On the last Saturday in April, at about 5 in the afternoon, as shadows from the ornate gingerbread of Weightman Hall and from the south stands of Franklin Field crept across the deep red running track that is one of the most famous in the world, there was only stillness in this spring without the Penn Relays.
A year ago, on that day and at that time – 5:10 p.m., to be exact, and Relays officials are renowned for their exactitude – the Masters 60-and-over 4×400-meter relay was contested. Six teams in the 60-and-over division, one team in the 70-and-over division, and one team in the 75-and-over division took the starting line for the race.
There are hundreds of events each year at the Penn Relays, involving 15,000 athletes: youth, junior, high school, college, Olympic Development, corporate, disabled, Special Olympics, as well as Masters, in divisions that begin with ages 40-and-over. The oldest division contested last year was the 80-and-over 100-yard dash, won by 82-year-old Bill Bittner, representing Philadelphia Masters Track & Field Association, in a time of 15.34 seconds.
As for relay events, however, the soul of the three-day carnival, the 4×400 is the most grueling, and the 75-and-over division the most unlikely to attract participants. Athletes who reach that age still able to run as far, and still willing to do so, comprise a small pool. The 400 meters is a cruel event for anyone, falling as it does between sprint and distance. To compete in it properly, one has to treat it as the former. The price can be heavy.
Only one 75-and-over team entered the 4×400 relay in 2019, also representing Philadelphia Masters, and it was assured the gold medal in that division simply by completing the relay without incident. It wasn’t really a race against the clock, except, of course, the four runners had already won their own individual races against time.
This is a poignant season for all athletes whose competitions have been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stoppages represent time they will never get back. For older athletes, it also represents time they might not have to spare.
“A great deal has been written and will be written concerning the lost seasons for college and professional athletes, but nothing is being said about athletes like myself,” said Bruce Rubin, one member of the gold medal 4×400 team. “The senior athlete, in many cases, might have participated in their last events if this pandemic does not end soon and positively.”
Thirty years ago, Rubin, who had no background in running, took up jogging in order to lose weight. He had always been a dedicated amateur basketball player and wanted to get back into shape both for his general health and to help his hoops game.
Basketball was a constant – Rubin still captains a three-on-three team that travels to tournaments around the country – but running didn’t become a competitive outlet until one of his basketball teammates, Dave Marovich, persuaded him to join Philadelphia Masters. The track and field association began in 1970, numbers roughly 100 active members, organizes participation at meets, and is the six-time USATF Mid-Atlantic champion. Rubin, 76, a Blue Bell resident, has helped make many of those championships possible.
“Not that I’m quick, and if you finish last or next-to-last or whatever, it’s still fun running and being part of the club,” Rubin said. “When you get past 75, there’s not a lot of participants, so you get some points for your team, regardless.”
Last year, Rubin was not on the start list for the 4×400, but he was one of two alternates for the race. When leadoff runner Dominic Stellato didn’t get through the crowd to the starting area in time, Rubin was substituted into the race by Philadelphia Masters president Kristine Longshore, a 52-year-old physician who had just completed the women’s 50-and-over 4×400.
“Bruce is a smart team member and reliable alternate. He stayed around and got to run,” Longshore said. “I didn’t even have time to look for a pen to update the name change.”
If the 2020 season had not been interrupted, Rubin would have gone to indoor nationals in Baton Rouge, La., in March, and would be training for the World Masters meet, to have been held in Toronto this July. That and the Penn Relays, of course.
“Hopefully, it’s sooner than later we can go out and compete again,” Rubin said. “You read that people over 60 and 70 are more susceptible to the virus. That’s when it first hit me. I didn’t realize I was old. I’ve always said you have to age, but you don’t have to grow old.”
Dave Marovich’s goal every year is to collect 100 medals, and he achieved that goal for 11 straight years of masters track and field competition.
Marovich was mostly a field athlete as a youngster, competing in all the throwing events in high school – the shot put, discus, javelin, and hammer. At Grove City College, he added the jumping events – the triple jump, high jump, long jump, and pole vault. In the Army, he ran track for his battalion team in Germany.
As a masters athlete, he takes part in every event possible, both on the track and in the field, and is nationally ranked in some of the throwing events.
“I’m a better runner than I thought I was,” said Marovich, 76, who lives in North Wales. “I still work out at least once a day, a little jogging, but I’m more of a practice person when I have something coming up to practice for. Now, I have to force myself.
“This area is a mecca of sports. You can do anything you want. We’re surrounded by states that all have great senior track clubs and all sponsor meets. This is a center of sports. It drives my wife crazy, but it keeps us young.”
Marovich didn’t race the 100-meter dash at the Penn Relays last year. That’s not for him, but he did the 75-and-over 4×100 relay, another uncontested gold medal to add to his count. The halting of competition this year, which has broken his race to another 100-medal season, is hard to take.
“It’s a downer,” he said. “You see that seniors in high school and college have lost their seasons, but they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them. We don’t have as many years to recover. It’s tough for them, but losing a season for us is big. How many more do we have?”
Lou Coppens, of the four runners in the 4×400 relay, brought the most accomplished background in the sport. As a young man, he ran marathons, very nearly at an elite level. He ran more than 50 marathons, including the Boston Marathon seven times. His personal best for the distance was 2 hours, 26 minutes, 48 seconds, at the Philadelphia Marathon.
“Back then, I was pretty good, among the top 10 in the country,” Coppens said. “I was always better running the long stuff. I’ve continued on because I just like to compete. It gives me a chance to compete.”
Coppens, 77, who lives in Doylestown, ran at Delaware Valley College. He later coached there, and also coached at Central Bucks East and Bishop Egan.
“I run every day, but not as much mileage as I used to,” Coppens said. “I had a knee replacement in 2016. I was at a national age-group level before that. It hasn’t been as good since.”
Coppens continues to work out, and he did take part in a race last week. It was a virtual 5-kilometer race in which all the registered runners timed themselves and then reported how they did.
“I did it honestly,” Coppens said. “I don’t know about other people.”
There are different philosophies for placing relay participants in a running order. Often, unless one runner is really superior off the line, the order is second-fastest, third-fastest, fourth-fastest (also known as slowest), and fastest. This was not the case in the 2019 4×400. Coppens isn’t a speedster, but he’s a born runner. His split, replaced knee and all, was second-fastest on the team, better than all but the final runner.
William Rhoad stands out as he finishes a relay race. It isn’t just because he is 78 years old, with a shock of unruly white hair and a determined gait he must visibly will to continue. The man is barefoot.
“That’s my preference unless the track is too hot or too rough,” Rhoad said. “I run that way because I’m usually faster that way and it’s more comfortable for my feet. I did it about five years ago as an experiment and I was surprised by the results. It does draw attention, but I don’t mind that at all.”
Rhoad, whose family was from Pennsylvania, was born in Lancaster but grew up in Ontario, then spent most of his adult life in Baltimore and suburban Washington. He retired to Raleigh, N.C.
He is a lifetime runner, and has competed in masters events for a decade. He joined the Philadelphia Masters club about three years ago. Rhoad also does hurdles, although Longshore persuaded him to wear spikes for those events to prevent slipping as he lands. When he did take a tumble warming up for an indoor race in January, Longshore popped a dislocated finger back into place and Rhoad continued unfazed.
“Actually, running hurdles barefoot feels great, and I’ll probably do it in competition someday – with some risk – but as long as there’s video, I’ll take the risk,” Rhoad said. “I like the challenge.”
Rhoad is not letting the shutdown deter him from training, and he isn’t letting it dampen his spirit.
“I’m still hopeful the season won’t be a total loss,” he said. “There’s a meet in South Carolina on June 13 that I think will happen, and I think there will be other meets later in the summer and into the fall. I’m still optimistic. I don’t get discouraged. I look forward to when something good could happen. I’m an optimist.”
As the relay began, precisely on schedule, Bruce Rubin, who was lined up in the outer lane against the brick wall of the north stands, quickly slipped to the inside lane to save distance as the other runners galloped away.
The slanting light threw the shadows of the runners across three lanes and, although it had been a long day at the Relays, the lower bowl was still packed with spectators. Nearly 100,000 attend the three-day carnival, and effort is cheered as loudly as success.
There was already a significant gap between the 75-and-over team and the other runners when Rubin handed the baton to Dave Marovich. There is usually not a great deal of practice ahead of time for the handoff.
“By the time we finish 400 meters, we’re going pretty slowly,” Rubin said. “You just hand it to him.”
Marovich began his leg of the race and, just before he got halfway around, was lapped by a runner from a 60-and-over division team. He kept on, giving Lou Coppens the baton after finishing his lap just a few seconds behind the time recorded by Rubin.
Coppens went steadily around, doing his 400 meters in just under 2 minutes before handing off to William Rhoad. By then, the Philadelphia Masters 75-and-over team had the storied track at Franklin Field to itself.
“All the other teams had finished. I had all eyes on me,” Rhoad said. “So that really psyched me up and invigorated me. I held nothing back. When I hit the 300-meter point, I suddenly felt my legs freeze up and I could hardly move. I actually thought I might die, but this was the Penn Relays and everybody was watching me, and I couldn’t quit.”
As Rhoad turned the final corner, coming back into full sunlight, his white hair aglow and his bare feet slapping against the track, fans stood in the stands and stomped and cheered. In “Whoop Corner,” they were whooping. He struggled on, one painful step at a time, to the finish line, crossed it, and fell hard to the track. His split was 1 minute, 36.17 seconds. The team finished the 1,600 meters in 7:40.84.
Other runners rushed to Rhoad and hoisted him up. Once on his feet, he raised a hand to the crowd and then left the track with an arm draped over one of Longshore’s shoulders and the other supported by Coppens.
Safely on the infield, the four members of the team gathered as one in the slanting light and lengthening shadows. They had won their race because they ran it and finished it. The running was the victory, because the next race is never guaranteed to arrive. We all know that now. They knew it then.