Relay carnivals abound in the U.S., although they are they are all but unknown elsewhere in the world. They arrive early in spring with the crocus and the first small, green leaves, and they last through April and into May. What with Florida Relays and Ohio Relays and Arkansas Relays, Texas, Kansas and California Relays, Drake, Penn and West Coast Relays, hardly a week of spring goes by in one section or another of the country that a track fan cannot find a relay carnival to wallow in.
A relay carnival is simply a track meet in which relay races take precedence over races for individuals, unlike standard track meets or Olympic Games, in which relays are thrown in just to round out the program of individual races. Relay carnivals have races for individuals, too, sometimes very important races, but they are froth on the pudding. The relays are the thing.
Numbers are the thing, too. Rather than present a choice field of five or six top-flight competitors in each of 14 or 15 events, relay directors like Tommy Deckard of Drake University or Jerry Ford of the University of Pennsylvania think nothing of crowding nine or 10 teams of four men each into one event, and of running off 50 or 100 events, including trial heats, in a weekend.
This sometimes makes for confusion, as when a spectator who has come to see Oklahoma A&M's remarkable distance-medley team or Syracuse's championship two-mile quartet finds himself instead completely wrapped up in contemplation of a bevy of junior high school kids fighting it out, tooth, nail, elbow and heel, in a quarter-mile relay. But it also makes for a gala spectacle, rare excitement, pure competition and, on more than one occasion, great running. Anyway, a real track fan would rather see an exciting race between nondescripts than a dull one between stars. And he'd rather see a dull race—no matter who is in it—than no race at all.
Nevertheless, this bewildering panorama of thousands on thousands of skinny legs, pumping arms, gasping mouths and worn, weary faces is utterly incomprehensible to the non-track fan and has led one man, who considers all track and field idiotic, to describe relay racing as "the highest form of idiocy."
Why relay fans love this "idiocy"—whether the accusation is justified or not—is probably best explained by an old German-American maxim that can be applied, with equal charm and disregard for logic, to medicine, food or track and field. It says, "If a little bit is good, a whole lot is better." A whole lot is what the track fan gets at relays.
Consider. One of the most exciting things to watch at a track meet is a sprint, at 100 or 220 yards. Here men run at maximum effort, saving nothing, driving all the way. The trouble is, the race is over too soon. Ten seconds, 20 seconds—that's all there is. And if one of the competitors is clearly superior to the others, the race is often decided in the first 20 or 30 yards.
But in a quarter- or half-mile relay between teams of top-ranking sprinters you not only have all the wild abandon and extravagant effort of the ordinary sprint races, but you have it four times as long, and you also have the very distinct possibility of your one really great sprinter being set off several yards behind in the anchor (or final) leg of the relay, faced with the problem of catching up to and passing a rival sprinter almost as good as himself, and, to the delight of the track fan, often solving the problem in a breath-taking finish.
This holds true for other relay races, too. The quarter-mile (for individuals) is often called the most exciting race to watch in the standard track meet. It is run at near sprint speed, yet it is sufficiently long to require a certain precise pacing or rating of the runner. It is run around one or two curves, which brings in racing tactics (unless the event is run in lanes, an unhappily common practice nowadays). Multiply this fine race four times—which is what the one-mile relay is—and you have, for the relay fan, the ultimate in running: a slam-bang race all the way over a fairly long distance.
In the longer relays, those in which individual legs of a half-mile or longer are run, it is not at all uncommon for a previously unheralded runner to suddenly find within himself a large and potent store of hitherto unrealized ability.