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April 26, 2017

Generations of memories at the Penn Relays for the Byrne family

Back in early 2016, I was researching a story in the Sports Illustrated archives and came across a Penn Relays feature from 1977 on Kevin Byrne. I found it interesting when I had a friend from Notre Dame by the same name. I quickly connected the dots and realized it was his father. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Mr. Byrne at the Penn Relays and then heard more stories about him. Someone else recalled having a very motivating conversation about running with Mr. Byrne. Kevin reached out and passed along this personal reflection on what the Penn Relays mean to him and his family.

Enjoy and feel free to direct any comments to Kevin on Twitter: @KByrneJr

The Penn Relays has been a staple of conversation for the Byrne family for as long as I can remember. If there was a betting pool for topics that go on at Christmas dinner for my family, Penn Relays would be the heavy favorite. It is an event that has given the Byrnes so many memories throughout the years.

My grandfather, James, was part of the winning 1950 High School Distance Medley Championship of America team. I can hear him tell the story. There was six inches of standing water on the track due to all the rain (the amount seems to increase each time I hear him tell it).  With a leadoff 880 yard (Yes the 880 yards led off back then) split of 2:07.7 on the cinder track of Franklin Field, his Bishop Loughlin team went on to win by 50 seconds.  He describes it to this day as, “The slowest half mile split on a winning distance medley in Penn Relays history.”  He went on to run at St. John’s University, where he was a cross country All-American.

My dad’s older brother, my uncle Brian, ran twice in 1975 for Bergen Catholic as the 800 meter leg on the distance medley relay and as the leadoff leg on the 4×800 (trials and finals were both held on Saturday back then). While his BC team dropped the stick on the DMR, they did manage to finish third in the 4×8 the next day. He later went on to run at Princeton University.  My dad’s younger brother, my Uncle J.P., ran the leadoff leg of the high school 4×800 for Ridgewood in 1990. He went on to play soccer at Mount St. Mary’s.

kevin byrne sr sports illustrated

That brings me to my father, Kevin Sr., who was on those same two relays with my Uncle Brian in 1975 at Bergen Catholic.  Following my uncle’s graduation, my father transferred to Paramus Catholic for his junior and senior seasons. Under legendary PC/Ridgewood coach, Mike Glynn (who also coached my uncle in 1990), my father ran the DMR, 4×8 and 4×4 in both 1976 and 1977. In 1977, he was named the MVP of the meet after splitting 4:04.1, 1:52.8 and 49.6. The 4:04.1 anchor split on the DMR brought his PC team from 15th to 3rd and remains the fastest anchor split for a New Jersey boy in meet history. During his four springs at Georgetown between 1978 and 1981, he ran 10 total races at the Penn Relays. Most notable of those were back to back 3rd place finishes in the 4×1500 in 1980 and 1981, and a 1st place finish as the leadoff leg of the Championship of America 4×800 team in 1981.

I remember my dad started taking my sisters and me to the Penn Relays when I was about 10 years old, but we had heard the stories of the meet for many years prior. We would get there early on Friday and would always sit in the lower bowl off the first turn right near the Villanova cheering section. My sisters and I were excited every year for Penn Relays Friday and it wasn’t because we got to skip school for it. It was because we got to spend time with our father. It was exciting to see how passionate he was about a sport that was such a big part of his life. He’d answer all of our questions and try to pass on all the wisdom that he had gained from his years in the sport.

With each race, we would be talking to different friends, teammates, competitors and coaches of my dad.  They would reminisce about their races at Franklin Field and confirm the stories that I had heard so many times at the dinner table. When I was younger, my track knowledge was limited to the distance races based on what I had picked up listening to my dad and my grandfather. It was fun to go into Philly and learn all about the 4x1s and how the handoffs needed to be perfect in order for the team to be successful. It was also terrifying to hear how loud the hurdles were when a runner accidentally clipped them and then equally as exciting to see an official dart out onto the track to reset it for the next leg.

We would look most forward to the distance races in the afternoon. All the individuals in our group would each choose different teams to get splits for before the race. My sisters and I always wanted to split his Hoyas and he would happily let us. We did this every year, and as I gained a greater understanding of what was going on, I wanted so badly to run at the Penn Relays when I got older. I wanted to be part of the history and tradition that my family had partaken in for years.

kevin byrne penn relays

A few years later, I got my wish. ended up running three times at the Penn Relays while at Red Bank Catholic HS – twice on the 4×800 in 2008 and 2010, and once on the leadoff leg of the distance medley in 2011.  That year I split 3:06.4 to barely hand off in the lead in front of hard charging George Kelly of CBA and Levi Jennings of Ridgewood (coached by – you guessed it – Mike Glynn).  When I was running for the University of Notre Dame, we always attended the Drake Relays, so I unfortunately never got another shot after high school to run at PennI sure am excited to see my Fighting Irish make their Franklin Field debut this weekend though

I’ve seen some memorable races over the years at Penn from the stands. I saw Sarah Bowman and the Tennessee Volunteers sweep the 4×8, 4xMile and DMR in 2009. I saw Liam Boylan-Pett and Columbia shock the world and win the 4×8 in 2007.  Just last year, I was able to see my college roommate Chris Giesting leadoff the winning USA team in the USA vs. The World 4×400. Probably the most exciting race I’ve seen at Penn though was in 2010 with Robby Andrews and Andrew Wheating in the 4x800m. As usual, we all picked our teams to split, with me taking Penn State, my dad taking Oregon and then CBA coach (now Nike + Global Run Club Head Coach) Chris Bennett taking Virginia. When Andrews got the stick in the lead and slowed the pace down to a jog, we had no idea how the race was going to play out, as we had never seen Andrews in that situation. When Wheating and Andrews came off the last turn, it was the loudest I have ever heard Franklin Field, and rightfully so. When all was said and done, my dad asked Coach Bennett what Robby’s splits were on the anchor, to which he jokingly replied, “72/46”. That’s the tactical nature of the Penn Relays.   

chris giesting kevin byrne

Probably my favorite memory of Penn though is from my junior year of high school. Though I still remember getting the stick on the anchor leg of the 4×800 just behind my future Notre Dame teammate DJ Thornton and staring at the Viking horns on the back of his Union Catholic singlet for the entirety of the two laps while we split identical 1:55.1’s. The race itself wasn’t the most memorable part of the day. What was most memorable for me was getting to go on a shakeout run earlier that morning with my father from our hotel. As we jogged around the streets of Philadelphia, we chatted about life and what we thought was going to happen in the race. He told me he’d be standing at the 200-meter mark for my race just like he usually does. And just like in all my races, his was the only voice that I heard

This year we get to welcome another Byrne family member into the ‘Penn Relays Competitor Club’ and add to our collective family memory bank. My youngest sister, Bridget, will be joining her brother, her father, her two uncles and her grandfather when she leads off in the Small Schools High School 4×800 on Thursday morning. While I’ll be rooting for her Red Bank Catholic squad to make the final and will be excited to see her run, I’m equally excited for another reason.

I am excited that in the future, she’ll be able to come back to Franklin Field and meet up with old teammates, friends, competitors and coaches. She’ll be able to appreciate the passion and the electricity that only a meet like the Penn Relays can have. Like myself and the rest of my family, she’ll be able to reminisce about the good times and memories that she has created at the Penn Relays. Plus, now she’ll be able to contribute to the dinner table conversation.

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