When you’re told to “expect the unexpected,” it’s easy to take that cliched piece of advice with a desultory wave of the hand.
But let’s be honest: Who could have seen the result of Saturday’s Men’s 4xMile Championship of America at the Penn Relays coming?
I had never seen a Relays crowd boo in my three years covering the carnival. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Oregon anchor runner Edward Cheserek — the country’s best distance runner — slowed the pace to a near-walk entering the backstretch of the race’s 14th lap.
Last year, Cheserek posted a 3:56.4 second leg in the same event — blistering the field and building a massive lead that would result in the Ducks’ second consecutive win in the relay.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday. Cheserek — and the rest of the lead pack, for that matter — seemed afraid to take the lead. And for that hesitation, he ultimately paid the price.
When Cheserek started his kick with about 250 meters to go in the race, he found he had company in Villanova’s Jordan Williamsz, whom just one day earlier Cheserek had passed in the final stretch to win the distance medley relay.
Williamsz, a self-proclaimed 800-meter specialist, had the finishing power at the end. Cheserek did not — at least not on Saturday. And so the king was dethroned, by almost nine-tenths of a second.
“I’ve seen what [Cheserek’s] done,” Williamsz said. “I tried to give it back to him a little bit.”
Williamsz’ 4:13.6 anchor wasn’t a pretty number relative to the 4:02, 4:01.4 and 4:01.1 splits that his teammates put up, but it was enough to deliver a thrilling end to the race that turned those aforementioned boos into cheers and even had the sprint-crazed Jamaican fans in the stands at full throat.
“The last leg was basically full of theater. It was full of exciting moments, and their booing and cheering and everything,” Villanova coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “It’s the excitement of getting a crowd. It’s entertainment, and you don’t know what the exciting finish is going to be.”
The thrills of events like the 4xMile are what drew 48,920 fans to Franklin Field on Saturday, track junkies or otherwise. Even Penn students, who are normally the Athletic Department’s stingiest customers, turned out en masse, with snapshots from the stadium’s first and second decks populating plenty of Snapchat stories.
How many of them know who Cheserek is? In the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Penn students saw a thrilling race, one directly associated with the Penn Athletics brand. The challenge, of course, is to convert one weekend’s worth of goodwill into year-round engagement.
What may help matters in the future is the continuing ascendance of Penn’s own track program under coach Steve Dolan.
Sophomore Noel Jancewicz notched the third-best heptathlon score in program history on Wednesday evening with her runner-up finish in the event. The Red and Blue followed that up on Saturday with a fifth-place finish in the women’s 4x800-meter Championship of America. Penn’s 8:40.63 mark was only 27 hundredths behind the school record in the event, set back in 2006.
The Quakers also finished sixth in the 4xMile on Saturday, thanks to star Thomas Awad posting a 4:00.7 second leg and anchor Clark Shurtleff taking advantage of Cheserek’s tactical mistake to catch the lead pack.
Penn has won the 4xMile nine times in the 121-year long history of Penn Relays. A 10th title could be closer than many think.
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