Photo courtesy Kathy Fleming.

Tales From Penn Relays

There's something about the "carnival" atmosphere of the Penn Relays that brings out the best in runners. The lanes of Franklin Field have witnessed breathless finishes and unforgettable anchor legs. From setting world records to upsetting Olympians, we spoke with members of four of the most unforgettable teams in Penn Relays history to hear their tales of triumph.

Photo courtesy of Steve Shisler.

Steve Shisler, Penn State, 1985 4x800

In 1985 Steve Shisler and his teammates Chris Mills, Vance Watson, and Randy Moore won the 4x800 in a blazing 7 minutes, 11.17 seconds. The record remains unbroken.

The team culture was excellent on and off the track throughout my Penn State career. We worked hard and were focused on being the best we could be. Each of us knew our jobs within the relay and team, and took care of business time after time. World best 4x8 time both indoors and outdoors in '85.

We never talked about a time goal for our meets. We kept the focus on competing hard and running to win. We had run a solo 7:17 school record at the Dogwood Relays in Tennessee 2 weeks before Penn, so we knew we could compete with any team, but I don't think breaking Villanova's 7:12 meet record was in the cards. Chris Mills, our freshman leg that year, told me after the race he thought we could break it. I guess he wasn't such a naive freshman after all.

I always knew the record would be hard to take down, but I am surprised that nearly 35 years later it's still at the top. Some teams have come close, about every decade or so, but getting an average for 4 guys at 1:47.8 is no easy task. The reason we ran so fast is that it was a 2 team race at the end of the first leg, all the way until 100 meters to go.  Georgetown deserves much credit to pushing us to run so fast that day. I'm confident it will take another 2 team dual to finally break the record. 7:11 is like a fine wine, it just keeps getting better with age.

Photo via Villanova Athletics.

Kathy Fleming (née Franey), Villanova, 1988 Distance Medley Relay

Villanova’s Kathy Franey, Michelle Bennett, Celeste Halliday, and Vicki Huber set a world record that stood until 2015 on their way to their DMR victory at Penn Relays. 

"Don’t get caught up in the carnival atmosphere!" Those are the pre-race instructions I remember most from the 1988 Penn Relays. By this time in my collegiate running career at Villanova University, I, along with my teammates, knew the drill. Focus, win your leg and we win. And if you don’t win your leg, your teammate will have to make up the ground. End of story. No ifs ands or buts. No splits nor strategies. Just win.

The prospect of another world record was always a possibility, but never the focus. Penn Relays was about competing at your best in front of 40,000 fans at Franklin Field in the oldest and largest relay carnival in the world. For Villanova, it’s even more. It’s about continuing the legacy that the former Villanovans began. It’s about pride. I was the leadoff 1200m leg and split a 3:20.9, bringing the baton to Michelle Bennett with a slight lead over the usual suspects, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas. Michelle split 52.9 seconds for the 400m leg to keep the lead stretching out and handed it off to Celeste Halliday who clocked 2:04.7 for the 800m leg, increasing the lead even more before handing off the baton to our anchor leg, Vicki Huber. Vicki could do one of two things; coast to the finish line to save her legs for the two other relays that we had to race and win, or just go for it.

In Villanova style, she went for it. Coming home with a 4:29.9 split for the 1600m, we raced to a world record in 10:48.38. A record that stood for 27 years. As we look back now, we realize that it wasn’t too shabby for a few college kids that were just trying not to get caught up in the "carnival atmosphere."

Reuben Reina, Arkansas, 1989 Distance Medley Relay

Reuben Reina and his teammates Joe Falcon, Charles Williams, and Robert Bradley went to the line at the 1989 Penn Relays as the undisputed underdogs, facing a loaded team from Mount St. Mary’s College, featuring four Olympians, including the reigning Olympic champ in the 1500 meters. Surprising everyone but themselves, Arkansas won. 

No one thought we could win that day. If you are on the outside looking in, who would think we could win?  We were running against four Olympians, who everyone expected to be anchored by the 1500m Olympic Champion. One of the Cheruiyot brothers was 7th in the 1988 Olympic Games 1500m, the other was a 5000m Olympian, and their 400m leg was a Zambian Olympian. But to be honest with you, that was all the motivation we needed. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Did we think we could win? That is all we are groomed to think at Arkansas!  If you put on that ARKANSAS jersey, you are expected to win!  And at Penn Relays it was no exception, and more the norm.

Arkansas Coach McDonnell is the greatest coach, to ever coach any sport, period.  He knows how to make his athletes feel invincible, and run for more than themselves, but for those teammates that run next to them, and before them. And nothing fires him up more than to be disrespected. In his eyes, his teams he had lined up at the Penn Relays in the past, have more than proven themselves worthy of being considered for having a chance to win. And this team was no exception. 

He got the four of us together that morning for a meeting in his hotel room, before leaving out to the meet. He sat us down and showed us the local morning Philadelphia paper, of how Mt. St. Mary’s was going to shatter the world record, with no recognition of Arkansas having a chance of contending. He got very emotional and emphatic about how we were going to prove them wrong and show them what Arkansas was all about. As he waved the paper in our face he reminded us what the ARKANSAS on our chest represented. It was not just us, but all those before us and after us that would look back at this day and remember this victory. 

We were not going to just lie down for Mt. St. Mary’s, or anyone else that stood on that line. We left to that meet focus on one thing…Victory.

Photo courtesy of Reuben Reina.

Photo by Kirby Lee, Image of Sport.

Phoebe Wright, Tennessee, 2009 & 2010, 4x800, 4x1500, DMR 

In 2009 and 2010 the Tennessee women not only won the 4x800, 4x1500 and the DMR, they set three American Records and one world record on the way to six Pennies. You can read more of Phoebe's story, here.

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, Chanelle Price and me, two top collegiate 800 meter ladies, and the incredibly fit Kimarra McDonald and Rolanda Bell. 

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 in the 4x1500. 

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 was relieved. “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. 

Kimarra led off in style in a season’s best 2:08. When she handed off to Chanelle, who ran a 2:02 essentially by herself, I realized they weren’t kidding about going after the record, "These fools are going to make me run."

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.

I came through the quarter in 59 seconds and heard the announcer say, "A 64 second lap gets the record." But 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. 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."

Four by Four

The 2019 Relay Collection is inspired by four of the most iconic races in Penn Relays history. 

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