• The Oval Magazine

The Greatest Festival of the Year

Photo credit: Chase Sutton, The Daily Pennsylvanian

When Your High School Track Meet is a Piece of History

The closer you get, the smaller you feel.

Franklin Field stares you down as you walk through Penn Park with your team. The frigid air and ever so slowly rising sun are not helping calm your systemic chills at 6 a.m. You and your teammates carry your big backpacks — but of course not TOO big to be turned around by security — to get to the back of the line.

Yep, that’s right. Although it’s 6 a.m. there is already a line of people, everyone just waiting to get the best spot for a team camp first.

Everything here seems like a competition.

You and your team sit in a small huddle, sharing the one blanket that someone was so smart to bring. Your coach passes around the entry stickers as you wait ~patiently~ to enter the massive stadium. Finally, they start letting people in.

As you enter the wide Gates of Franklin Field and walk through the concourse, the aroma of soft pretzels and hot dogs fill the air around you. As you follow your teammates and walk up the stairs to get to the top, the feeling of being inside Franklin Field overwhelms you more and more.

The history. The crowds. The world class athletes and olympians…and the few hours you have left until you actually race on the coveted track.

Once you get to the top you can’t help but get chills looking down at the 10-lane, 400 meter-loop below you. Looking down, you feel big.

You know you deserve to be here.

You feel a sense of accomplishment and pride rush over as you look around you surrounded by your team, your relay squad.

You’re at the Penn Relays — and it’s go time.

~

The Penn Relays is arguably the greatest festival of the year, and Franklin Field is my favorite track. So in honor of Penn Relays, I take a look back on my high school memories…

Freshman Year

Freshman year was one of my favorite memories of the Penn Relays. It feels weird saying that considering I didn’t even run that year, but it was my first time ever going to Franklin Field.

I was excited to be chosen as an alternate for the 4×800 meter relay. As a freshman, I still felt new to the world of track & field, as this was my first outdoor season with the high school team. I went into most practices and meets just following the older girls, not really knowing what I could do or why I was doing it.

Honestly, up until my first trip to the Penn Relays, I hadn’t even thought about continuing track throughout high school.

Entering Franklin Field for the first time, I now saw what the hype was all about.

My coach had warned us about how crowded and difficult it would be to maneuver throughout the stadium, but I had to experience it firsthand to realize just how right he was. Seriously, good luck trying to get around the concourse without losing one of your teammates, or trying to find an open space to warm up in Penn Park!

As the day went on I sat at the top of the stadium with my team, and just marveled at the amazing performances athletes of all ages were putting on below me. Seeing my teammates race so well made me feel extra grateful to have them as training partners and people to look up to.

I left that three-day weekend envisioning the next outdoor season, where I would hopefully find myself earning a spot on that relay team.

Sophomore Year

Come 365 days later, ~wish granted~ and back at the University of Pennsylvania I was. I was on the 4×800 meter relay — not as an alternate this time.

The only down side was that I was the lead-off leg, and while it may be an unpopular opinion, I think that is one of the scariest things you could possibly do at the Penn Relays.

Here’s a picture of my high school teammate starting a relay just for good measure, sorry Jenna :).

Anyways… it honestly wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Going into the Large School 4×800 meter relay race, my team didn’t put much pressure on ourselves. Our high school never had much of a big “standout” history at this meet, so we didn’t have much of anything to live up to or “beat,” per se.

With that in mind, it made the experience a lot more fun. Just ninety minutes before the race, my team and I warmed up around Penn’s campus (mostly because it’s pretty much impossible to run for an extended amount of time without having to dodge around people near Franklin Field/Penn Park). Ninety minutes out from race time may seem like far too early for a warmup, but the relays are notoriously called extremely early to get situated in the paddock.

Once in the paddock, all teams get lined up in leg-order.

I remember 10th grade me, 5-foot-1 and 110 pounds, and how I looked nervously at the other girls lined up in my row. It’s pretty hard not to feel tense, especially when you don’t know the girls standing beside you. These high school teams are coming from all over — it’s not like you’re lined up next to the teams at your local invitational. You could be lined up next to someone that could run anywhere from a 2:05 to a 2:25. You just don’t know.

Luckily for me, my team had prepared me for the pushing-and-shoving fest that that was inevitable to happen in the lead-off leg. There were so many girls next to me, jammed across the eight lanes.

I kid you not, we spent some practices strictly simulating the start of a relay race. We took the scenarios pretty extreme. In essence, whoever was holding the baton at the line was trying to run 50 meters as fast as they could after the “gun” went off, while everyone else on the line was aiming to essentially knock that person down.

It sounds kind of dangerous — because it was — but it made practice lighthearted, fun, and definitely prepared you for the worst-case scenarios at the start line. Some would occasionally fall, but no one got hurt in the process 🙂

Wow, I miss high school track practice.

After a fast and unexpected race, we ended up running a 9:13.59. We shattered our school record, and wound up qualifying for the High School Girls Championship of America race the next day.

Not to be forgotten, we did this all in light of the extra time from my drop of the baton when I handed off to my teammate… I mean, what’s a good race without a little suspense, right? It kept my coach on the edge of his seat, that’s for sure.

In the Championship of America race, we COMPLETELY shocked ourselves even more by running a 9:02.06.

Another school record, this time by 11 SECONDS.

We were beside ourselves. It was the best showing our high school had ever had in the 4×800 meter relay, and it made us even more excited to train harder and see what else we could do.

Junior Year

This year we had some pretty big expectations to live up to. Don’t get me wrong, we still had so much fun in the process, but now we definitely felt the need to top our performance from last year. We had the same 4×800 team from our relay last year, so we really didn’t see a reason as to why we couldn’t improve.

We were 2nd in our qualifying heat (behind Jamaica!) with a time of 9:11.65. That race was another huge confidence boost for us, and it qualified us for another Championship of America race.

That next day, we managed to finish 4th overall with a time of 8:55.88 in a rather dramatic finish, and we crushed our school record from the year before. We were also less than a tench of a second shy of being the first American team.

If you were to tell us that we were going to do that a week ago, we would have laughed at you. We didn’t think breaking 9 minutes was possible this early in the season. This truly was an eye-opening meet for us, and it made us (again) more than ready to get back to training.

Our dreams from here on out felt like they kept getting bigger and bigger.

One of which became winning an outdoor state title.

Senior Year

I finally got the qualifying standard for the 3000 meter run at the Penn Relays. Knowing that I had qualified in the early spring was huge for me, especially because I had already committed to run at Penn.

This race felt different in a good way, as I was racing on my soon-to-be home track. It was also a chance to cap off one of my last individual races as a North Penn athlete.

Unfortunately about a month before the Penn Relays, I got an MRI back showing I had a stress reaction in my leg. I took a good amount of time completely cross training in order to jumpstart the recovery process. This put quite a damper on my training at the time, but I had only been running about 30 miles per week so it wasn’t too bad to back work up to.

My senior year our relay-momentum was unfortunately short-lived. We were unable to squeeze our way into the Championship of America race with a 5th place finish in our qualifying heat. Because of that, the 3000 meter race was the only race I had left at the Penn Relays.

Sadly I didn’t perform nearly as well as I had hoped, but the experience was incredible. Over those 7 ½ painful laps, I heard my soon-to-be Penn teammates cheering for me, and in the moment it felt really special.

It’s neat to look back and say how I got the chance to run an individual event at the Penn Relays now. Getting an elite race experience really helped me handle my nerves for other big races in the future, and hopefully many more to come.

Here’s to the Penn Relays!

ARIANA GARDIZY — UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA // NORTH PENN HIGH SCHOOL

Mile: 4:53.39 3,000m: 9:40.22 5,000m: 16:29.53

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