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Bill Lyon: The Penn Relays, running with tradition

All right, mind that next step now. Easy. We're going over to the northeast corner, the lower deck. It's the primo vantage spot.

The 118th edition of the Penn Relays begins this week. (Laurence Kesterson/Staff file photo)
The 118th edition of the Penn Relays begins this week. (Laurence Kesterson/Staff file photo)Read more

All right, mind that next step now. Easy. We're going over to the northeast corner, the lower deck. It's the primo vantage spot.


 There it is again. Hear it?


 Like some lonesome lovesick coyote trolling in the prairie night for a partner.


But no, these are human voices, a wailing chorus coming from those crooners in the home stretch here at Franklin Field, the ones who worship speed, the faithful who make the pilgrimage to Philadelphia in the shank of every April, drawn by that revered rite of spring, the Penn Relays.

Theirs is a mission of mercy. They are here to urge on the runners when they have reached that part of the race when oxygen debt takes over, when lungs are aflame, legs overcooked spaghetti, wobbling about as though they have a mind of their own, and the finish line - ah it is but a cruel mirage, a bleary dot out there on the horizon, and won't somebody, anybody, please, come to the rescue?


Oh, and did we mention Riggy yet? Short for rigor mortis. When the lactic acid builds and the anaconda tightens its grip on the legs and they begin to seize up, well, my friend, that's Riggy at work. That triggers the theme song of the Penn Relays.


And this is the place to be, this roost right here on the turn for home in that stately old dowager, Franklin Field, on 33d Street, at the edge of the Penn campus, next to that other classic arena, the Palestra. Franklin Field was opened for business in '95. That's eighteen ninety-five, laddie boy.

And the Relays? This will be the 118th edition. The meet, with pardonable pride, is fond of pointing out it is the oldest and largest such carnival in business.

The field will be somewhere well past 20,000, with the age range from high school all the way to a century - and beyond. (At the age of 100, Everett Hosack ran the Masters 100-yard dash. He repeated when he was 101. And 102.)

The roll call of those who have shined through the years is long and awe- inspiring. A grainy black-and-white photograph commemorating the 1936 Relays captures a sprinter in mid-stride, like a racehorse, with his feet off the ground. And it looks as if it is a damp and dank day in Philadelphia, with the racing surface pitted and pocked and uneven. But the runner doesn't seem to notice, so focused is he.

Jesse Owens won the 100 that day, decisively, impressively, and it was a warm-up for what would follow just a couple of months later in Berlin - four Olympic gold medals, a performance so mesmerizing, it was said, that Hitler retreated in raging frustration and humiliation from his private box.

Back to the future now, and look down there on the pole vault runway, see her? Tina Sutej. Human slingshot. University of Arkansas. Biology major.

There was a time, and not so long ago, when the vault's landing pit was unforgiving sand, like wet cement, and the pole was made of bamboo, prone to splinter and with all the flexibility of a corpse. A height of 12 feet was beyond imagining.

Ah, but now the poles have the bend of a buggy whip. So you run up with great pace, plant the pole and - not to get too technical on you here - let 'er rip. And we have liftoff.

This is not an event for the faint of heart. Sutej stands just 5-foot-6, but has enough strength to handle an 11-foot pole, and enough guts to fall from great heights. Repeatedly. At the Texas Relays this spring, she cleared 14 feet, 11 inches. Rather like throwing yourself out of a third-floor window.

Tina's record is 20 wins and 1 loss, and you suspect, it's about to become 21-1, with 15 feet in her rear-view window as she parachutes in.

But really now, what are relays without, well, relays. Which brings us to the sleek Sheila Reid of Villanova, two-time NCAA cross-country champion. (Picture a deer bounding with effortless elegance over hedges.) Her Penn Relays saddle is full: Distance medley relay Thursday, 4x1500 on Friday, and 4x800 on Saturday. The anchor leg will be entrusted to her in all three.

But, of course, any relay is the child of four parents. Or, as Villanova coach Gina Procaccio said: "When it comes to the relays, it's four legs."

In Paris, in 1910, the father of the Penn Relays, a man named Frank B. Ellis, reflected: "As I look back now I realize that the Relays we thus created made track training and competition not only more enjoyable but more significant as well. Now, four men join for a common purpose: Team victory.

"Individual effort is still present, but it is individual effort within and for the team. If the team wins, each man wins; if the team loses, each man loses. This is the very essence of our American democracy, especially since this idea always ends in action, not in mere words. This is, I believe, the great value of relay running."