Chanman's Blog

Penn Relays

Posted in Race/Meet Report by Andy Chan on April 21, 2010
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The view I had of Franklin Field from the second level at the 1997 Penn Relays


As a genuine track geek I had to go to the Penn Relays at least once in my lifetime


This week marks the 116th running of The Penn Relay Carnival at historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia. The meet has the highest attendance of any track & field meet in the world besides the Olympics and the World Championships. Since 1996 the average three-day attendance figures for the Penn Relays has exceeded 104,000. If you can’t be in Philadelphia this weekend you can watch some of the meet on television (ESPN2 on Saturday, April 24 from 5:00 P.M. to 7:00 P.M.). 

There really is nothing like the Penn Relays. Those of us on the west coast don’t really have anything to compare it to. I was lucky enough to attend the Penn Relays in 1997 when I was an assistant coach at Lowell High School and the girls distance medley relay (DMR) team competed in the meet. The distance medley relay is a fun relay event. There are four people on the relay team and they run in this order: a 1200 (3 laps), a 400 (1 lap), an 800 (2 laps), and a 1600 (4 laps). The 1997 Lowell team came in 3rd with an excellent time of 12:00.29. 

Start of the 1997 HS Girls DMR. That's Susan (Chou) Mikecz in the back row, seventh from the right. Note how the runners will cut in to Lane 5.


The team was comprised of Susan Chou (now Susan Mikecz) who went on to run at Washington University in St. Louis, Myesha Kirtman who would be my hurdle coach at SHCP for one season in 2004, Sopagna Eap who was a 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and Jennifer Akana who was a two-time California state meet medalist in the mile (high school PR of 4:54). 

The big name attraction for this year’s edition of the longest running and most famous track & field relay meet in the world is Jamaica’s Usain Bolt. The World Record holder in the 100 and 200 meters will be running a leg in the 4X100 relay. There are six relay races billed as “the USA vs. the World.” They are: women’s 4X100, 4X400, and sprint medley, and the men’s 4X100, 4X400, and distance medley. Twelve nations will be represented including the USA, Jamaica, and Kenya. It is an impressive list of athletes running in the relays. You can compete at the Penn Relays too, by participating in the USATF Pick-N-Win Game

Qualifying and running at the Penn Relays is to a high school sprinter on the east coast the equivalent of qualifying and running at the Boston Marathon for an adult distance runner. 

There will be over 22,000 participants at the 2010 Penn Relays, many of whom are high school runners running in a 4X100 or 4X400 relay. The number of entries in the 4X1 and 4X4 is staggering. There are high school divisions for small schools, large schools, Catholic schools, prep schools, Philadelphia schools, suburban schools, South Jersey schools, and the list goes on. In the 4X100 relay alone there are more than 600 boys and 600 girls teams entered. There are 48 heats of girls 4X4’s scheduled for Thursday afternoon in the four hour window between 1:30 P.M. and 5:30 P.M., and another 48 heats of boys 4X4’s scheduled for Saturday morning between 9:00 A.M. and 1:00 P.M. 

In order to accommodate so many heats of relays, race management does have some unique rules. Starting blocks are not allowed in either the 4X1 or 4X4 except in the finals. The policy is: get them in, race them, get them out. I remember watching from the stands in 1997 and being amazed that a new 4X1 race was starting pretty much every sixty to ninety seconds. 

Another unique aspect of the Penn Relays is the track itself. Lane five is the curb lane. My guess is that this is to save wear and tear on lane one. The runners actually “cut out” to lane five from the inside lanes. In the distance relays lanes one through four are not used and there is actually a curb on the track to remind the runners to run in lane five. 

The distance relay races, called the College Championship of America, are the main attraction for collegiate teams. For the women, the distance medley relay (DMR) is on Thursday, the 4X1500 meter relay is on Friday, and the 4X800 relay is on Saturday. For the men, it’s the DMR on Friday, and the 4Xmile and 4X800 relays on Saturday. The coveted award for winning at Penn Relays is a “wagon wheel.” Many college teams build their season around the Penn Relays because of the glory that comes with winning a wagon wheel. 

The ultimate accomplishment for a college team is to sweep the three distance relays. The sweep may be as big a show of distance running dominance as an NCAA cross country championship. In 2009 the University of Tennessee women had one of the greatest Penn Relay distance performances in history. They won the DMR on Thursday, set a world best mark of 17:08.34 in the 4X1500 relay on Friday, and set an American record 8:17.91 in the 4X800 relay to cap off the meet on Saturday. Sarah Bowman, who ran legs on all three Tennessee relay teams, was named the meet’s college athlete of the meet. Two side notes about Tennessee’s performance: 

  1. In the DMR Kimarra McDonald had to sub in for Brittany Jones’ 400 leg because Jones, the student-athlete who put student ahead of athlete, missed her flight to the meet. It seems Jones stayed back an extra day at school to do a group presentation for her social work class and then missed her flight.
  2. Tennessee had extra motivation to sweep the distance relays in 2009. In 2008 they came in second in all three relays losing by a total time of 2.69 seconds.

When it comes to distance relays at the Penn Relays one school comes to mind as the dominant powerhouse – Villanova

Villanova with one of their many wagon wheels


The Villanova men have won a staggering 23 DMR’s, 18 4Xmile relays, and 19 4X8 relays. It’s a great accomplishment that Texas men (2008), Arkansas men (1999), Michigan men (2005 and 1945), Maryland men (1940), North Carolina women (2003), and Tennessee women (2009) have swept the distance relays. However, those accomplishments pale to Villanova’s dominance. Between 1964 and 1980 the Villanova men swept the three distance relays eleven times, and between 1989 and 1997 the Villanova women pulled off the trifecta four times! 

Shannon Rowbury crosses the finish line in 1st at the 2005 Penn Relays DMR


Villanova’s women’s coach Gina Procaccio said in a Philadelphia Inquirer interview, “The DMR is the most prestigious relay, I think, in everyone’s mind. That’s the one we really like to win.” If the DMR is the most prestigious, then Shannon Rowbury and her Duke teammates picked the right one to win. Shannon’s photo appeared in the New York Times as she crossed the finish line in first place at the 2005 Penn Relay DMR. 

The 2010 college distance relays should offer great competition. The University of Oregon has entered men’s distance relay teams and women’s distance relay teams. Look for Andrew Wheating, Jordan Hasay, and their teammates to represent the west coast quite well. Oregon coach Vin Lannana says they are going to Penn Relays to have fun but I don’t think he’s taking them across the country to run slow – I believe the Ducks will be ready to run fast and compete!