This week marks the 117th running of the Penn Relays, the first and largest track and field meet in the world. An estimated 17,000 athletes from more than thirty states and sixty countries will compete in front of more than 100,000 spectators during the three-day track and field festival. Track legends Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes and Jim Thorpe ran at the Penn Relays, and the Relays Wall of Fame is occupied by icons that include Carl Lewis, Eamonn Coghlan, Ron Delany.
I will join less than two hundred runners in the Penn Relays Distance Classic—the best kept secret of the meet, as far as I’m concerned. The rich history of The Relays will be on my mind when the starting gun sounds and I’ll wonder, What the hell am I doing here?
The Distance Classic is an open invitation, therefore I needed only to register. Runners who blaze through the 20K (12.4 miles) at 5:15 per mile are joined by those who run at double that pace. The fact that the race doesn’t require qualification like the Boston Marathon doesn’t diminish the goose bumps in the final stretch, running into Franklin Field and around the same track where world-class runners compete in the days that follow.
The race begins outside Franklin Field and travels north on 33rdStreet, winds through Powelton Village, crosses the Schuykill River at Spring Garden Street in front of the Art Museum and then eases onto West River Drive. The river drive loop is the most popular route in the city for runners, cyclists and rollerbladers. Runners cross over the river once again at the Falls Bridge to the turnaround point and then backtrack to Franklin Field.
On the way back down the scenic West River Drive I’ll look over at Boathouse Row and say to myself, Owens, Hayes, Thorpe and Brennan—the impossible relay team.