Our next story comes from a former Quaker sprinter who has gotten the chance to see the Relays from all sorts of perspectives. L. Kelsey Armstrong was an All-Ivy sprinter for Penn who graduated in 1995. Even though he currently runs his own podiatry and sports health practice in North Carolina, he keeps coming back to Philadelphia to participate in the Penn Relays. He will be racing again this year with his 4×100 team, the Penn Track Alumni, in the Masters Men’s 40+ event on Friday at 5:45pm.
I can honestly say that the Penn Relays is a part of me. It has been my refuge, my meeting place and my learning academy for more than half my life. I have walked into Franklin Field as a student-athlete of the host school, a post-collegiate athlete, and a medical staff volunteer. And each trip into the historic stadium in any or all these roles enriches my life and helps mold my being.
As a high school athlete in Toronto, Canada, I knew nothing about the Penn Relays. Several people, including my college coach, Charlie Powell, would tell me that it is a hectic, but fun experience where the best in track and field come to meet. I got to experience this first hand as a freshman at University of Pennsylvania. I was scheduled to run the 400m leg on the Distance Medley Relay and the third leg on the 4 X 400m Heptagonal section. When I first walked into the stadium that day, I felt the magnitude of this event. The stands were close to full, something I never seen before. There was a noticeable air of excitement as cheers, claps and whistles were heard; a group of minimally clad people corralled together until they could be unleashed on the track; a nonstop wave of runners running around the track, minding the lane five guard rail. When it was my turn to run, our team had the advantage of warming up on the infield. I was corralled with the others runners in the paddock area, feverishly trying to take off my running pants. Constantly called by bib and leg number, I was allowed to go down the chute. I was constantly being encouraged by the officials, teammates, and the crowd. For that reason, I was certainly not nervous at all. Thrown onto the exchange zone line, I was able to get the baton from my teammate. The swell of cheers was sometimes deafening, especially on the homestretch, where 400m runners’ legs start to fail them. As I handed out the baton, I was whisked away off the track. It definitely was fun and hectic.
A track athlete from the host school had lots of perks. We had access to the infield at any time during the Relays – before your race, after your race, and in between races. Because of that, I was fortunate to meet such track Olympians such as Kevin Young, Maurice Greene, Carl Lewis and Harvard alum Meredith Rainey-Valmon. In addition, I was privileged to meet track and field legends. As co-captain of the track team, there is a tradition where we present a ceremonial baton to the honorary referees that year. In 1994, I met Jim Tuppeny (former Penn track and field coach and former director of Penn Relays), Ed Temple (legendary head coach of Tennessee State Tigerbelles) and Ben Francis (manager of track and field and principal of Vere Tech High School in Jamaica). In 1995, I met Teri Jordan (former American record holder and former head coach of Penn State track and field team) and Pat Henry (former LSU, now Texas A&M head coach). As I look back now, I grow more honored to be part of such an experience.
Another honor was bestowed upon me by sheer luck. I was a member of the 4 X 400m team during the 100th anniversary of the Relays, so I participated in some milestone ceremonies. In addition, I ran in the 100th running of the 4 X 400m during the Penn-Princeton dual meet in 1994, which was the precursor for the Penn Relays.
As I graduated from Penn, I still wanted to be involved (and I had the foolish notion that I was still fast!). Still living in Philadelphia as a podiatric medical student, I decided to continue running on relays. I stopped running 4 X 400m and moved down to the 4 X 100m (if you have ever trained and run the 400m, you would understand!). I joined a motley crew of individuals of medical students (Beau Ances, Matt Levine) and one physician (Steven Galetta). We called ourselves, “The Running Docs”. At that time, we ran in the Intramural 4 X 100m (a race that no longer exists), and won two plaques during our time. Later on, we moved towards the Olympic Development 4 X 100m, which was a big step up in competition. The members of the group have changed over the years and we have changed our name to, “Penn Track Alumni”. But it is and will always be a thrill to experience the immeasurable interaction with former teammates and friends.
Another way that I have gotten involved after graduating from Penn would be volunteering on the medical staff. My goal in life was to be a podiatrist, specializing in sports medicine and biomechanics, and volunteering at the Relays has helped me and continues to help me achieve my goal. During my seventeen years of volunteering, I have advised and treat athletes with Achilles injuries, hamstring injuries, heat exhaustion, dehydration and lacerations. The variety of locations during the experience, i.e., on the track, at the throwing fields, inside Weightman Hall, allows for uncontrolled interaction with athletes, which sharpens my skills as a physician.
I look forward to the Penn Relays every year. Watching the high school runner get nipped at the finish line in the 4 X 400m Championship section; seeing the college athlete high jump a new PR; cheering the seventy-year old athlete to a world record performance in the 100m; gasping at a steeplechase male athlete fall down at the barrier; hugging a former teammate that I haven’t seen in ten years. Feeling all these emotions help me become a better me, a fuller me.
Thank you, Penn Relays.
Editor’s note: the Penn 4×100 relay shown in the feature photo includes Chris Harper (P ’96), Gabby Yearwood (P ’93), Armstrong, and Clive Brown (P ’96).
all photos provided by L. Kelsey Armstrong