Penn Relays starters make a spectacular show go

Posted: April 27, 2011

THE SUN BOUNCES off the barrel of the starter's pistol onto the stern faces of nervous bodies in shiny reds, yellows and greens. Thin garb hugs their taut skin. They all have plastic tubes in one hand and are waiting to get into a crouched position and place knuckles on a reddish, rubberized surface. They squint like Clint Eastwood before he fires. They are armed with toned muscles and explosive energy bubbling beneath the surface of their pores.

The character to their left, armed with the fake gun and earplugs, is the conductor of this symphony of pure athleticism.

"On your marks . . . "

Down they go.


Up come their butts.

The smoke from the 32 with blanks will get lost in the haze as arms and legs catapult. The noise from the discharge will reverberate every couple minutes over the microphone at Franklin Field as the Penn Relays runs its annual course of cries and celebration this week. The maestros of the organized mayhem are guilty bystanders with the best seats in the house.

"We do have the best seats," said Karen Guy, a former kindergarten teacher from Rydal, Pa, the only woman in the four-person crew who will alternate as starters for the Penn Relays. "Absolutely. Us and the clerks. They have to get them to the line. We have to get them going.

"Oh wow, it's hard to describe what it's like to be here. You can feel the enthusiasm in the crowd. They root for athletes whether they know them or not. The feeling is tremendous when they round the track and you hear the wave of noise following them. It's something people should experience and remember."

Guy has close to 25 years of memories at the track showcase. Her fondest was shooting the gun for her daughter Lauren when she ran for Archbishop Kennedy High School. She is one of the few women starters in the Philadelphia area.

"There was none but me when I first started."

The Penn Relays crew is headed up by Tom McTaggart, a track lecturer who has been blowing smoke in the air for 38 years at Franklin Field. Paul Poiesz, best known in these parts as the former coach of the highly successful Bishop McDevitt High School program, has been at it since 1993. Boston's Tom Meagher, the oldest of the quartet at 65, is the novice in experience with 6 years at the Relays.

Together they will run their own marathon for 3 exhaustive days and nights from tomorrow morning about 11 until Saturday evening about 8. One starts, while the others watch for false starts. Instead of batons they have guns, but they might be the most important relay team on the track. They go four or five races and change places. They play a form of musical chairs where no one gets to sit down.

"It wears on you," said McTaggart, chief starter at the Penn Relays since 2003. "By Friday night you crash after 2 full days and nights of starting. On Saturday, the excitement carries you through."

"My arm never gets tired, but my legs do," said Meagher, who is completing a track head's dream double, going from his assignment as a Boston Marathon finish line official on April 18 to his job as a Penn Relays starter. "We all survive effectively because there are no egos. We go from dawn to dusk at the penultimate show in track and field. How fortunate am I? Bodies keep on coming. It doesn't slow down. It really is spectacular."

No one in the stands wants to wait for the spectacular to erupt. It's amazing the massive undertaking involving thousands of athletes flows as well as it does with few snafus. The starters vie to be more movers than shakers.

"You really need to depend on not only the other sets of eyes on the start of the race, but also the willingness of others to recall a race, call a false start or whatever needs to be done," said Poiesz, who is the math department chair at Conestoga High School and assistant girls track coach at Central Bucks South. "The trust that they will see things the right way, be willing to make the call and discuss it to make sure you get it right is critically important."

You have to get it right with the kind of noise levels that would make headbangers nod their heavy metal heads in appreciation. Poiesz had to holster his gun last year when Jamaican Usain Bolt brought the show to a dead stop when he walked onto the track to run the anchor leg of the 4x100.

"The noise was so incredibly loud," said Poiesz. "The athletes were getting into position but the anticipation and reception of Bolt was too much for the crowd. You couldn't hear anything. I had to stand the athletes back up."

The noise amped up even more once Bolt got the baton. He saved a few eardrums by getting rid of it an absurd 8.79 seconds later off the rolling start you can get on a relay.

"It was mind-boggling," said Meagher, the assistant dean of students at Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, Mass. "You take it all in and cherish those moments."

The Penn Relays have traditionally housed moments of both Bolt and jolt. In 1928, a row of spectators entered a race in an impromptu tumble onto the track when part of the wall gave way, forcing Charlie Paddock to hurdle bodies on the way to his win. Last year, a runner stepped on the rail between lanes 4 and 5 and broke his femur as a bunch of runners fell on top of him.

The starters wince at the pratfalls, embrace the smooth exchanges and get chills like everyone else in the stands when history whizzes by.

"Athletes fall all the time," McTaggart said. "You don't remember the falls. You remember the world records. I was lucky enough to be the starter for the 4x200 world record by the Santa Monica track team anchored by Carl Lewis. The crowd went nuts."

They weren't cheering for the black-and gold unitards designed by Lewis for the team, which included Mike Marsh, Leroy Burrell and Floyd Heard. They were applauding the 1:19.11 time. They don't cheer for the starters either.

"False starts, the fans always blame you," said McTaggart with a laugh.

"Athletes have long memories," Poiesz said. "Years later they bring up their false starts to you."

Starters strive for fair starts above all else and have little patience for athletes fidgeting when it's time to run.

"We keep them moving at Penn," McTaggart said. "Athletes discover that any kind of delay is not going to work."

"Getting a fair start is the most important thing," said Meagher. "You want the fastest to win the race. You have to be firm, make sure athletes can't distract other athletes with their methods of getting set. You have to be in control. It's subtle but obvious. The race doesn't start until you shoot the gun."

It's wise to listen to the ones with the guns even if they are firing blanks.

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