“FIRE…STICK!” I yelled, out of breath, as I handed off the baton to Eric, and he was off.
As our blue and white Flint Hill short bus rumbled down I-95 to Philadelphia, we knew, as a team that keeps our expectations realistic, that we wanted to win our heat and that expecting more was going to be difficult to accomplish.
This was the 115th edition of the Penn Relays held at Franklin Field. With a seating capacity of 52,000, the crowd had the potential to get enormous and it did.
Reading through the program, you'd find that the Penn Relays have had gold medalists at every Olympics except the U.S. boycotted 1980 Moscow games. These alumni include the legendary Jesse Owens and current superstar Usain Bolt.
If that is not enough motivation to run fast, I don’t know what is.
Our 4x100 team that competed is an interesting bunch. What we may lack in speed, we make up for in discipline, dedication, and heart.
Alex, our third leg, is a senior headed off to St. Louis University next year. It is apparent to everyone who knows him that he has wonderful leadership skills and a knack for saying things to lighten the air before a big race.
Atif, a senior off to Virginia Tech, was the anchor. Although quiet, he is a great guy who pushes everyone to their limits during practice, especially when I am not working my hardest.
Finally there is Eric, our second leg and best overall runner. He is also a senior and is headed off to UCLA on track. He is widely regarded as the best runner in the conference. He is what I aspire to be at some point.
I had the responsibility of starter or lead off runner.
The only non-senior on the relay team, my only job is to run fast and open a lead. Although not the most naturally gifted of runners, I’d like to think my intensity and will to win somewhat makes up for my lack of grace.
We arrived in Philadelphia around 10:00 that morning, still a little groggy from waking up so early. I was a nervous wreck, as the magnitude of the whole spectacle seemed to hit me before anyone else.
Walking into the warm-up area, a small torn up park within spitting distance of the legendary Franklin Field, Coach Savage met us.
Regarded as one of the best sprinting coaches this side of the Mississippi, it was clear that Coach Savage just wanted us to relax as our apprehension was obvious from our deathly silent warm-up.
We practiced our hand offs, which had steadily improved from our Disney debacle.
The handoff is the most critical element of the 4x100, as having a slightly early or late one can be the difference between first and last place.
Although we had problems in the past, I was handing off to Eric in his left hand, which is luckily his dominant one.
“Let’s do that in the race,” I said after completing a perfect practice exchange, our final one. “Yea that was real good. Let’s go out and win this race,” we said to each other.
It was obvious Eric was in his usual pre-race zone. From that time just before the race and lasting until it was over, nothing else mattered to him. We are all competitors, but the tunnel vision and concentration Eric shows before races is second to none.
As we finished warm-ups, I could not stop thinking about the Penn Relays' significance as it drew the best runners from across America.
Like my teammates, this was my first time running at this venue. I had a pretty good idea about what we were about to go through as I had read numerous stories from past runners recounting their personal experiences.
As we prepared to head off towards the stadium, Coach McCloud told us, “I know you have been laughing at Joey, about how he said you will remember this your entire life, but he’s right. Before the race, just take two, three seconds to look up at the crowd and take it all in.”
We all nodded in approval, as we were about to embark on an experience we would never forget.
Walking down the street toward the race entrance, all we could really concentrate on was not getting separated.
The streets we were trying to make our way through were filled with hundreds of people, the majority of them from other relay teams from high schools and colleges all over the country.
After receiving some last parting words from Coaches McCloud and Savage, we gave them all our gear as they headed off to find seats in the jam-packed Franklin Field.
It was now just the four of us, about to run a race we would never forget.
Section 110 HSB. That stands for the race section our team was in along with the other independent prep school teams. Although we had no idea which other schools we were about to run against, we figured we had as good a shot as any other team.
“Section 110!” we heard a race official shout, implying it was our turn to step up. We walked past the gate, made a left, and got our first glance at the crowd.
The crowd was roaring, 30,000 strong, screaming at the top of their lungs as one of the fast heats of the high school 4x100 unfolded.
It was a beautiful day to run, and Alex who always seems to say the right thing at the perfect time chirped, “It’s always sunny in Philadelphia." Allowing each of us to laugh and loosen up.
Along with being known as an excellent runner, Eric has gained nearly equal notice for the blue “Jeremy Wariner-esque” sunglasses he wears during his races.
The first time he wore them we were stopped by an race official and asked if they were prescription for his vision, to which he replied no. He proceeded to tell the official he had sensitive eyes, which seemed to please the man enough, and we were allowed to move on.
Seconds later, we were stopped by another race official, who proceeded to ask the same question as the first man. Eric replied with the same answer and before asking anything else, she snatched the glasses from Eric’s face and tried them on.
“Are these for the sun?” she asked after taking them off almost as quickly as she tried them on. Eric nodded his head and we were off, all of us smiling, knowing that he really just likes looking as intimidating as possible at the starting line.
“We were being herded like cattle,” Atif said, as he described how they were organizing us before the race. The organizers were clearly not in the best of moods, giving short answers to other runners in our section, who were as confused as our team was.
As the starter gun went off for heat one-of-two for section 110, Eric, Alex, and Atif were marched off to their starting ends of the track, leaving me alone. As the other race ended, I was given my starting point for lane seven and handed a blue and red baton.
The baton seemed heavy, but all I could concentrate on was the crowd of people watching. Instead of taking the “two-to-three seconds” like Coach McCloud suggested, I found myself mesmerized by the crowd for a good 10 to 12 seconds. After that, it was time to go to work.
As the starting official cried out “On your marks…Set” I was in my crouch, ready to roll.
The gun sounded and I was off running around the curve, trying to make up ground on the stagger. It all happened so fast, with a perfect hand off.
By the time I had caught my breath and was able to look up and see what was unfolding, we were on the final leg and in solid possession of third place—not exactly what we wanted, but nothing to hang our heads over.
After the race we met up and embraced. Alex and Eric were talking about a small miscue they had over their hand off, but I was quick to point out that we did all we could and there was no changing what happened.
It was a proud moment. I had an opportunity to be a part of the charter Flint Hill boy’s 4x100 with three other wonderful guys who had each contributed so much to the track program over the last four years.
Being a sophomore, the feeling of exhaustion left me craving more. Next year and hopefully the year after, I’ll have further opportunities to be a part of this glorious team experience.
One thing is for sure: The memories I brought back from Philadelphia created a drive inside of me to make more.