On Monday afternoons it’s always a challenge to get the kids to focus. The first Monday is May is especially rough. The school as a whole is beginning its final sprint to graduation in less than four weeks, and kids are struggling with too many commitments, too little sleep, and the ever-present anxiety that one botched quiz will drop an A to an A-, or an A- to a B+, or — the thought is almost too horrible to contemplate — a B to a C+. On any other weekend, they might have had enough down time to recover a bit, but Saturday night was the school formal — and after all the preparations, the event itself, and sleeping in on Sunday, all of a sudden it’s Monday and where did the weekend go, anyway?
So at the start of practice I’ll gather everyone for announcements, try to shush the side conversations, ask for the attention of kids who have a million other worries besides Track at that moment, and begin talking — about the Penn Relays.
I always worry that I don’t do enough to introduce the kids to the wider world of track and field. They’ve heard of the Olympics, of course, but that might be the only track competition they have heard of. Sometimes I’ll ask if anyone knows who holds the American record for the mile, or who was the first woman to win a gold medal in the Marathon, and their first generous instinct is to yell out my name, or the name of our female distance coach. This is incredibly touching, but also incredibly depressing. And so for a while, I try to devote some time to basic track and field history, but to no avail.
The other day, I put down two pieces of athletic tape on the floor of the large room where we meet, a little over 29 feet apart. I put another piece of tape up on the wall, about 8 feet off the ground. When practice started, I pointed to these pieces of tape and pointed out that the distance between the marks on the floor was the world long jump record, and the mark on the wall was the world high jump record. There was a satisfying murmur of awe, and maybe a brief flicker of excitement about sharing a sport with human beings who were capable of such things.
But not one of the 60 kids on the team will know anything about the multi-day track meet that took place over the weekend and is the third largest track and field competition (after the world championships and the Olympics) on the planet.
So I’ll throw some numbers at them — 22,000 entrants, 100,000 spectators, over 400 races, athletes from 60 countries — I’ll talk about the wide range of talents represented, everything from local H.S. teams to world-class national teams to age-group athletes. I’ll talk about history, and about how winning at the Penn Relays is one of the highlights of an athlete’s career. I’ll talk about Penn’s own 4 x mile relay team, anchored by Thomas Awad, which won the Championship of America in a thrilling race, and brought the hosts their first Penn Relays title in 42 years.
Blah, blah, blah. How is any of that relevant to them?
And I wonder myself about the weird disconnect between being part of a high school track team in the very small pond of similarly sized private schools and being a student (or at least a fan) of Track and Field. This weekend was, arguably, the most active few days of Track and Field of the year, with big meets at every level all over the U.S., and hours of live streaming. Here in Massachusetts, it was the weekend of the State Relays championships, with thousands of high school athletes competing. So should I rehearse all that this afternoon, throwing in highlights from the meets? Should I mention that the local public school, Concord-Carlisle H.S. with whom we share the town track, placed third in the Boys H.S. DMR at Penn, the first team behind the epic photo finish between Loudoun Valley and LaSalle? Should I mention that yet another high school boy, Mike Slagowski, ran sub-4:00, making it nine all-time and four in the last two years?
Not to mention Christina Aragon running 4:11, Bernard Lagat running 27:49 (at age 41) in his 10K debut, Ida Keeling running 1:17 for 100 meters (at 100 years old)… I could on and on.
But I won’t, for two reasons: First, I don’t want to admit that I spent so much time watching all this stuff when I had much more important things to do. Second, there’s only so much more room in their brains right now for new information. So I’ll talk about the Penn Relays, and leave it at that. They should know about Penn, even if they wouldn’t know an American record-holder if she showed up to practice and started signing autographs.