If you are a true track and field, fan this past weekend was the one you've waited for all spring, the epitome of our beloved sport - the 127th Penn Relays and the 113th Drake Relays.
I'm from the Midwest, and coached at Drake in the early 80's, attending the relays in Des Moines for twenty-four consecutive years (1969-1993), over that time span seeing the likes of Olympic medalists Gwen Torrence, Jim Ryun, Merlene Ottey, Calvin Smith, and Bruce Jenner.
I went to the Penn Relays for the first time in 1994 while coaching at Loyola University, feeling like a kid at a carnival as I navigated the sidewalks near the hallowed stadium, smoke billowing from food trucks up and down the streets, neighborhood kids racing through crowds with big smiles, enjoying their excused absence from Friday classes.
Penn is the showmanship of PT Barnum, a baton directing the performances.
The Drake Relays are a big time meet with a small town atmosphere, while Penn has anything but a rural feeling, the city with a population of over 1.5 million Philadelphians. Drake is pork sandwiches, corn dogs, and funnel cakes. Penn is food trucks with cheese steaks and jerk chicken, boom boxes with Jamaican music blasting from every direction.
Drake seats 15,000 fans while at Franklin Field there are 40,000 watching, spectators spread throughout the University of Pennsylvania football stadium, some under umbrellas, others stretched out in the upper deck soaking up the sun.
Unlike the banter with which we discuss toilet paper (over or under) or cola's (Pepsi or Coke), former announcers Jack O'Reilly and Jim Duncan were spoken of with reverence, the superiority of one over the other impossible to parse. They both made it an experience like no other. To this day I can hear Jim Duncan's voice.
"Folks. They need your help. East side...bring 'em around!"
Each facility has it's peculiarities, Penn with three lanes (#1-#3) shorter than 400 meters, each of these requiring a slight right cut-in at the break-line. Yup. Drake used to have a sunken infield for better sightlines, their old steeplechase pit requiring a 90 degree left turn when exiting the water jump.
The Penn Relays boasts it takes less than 30 seconds between the finish of a HS 4x100 heat and the sound of the pistol for the next one (I timed it & they are correct), none of the prep lead-offs allowed to use starting blocks in the short relay.
To say the least - this is amazing.
At the Drake Relays the meet has specific starting times for each event - as though the competition was held at a train station in Switzerland. The second heat of the women's 110m Hurdles on Friday starts at 12:22pm - not 12:21 or 12:23. Twelve twenty-two.
For years the Des Moines Register compared performances between the meets, as if in a head to head battle for the relays crown, crowing whenever times/distances/heights at the Drake Relays bested the hallowed Penn Relay efforts.
But it really doesn't matter.
Each of the meets is unique. Has it's own personality. For me it's like asking if I like Moose Tracks ice cream better than Mackinac Fudge Ripple - I love them both. Win with either choice. The Penn Relays and Drake Relays are special, the supportive crowds provoking inspired performances that you'll find at no other meet in the United States.
I guarantee it!
If you haven't attended Drake or Penn you are missing out on a spectacle which I consider a poor man's Olympics - both giving track fans the chance to see performances which will be remembered for a lifetime. Don't skip them. You'll be sorry.