Spring doesn't really come to Philadelphia until the last week in April, when the Penn Relay Carnival, self-proclaimed as "the Oldest, the Biggest, the Best" track meet in the country, takes place at Franklin Field. The AAU and IC4A championships are in truth older, having been first run in 1876, thereby antedating the Penn Relays by 19 years, but this is a meet that includes elementary school, high school, college, club and individual events in all-embracing celebration of the sport. The Penn Relays is indisputably the biggest, with more than 7,000 athletes, a record field, expected to compete this week. The best? Well, in Texas and California and the Midwest they may not agree, but just ask any Eastern athlete.
The first Penn Relays were held on April 21, 1895. Some 100 boys and men competed in four high school and five college relays, 10 individual events and a two-mile bicycle race. Last year the relays were expanded to occupy a full week. This year the meet again started with a marathon on Sunday, and then proceeded with the decathlon on Tuesday and Wednesday. The high school girls and college women take over on Thursday (with the men's long-distance races taking place that night), and Friday and Saturday will be jam-packed with relays and individual events. Included in the schedule are high school and college championships, Olympic Development events and the Benjamin Franklin Mile for invited stars. Last year 6,101 participants, more than half of them high schoolers, competed in 170 events, which took 34½ hours to run off.
Jim Tuppeny, the track coach at the University of Pennslyvania—Franklin Field is also Penn's football stadium—and director of the Relays since 1970, judges the size of the field by the weight of the starting numbers given out—in 1978 about one and a half tons. Or by the number of safety pins used to attach these numbers to the jerseys of the athletes—86,000 last year.
Penn doesn't pay travel expenses to the Relays except to give four or five of the most distant and loyal colleges a few hundred dollars to help defray costs. Nonetheless, it is considered such a privilege to compete in the meet that thousands clamor to attend. Every year during the first week of January, Tuppeny, Herb Hartnett, Penn's sports information director, and half a dozen volunteers send out thousands of entry cards. The mailing list includes Bermuda, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Barbados, the Virgin Islands and Canada. The deadline for high-school and club entries is April 5; for colleges, April 12. Two days later, the weighty Carnival program—the 1979 version runs 84 pages—goes to the printers. All but Philadelphia athletes have to meet qualifying standards. Dick Ream, a retired high school superintendent, monitors a 16-state telephone hookup to accept last-minute reports from coaches that their charges have qualified.
Dr. Ken Doherty, a bronze medalist in the decathlon in the 1928 Olympics who became track coach at Penn in 1948 and conducted the meet until his retirement in 1969, deserves much of the credit for the Relays' extraordinary growth. "I was always thinking in terms of increasing the number of participants," he says, "and while doing so, I tried to focus the attention of the spectators by scheduling the most interesting events within a three-hour period on Saturday afternoon, mostly college and high school championship finals." In those days the Relays were a Friday-Saturday meet, so to accommodate all the competitors, in 1951 Penn installed a four-lane inside track, which measured 404 yards. Thus, competitors who draw the inner lanes take off from a starting line behind the regular one to make up for the missing 32.9 meters in 1,600-meter events (Penn converted to metric distances in 1976).
When the Relays were first held, the athletes stayed in tents pitched alongside the stands, which lent a carnival atmosphere to the goings-on. (In 1910 that spirit was acknowledged when the official name for the event became the Relay Race Carnival; it later became the Penn Relay Carnival.) The Philadelphia Inquirer, describing the inaugural meet on its society pages, reported that "hundreds and hundreds of pretty girls, adorned in all their spring finery, with bright sparkling eyes and cheeks flushed with excitement...cheered their favorites on to victory."
In 1896 the Inquirer again resorted to the gushy prose of the day. "The spectators were on the qui vive from start to finish, and as the game boys struggled on with staring eyes, and bloodless lips in many cases, and fell across the finish line to be borne away by their friends, their manliness and grit were greeted by appreciative cheers." Evidently that kind of stuff went down well with its readers, for the next year the Inquirer related, "The track was lightning fast as runners stood on the stretch with strained eyes and cried for their comrades who were struggling pluckily, faintly through the stretch to 'Come, come,' that they might touch them, and dart away as they challenged each other before the thousands and run till the very breath had left their bodies.... The thousands rose up and cheered, cheered till they had little more breath left than the objects of their admiration. They had seen pluck, speed, grace, and they were glad to compliment it with their huzzas."
Today the spectators at the Relays, who usually number some 40,000 for Saturday's events, are no less enthusiastic. Athletes rate them tops at producing "Oooooohs," especially on Saturday morning during the three hours of boys' high school mile-relay races, when there is heavy action in nickel-and-dime betting up in the stands. A big ooooh accompanies any youngster who bursts into a sprint and it reverberates all around the stadium in a mounting crescendo. But when a kid ties up, usually in the northeast corner of the track, the ooooh dies too. There are no huzzas for the faint anymore, no matter how plucky.
The most hectic action takes place on Friday from 11:50 a.m. till 2:40 p.m. Last year during this span, 1,974 boys and girls and men and women competed in 47 400-meter relays, with a race going off every three minutes and 37 seconds. Furthermore, at 1:30 p.m. the shuttle relays, in which another 576 competitors took part, started in the infield. Confusion? Chaos? Delays? No way. The meet clicks along like clockwork.
In the early years athletes were identified in the program by the colors of their jerseys, like jockeys. But by 1925 the number of entries had grown so large that the organizers began to employ a unique lettering system. The first 25 relay teams are given A through Z (I is not used), the next receive AA, BB, and so on. After ZZ comes 3A, 3B and so on. "We divide the high school boys' 400-meter relays into two sections," says Hartnett. "If we didn't, last year we would have gone through the alphabet 12 times."
One would assume that a sophisticated computer keeps track of all the ABCs, but, surprisingly, the traffic is directed by mere humans, some 160 official and another 60 unofficial volunteers. Officiating at the meet is a job handed down from father to son, and many of the present officials have served for 25 years.
If there is one man who may prove to be irreplaceable at the Penn Relays, he is Herman Mancini, a former track manager for nearby West Catholic High, the Chief Clerk of Course. For the past 35 years he has been putting on every race on time with great elan and incredible calm. Now 67 years old, slight of build with silvery hair, Mancini stations himself on a platform at the northwest corner of Franklin Field and sorts out the starting teams from the colorful clutter of athletes in the paddock area.
Last year Mancini was in typical form, low-keyed but concerned, as he dealt with a jittery crowd of high school girls during the 1,600-meter relays. "O.K.," he called through his microphone. "Sweats off, girls. Now move out to the start. Where is letter E? West Deptford, are you there?" Later he explained, "We give them every opportunity to compete, as long as the race hasn't gone off yet. And if they miss the start, and if it's feasible, we put them in a later race." Mancini spotted a girl with a bandanna around her head. "No bandanna, young lady," he called. "If we let one wear it," he said afterward, "they'll all show up with one, trying to outshine each other, and it will look like a circus here." With a scant 30-second pause between the finish of one race and the start of the next, the girls hardly had time to get nervous. In fact, no one has time to do much of anything but lace up his spikes and run at Franklin Field. In order to save time, starting blocks are not permitted in most races, saving an estimated eight minutes per race. The result, considering all the athletes and all the miles run (38,000 this year), is that the mammoth meet itself maintains a pace of 7¾ miles per hour.
Inevitably, some mistakes occur. In 1973 Jon Young of the Philadelphia Pioneers was credited with winning the featured 100-yard dash, although he wasn't in the race. Instead, his teammate Hasely Crawford, who was to win the Olympic 100 meters in 1976, had won in 9.4. Hartnett, who is in charge of distributing some 10,000 result sheets on "press row," admits that one year he was the victim of a practical joke. When the officials couldn't figure out which team had finished third in a relay heat, they put down "Hartnett U." A more serious mix-up took place in 1952. Michigan had come to the Penns with great hopes of breaking the American collegiate four-mile-relay record of 17:16.1, which had stood for 15 years. Because it had been raining, the regular 440-yard lanes of the cinder track had been churned into a gritty muck and the race had to be run on the 404-yard lanes of the then-new inside track. The designers of the track were called upon to figure out exactly how many laps the runners would have to go to complete the distance. As it turned out, their math was off, the race was run over a short course—which no one can remember today—and Michigan's time of 16:32.2 for the unknown distance never made the record books. Michigan's misfortune will never be repeated. All-weather ProTurf tracks were installed in Franklin Field in 1976.
Except for the mile and the shuttle relays, all multiple-runner events originated at Penn. At first the runners used to touch each other off, but following the lead of the Swedes, who had come up with the baton and the 20-meter exchange zone for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the Penn Relays used batons in 1913, the first U.S. meet to do so.
The 480-yard shuttle-hurdle relay was added in 1926 at the recommendation of David Lord Burghley of Cambridge University. The following year the 22-year-old lord—who would win the 400-meter hurdles at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics—arrived with three teammates from England, and the foursome won the race in great style.
The Cambridge runners were not the first to cross the Atlantic to Philadelphia; in 1914 a team from Oxford had won the four-mile relay. In 1920 Bevil Rudd, a South African who was a student at Oxford, competed with a combined Oxford-Cambridge team that broke the two-mile-relay world record. "I am glad that I can quote that admirably staged and enthusiastic race as the most memorable of my athletic career," Rudd wrote. And this from yet another future Olympic champion; Rudd was the gold medalist in the 400-meter dash at Antwerp.
The organizers of the Penn Relays were always willing to add new events. In 1918 they even included military drills for eight Army and Navy teams—a bugle contest, a rescue race, wall scaling, a bayonet-charge race and a half-mile light-marching-order race.
In 1928 Charlie Paddock, who had won gold medals in the 100-meter dash and 400-meter relay at the 1920 Olympics, and silver medals in the 200 in 1920 and 1924, asked that a 175-yard dash be added to the schedule so that he would have a chance to break his own world record of 17[4/5] seconds. "I am not exactly a youngster anymore," the 27-year-old Paddock said before the race, "but, you know, I have always wanted to run here. When I was at Southern California, the college would never let me come on for the Penn races."
Little did Paddock know that he would end up running for his life. Shortly after 4 p.m. on April 28, the 175-yard dash went off. Paddock was challenged by three Penn sprinters, Folwell Scull, Lamoine Boyle and John Ball. It was a wet day, but a good crowd had turned out. Halfway through the race a 25-foot section of the brick wall bordering the track collapsed under the weight of the straining spectators, about 100 of them spilling onto the track, directly in the path of the sprinters. Paddock, who was in the lane nearest the wall, veered to his left without breaking stride, and finished the race in the inside lane, nevertheless lowering his world record. The Inquirer's blithe report said, "Charlie Paddock, the 'fastest human,' rising to his most lofty heights in splashing to a world's record under the most distressing circumstances! Rain, drizzle, chills for the athletes; influenza and pneumonia for 20,000 spectators—bruises for some of them as a section of the south stand brick wall collapsed, hurtling about 100 headlong into the muck of the track 10 feet below! Paddock barely turned his head as the crumbling wall fell toward him. If anything, the event lent speed to his mercurial spikes, for he clipped two-fifths of a second off his record amid the bellowing cheers of the crowd."
Paavo Nurmi made an appearance in 1929. In the three preceding Olympics he had won a total of four gold and two silver medals at 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Now he intended to lower the American record in the two-mile run on Friday and in the three-mile run on Saturday. Leading from start to finish and carrying a stopwatch to time his splits, Nurmi did indeed break the two-mile record by 2[2/5] seconds, with a time of 9:15⅖ but the Inquirer was not impressed. "Nurmi's performance, while a marvelous exhibition of running, was without an element of the spectacular," it said. "Like a machine rather than a human being, the 'Phantom Finn' sped around the cinder oval." On Saturday, Nurmi again ran away from the entire field, but he proved to be human, missing the three-mile record by almost seven seconds.
In 1936 Jesse Owens was the best track and field athlete in the U.S. The previous year the Ohio Stater had set world records in the 220, the long jump and the 220-yard low hurdles and tied the 100. A few months after the Penn Relays he would win his four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. But there was no fanfare when he arrived in Philadelphia. Instead, the sprint team from the University of Texas, an exotic bunch to the Mainliners, got all the premeet publicity. The Inquirer ran a large photograph of the Texans practicing starts in ten-gallon hats and quoted their coach as saying, "It feels chilly to us right now. Down our way the peaches are already on the trees. We can't do our best if it's cold." Cold or not, the Texans won the 440 and 880 relays, while Owens triumphed in the 100 and the long jump and ran a leg on the winning sprint medley team.
Over the years, world-record holders and 85 Olympic champions—past, present or future—have celebrated the arrival of spring in Franklin Field. Roger Bannister—the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile—and Ron Delany competed in the '50s, as did an unknown New Zealander named Murray Halberg, who won the Ben Franklin Mile in '54. Six years later he was the Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000.
The most prestigious award of the meet is the Penn Relays watch, and a watch won in a college-relay championship is most precious of all. Until the mid-'50s, the runners from host-team Penn got most of the watches, but then Villanova won its first two relay championships in 1955, and runners from the small (5,700 students) school situated 10 miles from the city limits of Philadelphia have since dominated the college events with 67 championships. Mark Belger, the Wildcats' spirited half-miler, is the top individual relay performer with 10 timepieces. He gave the first nine to friends, but last April, in his last meet before graduating, he anchored the winning 3,200-meter relay to collect a watch for himself. Delany, Marty Liquori and Eamonn Coghlan each won nine watches running on Villanova relay teams.
In 1978 Tuppeny awarded $30,000 worth of trophies—bronze plaques, gold, silver and bronze medals, and 96 gold-plated watches. He often receives requests for duplicates from former competitors who have lost their mementos. A couple of years ago he heard from a man who had gotten a watch at the 1916 Relays. Tuppeny had a new one made for $50 and sent it off. A few days later the watch came back with an indignant letter pointing out that this was not the watch the man had won. "It turned out," says Tuppeny, "that in the old days they got pocket watches."
But not much else has changed. This week the stands at Franklin Field are again crowded with thousands celebrating their annual reunion, many proudly wearing their Penn watches, and many more just proud to be watching. If only W. C. Fields had been a track fan.