Properly speaking, the grand old track meet that will be held the last week in April for the 100th time is not the Penn Relays. It is the Penn Relay Carnival, and on that last word hangs a world of meaning. The name is a vestige of the Relays' earliest years, when spectators slept in tents pitched outside the walls of Penn's Franklin Field and competitors changed in tents on the infield. The tents are gone, but the spirit of the Relays is still very much that of a carnival—teeming with life and crammed with hopes, disappointments and surprises.
"Carnival is absolutely right," says entertainment mogul Bill Cosby, who has humbly served the Relays for years, as athlete, starter, spokesman and sponsor. "It's always been a people's event, a carnival with a heart."
Officially the Relays will start on Sunday, April 24, with a 20K road race. There is a decathlon on Tuesday and Wednesday. But only on Thursday do the Relays begin in earnest. Packed into three days are relays for colleges, high schools and club teams and for corporations and branches of the military. There will be relays for elementary school kids and a 100 meter dash for men over 75. There is even, lest anyone think that running fast is as easy as it looks, a relay for members of the media: Every carnival needs its clowns. By the time the last baton has been passed early Saturday evening, more than 13,000 athletes will have taken part.
The daunting task of making the Relays run on time falls to line clerk Karl Thornton, Penn '72 and a 3:57 miler in his time. "We did studies," says Thornton. "Overall, there's a relay every five minutes. But with the mile relays, we are literally running one every four minutes."
To keep things moving in an orderly fashion, some ingenious soul years ago came up with the idea of the Paddock, a series of pens through which teams are hustled on their way to the start. "Penn is kind of like New York City," says Princeton women's coach Peter Farrell, who competed for Notre Dame in the '60s at the rival Drake Relays in Iowa. "The meet moves right along whether you fall flat on your face or not. At Drake there's a folksy openness. It's homier, friendlier. But Penn is by far the more exciting of the two."
As with any great sporting event, the crowd is as much a part of the show as the participants. One Penn tradition that seems mystifying the first time one encounters it is the wooooo the crowd makes to help quarter-milers through the agonies wrought by lactic acid. The odd sound begins softly, almost tentatively, and increases in volume over roughly 20 seconds. "Runners today call that tightening up 'the bear.' We used to call it Riggy," says Cosby, invoking a nickname for rigor mortis. "Those guys on the final turn are famous for that wooooo. If Riggy has attacked you and you're starting to run backward, they start that wooooo. They don't care who you are, or what color, or what school you're running for."
While attendance at other track meets around the country has declined, the Penn Relays continue to thrive. Three years ago the meet drew a record 41,612 fans on a sunny Saturday. Excluding the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles, that crowd was the largest to watch a track meet in the U.S. since 1964.
So what are the Relays doing right? Partly, they are a secure link with track and field's history. Many of the sport's giants have competed—from Paavo Nurmi to Jesse Owens to Roger Bannister to Carl Lewis—but just as important, fathers and mothers have passed on their love of the Relays to their children. More than 20,000 of those who come to the meet on Saturday will sit in seats they've held for more than 10 years. Many arrived at their first Relays the way Villanova coach Marty Stern did in 1939 when he was three. "My father carried me in," he says.
Stern grew up not far from Franklin Field, and the Relays played a large part in his athletic fantasies and those of his friends. "The big teams back then were Penn and Michigan," he says. "We would pick up discarded numbers or ask people for them, put them on and have races. We would roll up newspapers and pretend that they were batons."
If the Relays have a first family, it is the Harshaws. Fred Harshaw has been the meet's chief custodian of numbers for more than half of his 53 years, taking over in 1967 from his father who had, in turn, taken over in 1949 from his father, the meet's first custodian of numbers. There has never been a Penn Relays without a Harshaw. "And my son will probably take over from me when I retire," says Harshaw, adding that making sure every athlete gets the right number often means he doesn't see much of the meet. The Harshaws moved from Philadelphia to Dallas in 1979, so Fred and his son, John, now must pay their way just to stand opposite the Paddock in unpredictable weather for three straight days, each 12 or more hours long. "I wouldn't miss it," says Harshaw.
But, really, the meet's secret is simple, and it's one the highest levels of the sport would do well to relearn: Track and field is not about records, but about competition. Who, after all, can see the difference between a 9.86 and a 9.96 100? But put two anonymous high school kids neck and neck on the final turn of a one-mile relay, and they don't have to run all that fast, they just have to spill their guts. That's what happens 100 or more times at every Penn Relays.
"It's the purity of it all," says Walt Murphy, who writes for Track & Field News among other publications and who ran at Penn in 1961 for St. Augustine High in New York City. "It's back to basics, which is especially refreshing after you've experienced the agents and pacing and drugs in big-time meets. If I had to choose to go to any track meet in the world, other than the Olympics, I'd pick Penn."
If there is a spirit of the Relays, it lives, Cosby believes, in the wall. It's an ordinary brick wall. It stands just beyond the outside lane, five feet high, the color of gingerbread. But, says Cosby, "that wall has always been there, through all the history of Franklin Field. The Eagles used to play there. Penn almost beat Notre Dame there one year. Every kind of pole that has ever been used in pole vaulting has been used there. And check and see how many times they moved the finish line. But that wall has lasted all those years."
Well, almost all those years. In 1928, Charlie Paddock came to Penn to run a rather obscure event—175 yards on the straight. The 1920 Olympic 100 champion, Paddock had been the World's Fastest Human, renowned for his flying finish. So great was the crush to get a glimpse of him that the wall gave way along the homestretch, sending bricks and mortar and straw boaters tumbling down onto the track. Proving his mind was as nimble as his feet, Paddock calmly hurdled the whole mess and went on to win the race.
Relays are a quintessentially American invention—E PLURIBUS UNUM brought to life on the playing field. It was not until 1908 that a relay was added to the Olympic schedule, 25 years after the first modern relay was run, on Nov. 17, 1883, at the University of California. That day two four-man teams of Cal students covered a distance of two miles. But relay running really took hold on the opposite coast.
At the University of Pennsylvania relays were first held during track practice in 1893. The idea proved so popular that a mile relay was added that year to Penn's dual meet with Princeton. Though Penn would run 3:25.2 later that year—the first significant mark for a mile relay—Princeton won that first intercollegiate relay, in 3:34. Those pioneering relays were different from today's in significant ways: Runners did not use a flying start, nor did they carry batons.
When Franklin Field was completed in 1895, university officials cast about for a way to make the dedication memorable. Frank B. Ellis, the chairman of Penn's track committee, had the inspired idea of holding a meet featuring nothing but relays. On Saturday afternoon, April 20, 1895, about 75 competitors from 10 colleges, six prep schools and two high schools took part in nine two-team relay races. In the afternoon's featured mile relay Harvard beat Penn in 3:34[2/5].
Thus the Relays are older than world records. Since 1913, when the International Amateur Athletic Federation began keeping world records, 13 world records have been set at the Penn Relays, most of them coming, as you might expect, in relay events. There might have been more, but for the April rains that frequently turned Franklin Field's old cinder track into something "more like a place to dig clams than set records," SI's Gwilym Brown wrote years ago. Though an all-weather surface was installed in 1966, the Relays' early position in the track calendar makes the setting of major records noteworthy.
The most recent world record came two years ago, when a Santa Monica Track Club team of Mike Marsh, Leroy Burrell, Floyd Heard and Carl Lewis ran 1:19.11 for the 4 x 200 relay. The time was all the more astonishing because Lewis had to come to a virtual stop in order to receive the final pass. Veteran track writer Jim Dunaway, who has attended every Olympics since 1956, swears no human has ever run faster than Lewis did that day, but not everyone was thrilled by his performance.
"I don't mean this as a put-down," says Cosby, "but that moment was darn near the antithesis of the Penn Relays. The Relays over the years have always belonged to the people. If you were to talk to any kid running that day—you could not tell him that that world record was more important than his personal best of 51 flat on a mile-relay leg."
A native Philadelphian, Cosby has been in love with the Relays most of his life. As a boy he could not afford to buy a ticket, so he earned his admission in an honorable fashion, as an athlete. He first competed while a student at FitzSimons Junior High, running a 4 x 75-yard relay in the infield. At Philadelphia's Central High he ran the 4 x 110 relay, and at Temple, where he was primarily a long jumper, he ran a 220 leg on the sprint-medley team. "We weren't that good," he says. "They ran us at 10 in the morning." Later, when he was in the Navy, Cosby flew down from Newfoundland to compete in the triple jump.
In 1990, when the Relays lost two major sponsors in a single year, Cosby stepped in with a gift of $150,000. He sees it as an investment in the public interest. "There are literally thousands of people walking around this particular coast whose only moment of celebrity was the day they ran for their school at the Penn Relays," says Cosby.
Shifting to the rhythmic voice of his comic persona, he continues. "You're a senior, and after three years your team has finally qualified for the New Jersey High School Championship of Suburban Boys. You're standing on the starting line, and you're wearing one green sock and one blue sock so your friends and family will recognize you, and you're bouncing up and down, and the guy says, 'Gentlemen, stay in line,' and you hear the crowd going wooooo. The kids are having trouble staying focused. You could come up to that kid and tell him he had won a million dollars, and it would mean nothing to him."
Cosby remembers the '50s for the arrival at Penn of powerful teams from the great black colleges, schools like Morgan State and Florida A&M and Winston-Salem Teachers, the members of whose shuttle-hurdles relay team had perfected a time-saving midair dive as they touched off.
In fact the Relays have always been revered in the black community. Though he was a football player, not a track man, at Michigan State, Bill Holland was keenly aware of that legacy. "For someone like me who grew up in the Midwest before the civil rights movement, the Relays had a mystique," says Holland, who is now an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. "Black people couldn't go to Fort Lauderdale in the spring. We weren't welcome. Out of that tradition of nonacceptance grew another, the Penn Relays. It was a place where people welcomed you. Everyone just knew."
The '50s were notable at Penn for other reasons, too. In 1955 a track coach with the unlikely name of Jumbo Elliott began his astonishing run of successes at the Relays. Many of Villanova's biggest wins were achieved by talented young runners the coach recruited from Ireland: Ron Delany, John Hartnett, Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan.
Elliott's whole life was intertwined with the Relays. He grew up two blocks from Franklin Field and sold programs for the Relays. In 1932, when Villanova won the Relay title in the freshman mile relay, Elliott ran a 51.0 third leg. When he took over as head coach at his alma mater, he made the Penn Relays a priority. At the time of his death in 1981, Elliott had won 75 Relay titles, more than any coach in history.
Elliott was by nature superstitious, and never more so than in the days leading up to the Relays. He would not come to practice the final week; instead he allowed his lieutenants to run the show. He gave his runners no clue as to what events they would compete in until the week of the Relays, often announcing the lineups as late as Wednesday's practice.
Once the Relays began, Elliott had another set of peculiar habits. He would always sit in what is one of the worst seats in Franklin Field, above the end of the first turn, where he was a figure of intrigue to Marty Stern. "I watched him during all 20 of the distance medleys he won," says Stern. "I'd watch his face. He'd grit his teeth and let his watch run without ever looking at it. He had [assistant coaches] Jack Pyrah and Jim Tuppeny do all the timing.
"About 15 minutes before the distance medley started, all these well-dressed Irish-American guys would show up out of nowhere. They'd watch the race and then go back to their jobs. It seemed as if there were 100 of them, but it might have been 35. Jumbo stood by himself, about five feet away, muttering little comments to himself. He needed the space."
Space is harder to come by at the Relays these days. But there's plenty of time—100 years worth of tradition and history. So let the Carnival begin. Woooooo.