Six Pennies Richer
By Phoebe Wright
Photos by Kirby Lee, Image of Sport
All great runners have one thing in common: a sense of purpose. You must have a reason to plunge deep into the well of lactic acid and then keep going. But every runner is different. Some seek perfection. Some run on anger. Others run for the sheer thrill of being objectively the best.
I ran for my team. I felt most valuable when they could rely on me, and I could rely on them. This purpose is very useful in relay races. It's why being part of six Penn Relays Championship teams at Tennessee is easily the proudest achievement of my career.
The atmosphere at the Penn Relays is something like the Super Bowl. The competition is fierce and the stands are completely full, mostly with high schoolers, athletes and Jamaicans. Jamaicans are the best spectators in Track and Field. They cheer for any good performance. Anyone who gains on a leader instigates their infamous “WHOOP! WHOOP!” chant. I’ve had nightmares about leading a race at Penn and getting “WHOOP WHOOP’d.”
Each team gets a bib with “AA”, “AB”, “AC” ... The number one seed is AA, which is functionally the same as a bullseye. The winning team gets to run a victory lap and take home a giant trophy called a “Penny.” This is the story of how Tennessee earned six Pennies and I got to keep one.
— 2009 —
Before my team strung together one of the most impressive hot streaks in Penn Relays history, we had two years of losses. These weren’t mid-pack, “oh-well” losses either. They were the neck-in-neck-down-the-homestretch, barely-second-place, heart-wrenching losses. None of us liked it. We hated it, actually. We hated it so much that we used it as motivation, coming back to Philly to claim six Pennies, three American records, and one World Record over two years.
The streak started in 2009. We went to Penn with the most talented group of women I have ever run with: Sarah Bowman, an NCAA Champion miler, the incredibly fit Kimarra McDonald and Rolanda Bell, and Chanelle Price, a top collegian in the 800 meters.
On day one we won the DMR, but were disappointed when we didn’t set any records. We were crazy like that. So on day two, Sarah anchored our team to victory and a world record. When the press asked what she was thinking, she eloquently said, “I was just trying to win.”
On day three, I woke up exhausted and nervous to anchor the 4x800. So when we heard that LSU–our biggest competition–was not going to race, I sighed with relief. “Get it done,” I told myself. “A 2:05 should do the trick. You can run a 2:05 with your eyes closed.”
The rest of the squad, on the other hand, was talking about going after the American Record. To me, chasing the record without LSU seemed close to impossible, but I nodded along to keep things positive.
Kimarra led off in style. She got out in good position, closed hard, and ran a season’s best 2:08. When she handed off to Chanelle, I realized they weren’t kidding about going after the record. Chanelle ran a blistering 2:02, essentially by herself. “These fools are going to make me run,” I thought.
Chanelle handed off to Sarah, who widened the lead with a 2:03.9 PR before handing off to me.
Some quick math told me I needed a 2:02 for the record, not the easy 2:05 I’d hoped for. I cut a deal with myself. “If you run a 1:30 600, we can see how you feel the last 200.”
I came through the quarter in 59 seconds and heard the announcer say, “A 64 second lap gets the record.” I’d been doing the math and I knew they were wrong. I needed a 62. There is a world of difference between a 62 and 64.
I ran another thirty second 200 and came through 600 in 1:30, like I’d promised. I could feel the crowd–all 20,000 people–anticipating the record, watching the clock. Every one of the next 32 seconds felt like a lifetime. Somehow, I snuck in under the record.
Before I could comprehend what happened, Kimarra hugged me so hard my legs gave out. I whispered in her ear, “You fools made me run.”
On the flight home, Coach Clark asked me, “Do you know how special that was?”
I nodded and asked, “If we do it again next year can I keep a big Penny?”
He laughed, “Sure, kid.” He didn’t know I was serious.
— 2010 —
We came into 2010 without our main weapon, Sarah Bowman, who’d graduated and was running professionally. Returning, we had Chanelle, Kimarra and myself. But we had reinforcements. Brittany Sheffey, “Shef,” was our dark horse – fiery and unbeatable when she was confident. Shef had every right to be confident: she’d just anchored the indoor DMR to a National title, holding off Oregon superstar Jordan Hasay.
We also had Jackie Areson, “Jax,” a 5k athlete. Jax was an anomaly. She’d either run a “super easy” 15 at in the 5k, or she’d run “the hardest 18-min- ute 5k of her life.” I was never quite sure which Jax would show up. She was our anchor for the DMR.
Entering the bullpen, we knew Oregon was the team to beat. It was a replay from Indoors. But Oregon had switched their lineup and their anchor was now another 5k athlete. I watched Jax realize the situation and turn from timid to predatory. There was no way a 5k athlete was going to beat her, especially not in a 1600. Jax, formerly a miler, had been hesitant to move up to longer distances. She prided herself on being a 5k runner with a miler’s kick.
Before we went to the line I hugged her. “When you come down the homestretch in first,” I said, “Put up the Number 1 finger because it is going to be in all the papers tomorrow. I’ll be there doing it too so you remember.”
Shef led off and within the first thirty meters, I knew she did not come to play. She seemed to gain confidence with every stride, handing off to Eleanor Francis Worthem in third. Eleanor was a sprinter with a slender body like Popeye’s Olive Oyl. Her stride was so long, she only had to take maybe ten steps before making it around the track. Her unassuming frame and her wicked kick had the all the Jamaican fans WHOOP! WHOOPING! She passed the baton to me in first.
I knew that the bigger the lead I gave Jax, the better. I pretended someone was on my shoulder the whole 800 and handed off to her with a solid lead. She clicked off laps and on the third one she threw me a knowing smile. I positioned myself at the 40-meter mark so I could throw her the Number 1 reminder. With a roll of her eyes, she reluctantly threw up the 1 for maybe 0.2 milliseconds. We scooped her up at the finish line and smiled so hard on the victory lap that my jaw hurt the next day.
We woke up on day two and the first thing I did was grab the paper. There it was: a big picture of Jax throwing up the Number 1.
But Penn was far from over. I was most nervous about the 4x1500. Not only was it about 700 meters too long for my liking, but it felt a little weird because each hand-o was at a different point around the track. Our line-up was Chanelle to Jax to Shef to me. We hugged before the officials ushered us to our respective spots. I felt anxious without my team.
The nerves settled when I saw Chanelle round the track. Chanelle was so consistent. No matter what, she always gave 100%, which is the most valuable quality in a teammate. I believed in her more than I did myself. She ran a solid leg and handed off to Jax ten meters behind Villanova and Oregon.
Jax was excited. She hated Oregon and loved stalking their runners before unleashing a furious kick. She stalked for three laps before starting her move with a glance down at her legs as if to tell them, “Ok, it’s time.” She handed to Shef with a slight lead over Villanova. Oregon was thirty meters back.
Shef had been practicing running with confidence all year, and it showed. We made eye contact every lap, and I knew she was running to put me in the best position possible.
I got the baton one stride ahead of Villanova’s Sheila Reid. Sheila was a 1500m NCAA Champion with a wicked kick. I could sense her excitement to stalk me. Every time we got to the backstretch, the entire Villanova squad cheered, “LET’S GO NO-VA.” In my head I screamed, “Let’s go PHOE-BE!” so their cheers couldn’t penetrate my confidence.
At the bell lap, the announcer proclaimed, “This is a 400-meter race! Who has the best speed over 400?!” I felt like it was God talking, because that’s exactly what I needed to hear. *I* was the fastest over 400.
But still, Sheila was there. She could taste the win, and I knew it. Sheila made her first move exactly where I expected her to—at 300 meters to go with the “LET’S GO NO-VA” chant. I gently responded just enough to keep her from passing.
I wanted to have the lead on the curve.
She hit a hard gear at 200 meters, so I burned a lot of matches covering it. I knew I only had maybe one more gear left, and was nervous. Then I saw the finish line, where Shef was waiting. I made eye contact with her, letting her know I was running for her like she ran for me. In that moment, I felt Sheila break, but I didn’t take any chances. I ran all the way through the line and into my teammates’ arms.
We’d all given so much, we walked the victory lap.
That night I sat in bed reliving the win. In the morning, I asked Coach Clark to breakfast. “If I anchor us to a win,” I asked. “I get to keep the Penny, right?”
Caught off guard once again by my confidence, he laughed. “I did promise that, didn’t I?”
We reviewed the game plan as a team. We knew LSU was bringing their A-squad, and they had the talent to take a crack at our 4x800 record. A wave of anxiety-nausea hit me when Coach said, “Phoebe will make LSU hurt.”
On the warm up everyone was quiet. Kimarra didn’t blink for a solid ten minutes. She finally worked up the courage to ask, “You’re nervous, right?” I smiled. “100%,” I said. “Enjoy it.” Then I retreated into my head to over think the race.
LSU’s anchor, two-time NCAA Champion Latavia Thomas, was my collegiate nemesis. We were in the same conference and region, so we battled almost weekly. If she was going to beat me, today was it. She had fresh legs and–as a Philly native–a home crowd. I was physically roasted from the previous two days.
I broke my negativity black hole with a pep talk, “Don’t abandon the plan, Phoebe!” I repeated this mantra until an official broke my trance, yelling, “Tennessee ladies! Lane 3!” into a bullhorn six inches from my ear.
Turning to Kimarra, Chanelle and Shef, I said the only words could muster without throwing up, “Don’t abandon the plan!”
Kimarra led off. She always brought her A-game to Penn because she loved relays. If NCAA’s was run with a baton, she’d have been undefeated champion.
From the gun, she attacked with purpose, taking a bite out of LSU’s backside and never letting go. She passed off to Chanelle twenty meters behind. Chanelle stalked LSU for 400. She ran incredibly well, but so did they. We were still twenty meters back, and I started to get nervous. It was going to be hard to beat Latavia even with good positioning; a de cit would be a disaster.
Chanelle passed off to Shef. Shef, a 5k runner, was up against an 800-meter All-American. I couldn’t watch, instead I picked my fingers and looked down at my feet. But when I reengaged, Shef was gaining momentum. Realizing I was going to get the baton neck-in-neck with Latavia, I reminded myself, “Don’t abandon the plan.”
Latavia was quicker than me over 400, but I was stronger over 1,600. I knew that to zap her kick, I’d have to run an honest race. Or as Coach Clark said, “Make her hurt.” I stayed as smooth as possible for the first 400. Then from 400 to 600, I pushed. However much I was hurting, Latavia was hurting worse.
I regrouped at 200 to go and prepared for her to pull up on my shoulder. When she made her move, I could feel her breath in my ear. I prayed I had enough in the tank to hold her off.
And then, when I was running on fumes and motivation, the announcer asked, “Who wants it? Who wants it?!” I screamed the answer in my head, “I DO. TENNESSEE DOES.”
I have never hurt so much for a win.
We ran the victory lap intoxicated with lactic acid and accomplishment. Afterwards, I saw Coach and started remind him about my Penny. But before could, he asked, “All right, kid, which one do you want?”
“The one I worked hardest for,” I said.
“So the 4x800?”
I nodded, “The 4x800.”
We shared a team hug and Coach again said, “Do you know how special that was?”
To this day, I still do.
Four By Four
The 2019 Relay Collection is inspired by four of the most iconic races in Penn Relays history.