The eternal search for speed

Kimberly McFarlane competed in the 2006 Penn Relays, representing Harry S Truman High School in New York.
Kimberly McFarlane competed in the 2006 Penn Relays, representing Harry S Truman High School in New York.

The Penn Relays merges local history with the quest for higher, longer, faster.

Posted: April 24, 2011

Bill Lyon is the author of Deadlines and Overtimes: Collected Writings on Sports and Life

Behold the human form: Fated to make do with two legs when everybody knows that four legs are faster. (See cheetah, puma, jaguar, et. al.)

Ah, but Homo sapiens adapts. He adjusts. Clever fellow shapes and molds the human form into a marvel of anatomical engineering. For proof, your attention is now directed to Franklin Field, that history-drenched repository of grand and glorious deeds where, for this coming week, there will unfold yet again the Penn Relays, one of Philadelphia's longest-running, pride-stirring productions.

This will be installment No. 117, which even by Philadelphia's historical standards suggests some serious staying power. It is the oldest and largest such event anywhere.

So then, Homo sapiens is about to do us sloths proud, because these participants are so fit and sculpted they look like they have just stepped out of that anatomy chart in the doctor's office. They always look like you could drop them in the middle of the Serengeti and they could give those pogo-legged boing-boing-boing springboks a run for their money.

And mix in Beethoven's swelling "Ode to Joy" in the background.

All of which is fitting, because the Penn Relays are a celebration. Of spring, and regeneration, and rebirth to be sure, but also of the extraordinary feats of today's Homo sapiens. Evolution by stopwatch.

Consider, for starters, the pole vault, an event in which the winning height was, once upon a time, 12 feet, thought to be the limit. But only a couple of generations later, here we are with a pole that is in essence a glorified catapult, and the vaulters slingshot themselves past 17 feet, 18 feet, 19 feet ... and soon the 20-foot ceiling is pierced.

Of course, there is still the matter of coming down, which is not for the faint of heart, since the descent is roughly the equivalent of jumping from the third story. And while that may be regarded as the new boundary, who's to say that your son's son (or daughter) won't zoom past 21 feet . . . 22 feet . . . 23 feet . . .?

Then there is the high jump. Visualize this: A person six feet tall. Now jump over that person. That height was a winner in the long, long ago. So now fast-forward and stand in a doorway. Jump over it. One day, some day, a generation or two down the road: nine feet . . . 10 feet . . . 11 feet . . .?

Then there is the long jump, which, once upon a time and in less enlightened times, was called the broad jump. Sprint down the runway on those piston legs and at the take-off marker: "Houston, we have liftoff . . ." Splashdown is somewhere out there in a pit of sand, and it's like they dropped from the sky . . . 30 feet . . . 31 feet . . . 32 feet . . .?

And then there are the runners: Rocket-powered sprinters who are - whoosh - here one moment, then - whoosh - gone the next. One hundred meters in, oh say, three hiccups, give or take. Ten seconds flat used to be the max. Now the world record is 9.58.

Ah, but let us also pause to celebrate the sweet used-to-be. And so, as it should be, room is made at the relays for the tribal elders. Masters, they are called. Age limits start at 40. (Some of us resist the temptation to snort: "I got socks older than that, Sonny.") The age limits proceed in five-year increments all the way up until you reach 75, and from there you're on your own.

"My favorite," said Phil Felton, who is in charge of rounding up the Masters, "was Everett Hosack. He ran the 100 when he was a hundred . . . and then 101 . . . [and then] 102 . . . Each year he'd offer to give me his birth certificate. Whenever he was introduced, the whole stadium would be on its feet."

The Masters do not go quietly into that good night. And so at the starter gun's first bark, they are off and motoring, arms chopping air, body in full lean, cheeks puffing like miniature bellows . . . they are locked in, and it is all so familiar, so reassuring, because they have been doing this, they have been running since . . . well, they can't remember when they weren't.

"When you're not running, you feel like something is missing from your life," Felton said.

He teaches molecular biology at Princeton ("People roll their eyes when they hear that"), helps coach the men's track team, and runs in Masters competitions, literally, around the world. He'll be running anchor legs at these relays, on Friday and Saturday.

The fastest he ever ran 100 meters was 10.4 seconds.

On a younger man's legs.

Now, his fastest is "13 and a bit."

At 62.

The fastest he ever ran 400 meters was 46.7 seconds. On a younger man's legs.

Now he flirts with 56 seconds.

Again, at 62.

The man has a serious set of wheels.

Asked how she reached - and then surpassed - 97, my mother replied: "Keep moving. They can't hit what they can't catch."

"Wise woman," said Phil Felton.

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