By Nick Marshall
PHILADELPHIA, PA—For many runners, spending the third Monday in April in Massachusetts is akin to an athletic pilgrimage. It’s Patriots Day in Boston then, and the holiday is celebrated by tens of thousands of runners in the Boston Marathon.
With a rich history dating back to 1897, it’s the most famous race in America by far. However, Pennsylvania is the home to an even older running event, held shortly after Boston every year, during the last week of April. The Penn Relays in Philadelphia is a mecca of a different sort. Every year, it’s merely the largest track meet in the world.
It celebrated its 125th edition on April 25-27. And it is like no other track meet on earth. Over three days, more than 10,000 runners get to compete on the track at the University of Pennsylvania, during daily sessions lasting from 9 a.m. into the early evening.
All the while, the Relays are a logistical marvel, as Franklin Field becomes a scene of almost nonstop action. At ordinary track meets, there are lulls between races. By contrast, at Penn, things are in nearly perpetual motion. The officials shepherd groups of runners so expertly that as soon as the final finisher crosses the line in one race, the entrants in the next are marched onto the track, and “bang!” the gun goes off, and the next one is under way. Typically, the schedule is set up so that there is less than 60 seconds between the end of one race and the beginning of the next. Bored by the race you just saw? Don’t worry, a new group of young runners will be charging around the oval less than a minute from now!
The officials are so expert at this task that the only time there is a break in the action is when someone false-starts, or there’s a collision at the first turn which causes someone to fall to the track. In that case, everyone gets recalled and a re-start ensues. Even with these occasional hiccups, the meet actually gets ahead of its tight schedule more often than not.
The bulk of Thursday’s action is devoted to high school girls’ relays. This year, between 10:30 a.m and 5:30 p.m. there were over 110 races in rapid succession. Besides some 4x800s, they were primarily heats of the 4×100 and 4×400, with schools divided into a variety of categories, and the fastest teams advancing on to several finals on Friday.
Friday is primarily boys’ high school action, plus collegiate and Masters competition as well as a few individual events. Saturday has more boys’ relays, and then is highlighted with the elite college and post-collegiate runners, including some Olympians.
The Penn Relays are often alternatively referred to as a three-day Carnival, and a distinctive part of the atmosphere is the inclusion of a large contingent of teams from Jamaica, and their proud fans, who show up with great enthusiasm and many Jamaican flags. The small island nation is famous for its sprinters and their relay excellence and the Penn Carnival functions almost as a Jamaican national high school championship. (Usain Bolt ran at Franklin Field several times when he was an unknown schoolboy.)
Nowadays, schools from that country tend to dominate the final results. For example, this year six of the nine teams who made the boys’ 4×100 final hailed from the Caribbean country, and the top four places went to Jamaican high schools, before Coatesville, PA, became the first U.S. Finisher.
The crowds are part of the scene. Although track-and-field in the U.S. has seen a dwindling fan base as a spectator sport (except in Eugene, Oregon), the Relays at picturesque Franklin Field (one of the oldest stadiums in America) always draw a large attendance. Over the three days, more than 100,000 spectators turn out to witness the spectacle. If you go on Thursday or Friday, there will usually be decent seats to be had, but on Saturday the lower stands can be expected to be packed, and latecomers may be relegated to the upper deck. (Reserved seat tickets this year were $30-60.) While the crowds at major marathons are often described—frequently inaccurately—as numbering up to a million spectators, none of them have to pay for the privilege. I wonder how many people would turn out to watch those races if you needed to buy a ticket to watch? (Fewer than 100,000, I suspect.)
The Thursday-through-Saturday sessions also have traditional field events staged on the infield, or outside the stadium. This year there was one remarkable performance in that arena, as Skylar Ciccolini of Lewistown, PA, won the girls’ javelin by over 26 feet. Her throw of 184′ 2” was the second longest javelin toss by a high schooler in history, just 18 inches short of the all-time national record.
Technically, the Relays are a five-day extravaganza, because before the main sessions, they also hold a college men’s decathlon and women’s heptathlon spread over Tuesday and Wednesday. Oddly enough, for a short period in the 1970s, they also had a Penn Relays Marathon that was held on Tuesday on a 3-lap course in Fairmount Park. I ran it myself in 1976. In those ancient days, marathons weren’t held as early in the day. Boston always had a noon start, and the weekday Penn event similarly started around mid-day. In 1976, the temperature soared to the upper 80s and decimated a small starting field. 85 out of 133 starters dropped out, and I managed a 2:55:53 that was good for 14th place out of the 48 survivors.
For distance running fans, Penn’s special treat comes on Thursday, when a night devoted to longer races is held. This includes several distance-medley relays, but also a bunch of individual contests. Besides high school girls’ championships in the mile and 3000-meter, this year there was an open women’s 3000, plus multiple heats for both men and women in the steeplechase and 5000-meters. It then features a women’s 10,000-meters, and concludes with the men’s 10,000.
By the time it’s all done, this distance-running night takes about six hours, winding up past 11:30 PM. The late night hours are part of the attraction. Naturally, very few spectators stick around from morning till near midnight. The stands begin emptying as darkness approaches, but that makes it nice for everyone who does stay, because as the crowd thins you can move around the stands to get the best vantage points.
At this point, some readers may wonder, “Why would anyone want to watch a race on the track that takes 12 or 25 laps? How boring!” To which I say, don’t knock it. Consider that millions of people find watching race cars do 200 laps at Indianapolis captivating, where they go around that oval for three hours or more. By contrast, the 5000 and 10,000 meter runs take roughly 15 and 30 minutes.
During that time, the action can unfold in fascinating ways. While the early laps are usually uneventful, it can be useful to observe these distance runs as battles of attrition. 25-35 runners take off together, and gradually dwindle as the laps go by. Packs form and fragment: “Now there are 12 left…it’s down to seven now…that 5th place runner is struggling; can he hang on?…hey, #14 is trying to bridge the gap…that lap was three seconds faster — # 4 is really putting on the pressure…” Etc. Each race is a little story in itself.
With its team format, relays unfold in a different style than individual races. Since teams typically have a mix of varying talents, the overall races can see more dramatic swings in position than seen in other track events. It’s something the fans at Franklin Field have come to appreciate: a school can appear out of contention midway through the relay, but if its closing runners are superior, they can make up a lot of distance on teams employing slower athletes at the end.
This yo-yo phenomenon was evident in what was the most crowd-pleasing performance among all of Thursday’s events this year. It came in the distance medley for women. This unique contest has relay legs of differing lengths, beginning with a 1200-meter segment, then passing the baton off for legs of 400 and 800 meters before closing with a 1600.
In the opening 1200, Nia Akins of the University of Pennsylvania was in a pack for the first two laps before roaring away to establish a big lead on the third lap. By then, the announcer had mentioned that the Penn women had never won a relay of any distance during the long history of the meet conducted on their home turf; and no Ivy League college at all had won any championship event there. (By contrast, the Penn men have won frequent titles over the past century, with only Villanova having scored more total wins in Relays history.)
With that background, the crowd got into supporting the home team in its quest for a first win. When Penn’s second runner, sprinter Uchechi Nwogwugwu, added to their lead on the 400 leg, it put her school in a commanding position. On the opening lap of the 800, though, several of the pursuing colleges launched charges that almost entirely erased that lead. But when the chasers nearly got up to Melissa Tanaka’s shoulder, she was able to accelerate and regain most of the margin by the time she passed the baton to Maddie Villalba for the anchor leg. The Penn Quaker managed to hold off everyone down the stretch, but Notre Dame was closing in on her at the end, with the Irish runner making up nine seconds over the final leg. It was a close call, but the crowd erupted with delight to see Penn earn the gold.
Afterward, a relieved Villalba said, “I don’t know if there are words. Winning a race like that is unlike anything else.” And the team’s coach, Steve Dolan, gushed: “This is an all-star group, some of the best runners in Penn history assembled at one time. It is a historic moment. Sometimes you think it is possible, but then to actually capture the moment and do it..there is nothing more exciting than a relay moment when you do it together. I could not be more proud of their hard work and accomplishment…I was yelling ‘stay in the moment’ because it is hard when you are by yourself and the crowd is going crazy with the announcer yelling, ‘no Ivy team has ever done this before!’”
The high school girls’ distance medley also had its drama. The past couple years, Katelyn Tuohy of North Rockland, N.Y., has established herself as probably the third best young miler in U.S. history, after only Mary Decker from the 1970s, and Mary Cain, earlier in this decade. This season, though, Tuohy has only competed sparingly at the mile/1600, due to an injury and concentrating on some longer distances.
At Penn, she chose to run as part of her school’s team in the medley. Unfortunately, by the time Tuohy got the baton for her anchor leg, North Rockland was in 15th place out of 18 teams, about 22 seconds off the lead. It was exciting to witness her valiant effort to close this enormous deficit, but the margin was too wide for even the nation’s best to make up. Tuohy overtook ten of the teams ahead of her but eased up in the final stretch when it became obvious those last four were out of reach.
Meanwhile, Fayetteville-Manlius from upstate New York took the victory, with Claire Walters racing the second fastest 1600 of the day, while moving her team from 5th place to 1st during her anchor leg.
Although Penn’s medley win earned the biggest cheers of the day, the premier event on Thursday proved to be the high school mile. In the absence of Katelyn Tuohy from the event in 2019, a pair of Pennsylvania 11th-graders had been America’s top milers. Marlee Starliper of Northern HS was the defending champ at Penn and the race favorite, having won the mile at the famed Millrose Games two months earlier. Her only two defeats in the past year had been by Taryn Parks of Greencastle HS, as Parks had won the state 1600 title last spring, and in February had beaten Starliper by 3/1000ths of a second at the national indoor championship mile, when the two had a thrilling duel which saw them tangle arms in the final steps and both go sprawling across the finish line, with Parks in a time of 4:39.045 and Starliper at 4:39.048.
With Mary Cain’s meet record from 2012 being 4:39.28, it looked like that mark could be in danger from either one of them. The only other girl having a PR within five seconds of the PA pair was Victoria Starcher of Ripley, WV. Previously she’d tried hanging with the Keystone duo in several races, only to fade a lot at the end. Nonetheless, this time she stayed with them again from the start, as the three girls quickly separated themselves from the rest of the field. Parks took the lead briefly, but Starcher moved to the front by 200 meters, with Starliper a step back, and Parks in tow. It remained that way till early in the third lap when Starliper swept past Starcher. By then, Parks was beginning to fade, and it appeared that Starliper would cruise to victory. This time, however, Starcher only momentarily lost a stride before answering the challenge. She responded strongly and got on Starliper’s shoulder. With 300 to go, the West Virginian gal took back the lead. Hitting the back stretch, it looked like it would be a close duel, until the favorite faltered unexpectedly, while Starcher launched a long drive and stayed strong to the tape, storming home with a decisive victory in 4:38.19. She blitzed the last quarter-mile in about 66 seconds and broke Mary Cain’s meet record in the process. Starliper wound up four seconds back, with Parks an additional four seconds behind.
The outcome means for the first time ever, the U.S. has four active schoolgirls who are sub-4:40 milers. Competition brings out the best in them. In interviews afterward, Starcher said she was in a bit of shock, admitting that it was her goal to break 4:40 this season, but hadn’t expected it to happen now. She also expressed having had some past frustration at previously coming up short when facing Starliper and Parks in big races: “I’ve raced them so many times nationally, that I kind of know what kind of moves they make during the race…I’ve just been so close—second, third—but I’ve never been able to pull off the win. I’m just so thrilled.”
Participating in the Penn Relays is a big day even for girls farther down in the standings, with Kileigh Kane, 5th in 4:51:05, commenting, “I’m really happy I had this opportunity to run against the best girls in the country.”
The night’s last dozen races were all open races, composed mostly of college runners, but with some older participants hoping to use this meet to get a time qualifying them for the next Olympic Trials in the steeplechase, 5000, or 10,000 meters. Unfortunately, track runners nowadays are finding fewer and fewer opportunities around the country to run 5Ks or 10Ks in high-quality fields, and most facilities lack the water jump necessary to even hold a steeplechase.
Times in these longest races were generally modest, except for the women’s steeple, where Brianna Ilarda of Providence College broke the meet record by 1.2 seconds with a 9:55:43. In the 5000s, the winners among both the men and women were post-collegiate runners. Katrina Spratford ran 16:02.34 and held off Lisa Tertsch of Harvard by less than a second in the evening’s closest finish, and Mohamed Hrezi scored the men’s title in 14:02.54.
In the women’s 10,000, Keira D’Amato of the Potomac River Running club and Jacqueline Gaughan, a freshman at Notre Dame, broke away from the field right from the start. For 18 laps, the older D’Amato set the pace, with Gaughan shadowing her closely, but then the youngster upped the tempo dramatically, and sped away to an impressive win, running negative splits of 16:45-16:28 for her victory in 33:13, more than a half-minute ahead of the runner-up.
The night’s final race had 34 men start, but only four of them broke 30 minutes, with Aaron Bienenfeld of the University of Cincinnati unleashing a strong kick over the last two laps to claim the win by seven seconds in 29:34.
By then, the clock read 11:30 p.m. It was time to go home, after a long but entertaining night at Franklin Field.
Categories: Race Coverage