The Yin and Yang of the Penn Relay Carnival, Granddaddy Of All Relays, Offers Broad Spectrum Of Experiences

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We asked David Hunter to cover the 124th Penn Relays for @runblogrun, as he has done for the past several years. David provided this article just within hours of the finish of this year's Relays. David Hunter recently wrote the lead stories on the men's and women's elite races at the Boston marathon for @runblogrun. We hope you enjoy David Hunter's behind the scenes feature on the 124th Penn Relays and the development of USA versus the World.

M4x400-Penn04.jpgThe excitement of the handoff, Penn Relays, photo by PhotoRun.net

April 29th, 2018

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Let's start with a truism: nobody witnesses the entirety of the Penn Relays. Some rabid fans may claim they do, but they really don't. The Penn Relay Carnival is simply too large, too relentless in its presentation, and too spread out for anyone to take it all in. How big is the world's largest relay? It regularly attracts more than 15,000 participants from high schools, colleges, and track clubs throughout North America and abroad, notably Jamaica, competing in more than 300 events over five days. By comparison, the summer Olympic Games host around 11,000 athletes - in all events. But don't be daunted by Penn's intimidating size. The tasty athletic morsels one can savor from this Penn smorgasbord make it a track & field banquet fit for a king.

The Penn Relays are not only sprawling, they are also diverse, with various sessions able to provide differing experiences for the athletes and the fans. Two segments of the meet which regularly produce exciting battles, yet generate distinctly different fan followings and their own unique spectator experience are Thursday evening's Distance Night and Saturday afternoon's USA versus The World.

On Thursday, the first truly full day of activity at Penn, high school girls' events abound in the early afternoon with women's collegiate contests sprinkled in later in the day. As dusk creeps in and the temperature begins to drop, large numbers of spectators, well satiated after a full day of track & field [including 48 sections of the high school girls 4x400m relay!], begin to exit Franklin Field, leaving only the stalwart fans for Distance Night - a string of collegian-dominated longer races. As nightfall shrouds the track, the remaining hardcore, hearty spectators gather at their favorite spots - around the finish line, near the icy-cold waters of the steeplechase water jump, even up in the blustery upper deck - to witness distance combat on the track.

It is an eerie night as athletes warm up in the quiet darkness to compete on an evening card filled with 7 distance races attracting over 500 entrants. On this evening, some victories are easy, while a few are hard-fought. The men's 5000m features a duel between two post-collegians as Kiernan Tuntivate [13:58.72] nips Louis Serafini [13:59.31]. And the men's 10,000m is a regional battle as Fordham's Ryan Kotch [29:43.54] edges Stony Brook's Cameron Avery [29:44.84]. Perhaps the highlight of this chilly, dark nighttime session is the women's 10,000m where Notre Dame junior Ann Rohner, finally healed from lingering injuries, shows she is once again healthy and in good shape. Displaying the form that earned her two Foot Locker individual cross country championships as a prep, Rohner churns on to a relatively-unchallenged victory in 33:25.24. "This was about what I was aiming for. I've been hurt for about a year now, and this was my first race back," says the upbeat multiple-time All-American. "I had no idea what I'd be able to do, but it was nice to have that hard-race feeling back. The season is truly just beginning. The goal is to keep progressing, cut down my time as much as possible, and reach the starting line at NCAAs." Tired but happy, the dedicated fans who went the distance and stayed to the bitter end traipse out of Franklin Field just before midnight.

In contrast to foreboding gloom of Thursday's Distance Night, Saturday is the beloved capstone to the world's largest track meet. The festive aura of the final day is what really reflects the carnival nature of this multi-day gathering. 47,756 fans pack the stadium on a perfect, sun-drenched spring day as the blended aroma of Philly cheesesteaks intertwined with the smell of analgesic balm wafts through the light, springtime air. Throngs of Jamaican faithful - easily identified in their green, yellow, and black garb - flood the sections at the top of the homestretch. The near-capacity crowd is here to take in the full kaleidoscope of activity on the track and in the field.

19 years ago, then-USATF CEO Craig Masback and Nike's John Capriotti collaborated to find an effective way to weave the elite post-collegiate athletes into the fabric of the Penn Relays. While late April is a period of pre-championship sharpening for high school and collegiate athletes, it is a moment of awakening for the pros who are looking to open up their outdoor season to begin a gradual build-up for the national championship showdown still 2 months away and the Diamond League and other global competition which will stretch into September. The Masback/Capriotti "USA vs. The World" brainchild provides an ideal opportunity for professionals to open their outdoor season, race a relay leg at Penn, and shake away a little off-season rust in the process.

As "USA vs. The World" events creep closer on the Saturday schedule, the competitive juices of the Jamaican faithful and USA fans start flowing. Flag waving, air horns, and rhythmic chants emanate from the stands. When the women's 4x100m kicks off, the Jamaicans take the early lead on the strength of Gayon Evans' spritely opening leg and her smooth pass to veteran Kerron Stewart. USA Red athlete Kimberlyn Duncan closes the gap on Leg 2 and the former NCAA 200m champion's crisp exchange to Destinee Brown evens the race. Brown runs a vicious 3rd leg to give the Yanks a brief lead, but a wobbly pass to USA Red anchor Kyra Jefferson disrupts the pass rhythm. A strong performance by Jamaican anchor Jury Levy is just enough to allow the Jamaica [43.14] to hold off the Americans [43.18] for the win. Jamaica 1, USA 0.

Could USA sprinters even the score? After a clean leadoff leg exchange to 36-year-old Justin Gatlin, the reigning 100 meter world champion rockets down the backstretch and executes a textbook-perfect exchange to his teammate Tevin Hester. The former Clemson star blisters the curve to give Justin Walker a whopping 6 meter lead. The former NCAA 200 meter champ never looks back, driving down the homestretch and crossing the line first in 38.39 with USA Blue [38.72] capturing 2nd and a disheartened Jamaican squad [39.17] finishing 3rd.

With the score knotted at one apiece, the sprint medley relays are next. In the seldom-run 100m-100m-200m-400m sequence, USA Red sprinters Destinee Brown, Aaliyah Brown, and Kimberlyn Duncan forge a 4 meter lead for their anchor Raevyn Rogers. A 50.48 400 meter split for the multiple-time NCAA champion and Bowerman Award honoree gives USA Red [1:35.20] not only a comfortable victory, but also sets a new world record. Trinidad & Tobago [1:37.42] crosses second while the Jamaicans [1:38.31] grab 3rd. "This meet as a whole is just crazy," gushes Aaliyah Brown. "Getting ready for the 4 by 100, hearing all of the fans so loud, I couldn't even hear myself think! But it really motivated me, so I was really ready after the 400 to come out here and we knew we were going to win," adds Brown who solemnly views the new world record. "It feels great, especially just coming out of college with some of my idols I've looked up to. It is just amazing."

The USA vs. The World men race the more traditional medley: 200m-200m-400m-800m. On the 2nd 200 meter leg, USA's Brice Robinson creates separation with a thundering furlong to give 400 meter runner Jevon Hutchinson a modest lead over Jamaica and Canada. A solid circuit by Hutchinson [46.1] presents USA anchor Jesse Garn with a 3 meter lead as he sets sail on the final 800 meter leg. With the Franklin Field crowd roaring, Garn never cracks. Building the lead to 8 meters at the bell, Garn stays strong on the final lap to finish his 1:47.42 split and seal the win for the U.S. in 3:14.91. Jamaica [3:17.74] is well back in 2nd with Canada crossing in 3rd. "The atmosphere was unreal. It is unlike any other at the Penn Relays," says Garn, reflecting on his team's decisive victory. "It's a great day for Team USA, and we are honored to be given this opportunity."

With the Americans up 3-1, the 4x400 meter relays close the USA vs The World competition. In the men's race, the opening 3-turn stagger sees USA and Jamaica battling for the 2nd leg lead on the backstretch. Young pup Michael Cherry [44.5] - an emerging 400 meter specialist who ran here as a prep - fights off Jamaica's Demish Gaye to give Marcus Chambers a 5 meter lead at the 2nd exchange. When former Oregon star Mike Berry gets the baton, Chambers has stretched the lead to 10 meters, a margin Berry soon pushes out to 20 meters. But Berry [45.57], a veteran anchor, never takes his foot off the gas as he powers around the oval to give the USA an impressive win in 3:01.31 - the fastest 4x4 of the day in any section, yet a mark far short of the Franklin Field and Penn record of 2:56.60 set in 2000 by Angelo Taylor, Antonio Pettigrew, Tyree Washington, and Michael Johnson. Woof! "Yeah, definitely," replies an ebullient Cherry when asked if there is a bona fide rivalry between the U.S. and Jamaica. "I felt like I kind of had a chip on my shoulder from last year because my teammate actually ran for Jamaica, and came out and caught one of the guys from last year. This year, I made sure I could beat him so I could go back home and talk trash to him."

The women's 4x4 gets underway with the USA sporting an out-of-reach 4-1 lead. Jamaica nonetheless fights hard, pushing into the lead in the early going. After the 3-turn stagger, the islanders are on the rail first, USA Red's second runner Jasmine Blocker moves to front as the race speeds past the Wall of Fame. Blocker presents her 3rd leg teammate Kyra Jefferson with a 10 meter margin at the second exchange. But Jamaica is not done as their 3rd athlete Rhonda Whyte surges into the lead on the backstretch. USA's Jefferson returns the favor, regaining the lead just before the homestretch, an advantage she stretches out to 6 meters as she passes to her anchor Daina Harper. Harper turns in a strong lap - 51.38 - to preserve the win in 3:26.73 with Jamaica [3:28.59] taking 2nd.

After the University of Houston, powered by an-other-worldly split of 43.38 by its anchor, clocks 3:01.82 to win the final event of the meet, the men's 4x400m Championship of America Invitational, the curtain comes down on the 2018 edition of the Penn Relay Carnival. As thousands of exiting people - high school relay teammates, the faithful followers from Villanova, the fervent throng of Jamaican fans, hundreds of meet officials, parents accompanying their children or grandchildren, groups of oldsters you just know have been coming to Penn for decades - are observed, it becomes apparent that the Penn fan base is as diverse as the varied experiences the Penn Relays gives them. As the departing fans are heard gabbing incessantly about the impassioned performances that they have witnessed on the track and in the field on this beautiful spring day, it is clear many share a common plan: they will be back to Franklin Field next April for the 125th.

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