Going the distance at Penn: Thursday Night is for the Hearty, by Dave Hunter, note by Larry Eder

Dave Hunter wrote the following piece about the Thursday night Distance carnival at Penn. It is one of those nights that only the true distance geeks show up, in their winter coats with a cold one in a paper bag, or so, I have been told. 

Mr. Hunter captured the beauty of the night and the unique nature of the Penn Relays distance championships. 

10,000m (this one from 2010 Payton Jordan), 
photo by PhotoRun.net 

119th Penn Relay Carnival / Day One

Going The Distance At Penn

Thursday Night Is For The Hearty




By Dave Hunter

April 25, 2013

Philadelphia, PA

You fancy yourself as a hard-core track & field fan?  Let's see just how tough you really are.  Test your mettle against the traditional 14-hour Thursday lineup at the granddaddy of all track meets - the Penn Relay Carnival.  On Day One at Penn, Franklin Field offers a smorgasbord of track & field - featuring a relentless stream of grade school, high school, and collegiate competitions.  From the 10:00 a.m. opening university 400 hurdles final, through 47 mid-day heats of the high school girls 4 x 400 relay, to the day's concluding event - the men's 10,000 which goes off at 10:55 p.m. - you will marvel at the athleticism, the unbridled competition, the precision of event execution that have made the Penn Relay Carnival one of the most revered track & field gatherings in the world.   While there are times you might feel as if you're attempting to drink out of a fire hose, you will be joyfully overwhelmed by the enormity, the spectacle of it all.

On Thursday, 23,000 plus fans gathered for this annual rite of spring on a crystal clear, cool, and nearly windless day in the City of Brotherly Love.  And as the frenzied competition of endless high school relays reached its conclusion and as the shadows grew longer inside gothic Franklin Field, the spectators - still impressive in their number - settled in for Penn's Thursday evening tradition:  Distance Night.  

The overture - just a tantalizing little hors d'oeuvre - was the College Women's Distance Medley Championship.  Kentucky's early lead was short-lived as Villanova - always a Main Line favorite here - grabbed the first leg advantage on the strength of the Wildcat's Angel Piccirillo's 3:21 lead-off 1200.  After battling Kentucky during the middle two legs, Villanova - aided greatly by Nicky Akande's 2:04.7 800 on leg three - handed Emily Lipari - the 'Nova anchor - a comfortable lead to close the show.  Villanova's petite distance ace ran well within herself before unleashing a strong last lap to complete a 4:37.7 anchor leg.  The victorious Wildcats were understated in the afterglow of their 11th DMR win here at Penn.  "We try to take it race by race, year by year," offered Akande.  On her controlled anchor leg, Lipari added, "This year I wanted to take an old school Villanova approach."

The high school distance events are always spirited - and frequently offer a "Coming Attractions" type of insight into the future of American distance fortunes.  Sophie Chase [Lake Braddock, VA] had her way with a strong field in the women's 3000 meter championship.  Chase stopped the clock at 9:35.52 to successfully defend her 3000 title.  In the women's high school mile, several college coaches in attendance paid close attention to the perfectly-timed finishing kick of Jamie Phelan [Saint Mary's, Ontario].  Hitting the finish line in 4:50.6, Phelan turned in a 64 second final quarter to just nip Reagan Anderson [Tatnall, DE].  

In was clear that storm clouds are building for Saturday's final in the collegiate women's 4 x 400.  In Thursday's early evening prelims, 8 teams - headed by Texas A&M and Jamaica's UTech - posted first round times under 3:40.  

Appalachian State's Chris Moen led a pack through the earlier circuits in the men's 3000 meter steeplechase. With three laps to remaining, Indiana's Joshua Roche s slid into the lead, followed closely by his Hoosier teammate Nolan Fife.  Just before the bell, Ole Hesselbjerg of Eastern Kentucky made a powerful move to which none of his competitors could respond.  His final lap was on cruise control as he crossed the line in 8:47.52.

In the women's steeple, Penn State's Natalie Bower wore the field down with a relentless rhythmic pace that afforded her a generous lead as the bell lap sounded.  Her winning time of  10:13.58 earned her a comfortable final margin of victory of nearly 8 seconds over runner-up Caitlin Engel of Indiana.

The race for the championship in the women's 3000 promptly turned into a three-woman affair.  Villanova's Summer Cook - a powerful and imposing middle distance racer - set the early honest pace.  Cornell's Rachel Sorna and Boston College's Bridget Dahlberg quickly fell in line as the trio pulled away from the field.  Sorna's late race move proved decisive as she was able to hold off a desperate final surge by Dahlberg for the championship triumph.

In the women's 5000 championship race, Corey Conner of Maine - Penn's 5000 meter defending champion - assumed the earlier pacing chores, with Cornell's Katie Kellner on her shoulder.  The duo soon gapped the field and the square-off was on.  Never more than few feet apart, the duo cranked out 400's in the 77-78 range as darkness descended and the temperature dropped in Franklin Field.  Kellner eased into the lead with 1400 remaining, but couldn't gain any meaningful advantage as the pair remained locked in battle.  The combatants were side-by-side in a perfectly-uniform stride cadence as they entered the bell lap.  With 350 remaining, the defending champion final broke away and quickly opened a 10 meter lead which stretched to 25 by the finish.  Conner's winning time of 16:07.59, bettered her game competitor by 3 seconds.  [Non-collegian Karaleigh Foster - running for Oiselle - actually ran the fastest women's 5000 of the evening - capturing the Olympic development women's 5000 in 15:54.66]

In the men's 5000 championship race, Henry Lelei of Texas A&M jumped to the front at the opening gun and began spinning out 69 second laps.  He quickly began to turn the screw as he polished off a 66 second quarter to glide past the first kilometer.  A 63 second 400 followed and only Wade Mettles of Eastern Kentucky could cover that impressive lift in pace..  Laps in the mid-60's continued, but Lelei could not shake Mettles who held on gamely. The break occurred with 2200 remaining as Mettles was finally forced to let go. Lelei showed little strain as he finished his championship effort in 13:45.30 - 20 seconds ahead of Mark Allen of American University who slid in front of Mettles for the runner-up position.  Lelei's dominance was complete.

In the women's 10,000,   Kate Avery scooted away from the field to take the early lead.  Racking up sub-80 second circuits, the unattached non-collegiate runner built up a lead of over 100 meters after 6 laps and ultimately ran away from the field to finish first.  But the race for the championship - which can only be won by a collegian - took place in the chase pack.  The pursuing quartet contained only one collegian - Bethany Sachteben of George Mason.  The second collegian - Marion Joly-Testault of Iona - stalked from about 25 meters further back.  The margin varied little until 2 laps remained.  An heroic rush from Joly-Testault over the final 800 fell 7 meters short as Sachteben held on to win the race within the race - and the championship as well.

In the men's 10,000 - the final event of a long day of track & field - Josh Hardin assumed the pacing chores and took the field through 800 in 2:16.  By the time the leaders hit 1600 - passed in 4:36 -  a lead pack of 8 runners had broken away.  Just before 2 miles Michael Biwott stepped up into the lead - at the point of the lead pack of 8.  As 70 second laps rolled by, several lead changes ensued as the 8 man lead train stayed intact.  Shortly past 5K's, post-collegian Jim Spisak began to press the pace and broke the pack.  Only Pardon Ndhlovu and Glarius Rop could stay on board.  With 8 laps left, only Spisak and Rop were left to fight it out.  With 4 laps remaining, Rop - of American International - broke the race open. With nary a break in rhythm, Rop drove to the line in 28:58.22 to capture the race and the championship. 

The post-midnight Main Line train ride back to Bryn Mawr provided the perfect opportunity for reflection.  The train's gentle sway made it easy to sort through all that had been experienced throughout the bustling day in the Center City of Philadelphia.   The Penn Relays refers to itself as a "Carnival."  But some may call it a "Circus" or, for that matter, even a "Zoo."  No matter.  Whatever its moniker, the Penn Relay Carnival - now in its 119th year - is simply track & field at its finest - a virtual cornucopia of hard-fought athletic competitions from young to old, from upstart to Olympian.  It was a joyful realization that more than overcame the day's fatigue. 

Dave Hunter

Leave a comment

Wake up to RunBlogRun's news in your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter and we'll keep you informed about the Sport you love.

Subscribe to RunBlogRun's Global News Feed

* indicates required