The Great Relay Rift


The past two weekends have been special. In the span of eight days, we saw two new NCAA records in both the 1500 (Josh Kerr) and the 800 (Michael Saruni). Off the top of your head, when was the last time that happened? Two NCAA records being broken in the same season, much less the same month? That may be a research assignment for another day...


As impressive as the performances were, there's only so much that we can talk about. They ran fast. They're better than everyone else. They'll probably win the national title barring any wild circumstance. The conversation, in and of itself, would be a bit redundant.


Yet, outside of the record breaking performances, there has been one topic of conversation that has dominated collegiate track and field for the past two weeks. The first-annual running of the National Relay Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas has some people excited about the emergence of a brand new meet. Others are frustrated by the apparent disrespect to the already historic and established relays such as Drake and Penn Relays.


You can't help but wonder why the Arkansas Razorbacks would make such a large push to establish a new meet on the same weekend as the two biggest events in the regular season of track and field. Some have argued that the new meet is only an extension of the SEC Relays from last year and an attempt to solidify themselves as a greater influence in the track and field world. The argument is a bit of a stretch, but not unrealistic when you consider the revenue that could be gained from streaming the event on the SEC Network. It would be hard to ignore the idea that the National Relay Championships is simply a way to undermine Penn and Drake (especially if you just look at the name of the meet).


In all of this madness, it's important to recognize that even I have some bias of my own. I grew up less than an hour outside of Philadelphia and went to the Penn Relays during all four years of high school. The event is special, the atmosphere is electric, and you feel inspired by the legendary status and history of the meet. I'm sure Drake is a similar feeling for the vast array of athletes in the Midwest.


At the same time, why shouldn't Arkansas host their own meet? It's not like Drake or the Penn Relays have been 100% perfect. For the past few years, Drake has consistently experienced poor weather (although this past weekend was almost ideal) and the times produced in their relays just aren't nearly as strong. As for the Penn Relays, the meet has faced criticism for their high quantity of monotonous races and questionable age of Jamaicans competing against American high schoolers. That concern appears to be even more valid after after the monster 4x400 and 4x800 results we saw from Calabar this past weekend.


Of course, the National Relay Championships weren't without its flaws either. The meet has been rumored to have garnered an attendance of only 2,100 people over two days which pales in comparison to the over 108,000 people who went to Penn over the three day period (36,000 per day). The same can be said about the Drake Relays which had its 53rd consecutive sell-out crowd of over 14,000 people on just one of their four days of competition.


If you're looking at this from a results perspective, the conversation doesn't get any easier. The 4xMile, DMR, and SMR (for collegiate men) were all relatively the same between Penn and the National Relays. We can't even compare the open events as the National Relays opted to field mid-distance events (800, 1500, and steeple) while Penn once again favored the longer distances (mile, 5000, and 10,000). Drake raced a majority of the mid and long distances.


None of the above reasons have tempered the passion and strong feelings from influential figures on both sides. NBC Sports announcer Craig Masback, who covered the Penn Relays all weekend, called out coaches who went to the National Relay Championships over Drake or Penn. Meanwhile, Arkansas coach Chris Bucknam suggested that the meet would be a "game-changer" and even called Fayetteville the "track capital of the world", a phrase that you would typically use to describe Eugene, Oregon.


Maybe it's those statements, not the actual meet, that are responsible for causing so much frustration from Penn and Drake die-hards around the nation. The self-designation of being a "National Championship", calling themselves the "track capital of the world", and describing the meet as a "game changer" may not sit well for those who have invested themselves in the 123 year legacy of Penn Relays or the 108 year legacy of the Drake Relays. It makes plenty of sense. Just ask why the LSU Invitational or the Virginia Grand Prix are left unscathed from the wrath and judgement of fans around the nation...


So where do we go from here? Will we see the National Relays return in 2019? Will teams who went to the National Relays this year go back to Penn / Drake next year? Vice versa?


Regardless of what next year holds, the track and field community may have new drama on their hands. Not between coaches, teams, or athletes, but between some of the largest and most monumental track meets the world has ever known.