THUD. PAUSE. THUD. Pause. Grunt. Thud. Pause. Snort. Thud. Pause. Arrrrrrgh. Thud. Pause. Oomph. Thud.
The lower field is alive with the sounds of respectful silence in between thuds and primal screams as the other Penn Relays play out this week. Men and women take turns hurling heavy objects and sticks in a more civilized enterprise than their original use as implements of war. What used to split open the head of the enemy now makes a mess for the grounds crew.
On the ridge above, intermittent roars, a mixture of despair and euphoria, buzz the atmosphere from the Franklin Field stands as the stars of the Penn Relays streak toward the finish line. The noise grows faint as it wafts over the driveway outside the south wall, floats across the blue bridge, down steps to the parking lot and through the gate where it makes a right to the throwing competition.
You'd need a cannon or catapult for the metal balls to reach the stadium from this vantage point where javelins whistle, hammers whirl, identifiable objects fly and hefty spheres go thud in the afternoon. Sprinters are the rock stars of the Penn Relays. Throwers are heavy metal on the side stage.
"The stars are in the stadium," admits Tony Tenisci, Penn women's assistant track coach, who has been lovingly coaching throwers for 21 years. "But throwers are every bit as fit as anyone in the stadium. At one time, throwers might have been people who couldn't do anything else. Now, you get real athletes who go through an unbelievable regimen of training to get ready. And the results are performances that will knock your socks off."
The earlier practitioners of field events went sockless and the results were performances that would knock your blocks off. Or at least your sandals. Before pillaging and plundering were weaned out of the events, shot putters had to be at a disadvantage when they went up against enemies wielding spears, metallic Frisbees or hammers. Cross competition is taboo now. The prevailing disadvantage in modern times is a smaller crowd.
Thousands will watch from stadium seats beginning tomorrow morning. At the usual throwing sites, the crowd might consist of a few fellow tossers and a passing jogger looking over his shoulder as he quickens his step. The Penn Relays, however, draw a decent following.
"We get hundreds of people watching," says Tenisci. "The bleachers are full as well as the side area. I'd say we get 300 to 500 people watching."
It's not like cricket where an outsider might scratch his head the entire match. It's easy to understand what throwers do. They throw. Why? The sprint crowd might ponder that question. The throwing crowd knows the answer.
"It's like another world, a private club," says Tenisci, who is credited for bringing the women's hammer throw to this other world. "It's not as continuous and stressful as sprinting, which is all about speed and running. Throwers are a different breed. If you're really into it, it's the place to be.
"Franklin Field is like the Coliseum of Rome. We have our own drama down below. The throwers compete in a quiet world. They have their own little chapel. They are people who go to church for a quiet service. In the stadium there is constant yelling and screaming during the events. It's actually silent during the throws."
There are often some ungodly sounds, however, before the release.
"You see a lot of emotions," said Jud Logan, Ashland University track coach, a hammer thrower on four Olympic teams and coordinator of the Olympic development throwing events at the Penn Relays. "On the outside you'd never be able to create the atmosphere you find inside the stadium but the field events are still explosive and dynamic. You see guys pacing in between throws and jumping in the air when they get off a good one. You see competitors screaming at their implements to go farther."
That approach cuts through stress more than it increases distance. Distance, of course, is a common sense reason to contest throwing events off the beaten, cushiony track. A 16-pound steel ball with a handle attached, heaved by a massive human, can travel 90 yards. You can cordon off an area and run shot put on the inside at the same time as running events but plunking the anchor leg with a discus might hinder his concentration a tad.
You might have seen that video where the javelin stuck in the unsuspecting official's chest at a meet a few years back. The guy survived as well as the haunting memory. Sprinters ducking javelins might make for a sick, extreme sports video game but the optimum environment entails giving throwers more room and less moving targets.
"It would be interesting but a little scary if you threw the javelin while people are running," said North Carolina's Justin Ryncavage, defending Penn Relays college javelin champ who won the title at the ACC championships last weekend for the second straight time. "It was weird at first when I went to the Penn Relays and we were competing outside the stadium. The crowds are smaller but there's always the javelin groupies, people that just love the sport. You get pro javelin guys who hang out together and college javelin guys who hang out together and you get people who never threw it but just really love it.
"Then you get people who never saw it before and are just curious."
Javelin groupees pump up competitors but for the most part throwers look in the mirror and at their daily logs for motivation.
"Javelin throwers are crazy people, like skydivers," said Ryncavage. "They have fun by themselves. The competition is primarily internal. They are mainly focused on bettering their own personal record. Throwing the javelin was fun when I first started and it's still fun. Well, it's not so much fun when you don't throw it as far as you want to."
In those moments you would think less witnesses are preferred. That's not necessarily the case.
"It doesn't matter if you're throwing in front of 100,000 or five people," said Logan. "You're not competing against the others. You're competing against the tape measure. When you're in the ring, you are the star. They call your name. You have 90 seconds to throw. All eyes are on you.
"It's neat to tell people you've won medals in front of huge crowds but that's not my favorite memory. My favorite memory is the day the ball went farther."
Throwers understand. *