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Penn Relays (track events): Saturday 12:30pm - 2:55pm Credit: Zoe Gan , Zoe Gan

Track and field is all about small moments and enormous stakes.

It’s about a series of little snippets of action that accumulate to become something much greater than the sum of its parts.

Think about a pole-vaulter making an approach. With only one false step, his chance at victory — and all of the glory that comes with it — flies out the window.

In the days leading up to this year’s Penn Relays, my colleague called the event “a world affair,” and I couldn’t agree more. But at the same time — much like track and field as a sport — it is so much more and so much less.

The event’s rich history has been thrown around all weekend as a means to justify its importance, and rightfully so.

In terms of attendance, it’s the largest annual track meet in the world. For each of the past 12 years, it has boasted total attendance of more than 110,000 across its three days. It has showcased international track superstars like Usain Bolt and — this year — Justin Gatlin and Asafa Powell.

But as impressive as all of that is, it would be a disservice to the event as a whole to reduce its importance to a bunch of fun facts one could find on the inside of a program.

What make the Relays truly special are the small yet beautiful moments of humanity during the course of the weekend’s annual proceedings. And these moments are all over the place.

On Saturday, nearly 50,000 people packed the stands in anticipation of the much publicized “USA vs. the World” sprint relay races. Around 2 p.m, the athletes for the men’s international 4x200-meter relay took to the track, and the energy in the stadium was palpable.

Heading into the day, I was as excited for this race as the next track enthusiast, especially with Olympian Wallace Spearmon set to anchor for the United States. However, when 2 p.m rolled around, I found myself unable to concentrate on the race.

That’s because I was transfixed by what was going on in — of all events — the college men’s high jump.

Prior to approaching the bar, each athlete went through his own little preparatory routine, and no two were the same. Some looked up to the sky in prayer, while others simply took a small step back before taking off.

Of particular interest to me was Penn freshman Mike Monroe’s routine. Before making his approach, he would shadowbox the air and repeatedly smack himself in the face with both hands.

All of this seems somewhat trivial, but I couldn’t take my eyes away for one main reason: It demonstrated the unique humanity in each of the athletes.

These small differences can be seen all over the place in Franklin Field, on the track and, especially, in the stands. And the Relays celebrate these differences; after all, it wouldn’t be a very interesting event if everyone ran the 5,000-meter and nothing else.

But despite all of these minute differences, everyone in attendance — runners and jumpers, young and old, Americans and Jamaicans, alike — had gathered together in the name of track and field. And what was even more moving than the United States’ exciting victory in the 4x200m, was the crowd’s sportsmanship afterward, with Jamaican fans congratulating the U.S. contingent on a great race and vice versa.

There is an almost magical quality to the Relays’ ability to bring people together, and nobody understands this better than the athletes.

When Penn senior Conner Paez finished up his race in the 5,000, you could see a deep level of disappointment in his eyes. And I would bet that it had nothing to do with the time he ran, but rather that he might never be a part of the truly special event again.

One of the headlining collegians this year was Oregon sophomore Edward Cheserek. Already with six national titles to his name, Cheserek is widely considered to be one of the most dominant collegiate runners of — at least — the past decade. This dominance was fully on display on Friday, when he led his school to victory in the men’s DMR with an outstanding final leg.

On Saturday, Cheserek took the baton again, this time with a lead in the men’s 4xMile. To almost any spectator, the race was over. It was a near certainty that Cheserek would finish the job for Oregon.

Only that isn’t what happened. To the shock of the crowd, Cheserek was passed by Villanova’s Jordan Williamsz.

But how could that happen? How could the top collegiate runner in nation give up a lead on track’s biggest stage?

Because at that moment, he wasn’t just the reigning NCAA champion or the reigning king of collegiate track and field. He was so much more and so much less: He was human.

And as Penn Relays has taught me, that is something worth celebrating.

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