Today, the first guns will go off for the Penn Relays, which each year draw the country’s top high school, college, professional, and masters track and field athletes to Franklin Field. Penn, considered one of the great incubators of the “relay” as a regular track and field event, has built an illustrious tradition through this competition over the decades. Here are some of the most memorable moments over the years.
1895: Just-dedicated Franklin Field hosts the inaugural Penn Relays Carnival. At the time, there were just bleachers, and no locker rooms. Tents were set up on the perimeter of the track, and athletes ran on a dirt-and-cinder track. Harvard beat Penn in the mile relay to win the first championship.
1914: The British invasion. Oxford, the first international team in the Relays, joins the four-by-mile, entering future world record-holder Norman Taber, and the reigning Olympic champion, Arnold Jackson. Penn hangs on in the mud and rain—still no AstroTurf—but Oxford breaks free in the last few strides to win.
1928: After a week of heavy rain in Philadelphia (the most dramatic sports moments are always in the rain, aren’t they?), the south wall facing the track literally falls under the weight of fans trying to watch Charley Paddock win a 175-yard sprint. Paddock, who was later portrayed by Dennis Christopher in Chariots of Fire, hurdled piled bricks and fans to set the world record. (Worth noting: The 175-yard sprint isn’t really a thing, so the story is more impressive than the record.)
1962: Women compete for the first time in the 100-meter dash. The next year, a female Olympic development team competes, and high-school girls are added (in small doses, of course) in 1964.
1967: A synthetic track finally replaces cinder blocks and mud. Unsurprisingly, but still historically, everyone goes much faster, and a handful of records are set. AstroTurf isn’t laid until 2004.
1968: Villanova mile-relay anchor Larry James runs 440 meters in under 44 seconds for the first time during his leg of the one-mile relay. He went on to break a 400 meter record at the 1968 Olympics, where he is also remembered for his and his teammates’ Black Power demonstrations.
2001: Michael Johnson—then the “world’s fastest man—has his final race on U.S. soil. It was just one leg of his “Golden Victory Lap Tour.” Johnson remains, to this day, perhaps the only track and field star famous/cocky enough to arrange a “farewell tour” for himself.
2002: Alan Webb, then renowned as the fastest-ever high-school miler, runs his first college race ever. It’s not pretty. Webb is Michigan’s anchor in the distance medley relay, and after the opening runner falls 10 seconds behind the leader, all hope is gone. In the end, the winner is Arkansas. (Oof). Webb transferred a couple years later to run professionally, and eventually set the grown-up American mile record, too.
2002: That same year, at the other end of the age spectrum, 100-year-old Masters champion Everett Hosack breaks the 100-meter dash record for 75-plus-year-olds by four seconds, finishing in 43 seconds. An Inky article recalls how other runners in the same race “bounced around … and stretched to stay loose. Hosack sat on the back of a golf cart … [and] did knee lifts for stretching while sitting.”
2002: After winning five Olympic medals at the 2000 Summer Games, Marion Jones and her Olympic Development team easily win the 1600-meter relay. Five years later, of course, the International Olympic Committee would strip Jones of those medals after they found she’d been doping.
2007: As four teams battle neck-and-neck-and-neck-and-neck for the high-school boys’ 4 by 400-meter championship, pandemonium ensues in the bleachers. It was, as race director Dave Johnson describes it, “the loudest race ever,” with fans drowning out the announcer after just the first 50 meters.
2010: Usain Bolt runs the anchor leg of the four by 100-meter relay, his first race in the U.S. since breaking the 100- and 200-meter world records in Berlin the previous summer. The crowd goes wild, and he finishes the leg in 8.79 seconds. As several high-school athletes recalled, “it was like we weren’t even there.”
[Photo: Aspen Photo/Shutterstock.com]