Each year, high school, college, and professional athletes from around the country and across the globe flock to Franklin Field to take part in the Penn Relay Carnival, the longest continuously held collegiate track meet in the United States.
This year’s event, which runs from Thursday, April 24, to Saturday, April 26, will celebrate several milestones—including the 120th running of what’s now known as the Penn Relays.
“The Relays are a 120-year Philadelphia tradition,” says Dave Johnson, director of the Relays. “Many Philadelphians feel it’s a birthright to run the Relays at some point. And if they didn’t run or go to the Relays themselves, they know someone who did.”
The 2014 Penn Relays will draw more than 18,000 competitors from more than 60 countries to participate in 425 events.
Penn students, faculty, and staff can attend the Relays for free on Thursday, April 24, and Friday, April 25, with a valid PennCard. Each member of the University community can also receive one free ticket for a child; additional child tickets may be purchased for $5. Tickets for the events on Saturday, April 26 range in price from $35 to $55.
The origins of the Relays—as well as the modern sport of relay racing—date back to 1893, when planners of Penn’s Spring Handicap Track and Field Games came up with the idea to create a race composed of four men running a quarter mile in succession. The proposal generated enough interest that a team from Princeton was invited to participate.
Two years later, the concept of relay racing had garnered so much interest that Penn officials decided to sponsor a relay meet—the first annual Penn Relays. The original races were surrounded by an unintentionally festive atmosphere; as college students pitched tents to use as changing facilities, the event took on a “carnival-like” appearance that has remained through present day.
The first year’s schedule included nine relay events: four for high schools and prep schools, and five for colleges. The Penn vs. Harvard matchup is regarded as the first college championship race. All events were held at 4x440 yards—what is now considered the classic mile relay. The first Relays event also coincided with the dedication of Franklin Field.
“The first year for the Relays was 1895, and we’ve never missed a year since,” Johnson says.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the year the Relays became an international event. In 1914, a team from Oxford University traveled to compete in the four-mile relay—a race Johnson says the team won after “a nip-and-tuck battle with Penn.”
“For the full four miles, the teams were never two strides apart,” Johnson says.
The Relays will also celebrate another international milestone this year, with the 50th anniversary of Jamaican high schools competing in the events.
“The inspiration came from Herb McKenley, a great Jamaican quarter-miler who ran at the Relays in ‘46 and ‘47, and later went back to [Kingston, Jamaica] to coach at Calabar High School,” Johnson says. “He was able to convince the Jamaican high school authorities to send a team to [the Relays.] The team came here that year and won the 440-yard relay.”
For more about the history of the Penn Relays, or to purchase tickets, visit the Penn Relays website.
Originally published on April 17, 2014