The Penn Relays

Photography by Henry Rowan

Photographs by Henry Rowan

The 2014 Penn Relays are scheduled for April 24-26, 2014

Get your tickets early!

Every April, the area surrounding the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field turns into a swirling sea of amateur athletes and their supporters. Streets are closed, buses block those that are open, and only the foolish try to navigate the area by car. (Use SEPTA and get off at the University City stop!) All are converging on one of the nation’s grand old stadiums for the Penn Relays, the oldest track and field competition in the United States and one of the premier track and field events in the world.

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The oldest football stadium hosts the oldest track meet in the nation.

The good natured chaos that fills the streets miraculously stays on the streets and once you enter the stadium you are met with an impressive organization that keeps more than 200 events, involving literally thousands of athletes, running smoothly and on time.  These folks could move an army across a continent without blinking an eye: they are that good at what they do.

Banged up, battered, and bleeding.... but leading.

Banged up, battered, and bleeding.... but leading.

The Penn Relays are a three day event involving high school and college athletes as well as track clubs and Olympic development programs. Teams from around the world take part and you haven’t heard real noise until you have been in Franklin Field when the Jamaican team arrives.  In normal years it is mind-blowingly loud but if Usain Bolt, “The World’s Fastest Man,”  is in the house the cheering can probably be heard in London. It’s just totally nuts and was so loud that Bolt had to take a microphone to ask the crowd to quiet down so the runners could hear the starter’s gun.

WhenUsain Bolt runs, no one sits!

When Usain Bolt runs, no one sits!

The quality of the event itself does not overshadow the remarkable quality of the competition. When you go to the Penn Relays you will see underdogs win and records fall. You will find yourself rooting for people you don’t know from places you didn’t know existed. Even fans of the competition were on their feet cheering the Lady Vols from the University of Tennessee in 2009 as it became clear that they were on the verge of breaking the American record in the 3,200 meter event to complete a very rare triple sweep of the Distance Medley, 6,000 meter, and 3,200 meter relays.

Less than a minute later, this young lady was the proud owner of the HS Pole Vault record.

Less than a minute later, this young lady was the proud owner of the Pa. HS Pole Vault record.

Over the years the Relays have grown in both size and significance. Over 22,000 athletes participate in front of over 100,000 spectators for the three-day event. Saturday’s attendance always approaches 50,000, making this the best-attended track event in the United States and one of the premier events in the world.

It often gets a little chaotic on the track when exchanges are made.

It often gets a little chaotic on the track when exchanges are made.

Saturday’s spectators are treated to a variety of USA vs. The World events which pit, not surprisingly, the top American runners against those from around the world.  The stadium is filled and rafters are rattling as teams from Kenya, Canada, Australia, France, Jamica, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Nigeria, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinadad and Tobago, Bahamas, and the Dominican Republican are usually on hand. In 2010 the Jamaican 4 x 100 meter team, anchored by Usain Bolt, electrified the entire stadium with a track record of 37.90 seconds with Bolt anchoring the team with a very impressive 8.79 final leg.

A lot of athletes travel a long way for their brief time on the track - and they all try to make the most of it.

A lot of athletes travel a long way for their brief time on the track - and they all try to make the most of it.

To illustrate the quality of the competition, 23 Penn Relay alumni won Gold Medals at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In fact, Relay alumni have won Gold medals at every modern Olympics except for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the USA boycotted. As you can see, this is serious track and field at its best and one of Pennsylvania’s greatest Treasures.

They may have gray hair but unless you are a track star they will still trounce just about everyone else!

They may have gray hair but unless you are a track star they will still trounce just about everyone else!

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It isn't all about running, it is also about flying through the air and throwing strange objects.

Travel Notes:

The University City train station is only a javelin throw from Franklin Field. All you have to do is cross the street and you are there. Yes, it really is that easy.

The reconstruction of the South Street Bridge is finally finished, meaning that you can once again get off I-76 at University City. On normal days, this is a viable way to get to the Penn campus or the hospital but when the relays are in town it is absolutely insane to try to drive in.

Things to do:

If you haven’t been to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus before, you might enjoy a stroll through. From the train station, walk along the stadium, cross the street, and go right on 34th street.  After just a short distance you will see stairs on your left that lead into one of the older, and very pretty, sections of the campus.

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One Response to “The Penn Relays”

  1. M. Kanest says:

    Wow, I love this website! I have been going to the Relays for years but have never seen pictures and text that so accurately portrays the emotion of the event.

    PS. Your shots from the Velodrome are simply amazing.