Running Purity: An Afternoon At The 120th Penn Relays

AJWs Taproom

Earlier this week I was up in Philadelphia for a work event and it happened to coincide with the 120th running of the Penn Relays, more specifically known as the University of Pennsylvania Relay Carnival.

This annual springtime track event originated in 1894 and has been held, uninterrupted, ever since. Taking place at historic Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Relays have retained their carnival atmosphere all these years later. While the tents and sideshows that were part of the original carnival, the organized-chaos aspect of the event persists in large part due to the fact that there are now over 17,000 participants and up to 100,000 spectators packed into the three-day meet.

I spent my afternoon at the Penn Relays on Day 1, a day traditionally filled with heats for the 4×100, 4×400, and 4×800 relays for high schoolers and collegiate runners followed by individual distance events in the evening. What I witnessed and felt so much a part of, even as a detached spectator, was a true celebration of running!

The competitors came from all over the country as well as several teams from the Caribbean. (Jamaica, for example, sent its first high-school runners to the carnival in 1964 and has sent athletes every year since.) In the bleachers I encountered parents, siblings, teammates, and coaches all feeling the pins-and-needles pressure of track relays at the same time as there was a noticeable feeling of revelry about just being there.

Franklin Field - 2014 Penn Relays

The view down the back stretch at historic Franklin Field. All photos courtesy of AJW.

In the area outside and around the historic stadium, in the heart of West Philadelphia, runners stretched and warmed up wherever they could–in university alcoves, convenience-store parking lots, and abandoned railroad beds. In short, they did what runners do and adapted to the circumstances to make it work. And make it work they did!

Over the course of the sun-drenched afternoon I saw some incredibly inspiring performances as well as more than few moments of heartbreak. But what struck me the most was how contagiously happy the whole scene was. Perhaps it was because the athletes and families felt part of the history and tradition of the 120-year-old carnival. Or maybe there was joy in the hearts of the participants as they were, at long last, shrugging off the winter doldrums on a stunningly beautiful spring day. Or maybe, just maybe, everyone was simply happy to be out there competing and running. Sometimes, in fact many times, that is all it takes.

Bottoms up!

Lagunitas Undercover Investigation Shut-Down AleAJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes recommended by ultrarunner Jackie Palmer of Delaware. I met Jackie a couple weeks ago at the Bull Run Run 50 Mile in Virginia. You see, she passed me in a muddy stretch about eight miles before the finish and told me she had a beer for the Taproom. After we finished she delivered it to me and we drank it.

Undercover Investigation Shut-down Ale by the Lagunitas Brewing Company is a wonderfully balanced beer from one of my favorite breweries. For something with so much alcohol, it actually goes down really smooth.

Andy Jones-Wilkins and Jackie Palmer

Jackie and AJW celebrating Bull Run Run with this week’s Beer of the Week.

Call for Comments (from AJW)

  • Has anybody out there run in the Penn Relays? If so, can you tell us about it?
  • I was particularly struck with how palpable the sense of history was at this year’s carnival. Are there other events that seem to have that same historical allure? Why?
  • The relay concept adds a dimension to running that can be fun and heartbreaking. Could it be something integrated into ultrarunning on a grander, team scale?

There are 7 comments

  1. nbskis

    hell yeah. nice to see some non-ultra stuff on here. speed goes a long ways and the typical irunfar poster forgets that. i spend a lot more time on letsrun these days since i've got some "short" goals in mind this spring, but i can't wait to see where the fitness i've built takes me in the mountains once the snow melts.

    1. ajoneswilkins

      Thanks nbskis! irunfar will, of course, remain an ultrarunning focused website. However, from my perspective running is still running regardless of distance and something about the Penn Relays was just downright inspiring to me!

  2. Drewsrr

    I ran high school track in Iowa and we got to run in the Drake Relays on the same days as the college runners and they also had a few invitational events. So I got to see people like Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Flo Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Baylor 4×400 team and that sprinter guy from Trinidad and Tobago run. It was awesome! What a great opportunity for a high school athlete. It helped shaped my attitude towards running and staying fit in general.

    1. Tom Caughlan

      I’ve got to second that on the Drake Relays. What an amazing national level event which used to attract a few more stars, but is still racing at its best. I would love to see some Eikeden style ultra trail relays with the pro teams. Any takers?

  3. @SageCanaday

    Ran the Penn Relays 5km and 10km a couple times back in college…also had the Ivy League champs at that amazing stadium one year. Remember cooling down to a Dunkin' Donuts and/or to get a Philly sub. The difference between the weekend events (i.e. all the famous relays that you saw on Sat-Sun) in terms of crowd support is huge. The 5km-10km distance events used to be on Thursday or Friday night at 9pm-11pm under the lights. It was often cold, windy and nobody was there to watch. Then again, 50 runners going around the the track at 4:45 pace for 25 laps doesn't have the same speed and energy as say a DMR or 4 by 1 mile where guys spit out sub 4's!

  4. 7seastrees

    Awesome post! Thanks for sparking the memories;-) I have a pretty vivid memory of Penn Relays. It was 1990 or 91' and we drove from my hs in Falmouth, MA, in my coaches VW bus, to Penn for the 4×8. I remember getting a sun-burn down the part of my signature hs double french braids, warming up on a side-line and being placed in a corral of sorts, to be loaded onto the track. The lane next to me in the semi heat, was the Jamaican team! I think that's when the butterflies exploded! And when my leg of the relay was done, I met Bill Cosby, standing in the infield cheering! I was like…"woahhh, Bill Cosby, you're Bill Cosby, Hi Bill Cosby! " And he had a Rolex bigger than my head on. Needless to say, I can't recall my 800 split, but the crowds in the stands were AWESOME!

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