SI Vault
May 02, 1955
Pole vaulters, shot-putters and discus throwers get their chance, but in the U.S. in the spring the focus of attention is on the durable legion of young runners who compete in THE RELAYS!
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May 02, 1955

The Relays!

Pole vaulters, shot-putters and discus throwers get their chance, but in the U.S. in the spring the focus of attention is on the durable legion of young runners who compete in THE RELAYS!

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For example, at the Drake Relays in 1952, Wes Santee, then a little known University of Kansas sophomore, was sent off 40 yards behind Georgetown's Joe LaPierre—who later that year won the IC4A mile championship—on the final leg of the grueling four-mile relay. He ran a brilliant 4:07.5-mile leg, much faster than he had ever run the mile before, and caught LaPierre in the stretch to give Kansas first place and a new American collegiate record. The next day in the distance medley he started his anchor leg even farther behind, trailing Michigan State's Jim Kepford, but once again ground the margin down and down and caught Kepford on the last backstretch, this time turning in a 4:07.4 effort to give Kansas another victory and a meet record.

No track fan who saw the then obscure Santee burst upon the American track-and-field scene that weekend will ever forget it. Nor, if he can help it, will he ever miss another relay carnival.

Nor will they who watched the Penn Relays in 1937, 1938 and 1939 forget John Woodruff, the very tall and graceful half-miler from the University of Pittsburgh who had won the 1936 Olympic 800 meters. Woodruff, challenged really to prove his greatness, responded by sparking seven Pitt relay teams to victory in those three years, running brilliant legs at distances from 220 to 880 yards. Around Franklin Field they still talk about Woodruff in tones of awe.

Franklin Field is on the awe-inspiring side to begin with, because it is the birthplace of modern relay running. It all started in 1895 when Frank B. Ellis, chairman of Pennsylvania's track committee, was looking around for a suitable event to mark the dedication of the school's newly built stadium—Franklin Field. He recalled that two years earlier, during his senior year at Penn, his school and Princeton had engaged in a one-mile relay race in which four runners from each school each ran a quarter of a mile. That race in turn had been an outgrowth of intramural relay races held at Penn.

Ellis and others arranged a series of relay races to take place on Saturday afternoon, April 20, 1895. A total of 64 competitors from eight colleges, six prep schools and two high schools took part. Eight two-team races were run with Harvard beating Penn in the mile-relay feature in 3:34.4.

In succeeding years the relay idea grew. In 1908 the Olympics adopted relay racing, and in 1910 Drake University followed suit. At Drake's first meet, run in a snow storm, a chilled group of 82 competitors were barely outnumbered by a crowd of 100. But in succeeding years the Drake Relays flourished and by the 1920s were rivaling Penn. Since then the two have stood side by side as twin titans of the relay world, competing once in a while for some of the better teams but for the most part content to rest on prized laurels: Penn on its tradition, its size and its age; Drake on its parade, its bands, its Relays Queen and its slightly better records over the years.

But when all is said and done, those in charge at both Penn and Drake will agree that the key man at either meet this year is, as always, that skinny little kid running the second leg of the high school medley. He is what relay racing is all about: competition.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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