Why Amateur Sport Matters: 80 Years of the Heptagonal Games

Heps track and field meets are team events, something that continues to create a truly unique competitive environment

This story is republished from Issue #00 of Meter magazine a new running publication from Tracksmith.

Words by Chris Lear Photography by Emily Maye

The Heptagonal Games were founded in 1934 by seven schools, hence the Heptagonal name: Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. The US service academies, Army and Navy, joined the league for a spell, the University of Virginia for a lone year, and Brown joined for keeps in 1949. Though the mix of institutions now matches that of the modern- day Ivy League, the championships remain the Heptagonal Games — The Heps for the cognoscenti — because, hell, tradition matters. And though the sport of track has evolved so drastically since the league’s founding — the imperative of higher, faster, stronger, dictating the very pace, structure, and space of the modern-day chase for endless qualifying marks — the Heps’ annual return is like an anachronistic throwback to a time when being the big dog on the block was the dictate of the day.

Heps exists in stark contrast to the premier meetings of the outdoor track season. At their best, those meetings resemble buzzing carnivals, a combustible mix of East Africans, fleet-footed collegians, professionals, and hot prospects lighting up the track with transcendent marks that remind us of the beauty and grace of the chase. But all too often — for spectators and competitors alike — the races are but glorified time trials which fail to fully sate our appetite for competition. Enter: the Heps.

Competition matters. At Cornell, you’ll learn about 2008 NCAA champion Muhammad Halim pulling out a Heps long jump title in the final round before coolly announcing to his coach, “Can’t teach clutch.”

And though the cast of characters and schools may change, the moral of each tale remains the same (and often profane) no matter the homework, the girlfriend, the weather: it’s the fucking Heps.

Houston, Texas native and 2014 Columbia senior Tim Cousins envisioned standing atop the Heps podium when he entered Columbia as a blue-chip sub-nine-minute deuceman. Like many in the modern-day Ivy League, he’d forgone scholarship opportunities to compete in a league where the fluorescent lights often burn as fiercely in study hall as in the arena.

For three years Cousins, an engineering major, worked the grind in the classroom, but failed to find the right recipe to stay healthy on the track and climb the podium at the Heps. This year, everything clicked, to the tune of a 4:03 mile and 3:45 for the 1500 meters — nationally credible marks for any collegian, anywhere, but, such is the current, historical strength of the conference, almost second tier for the Heps.

Nonetheless, Cousins entered his final conference championship on a tremendous upswing, and with a singular objective: to score a point at the Heps. To get sixth place, and score a lone point — for himself, his teammates, and Columbia — would mean more to him than any PR ever could.

The fact that Columbia, devoid of throwers and jumpers, would lack the complement of athletes to win the team chase was irrelevant to Cousins. Maybe that’s because, as a non-scholarship athlete, nothing bound Cousins or his Heps peers to their commitment to excel on the track other than their passion for it, for their institution, for their teammates. There’s a passion at the Heps that’s tangible with each race, and each battle, be it for first or sixth place.

But it’s more than that. There’s an intimacy here. When an athlete from the northeast — say Boston College — meets an athlete from the southeast — say Florida State — in one of those superglued superconferences, the ties that bind are somewhat unclear.

Not so the Heps says Dartmouth coach Barry Harwick: “The coaches know all the other athletes that are here. Virtually every kid that is out here applied to more than one Ivy League school, so we know these kids even before they get to whatever school they ultimately end up going to.”

That familiarity, and the mutual sense of a level playing field — on and off the track — make this meet, according to Columbia mentor Will Boylan-Pett, “the baseline for everything. It’s as simple as that. You score at Heps you know you’re going to get a lot more opportunities and you are going to be seen as someone who can get it done, and it’s a nice baseline to have that.”

Boylan-Pett’s fellow Columbia assistant (and 1:46 half-miler) Elliott Blount loves the intensity of Heps: “It’s the battle of the geeks man, you want to be the best and the baddest. I love it. It raises the intensity to something I’ve never seen before.”

The 2014 1500m finalists toed the line with no less than three sub-four milers in the running for the crown. And out in lane nine, in his first outdoor final, Columbia senior Cousins. Indoors in the 3000m final, a tactical affair left Cousins in seventh, one spot shy of his goal. Now outdoors, Cousins did his best to take the sting out of the miler’s legs, pushing the pace early, and he sat perfectly in 3rd with 300 to go poised to atone. Alas, he faltered in the final stretch, again finishing an agonizing seventh.

He was crushed. “I don’t know why,” he recounted, “we didn’t have enough athletes in enough events to be in contention for the team title, so I didn’t let us down in not scoring. But I wanted to be up on that podium representing Columbia more than anything, even if it was just one point.”

An hour and a half later, cousins was in the proverbial last chance saloon: the 5000 meters. With nothing but pride on the line, he gathered himself and went with the gun.

“By halfway,” he says, “my legs were so sore, I wanted to stop more than anything, but I would not let myself drop from the leaders. At 600m to go, I made a move, and was third going into the bell lap. At 200m to go, the wheels started falling off. Over the last 100 meters I had absolutely nothing left, and the finish seemed impossibly far away. All I knew was that only two people could pass me. With 50 to go a jersey went by me, but I saw it was a Columbia one. I fought with every ounce I had, and got to the line, quickly followed by two runners coming on fast a second behind. An instant sense of relief came over me as I collapsed to the ground. I knew I had done it. I had gotten my one point.”

“In the grand scheme of things,” he says, “that one point in the 5k means nothing. I won’t be remembered in the legends of Heps as accomplishing an amazing double or triple, or setting any new records, or winning X number of championships. My name is known by a few distance runners now, and will be forgotten within a few years, but that does not matter because as long as I live I will never forget Heps and the one point I earned, and that is currently and probably will be the race I am most proud of myself in my entire running career.”

And that is the beauty of the Heps.

This story is republished from Issue #00 of Meter magazine a new running publication from Tracksmith.

Meter is a magazine that basks in the history of running, celebrates the competition at the heart of the sport, and reflects the various communities that running fosters. The photography bears witness to the grace, intensity, and beauty of running at its finest, and the stories pay respect to its fabled heritage.

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