In his last trip to the Penn Relays, Elvis Forde was a much younger man.
In 1982, the member of the 4×400-meter relay team hailed from the Atlantic Coast Running Club from Portsmouth, Virginia.
He didn’t own a car, but at least he had a “nice, clean haircut.”
He spent the trip awaiting the event at the relays, and the moment he could taste his first Philadelphia cheesesteak. His team took gold, but the cheesesteak didn’t satisfy.
“I couldn’t have one until the competition was done,” the first-year women’s track & field coach said. “You couldn’t leave Philadelphia [without eating one], and they loaded it with onions.”
“The No. 1 thing I don’t like a lot of is onions.”
More than 30 years later, Forde still cherishes the memento from his victory that day.
“I still have my Penn Relays championship watch knocking around somewhere,” Forde said. “It has still been [ticking] after all these years.”
Celebrating its 121st anniversary, this year’s competition will host athletes from more than 60 different countries and will feature more competitors than the Olympic Games.
Now, with only a few days to spare, Forde has been utilizing this season’s past meets to finalize his relay entries for the three-day event.
“I’m always going to continue mingling and running some people at different places [to] try and find the four best [runners] that fit each relay,” Forde said. “Where you are [in age] has no bearing on me. I’m just always going to look for the best athlete.”
While speed and ability play significant roles in a relay team’s performance, there is another factor that is vital to the success of a group.
Sophomore 4×100-meter relay teammates Bionca St. Fleur and Jimmia McCluskey both agree that chemistry between a relay team is what could make or break a race.
“Our team has great chemistry and it’s easy to do well because you have so many supporting girls on the team,” St. Fleur said. “Even though track is an individual sport, when it comes to our team we’re very team-oriented. We just push each other to be the best we can.”
McCluskey said that chemistry is something built both on and off of the track, and both are important to create a long-lasting bond between baton-handlers.
“Even outside of track, we have a bond,” McCluskey said. “We hang out with each other pretty much 24/7 [and] when it comes to a relay, you have to do a lot of things together so you have that chemistry when it’s time to run.”
Due to the high demand for top relay runners, it is typical for more than four athletes to compete for spots on a relay. Relays can change each week and are seldom set in stone, and that is something St. Fleur said she understands.
“Track in general is all about pressure,” St. Fleur said. “Everyone is always watching you [and] you have to be on your ‘A game’ every single week. I like the thrill of knowing that someone can take my [relay] spot, it just makes me want to work that much harder.”
“A relay team only fits four, but there are about six of us who compete for a spot,” senior Kiersten LaRoche added. “It’s constant motivation, constant pushing each other and [the fact that] somebody can always come in and take your spot, and that just makes you hungrier.”
LaRoche made her way onto the 4×400-meter relay team after mostly competing solo throughout the winter season, and said relay competition brings about a different form of pressure to perform well.
“When it comes to the relay, you want to do well for your team,” LaRoche said. “You always want to be in the best shape and bring about a good and strong leg for the relay.”
Coming down to the last days before competition, Forde said he hopes that the chemistry he has helped the teams build throughout the year will allow them to perform even better than the 2014 Penn Relays.
In the end, however, Forde said it’s going to come down to how much the athletes want to win.
“I’m looking forward for them to be better than what they were last year,” Forde said. “It’s not so much what I do in terms of putting them through training, it’s their desire. They have to have a desire to be successful.”
Tyler Device can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.