Penn Relays Is One of Philly’s Best Sporting Events

Prime people-watching, die-hard track fans and runner highs.

A sampling of things overheard at the Penn Relays yesterday from people in the stands:

  • “Now this race depends on whether the headcase shows up.”
  • “There better be a suicide watch tonight in Philadelphia.”
  • “Aw, this race is rigged.”

One of the charms of Penn Relays is the crowd: Full of track heads, anxious parents and thousands of Jamaicans. There are thousands of athletes in the crowd, too, and the fans in attendance are either track die-hards or competitors. And everyone has an opinion on every race. You can walk through the crowd or sit in the stands and overhear a thousand different opinions. For the record, no races were rigged.

Thursday is for the real die-hards. A large chunk of the day is an endless stream of high-school girls’ 4×400 heats. But if you’re a big track fan, heat after heat of 4x400s are a good thing: There are so many races that plenty of them will have exciting finishes. The crowd is smaller—23,075 yesterday—than the other two days but the atmosphere is just as festive. The fans go wild when and watch the pole vault pit when it’s announced that Tina Sutej is attempting to break her own Relays record. People scream encouragement at runners they don’t even know from schools they hadn’t heard of before. And, yes, everyone on the turn shouts “WHOOOOOP” when two or three schools are sprinting to the finish line in a close race.

Even on a slower day, the Penn Relays are one of Philadelphia’s great people-watching events. The people in the stands, yes, but even the officials are fun to watch. It’s amazing how many moving parts go into running the meet. There are officials for everything: ushering runners to and from the track, officiating field events, standing in front of fallen runners while awaiting medical personnel. During the steeplechase, more come out to move hurdles around and squeegee water off the track.

The runner to watch on Thursday was Villanova’s Sheila Reid, one of the finest runners to ever run for the accomplished Villanova track team. She won consecutive national cross-country titles in 2010 and 2011 and, last year, was the NCAA champion in the 1500 and 5000.

But she hadn’t won an event at Penn Relays (as reporters made sure to remind her plenty of times before the race). Last year, the Villanova distance medley relay team finished a disappointing 13th, with the team already out of the race by the time Reid got the baton. Reid runs the 1600-meter leg, the final distance after legs of 1200, 400 and 800 meters. This year, her teammates—Emily Lipari, Christie Verdier and Nicky Akande—got her the baton in a dead heat with Tennessee before the final leg. It was obvious how it was going to end.

Reid strung along runners from Tennessee and Penn State before pulling away on the final lap. She broke into a broad smile—”I couldn’t help myself,” she said—as she ran the last 50 meters. When she crossed the finish line her teammates rushed to her, all four embracing in a hug that Reid called “violent” afterwards. It was a scene you’d see plenty of times during the day. Sometimes a second- or third-place team was just as excited as the winners, with runners hitting personal bests or just thrilled to run at such a huge meet.

If you’ve been to a sporting event in this town, you know how obnoxious Philly fans can get. Penn Relays is one of Philly’s most positive sporting events. Even losing runners seem to be upbeat, overwhelmed by racing in an enormous stadium (or due to the runner’s high). The crowd is as friendly as you’ll find at a sporting event. The scenes of celebration and athletic accomplishment on the track are rivaled by only a few other top-level meets in America.

And the best part, right now? There are still two more days.