Not Quite As Seen on TV

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Columbia alumna Susan Rodriguez (2013) got the opportunity in her competitive lifetime to compete at two prestigious relay events: the Drake Relays throughout high school (as she grew up in Iowa), and the Penn Relays in college.  Her Penn Relays experiences were not quite what she had expected.  She could still get a sense of how special the meet was, even if she competed during one of the lower attended portions of the whole Carnival.  

When most people think of the Penn Relays, they picture a prestigious meet, hosting some of the world’s best athletes in front of roaring crowds and television cameras. That is what I expected going into my first Penn Relays race as a freshman in 2010. Having come from Iowa, my only experience was with the Drake Relays. Everything I knew about Penn came from what I had seen on TV.

For starters, I was surprised to have qualified at all with my slower-than-high-school time. Wasn’t Penn Relays supposed to be for fast people? My coach was surprised too, apparently, because he didn’t have me on the travel schedule until I called and showed him the start list. There was my name, alongside my teammate Kyra Caldwell, who still holds the Heps meet record in the event today. The 400m hurdles was the very first event on Thursday morning. I left NYC Wednesday evening along with the other Thursday morning competitors – Kyra, Monique Roberts (high jump), and Nnenna Okwara (hammer). I remember that the hotel didn’t have our rooms booked, and we waited around for a couple of hours before trekking upstairs and going to sleep. In the morning we woke up early, got ready and ate, and headed over to Franklin Field.

The next surprise was the organized chaos that greeted us when we arrived. The security lines moved at a snail’s pace, and I quickly understood why we left the hotel so early. Once we made it inside, it was game time. “Okay, where do we warm up?” There’s not much room for that at Franklin Field during Penn Relays. Being the first event has some perks though – the infield and track were both open, at least for a little while. Kyra and I were in the middle of our warm-up when the officials began herding us toward the corral. Our race was supposed to start at 10:00, and we still had a long time to go. I panicked, putting on my spikes and bib number in a hurry. What was going on? I was in a late heat, and already I was stuck standing around waiting, besides not having done a full warm-up.

The other thing that defied my expectations was the crowd. I looked around at the huge, empty stands. A handful of high school teams were there, but not many others. Shouts from the spectators were swallowed up in the hugeness of Franklin Field. If you think the Heps crowd is too small for that venue, you should check out Thursday morning of Penn Relays. It was a huge disappointment for me – this race I had been anticipating for a week now seemed not to be that much of a big deal.

The first heat was called to the track. Before they reached the 200m mark, the next heat was setting up blocks. All in all, I remember almost all the heats being finished before the actual scheduled start time of 10:00. I ran slower than my qualifying time, but I tried to stay positive. I was done! Time to spectate! I’m at Penn Relays! I found a good spot in the stands and settled in. Next on the track was the high school girls’ 4x400m. I was excited! I can relate with them, I run 4×4’s all the time! What followed next was heat after heat of high school girls’ 4x400m. For hours. Schools seemed to travel from everywhere (except Iowa) to bring athletes here. Each heat they even doubled up teams in the lanes, and they just kept going and going. That is actually the only event I watched. It was still going on when Nnenna and the throws coach came to find me later that morning, and we took off on the train back to NYC.

So my Penn Relays experience overall lasted less than 24 hours, and I didn’t even run fast. Or see anyone famous. If I had been around on Saturday, I would have seen Usain Bolt draw a record crowd during the men’s 4x100m.

I ran at the Relays twice more – as a junior in 2012, and then as a senior in 2013. My senior year was by far my most successful track year. I came off a summer injury with a vengeance. Penn Relays that year was the week after my only collegiate victory, at Auburn, and the week before Heps. Penn would turn out to be my slowest race of the season, but my best performance at that meet. It’s the race that produced the photo above, courtesy of Daniel Everett’s dad. That’s the only photo I have of any of my Penn Relays trips. Despite having run better than in past Relays, the overall experience was not very different. However, it gave me one last opportunity to practice my race strategy before Heps. My very next race after Penn, the Heps 400m hurdles prelims, was my lifetime PR (59.85). So even though my Penn race wasn’t ideal, it gave me a chance to iron out the last few details of my race so I could succeed when it counted.

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Rodriguez at the 400m hurdle prelim start at the 2013 Outdoor Heps

Penn Relays never stands out in my memory as the spectacular race I expected it to be my first time in 2010. I went to Philly, ran my race, and went back to campus to continue with life. I had no old high school rivals to catch up with; they would all be at Drake. I didn’t get to feel like a celebrity with a crowd drowning out the sound of my steps. I didn’t run any PRs or witness any records broken. But I did get a chance to race, and that’s why I ran track, after all. Even though my experience feels so separate from the Penn Relays that people talk about, I did still get to be a part of the oldest and largest track meet in the US, and that is pretty special.

Rodriquez ended her final Outdoor Heps with a 4th place finish in the 400m hurdle finals, with a time of 59.91. Since graduation, she’s returned to Iowa where she is working as an engineer.

relays photo provided by Rodriguez ; start photo by Nathan Crumpton

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