Under a warm blue sky, I sit on the north bleachers of the historic Franklin Field ready for the concert. But I’m not here to hear the march of distance runners, the short flourishes of the jumpers or jazz of the hurdles. No, I’m here for the symphony.
As I peer across the field, I spy a girl sprinting towards another. The girl in front tempts the first, like a break from key in an orchestral movement, until the two runners find a matching tempo stride-for-stride and change possession of the baton.
But the team’s conductor and coach Gwen Harris isn’t fully satisfied. Not yet, at least. It wasn’t perfect, she tells me later, with a gentle rebuke.
“Keep the baton moving,” she says while teaching me the most important lesson for the fastest race.
You may think the 100-meter is the fastest race, but you would be wrong. In less than fifty seconds, the 4x100 meter relay can produce the sweetest of melodies or the most discordant screeches. The symphony — and its four beautiful movements — have the power to move.
But to begin a symphony, you need an explosion. The sonata-allegro requires a fast, powerful beginning meant to hook the listener into the overall structure of the work. In leadoff runner Renee McDougall, Penn’s squad has a performer who will hit her notes.
“Renee is fierce,” senior Kali Strother says. “She is very strict about getting handoff work in and how we do it because everything has to be perfect.”
The exciting second movement provides the best melody, giving me a chance to enjoy and understand the full story of the race and racer. I wasn’t surprised to find the eldest of the group taking the next 100 meters.
Strother has rewritten the record books during her time at Penn and done so with style and grace. The school record-holder in the 200m and third all-time in the 400m, Strother’s presence is a soothing force.
“Kali is the captain who brings the [leadership skills] to keep everyone on task,” says junior Leah Brown.
These first two legs are eerily similar to last year’s virtuoso performance. The relay of McDougall, Strother, hurdler Paige Madison and then-anchor Brown had run together for two years and broke the school record running 46.03. But with Madison focusing on hurdles and freshman phenom Garielle Piper stepping in, the last two legs of the relay had to change.
“Leah was usually the last leg,” Harris says of last year’s handoff between third leg Madison and Brown. “It was going to be a new pass anyway,” she adds, so moving Brown up made the most sense.
“Leah runs the curve really well … that pass will work out very well.”
Now at the third leg, the symphony has to move on to the minuet and the very bubbly and happy waltz that is Brown.
“Leah is very funny and knows how to loosen everybody up,” Strother says of her junior teammate. “[But] she still drives [us] to get it done.”
Last among the movements is the grandiose end, which requires a competitor to punctuate the entire symphony. The role of the fast-paced sonata is fulfilled by Piper, the newest member of the relay.
“Gabi is our competitor,” Brown says of the newcomer. “Gabi wins and that is something that we need.”
Piper is still adjusting to her new role.
“It’s different because the handoffs are so meticulous,” she says. “You’re coming in and shifting stuff around. You have to have chemistry [right away].”
This weekend at the Penn Relays, the symphony will have numerous chances to perfect the piece. The goal will be to run the race to the tune of 45 seconds.
But the sweet melodies can only strike a harmony when all four movements work together and transition with fluidity and elegance.
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