This weekend, eight members of the Vassar men’s and women’s track teams competed amongst the 22,000 participants in the renowned Penn Relays. First held on April 21, 1895, the Penn Relay Carnival is one of the most famous track and field events around the world. This historic event takes place at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field in Philadelphia, and plays host to some of the best young runners on the scene today.
Emerging from humble origins, the Penn Relays only consisted of nine events at its onset over a century ago: four competitions for high school athletes, four for college athletes and one college championship.
Today, the competition includes 314 events and takes place over three days. In fact, the Penn Relays holds the title for the longest uninterrupted collegiate track meet in the United States.
Another impressive feature of the relays is its considerable attendance. Each year, the Carnival hosts approximately 22,000 athletes and hosts over 110,000 spectators throughout the event. The meet’s highest attendance generally occurs on Saturday, with over 48,000 people attending events every year since 2004. These record-breaking numbers have since lent the Penn Relays the respectable position of the most attended track event in the United States every year.
Since 1895, the Penn Relays have garnered worldwide attention and fame, and have hosted many talented athletes, including multiple Olympians. In 1914, the competition reached international status as Oxford University flew athletes across the pond to win the four-mile relay.
The relays then integrated women into the event in 1962, as the womens’ 100-yard dash was added to the race docket.
Today, male and female athletes alike come together to compete at this momentous competition. Eligible athletes include those in high school, college and even Olympians.
In 2010, Usain Bolt zoomed around the track at Franklin Field as he finished the last leg of the 4×100 meter relay in just 8.79 seconds.
This year, four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross finished the 4×400 relay for Team USA in merely 52.63 seconds. Richards-Ross led Team USA to victory over Jamaica and Nigeria, while 2004 Olympian Jeremy Wariner helped USA’s red team earn second place in the 4×400 meter.
Senior Ava Farrell described the energetic atmosphere of the venue, “Saturday was a crazy time to be there, because some of the world’s most elite runners, including Olympian Sonya Richards-Ross, were racing that day. It was very cool, but also extremely intimidating to know that later that afternoon we would be racing on the same track as those incredible athletes.”
This year, the future Olympians that raced in Philadelphia include Vassar’s 4×800 relay team, consisting of Farrell, juniors Lucy Balcezak and Alex Gittens and sophomore Eliana Tyler.
The team earned 22nd place as they finished in 9:29.06 minutes. Tyler ran the first leg of the race and finished with an impressive 2:21.24 minutes. Balcezak led the Brewers with the fastest leg time of 2:19.66. Gittens and Farrell finished the last half of the race as they ran 800 meters in 2:22.06 and 2:26.11 minutes respectively.
“It was really exciting, and a ton of fun to have the opportunity to race with three of my good friends and three of the fastest 800-meter runners Vassar has seen. I hadn’t raced at Penn Relays since high school, so it was my first time back in five years and I had somewhat forgotten what a popular event it is,” Farrell commented on her experience returning to the time-honored track meet. “When we arrived, the stadium was swarming with over forty-four thousand people who had come to watch the races.”
Although the four Brewers in the 4X800 ran hard, Division I and fellow Division III teams claimed the top of the leaderboards. Monmouth University won the event with a time of 8:49.37, while the University of Pennsylvania took second place, and Rutgers University can in third.
In the men’s 4×800 relay, sophomore Jared Freedman ran the first leg for the Brewers in 2:03.97 minutes, while junior Gabe Fishman chalked up Vassar’s fastest leg with a time of 1:56.27. Freshman Luke Arsenault followed with a 2:01.98 time while freshman Ry Blume anchored with 2:00.35. Collectively, the men finished in a solid 8:02.55 minutes to earn 24th place.
“Going to the Penn Relays is always exciting. I had been there in high school to compete with my team and I remember being absolutely amazed by the number of people in attendance,” says Fishman. “There really is no other track meet in the country that draws so many fans. The meet draws tons of teams from Jamaica and there are always thousands of Jamaicans who make the trip up to watch, usually lining the home stretch waving Jamaican flags and blowing vuvuzelas. You always want to run fast because it’s such an historic event.”
Assistant Coach Ron Stonitsch expressed his pride with his team’s performance and was happy to return to such an iconic race. Coach Stonitsch currently holds the two-mile record with a time of 8:38. The Brewers now looks to continue their success at the Matthew Vassar Twilight meet held at Weinberg Field on Friday, May 6.