As we kick off our Penn Relays’ week, I need to admit something to the general reader. I am a bit envious of the other website writers contributing this week – they all had the chance to compete in the Penn Relays, unlike me, I’ve always been an observer of sorts. The stars never really aligned for me when I was still a competitive runner, and I started to believe that the only chance I’d ever get to be at the Relays was by sitting in the stadium as a spectator, watching my future children enjoy the athletic spotlight.
I had been in Franklin Field twice before. I remember the first time I ever stepped into that stadium in 2006 to warm up before my final Outdoor Heps. I was just in awe – the structure size made you feel so small, even if it was empty. The stadium just emits such a potential energy that can leave your jaw on the ground as you feel it radiating from the concrete. I got that same feeling when I returned in 2010 to watch the remnants of my 2006-team compete in their last Heps. As I sat in those stands in 2010, I wondered if I felt this kind of energy when it was empty, how the heck did it feel when it was full?
I began my deep dive into track and field coverage and volunteering in the winter of 2011, when Brett Hoover recruited me to be a weekend meet recapper for this website. My volunteer role slowly evolved as I got more involved with the website, particularly when I was able to attend meets and do live reporting on Twitter. In the emails Brett and I exchanged, every so often the Penn Relays would come up in conversation, but just a passing “oh, are you going?”, “I’d love to go at some point”, and “we could use you at the Relays!” if something went better than expected. It wasn’t until March 2011 when the discussion grew in depth and the opportunity to attend the Relays began to mold into reality as Brett offered me a volunteer position as a part of the results/media crew. How could I say no?
From when I first stepped into the stadium on that Thursday morning while the College Women 400m Hurdle Championships was underway, until I left at the end of the meet on Saturday when the College Men 4×400 Championship of American concluded, I was in a dream. I was busy those three days trying to collect the photos from all of the meet photographers, pulling out the good ones, captioning them, and then uploading them onto the Penn Relays facebook page to share with the fans who could not make it. It was exhausting, but I was still able to enjoy the meet as I had a great view of the finish line. Fortunately for me, I managed to prove to the Relays staff that I had some worth, so I was invited back. This week will be my fifth Relays, and I can’t wait to get back into those bleacher seats with the other members of the crew who I only get to see during this three day span. The feature photo above is a group photo from a few years ago, where I’m pretty much in the back center (left-to-right: Deb Califf, Dipen Shah, Brett Hoover, Dr. Dave Hollander, Rich Sands, Jeff Havsy, me, Josh Seeherman, Laura Murphy, Han Nyugen, and Mike Lang).
But while I am a Relays volunteer, I am also a track and field fan. And how does it feel to be a fan at the Relays? I wrote about the experience in a journal I had at the time:
“The Penn Relays was AWESOME! Oh my goodness, I felt like a kid in a candy store, being surrounded by so many amazing running performances and people. The atmosphere was amazing, I cannot really explain it. I tried to capture some of the energy on video but who knows if it really shows it. You just need to be there in person.”
(So much for adequate descriptions for future reference.)
But in a way, it is that spellbinding. The energy just gets to you, regardless of your role in the carnival. You join in the various attempts of the Wave as it passes through the seating sections near you. You clap for the athletes, whether they are doing their victory lap or struggling to finish their race. You dance with the fans around you, even if they are cheering against your team. You even cry when you witness emotional celebrations, especially when they are people you are fans of or know. I had a real fan test back in 2012, when I got to witness my high school compete in the Penn Relays for the first time in school history. I managed to get videos of their races, but it was SO hard to not cheer them on or keep the camera steady due to me trying to contain the excitement as they battled some excellent American and Jamaican high schools in the HS Boys 4x800m Championship of America (my high school finished in 4th place with a new RI state record – GO CHARIHO!). When I think back about that particular moment, I think that is how I’d act if I ever did see my kids race at the Relays…
I can tell you that since then, I’ve continued to feel like that kid in a candy store that I described in that 2011 journal entry whenever I am at the Relays. I am still volunteering along the results crew as a photo collector/editor/publisher/whatever role they ask me to do. I want to keep coming back as long as fate allows me to. By the way, I am a bigger track and field fan than ever. I still cannot quite explain how to describe the experience of even just being there. How do you describe “energy”? You just have to be there to really just get it. Maybe some of our other writers this week can describe it better than me.