With spring and the imminent hope for warm weather comes many things such as horse racing, spring football, picnics, biking adventures and much more but for me it means one thing, Penn Relays. The Penn Relays Carnival is one of the oldest and longest running (no pun intended) events in the sporting world. For someone who loves track and field The Relays, as they are colloquially known, represent the Mecca of the track and field world representing everything that is great and pure about the sport.
Each year the last full weekend of April over a hundred thousand people, gather upon this sacred ground to celebrate one of the great traditions in sports as well to pay homage to some of the world’s best athletes with the likes of Alyson Felix, Shellie-Anne Frayser, Sanya Richards, and Usain Bolt. This year marks the 117th annual running of The Relays.
I personally have been to some of the most premier track and field meets in the country from NCAA outdoor nationals and seeing Leonel Manzano win the 1500 as a freshman to seeing Trey Hardee win the Decathlon or seeing Tyson Gay run in the 19s in the semis in the 200 while at the University of Arkansas or even seeing LSU run a 2:59.59 collegiate record 4x400…none of these compare to my first Penn Relays.
My first Penn Relays was in 2007 when my dad randomly decided to go, we took the morning train up from Franconia Maryland to Philly and I can recall every detail like it was yesterday. We arrived in the grandiose colossal 30th street train station with its old-fashioned arrival sign that changes each letter individually. Once getting our Dunkin Donuts fuel we began our trek towards Franklin Field. Walking the streets of Philly was amazing as we got closer to the stadium the streets were lined with many vendors selling Jamaican gear, all I could think of was why not buy some…a big mistake. As I would later learn, Jamaica at Penn Relays and more so in the Olympics is our biggest rival and should not be rooted for in the USA vs. the World races.
Once inside, you are greeted with a near empty stadium and an oddly shaped 9 lane oval track. Saturday morning starts off with 4x4s for about 4 hours, slowly the heats get faster from teams running a 3:20 to later, closer to noon, you have teams running 3:14s in qualifying! After the field is set for the 4x400 final many other races are run such as all the college championships and USA vs. The World races featuring the best professional athletes in the track world. But the highlight to many purist and up until the past two years the highlight for everyone was the Boys 4x400 High School Championship of America.
This race was amazing; I remember every aspect of it. One thing you cannot comprehend is the true carnival atmosphere of this place until you see it. Annually for this meet roughly 20-30,000 Jamaicans make the trip up there to cheer for high schoolers of the many power house schools such as Calabar, St Jago, Camperdown and Wolmers’ Boys. With all these great fans a battle begins not only between the 9 teams in the finals but everyone in the stands as chants of U-S-A and JA-MAI-CA resonate throughout to levels louder the most football crowds. Then the announcer names the teams, 7 Jamaican Schools and only 2 hopes for America, one being Cal Poly led by the sensational anchor of Bryshaun Nellum who in high school proved capable of 45s! The race is off! and stays close between Calabar, St Jago (whom led by Yohan Blake ran a 39.96 4x100 earlier that day!) and Cal Poly. The race stays close with Cal Poly taking the lead at the end of the third leg by about 3-4 meters. The old saying for Penn is sprint the first 200 until you reach the 160-meter long “Turn” in which 56,000 fans all waving national flags and brandishing bells, whistles and air horns will carry you through the last 200. St Jago starts to make the move with Yohan Blake walking down Nellum (45), just think of what Blake ran, into a close finish in which USA snuck a victory as the crowd erupts in U-S-A chants for 5-10 minutes after the win.
This is what Penn Relays is all about, the competition between not only athletes but also the rivalry between countries. The Relays still today are one of the best and unique sporting atmospheres that represent something that is so pure and unadulterated. Each year, for me especially, Spring doesn’t mean spring break or Easter or even school letting out; it means Penn Relays. Every year the last full weekend in April means to me a lot more then spring and warm weather it means Penn Relays with my best friends and I meeting in Philly for the 3 day Carnival that is the Penn Relays.