The world-famous Penn Relays, directed by Dave Johnson

On Thursday, April 25, the 125th running of the Penn Relays takes its mark at Franklin Field. Tens of thousands are expected to attend from across the globe.

Penn Relays Director Dave Johnson poses on the track at Franklin Field.

Dave Johnson fell in love with the Penn Relays in 1968, when he was a junior in high school and attended the meet for the first time as an alternate for his school’s track and field team. Walking into Franklin Field, he says he was mesmerized by the size of the crowd.

“The biggest meet I’d been to before then had maybe 400 or 500 people there,” says Johnson, the Frank Dolson Director of the Penn Relays. “I think the biggest crowd I had ever seen at Connie Mack Stadium was when my father and I went to see Sandy Koufax pitch. To walk into Franklin Field and see as many people here for a track meet as I’d seen at the most packed times at Connie Mack Stadium was just remarkable.”

Since 1996, Johnson has served as director of the Penn Relays. Rain or shine, he helps guides each April meet from pre-production to postscript, aided by staffers, officials, and volunteers.

“You couldn’t possibly create this out of nothing,” Johnson says of the Relays. “The force that is really behind it is that it has grown organically.”

Penn Today sat down with Johnson in Education Commons in Franklin Field to discuss planning for the Relays, its international appeal, what makes the meet unique, and some of his most memorable moments.

Runners race around the track at the 2018 Penn Relays.


How are the Relays now compared to when you first attended in 1968? Was the meet as popular in the late Sixties as it is now?

The attendance was smaller then. ‘68 was a big year because you had Villanova trying to win five championships; no school had ever done that before. It was an Olympic year and Villanova had several guys who would eventually make the Olympic team, plus a couple who fell just short. From the fall of ’67—with Villanova being the defending champions in NCAA cross country, going to the NCAA indoor championships and then the outdoor championships, and then several guys going on to the U.S. Olympic Trials—I went almost a whole year of reading about Villanova cross country and track in the newspapers. At least once a week, there was something about them. It was a great way to get hooked on sport.

When do you start planning for the Relays?

The best answer we’ve ever come up with is that we start planning for the next year the moment we screw up something for this year. Usually, it’s something in a mailing. Sometimes it’s just a missing comma. We’ve been working on next year’s Relays for four/five months.

How do you select which teams will run?

Well, it’s an open meet. We’ll accept entries from anyone, and then we will put them into classes where they belong based on their abilities. For instance, on the high school level, I would say there are about 15 states out there that will not sanction us because of their own travel restrictions. There are states that have, say, a 300-mile travel restriction. That’s through much of the Midwest, so there is a limit on the number of states that have schools represented here. On the other hand, we have a lot of high schools from the Caribbean. In a given year, we’ll have between 40 or 50 Caribbean high schools here. We’ll get a couple high schools from Canada. We’ve had high schools from Ireland, England, South Africa, Zimbabwe. There’s a globalization there that’s been going gradually.

Relay runners pass batons during the 2018 Penn Relays.


I interviewed AD M. Grace Calhoun recently and she mentioned that whenever she travels abroad, people often mention to her that they ran in the Penn Relays. Would you say the Relays are known throughout the world?

If you are involved in track, in many places in the world, you’ve heard of them at least. It is world-famous. It’s been going on every year since 1895, so it started before several European countries started their own national championships. There’s a long, deep history there. Mostly because of American collegiate recruiting abroad throughout Europe and Africa, people who know track often know someone who’s competed here if they know local athletes because they come to U.S. colleges from all over.

Is there something about the Relays that you think makes them unique compared to other track meets?

The size of the crowd and the noise. What helps on the noise factor is that there is almost no downtime. As soon as one race is done, there’s another one on the track and you don’t get this lull of five or eight minutes between events. Now, the disadvantage is you don’t have a lot of time to sit back and rehash what you just saw, you’re on the to the next one.

Every race has somebody in that crowd who’s rooting for a specific team. When you get an exciting race, a close race, at the finish, it could be local junior high school kids, and the Jamaicans in the crowd could be going nuts. Just because it’s a close race. They’re watching this great finish, this exciting, gripping finish, and that’s what people get into. And the fact that you can just roll out one after another is almost more important than the highest level of the teams.

Usain Bolt ran in the Relays before, right?

In 2010. He was a professional by then. Before that, he’d run three times while he was in high school.

Did you see his potential at the time, or did anybody see his potential?

Oh yes. By the time he ran here the second time, he was already a world youth champion, so you knew who he was and you knew what to look for. And he was tall. He was always tall, so he stuck out.

Runners race around the track at the 2018 Penn Relays.


I saw an article you wrote for in 2009 about five memorable Penn Relays moments. One of them was the 2007 high school boys’ 4x400 championship, which was won by Long Beach Poly. ‘I’ve never heard such an extended high-decibel roar from any crowd,’ you recalled. ‘The PA announcer couldn’t be heard from the middle of the first turn of the first leg until well after the race had finished.’ Is that race still one of your most memorable?

Yes, it was a fantastic race. I think the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen was Renaldo Nehemiah from Maryland in 1979, who was a multi-time setter of the world record in the 110-meter hurdles and several indoor hurdle distances. He did things that he obviously had that talent to do in the 4x200 and the 4x400 that just amazed people. To see what he did and the caliber of the runners that he ran down, and how much he ran them down, was just astonishing. When great athletes do amazing things, you just sit back and say, ‘Wow.’ I think if you talk to Renaldo these days, he told me once that it was odd that when he runs into people who say they saw him race, more people are talking about the Penn Relays than all of his world records. But if you look at where he set his world records, four outdoor world records, and you add up the total attendance from those four meets, it’s not as many people that saw him in 1979 at the Penn Relays.

I think that’s one of the amazing things about the Penn Relays. On Friday, we’ll have a crowd of better than 30,000 for at least half a day. And then on Saturday, once you hit around 10 o’clock in the morning, you got 30,000, and by noon, you’re up to 40,000. How many people ever perform or do something in front of that many people at one time in their whole lives? It’s no wonder that someone remembers a high school race at the Penn Relays as one of the great moments of their lives.