PENN may be most beautiful four letter word in the Track & Field dictionary but my senior year in HS as I rounded the final turn and hit the home straight-away of the Championship of America DMR I had a number of uglier four letter words going through my head.
I was in the lead, barely, with 100m to go. I finished 4th.I got ripped. Shredded. Torn up. Woop-wooped at Penn. It was ugly. And it was also crushing, heartbreaking, devastating, cataclysmic, brutal, mean, lonely and not funny in the least – to me. I lost. I was beaten – not once or twice but three times in the final straight at Franklin Field. It was the single most important race I had ever run up to that point in my career. Looking back, it may still be the most important race I ever ran. It’s surely the one race I think about more than any of the others. Penn is a scar.
But, Penn is more than that race or any one race. It is so much more.
Penn is a Fair. We’re in the midst of the carnival that is the Penn Relays right now. Yesterday the ladies took center stage with the College DMR and HS Girls Mile and 3K and DMR Championships. Last night, Franklin Field was taken over by distance running fanatics. Distance Night is race after race of, you guessed it, distance running. 5k’s and 10k’s and steeplechases. It’s awesome, especially if you are a running-nerd and the crowd is almost entirely running nerds.
Penn is Home. If you love this sport and spend time with it and support it and take part in it then when you go to Penn you will spend large parts of your time bumping into people you know. It’s crazy how you can walk around a stadium of 50,000 people and constantly have to stop and shake hands with someone or hug someone else. Track & Field is a small and tight knit community and within that community are a number of families. Penn is like a reunion or homecoming or Thanksgiving. It’s a joy to see old friends at Penn and a gift to be able to head to Philly every year and leave with a few new friends because of the Relays.
Penn is the Race. Every race, and there are 100’s, is the race while it has the track. It does not matter if it is the College Mens Championship of America 4×800 or heat #44 of the HS Girls 4×100 – if it is a good race the crowd, all of it, will acknowledge. The backstretch will stand if a 15 year old is making a big move on the homestretch and the homestretch will stand if there is a battle on the backstretch. The crowd will erupt with woop-woops if someone is getting walked down (know this firsthand). It is hour after hour of racing which is perfect because the crowd came for racing.
Penn is Food. Luckily, I’ve never had a problem with celebrating a beautiful and healthy exercise while gorging on seasoned trash. The Food at Penn is standard sporting event fare – $9 chicken fingers and french fry baskets or $7.50 cheeseburgers. You can get some Jamaican food if you’d like. I steer clear of that. It’s a question of patriotism really. I feel it is my duty to eat incredibly unhealthy American food while I scream, mouth full, U-S-A as the Yanks rock the Island interlopers. If I need to eat very poorly for 72 hours so our sprinters can handle Jamaica at Penn then dammit I will do it. I got a little off topic here. Sorry. I’ll end the food portion here with some simple advice. At some point over the meet leave Franklin Field and get a Cheesesteak. If you don’t people literally yell at you.
Penn is Fear. Stepping onto the track is overwhelming then terrifying then invigorating then terrifying again. If you are a college or HS athlete Penn is most likely the biggest and most exciting stage you will ever perform on. The 1% of the 1% will get to run at Pre and in Europe and at Trials. Everyone else, if they are lucky, get Penn. For so many it is their Olympics and World Championships and Super Bowl and Prom and Broadway debut rolled into one. It’s their chance to feel elite. With all of that comes fear and terror. You can see it on the young runners faces as they take the track. Good. Everyone should experience that panic. What I love is that I have never seen someone walk off the track before they race. They all overcome that fear. They race. Badass.
Penn is Pain. It hurts more at Penn. Probably because you want it more. The effort, the wind, the cold, the heat, the loss – they all are more. Maybe it’s because your senses are aware of everything. And because of that the pain is greater – more real. The elbows are pointier, the spikes are sharper, the pace is more severe, the sprints are faster, the long drives are…longer. Penn just takes more. And when it takes from you, well, it’s painful. But it’s worth it.
Penn is the Wall. “Face the Wall”. You will hear those instructions as you wait in the paddock. Those words mean it is almost time. Soon, you will be on the oval. You will be center stage. Close to 50,000 rabid track junkies will be watching. What they want is competition. They will cheer success and failure all the same. Are you ready? Of course you are! You are already walking to the wall.
Penn is Penn. There is no other meet like it. There are no fans like the ones at Penn. Sorry Europe. Penn is just, well, a really powerful four letter word. Yes, when I think about Penn I have a number of four letter words – fu$*, $hi^, etc., that I remember rolled through my head and heart and soul back in 1994. But, I also have those other four letter words though too – Scar, Fair, Home, Race, Food, Fear, Pain, and Wall. They mean Penn too.
But mostly, I have a five letter and three letter word that I hear over and over again when it comes time for The Penn Relays.