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April 30, 2018

Ten Parting Thoughts from Drake Relays & Penn Relays Weekend

Here are ten reactions I had to the last three days of the Penn Relays, Drake Relays, and National Relays.

1. NO WINTER LASTS FOREVER, NO SPRING SKIPS ITS TURN

Those of us who live in the northern part of the USA thought our winter would in fact last forever this year (see: Boston Marathon), but spring came just in time. The weather at both the Penn and Drake was fantastic and the fans responded. Franklin Field and Drake Stadium were packed.

Penn Relays attendance
Thursday: 22,862
Friday: 38,137
Saturday: 47,756
Total: 108,755

Drake Relays attendance:
Thursday: 7,548
Friday: 7,941 (afternoon), 8,185 (evening)
Saturday: 14,504
Total: 38,178

This was the 53rd consecutive Saturday sellout at Drake, but unlike some other years it appeared that everyone used their tickets and sat in the stadium. The whole day looked marvelous on both telecasts.

2. HOT TAKES

Track and field is not a sport usually given to hot takes, but this weekend I noticed a few.

The first was in response to Vashti Cunningham’s mother’s disappointment at seeing not one single high jump attempt on the USATF.tv Drake Relays webcast.

The other was from NBCSN announcer Craig Masback during the Penn Relays broadcast:
I want to point out a negative thing here. Some college coaches have chosen not to bring their teams here. There’s something they’re calling the National Relay Championships in Arkansas this weekend. Why aren’t these guys here? Sydney McLaughlin, the great young freshman at Kentucky, she could have come here and done what Renaldo Nehemiah did many years ago, what Sanya Richard-Ross did during her college career, and establish a name for herself that would help transcend the sport as she goes through her career. And by not coming here these college coaches are depriving those athletes of running in front of this crowd.

Co-announcer Sanya Richards-Ross continued:
I really mean it when I say that these are some of my fondest memories, and I had the opportunity to run here at the University of Texas. When you come here you get to see the pros and you get a peek into the future. And so yeah, I’m disappointed with many of those college coaches who went there instead of coming here. This is an environment you cannot recreate, it’s just that special.

On the other hand, maybe these don’t meet the definition of “hot take”. The Urban Dictionary says a hot take is “an opinion based on simplistic moralizing rather than actual thought”. Stones has been involved in broadcasting for decades and his dismissal from NBC several years ago was likely due to conflicts over lack of field event coverage. Masback was USATF CEO for over a decade years and knows the ins and outs of the sport. The Urban Dictionary tells us not to confuse a hot take with a strong take, and that’s what these probably are.

3. WILL THE NATIONAL RELAYS BE A ONE-AND-DONE?

So what about the National Relays? What kind of meet was it?

It was actually a very good meet. It drew sixteen “Power 5 Conference” teams, including national championship contenders such as Florida, Arkansas, and Kentucky. As it turns out, it wasn’t that much of a relay meet. The lion’s share of the best races were in Friday’s individual races, topped by Sydney McLaughlin’s collegiate 400 hurdle debut (no sweat, another World junior record).

Many of the relays were a bit thin for a 16-team power conference lineup. The 4x800s only had six teams, the women’s sprint medley had five, and the men’s sprint medley had just four. The 4x200s were a joke—just three women’s teams and two men’s, and in the latter Florida dropped the baton so Arkansas was the only team to even reach the finish line.

The origin of this meet came from the ashes of another meet, the SEC Relays. At the 2016 SEC Indoor Championships, the coaches voted to host their own SEC-only relay meet on the last weekend of April beginning in 2017. I have no idea what their motivations were in making this move, but nine SEC teams ended up competing (five others defected, two of whom went to Penn). The results were tremendous – four collegiate records fell – but the fan turnout was underwhelming, there was little participation in the nonstandard relays (4×200, 4×800, shuttle hurdles, medley), and the SEC Network failed to even webcast the meet let alone televise it. It turned out to be a one-off event and not held again.

Arkansas decided to take up the challenge of hosting the meet and came up with the idea of expanding to Power 5 Conference teams. The stated reason for the meet’s existence was that Penn and Drake are too focused on high school and professional athletes and that this meet would be focused on collegians.

From a performance perspective the meet was a success, although as I stated above some relay events were not competitive. As far as creating buzz, I don’t know. Arkansas didn’t announce any attendance number, but the SEC Network telecast showed sparse turnout (for the record, despite 40 years of Razorback success, the largest single-day attendance for any meet ever held in Fayetteville is 5,583, or roughly equal to an average Thursday turnout at Drake).

4. CALABAR


The all-male high school in Kingston has been churning out great track teams since the 1930s, but this year’s team is almost assuredly the best they’ve ever had.

The Lions swept the 4×100, 4×400 and 4×800, becoming the first to win three Penn high school boys’ relays since 1949. That’s impressive, but more impressive was the way in which they won.

Their time in the 4×100 was 39.51, the second-fastest in Penn Relays history behind only their own record from last year. Their time in the 4×800 was 7:26.09, more than four seconds under the Penn Relays record and faster than any US high school team has ever run. Their time in the 4×400 was 3:03.79, nearly five seconds under the Penn Relays record – and just 1.81 seconds slower than the Jamaican senior national team ran all of last year!

5. SCREAMING ANCHORS

The fun thing about relays is that races are under a constant state of flux and a big lead is rarely safe. In an individual race it’s rare to see a big lead crumble in the closing stages of the race while spectators wonder if it will hold up until the finish. It happens all the time in relays, and a blazing run at the end can make you…

In Saturday’s Drake Relays women’s distance medley, Missouri came to the anchor leg in fourth place and more than four seconds behind first. That anchor leg happened to be Karissa Schweizer, who hasn’t lost to a collegian on the track in nearly a year. Schweizer made up the deficit in the first lap and ended up winning by 60 meters. Her 1600 meter split was 4:32.19, worth roughly 4:33.8 for a mile or 4:13.5 for 1500 meters.

In Friday’s Penn Relays college men’s sprint medley Championship of America, Penn State came to the anchor leg in sixth place and 3.6 seconds behind then-leading Clemson, who anchored with ACC runner-up John Lewis (1:47.14 PR). Isaiah Harris anchored for the Nittany Lions and he had a lot of work to do, but he got back into contention after one lap and overtook the lead for good with 30 meters to go. His split was 1:44.74.

The big runs were saved for the 4×400. Calabar had no deficit to make up when Christopher Taylor got the baton in the Penn high school boys’ Championship of America race, but he still went on a rampage and split 44.84.

In the college men’s Championship of America race, Auburn’s Nathon Allen got the baton in second place and ran a great anchor leg of 43.77 – and still lost ground on first. Houston’s Kahmari Montgomery defended the Cougars’ lead with a stunning 43.38 anchor, the fastest ever run at the Penn Relays.

6. PRO POWER

The USA vs The World competition is still how NBCSN promotes its Penn Relays broadcast. Those competitions used to be funded by Nike but that was discontinued several years ago, and then the World Relays stole Penn’s idea and ran with it, so now the fields are thinner and much less competitive. That the USA vs The World continues at all says a lot about how much Penn is willing to spend money to make the meet into a spectacle.

Where the pro competition has really taken off is at the Drake Relays, thanks to funding by Hy-Vee, the regional grocery store chain. Devon Allen beat a good men’s high hurdle field, as did Jeffrey Gibson in the men’s 400 hurdles and Georganne Moline in the women’s 400 hurdles.

The exceptional competitions were the women’s 100 hurdles, women’s pole vault, and men’s shot put. All were as good as a Diamond League event. Keni Harrison beat four of the world’s top seven hurdlers with a new Drake record (12.37), Sandi Morris beat two of the world’s top six pole vaulters with a new Drake record (4.88m/16′ 0″), and Ryan Crouser beat the reigning world champion shot putter with the world’s #2 mark (22.01m/72′ 2½”).

One other great thing about these meets is the competitive opportunities they offer for the not-quite-elites. Penn’s men’s Olympic Development mile included three collegians and twelve post-collegians. Johnny Gregorek probably should qualify as an elite—he was 10th at last year’s World Championships—but his 3:54.94 win pulled a bunch of other guys along to PRs, such as the little-known Charlie Marquardt.

7. LOCAL FLAVOR

Villanova won two men’s Championships of America (4xMile, distance medley) and the women won three (4×800, 4×1500, distance medley). The Villanova campus is just fifteen miles northwest of Franklin Field and the Wildcats are the most successful team in the history of the Penn Relays. Penn State came away with a championship too.

Iowa won the men’s Hy-Vee Cup team scoring competition and Iowa State took second. The resurgence of those programs can only help the popularity of the collegiate competition at Drake, with the hope that it has a knock-on effect of increasing attention paid to in-state college competition at meets other than Drake.

The hosts of these meets were long-time basement dwellers but that has begun to change. Two years ago Penn broke a long Championship of America drought with a win in the men’s 4xMile, and the Quakers are now among the best teams in the Ivy League.

Drake hired Mark Carroll as their new track coach last June and their level of performance has already had a slight uptick. The Bulldogs got sixth in the men’s 4×100 and looked like they were fourth in the sprint medley but were DQed. Look for them to make further improvements in the next few years.

8. DO IT ALONE

In Thursday’s women’s 5000 meters, Karissa Schweizer broke the Drake Relays record with a 15:23.21. That’s far faster than any collegian has run in any of those big west coast invitationals at Stanford or Mt. SAC where everyone thinks they have to go in order to run fast. Schweizer had a pacemaker for the first mile but the rest she did on her own – she won by over a minute.

Megan Cunningham, Schweizer’s teammate, did the same in the Drake 10,000 meters on the same night. She went to #9 on the 2018 collegiate list and broke her PR by more than three minutes, all while lapping the field.

Over at the Penn 10,000 on the same night, Notre Dame’s Anna Rohrer ran her first race in a year and won by 20 seconds. It was the fastest women’s 10k at Penn in 17 years and puts her at #10 on the yearly collegiate list. Besides these two, every single other time in the NCAA’s top 28 was run at Stanford or Mt. SAC.

There is an assumption that it is impossible to run solo and record a fast time. (I question the need to run extremely fast during the regular season when just getting an NCAA Preliminary qualifier will do, but that’s an argument for another day). It is obviously not true that you cannot do it alone. Furthermore, it’s useful for athletes to gain a variety of experiences, weather, conditions, and racing strategies. It takes a lot less mental energy to get into a paceline and just run for twenty laps than it does to be the one making the pace all on your own, but what is easy and what is beneficial are not the same thing. If distance runners learned anything at last week’s Boston Marathon, it’s that relying on a single racing strategy is leaving yourself woefully underprepared.

9. COSBY

The Prep School Boys 4×400 is named for Ennis Cosby, the only son of Bill Cosby who was murdered in random violence in 1997. Cosby was a longtime supporter of the Penn Relays and competed at the meet in high school and college.

On Thursday Cosby was found guilty of three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault. He has been accused of drugging and raping as many as sixty women, although the statute of limitations has expired for many of them. I noted the irony that his verdict came on the day that the Penn Relays calls “Women’s Day”.

The positive influence that Cosby had on myself and millions of others of my generation is tremendous. He had a hand in creating The Electric Company, one of the greatest educational children’s TV shows of all time. His Fat Albert cartoon made city kids of modest means (such as myself) feel appreciated and represented, and every episode came with a moral lesson. Picture Pages helped develop reading skills for millions more. And it wasn’t just for young people either. His short film Bill Cosby on Prejudice is a staple of ethnic studies and diversity courses, or at least was. And in this area he lived what he preached; these project were used to further his own education as parts of his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. The former class clown and college dropout ended up with a Ph.D. from UMass.

And then came The Cosby Show. Everyone I knew watched it. And he talked about track and ran too! He spoke our language, he was one of us. When you looked up the word “avuncular” in the dictionary you saw The Cos’ smiling mug right there.

And gradually we discovered that the man who helped so many was a monster who destroyed lives too. How would you feel if you discovered that your favorite uncle who did so much for you was a serial rapist? I don’t even know what to say.

10. GESTALT

Is it the college races that get my motor running for Penn and Drake weekend? No. Is it the pro races? No. Is it the high school or masters races? No. It’s like curry. The individual spices are just OK until you put them all together. It is the whole experience that I love.

What makes Penn and Drake special is that they are all-day parties of track and field. It is difficult or maybe even impossible to recreate them elsewhere, although the Millrose Games and Texas Relays do a pretty good job.

Many colleges went elsewhere, and the USA vs the World races are a shadow of their former glory. It doesn’t matter. The stadiums were still full, as they always have been and always will be. They are rockin’ good times and they are the Mecca and Medina of the spring track season.

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