Nothin' beats a day at the Relays

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By Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

Back in 1998, I started attending the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, with Brian Piper, a fellow member of the Oak Park Runners Club. Piper is an Iowa alumnus who used to hang out with the track guys in college. I went to Nebraska's Doane College, and I too was friends with track team members. We knew about the popular event, but had never before attended. Soon, our group grew to four OPRC members, including Fred Fedewa (Air Force Academy), and this year, Club President Nick Bensen, for the first time.

The Drake Relays have been going on for over 100 years, a highly organized three days of track and field, plus a couple of road races where the old guys can run, too. It's always held the last weekend in April, so weather is often lousy. This year was typical — a nice Thursday evening for distance events in the stadium, but forecasts warned of rain (what else?) on Friday. Experience has taught us to bring many layers of clothing plus a plastic sheet for more protection, but the rains held off. It was cold and windy, but we still enjoyed a full afternoon of relay races, sprints, distance events and jumps on the track and the infield. Competitors are from major universities, smaller colleges, Iowa high schools, and some invited elite athletes.

This was new for Bensen, who, of course, has lots of distance running experience, but the other events were new to him. Most preliminary rounds for relays, hurdles and sprints are held on Friday, with finals on Saturday, which dawned cool, with light winds. This was ideal for a bunch of new records, including a red-hot 20:02 by Wallace Spearmon in the 200 meters, breaking the 1997 relays record held by sprint legend Michael Johnson — good news for the upcoming London Olympics. Jenny Simpson, a native Iowan and reigning 1500-meter world champ (she also coaches at the Air Force Academy), won her signature event, but had some close competition. Jenn Suhr, 2008 Olympic silver medalist, broke the meet record in the pole vault, and Chaunte Lowe high jumped 6-6 (she is currently the top female high jumper in the world). These ladies are also primed for spots on the U.S. Olympic team.

The invitational mile was won for the third consecutive year by Kenyan Boaz Lalang in a "slow" 4:04. The race was led by a pacer for three laps with the rest of the field lagging behind. Fans were yelling for the pacer to go for it, but he dropped out as planned. The others finally kicked on the final lap, but no sub-4 this year. Too bad, since we've seen numerous sub-4 minute miles over the years — always a thrill.

As always, the high school athletes provided some great races. The high level of competition and enthusiastic fans bring an atmosphere that I wish we could duplicate here in Illinois. Over the years we have seen talented high school kids win at Drake, go on to college, and then win again for their college and university teams back at familiar Drake stadium.

And of course we all ran the road races on Saturday morning, 8K or half marathon. I was satisfied to finish the 8K (even with my worst-ever time), since knee problems have sometimes made me wonder if I could even race again.

And we'll plan on going again next year, maybe with a bigger group. Hopefully, it will be warmer.

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Paul Oppenheim from Oak Park  

Posted: June 15th, 2012 3:24 PM

Thanks Jassen, I belatedly saw your comment. We are always meeting people who ran Drake Relays in high school or college, and who say it was a highlight of their sports experience. Paul Oppenheim

Jassen Strokosch from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: June 5th, 2012 2:45 PM

Thanks for the great article Paul. As a Drake track alumni, I always enjoy hearing from people who have discovered how much fun the Drake Relays are. For many of us that have competed there, fans just like you are what make it such a special venue. I try and get back to the Relays as often as I can, hoping to pay a little back by cheering and returning the favor. But with a young family at home, it is more difficult to get back there now than it was when I was fresh out of college and cheering on former teammates. Keep up the tradition. Maybe we can hook up for a beer at Peggy's one of these years.

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