on the Penn Relays: ‘A combination of adrenaline and fear’

How do you organize the largest and most acclaimed track meet in the country?

“You worry about what you might have forgotten,” admits Dave Johnson, director of The Penn Relays. “You’ve got so many people doing so many things and many of those things can’t be done until the last moment.

“In a way, it’s like raising a tent. All the sides go up at once and everyone is pulling on their chord at the same time all together. In the process, you find yourselves wondering if you’ve forgotten one tent stake. That combination of adrenaline and fear is what gets you through these last two weeks.”

Dave Johnson is the man behind the Penn Relays

Johnson, who has been the event’s director for the past 15 years, estimates 18,000 athletes (16,000 runners and 2,000 field participants) will invade Franklin Field for the annual meet that draws premier high school, college and Olympic athletes, huge crowds and much hoopla every April.

Adding to the excitement this year will be the presence of international superstar Usain Bolt, who will run for Jamaica in the 4×400 “USA vs. the World” race.

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt will be at Franklin Field on Saturday

It won’t be until the first race goes off this Thursday morning when Johnson finally takes a deep breath.

“It’s a big relief,” he said. “You look for various points where the train is on the track and the thing is going to run itself now. The first gun each day is one of those points. The program going off to the printer is one of those points. Closing off the seating for all the high school and college races are similar points. There’s a succession of those major deadlines throughout six months.”

Another challenge, according to Johnson, is directing the heavy volunteer staff that have helped get the 116th running of the event off the ground

“They work on many other things during the year,” he said. “Getting them to suddenly switch gears and think about Penn Relays back in October sometimes gets difficult.”

But like all of the volunteers on his staff, Johnson is fueled by his addiction to the Relays. It began, he said, when he first walked into Franklin Field on an April Saturday in 1968 and was shocked to find as many people there as at a Phillies game at Connie Mack Stadium. It picked up steam his first year working the press box in 1979 when Renaldo Nehemiah electrified the stadium. And it only intensified further when he was named director prior to the 1996 carnival.

And for the man in charge of it all, there’s always a little bit of time to forget about his own responsibilities of running the Penn Relays and focus instead on everyone else running the Penn Relays.

“There are the goosebumps when the big roars from the crowd occurs,” Johnson said. “That’s just as liable to happen over a high school relay than the USA vs. the World event. You don’t know when and where that will happen.”

Only that it will.

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