Properly speaking, the grand old track meet that will be held the last week in April for the 100th time is not the Penn Relays. It is the Penn Relay Carnival, and on that last word hangs a world of meaning. The name is a vestige of the Relays' earliest years, when spectators slept in tents pitched outside the walls of Penn's Franklin Field and competitors changed in tents on the infield. The tents are gone, but the spirit of the Relays is still very much that of a carnival—teeming with life and crammed with hopes, disappointments and surprises.
"Carnival is absolutely right," says entertainment mogul Bill Cosby, who has humbly served the Relays for years, as athlete, starter, spokesman and sponsor. "It's always been a people's event, a carnival with a heart."
Officially the Relays will start on Sunday, April 24, with a 20K road race. There is a decathlon on Tuesday and Wednesday. But only on Thursday do the Relays begin in earnest. Packed into three days are relays for colleges, high schools and club teams and for corporations and branches of the military. There will be relays for elementary school kids and a 100 meter dash for men over 75. There is even, lest anyone think that running fast is as easy as it looks, a relay for members of the media: Every carnival needs its clowns. By the time the last baton has been passed early Saturday evening, more than 13,000 athletes will have taken part.
The daunting task of making the Relays run on time falls to line clerk Karl Thornton, Penn '72 and a 3:57 miler in his time. "We did studies," says Thornton. "Overall, there's a relay every five minutes. But with the mile relays, we are literally running one every four minutes."
To keep things moving in an orderly fashion, some ingenious soul years ago came up with the idea of the Paddock, a series of pens through which teams are hustled on their way to the start. "Penn is kind of like New York City," says Princeton women's coach Peter Farrell, who competed for Notre Dame in the '60s at the rival Drake Relays in Iowa. "The meet moves right along whether you fall flat on your face or not. At Drake there's a folksy openness. It's homier, friendlier. But Penn is by far the more exciting of the two."
As with any great sporting event, the crowd is as much a part of the show as the participants. One Penn tradition that seems mystifying the first time one encounters it is the wooooo the crowd makes to help quarter-milers through the agonies wrought by lactic acid. The odd sound begins softly, almost tentatively, and increases in volume over roughly 20 seconds. "Runners today call that tightening up 'the bear.' We used to call it Riggy," says Cosby, invoking a nickname for rigor mortis. "Those guys on the final turn are famous for that wooooo. If Riggy has attacked you and you're starting to run backward, they start that wooooo. They don't care who you are, or what color, or what school you're running for."
While attendance at other track meets around the country has declined, the Penn Relays continue to thrive. Three years ago the meet drew a record 41,612 fans on a sunny Saturday. Excluding the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles, that crowd was the largest to watch a track meet in the U.S. since 1964.
So what are the Relays doing right? Partly, they are a secure link with track and field's history. Many of the sport's giants have competed—from Paavo Nurmi to Jesse Owens to Roger Bannister to Carl Lewis—but just as important, fathers and mothers have passed on their love of the Relays to their children. More than 20,000 of those who come to the meet on Saturday will sit in seats they've held for more than 10 years. Many arrived at their first Relays the way Villanova coach Marty Stern did in 1939 when he was three. "My father carried me in," he says.
Stern grew up not far from Franklin Field, and the Relays played a large part in his athletic fantasies and those of his friends. "The big teams back then were Penn and Michigan," he says. "We would pick up discarded numbers or ask people for them, put them on and have races. We would roll up newspapers and pretend that they were batons."
If the Relays have a first family, it is the Harshaws. Fred Harshaw has been the meet's chief custodian of numbers for more than half of his 53 years, taking over in 1967 from his father who had, in turn, taken over in 1949 from his father, the meet's first custodian of numbers. There has never been a Penn Relays without a Harshaw. "And my son will probably take over from me when I retire," says Harshaw, adding that making sure every athlete gets the right number often means he doesn't see much of the meet. The Harshaws moved from Philadelphia to Dallas in 1979, so Fred and his son, John, now must pay their way just to stand opposite the Paddock in unpredictable weather for three straight days, each 12 or more hours long. "I wouldn't miss it," says Harshaw.