This week, Hepstrack will be sharing some of their favorite stories or most meaning memories about their time participating at the Penn Relays. First up, we have Cornell graduate and conference steeplechase record holder Rachel Sorna. She competed at the 2013 and 2014 Penn Relays in the College Women 3,000m Championships. Her time from the 2014 event, 9:09.45, is the 3rd fastest in the outdoor conference record books. She currently lives and works in Boston, where this past winter, she had fun navigating around the snow banks in Boston’s record snowfall on her long runs.
To be completely honest, most of the time I forget that I am a Penn Relays Champion. Someone or something will remind me of that day and that race and all of a sudden I will remember that I actually won the Women’s Championship 3k in 2013. The 3k at the 2013 Outdoor Heps is the one that always sticks out in my mind from that season – the final race of my insane 10k/steeple/3k triple where I was basically delirious when the gun went off and ran a 32 second last 200 – and so when I look back on that Spring I often sadly overlook my watch-winning run. But when I do remember, when the memories of the race and the moments afterwards come trickling back, I can’t help but smile to myself. I am a Penn Relays Champion.
To this day the gold watch remains propped up in the fancy cushioned box that it came in. I tried it on once the day after the race. It fit perfectly…when I put both my hands inside. I don’t really think it’s the kind of watch you wear. It would have been pretty sweet if I had gotten a wheel, though I have no idea what one does with a giant wooden wheel that isn’t actually a wheel at all. But anyway, the watch sits on a shelf in my room along with an assortment of other running related things. Some of them are from winning performances or high-placing finishes at other big meets – the NY State meet, Heps, NCAAs – but some of them are from smaller, obscure meets where only monumental things in the life of Rachel Sorna occurred – the first HS track race I ran in spankies (what we called the underwear-looking racing bottoms) without spandex underneath, the Bucknell meet my freshman year where I hurdled instead of jumped over the barriers for the first time, the Penn State meet where I set a PR in the 1000m en route to a PR in the mile.
For me it’s never been about the physical items I’ve been given after a race. In my mind, awards and trophies and medals are just placeholders. They are tangible items that allow me to hold onto intangible memories. I can put a medal around my neck and see the finish line as I’m coming down the final straightaway. I can hold a trophy and hear the bell ring as I take the lead heading into the final lap. I can wear a watch and remember how it felt to stand atop the podium at the biggest track meet in the United States.
There’s a video of the race up on Runnerspace, but it’s a condensed version that’s only about 3 or so minutes long. The footage doesn’t show the start of the race, it just cuts in somewhere in the second lap, but whoever spliced it together managed to capture the main reason why this race was so pivotal for me: at 600m, I am not leading the race. Now for anyone who isn’t already aware, which I imagine is likely a small subset of the Heps Nation, I am more than a bit of a front runner. As an unabashed type A person through and through, I have an incessant need to be in control. When the gun goes off, this powerful urge inside of me tells me the front is where I need to be. I get off the line like a bullet, terrified of getting boxed in the back. If the pace is slow in the first 200m, forget about it. I am off to the lead making up the time we lost of the first lap and then some. My comfort and confidence in leading a race has always been one of my greatest strength as a runner, but it has also been one of my greatest downfalls. A lot of the time I do end up benefiting from making a race honest and even, but sometimes my inability to be patient early on costs me, and when it does it costs me dearly.
But on that cool, crisp Thursday night under the lights, I waited. I sat patiently on the shoulder of the leader, and I waited for my time to come. Waiting 1200 meters, less than half the 3000 meter race, may not seem like being all that patient to some people, but for me it made all the difference. It gave me time to get settled. It gave me a moment to check myself, to take a quick inventory of where I was physically and emotionally – How do my legs feel tonight? How is my breathing? How am I handling the noise and the crowd? And, as I would come to realize, it gave me a great deal of power and control. I didn’t know the girl that was leading, I had never raced her before, but as we were going along I just knew that she wasn’t going to be able to maintain the pace we were running. I could tell by her stride, her breathing, and the way she was holding her arms that she was laboring. I knew that if just stayed patient, I was going to be able to really make a go of things.
Every time we came around I would look over to my coach, Artie Smith, in hopes that he would give me the go-ahead sign. We had a plan. The master plan was to help me evolve from a front-running, one-trick-pony into someone who could handle themselves in all situations and compete at a high level. The plan for the evening was to be patient early on, let someone take it out, and when the pace started to slow, move with conviction, and never look back.
And that’s what I did. When we came around at 1200m, the split was slow. Not by a lot, not by an amount noticeable to most spectators or even competitors, but enough for me to know it was time. So I took the lead. I pressed and poured it on as hard as I could, until my legs and my lungs burned and I thought I couldn’t run another steps. And then I won.
I don’t always remember that I am a Penn Relays champion because that race was so much more than just a first place finish. That race represented a huge step forward for me not only as a runner, but as a racer and a competitor. That race, among so many other things, is why the Penn Relays will always be so much more than just a track meet. The Penn Relays is an opportunity, a tradition, and an unforgettable experience.
podium photo from Pennrelaysonline.com