This is Part 1 of a roundtable involving some of the top Villanova middle distance runners of the 60s and 70s, reflecting on the great success of their relay teams, particularly at Penn.
By Russ Ebbets, Editor, Track Coach
By Jerry Bouma — Villanova, 1974
There is something special about relays. While track & field is an intensely individual sport, the memories associated with a winning relay team linger long and are perhaps more cherished than individual accomplishments.
When it comes to middle distance running, there was no relay program that compares to Villanova University. From 1966 to 1981, Villanova teams won the Penn Relays Championship of America Distance Medley Relay for 16 consecutive years. During that same time-period, Villanova teams won a total of 52 Championships of America titles at those same Penn Relays. Furthermore, the track team was small—most years several team members would run three or even four races. It was an era that saw a continuous string of Villanova greats: Dave Patrick, Marty Liquori, John Hartnett, Ken Schappert, Eamonn Coghlan, Mark Belger, Don Paige, Sydney Maree and Marcus O’Sullivan.
What was it about the Villanova track program that produced these astonishing results? What were the drivers or the motivating factors? What was the consistent thread? How did the coaching, the training, the team culture, and the individual characters come together year after year to produce this success?
This Roundtable explores these very questions. It endeavors to gain a deeper understanding of why the Villanova track program was so successful for so long. Most importantly, it seeks to identify those factors that can be applied by any coach or track athlete regardless of the era.
This is the first time that the Villanova greats have been brought together and challenged to reflect on their amazing accomplishments. So hang on and enjoy the read.
Dave Patrick (1964-68) was an Olympic favorite in 1968, winning the 1500 meters in the first set of Olympic trials. Dave’s storied career includes three world indoor records (880 yards, 1000 yards and 2-Mile Relay); 4 NCAA track championships, 2 NCAA cross country team championships, 6 IC4A championships and 7 winning Penn Relays Championships. Dave finished fourth in the second set of trials and unfortunately was not named to the 1968 Olympic Team. He was officially added in 2008.
Tom Donnelly (1966-1970) — Tom was the ultimate teammate running on three winning NCAA cross country championship teams, 3 Penn Relays championships and 1 NCAA indoor team championship including the winning DMR in 1968. Tom also won the IC4A 3000-meter steeplechase that same year. After graduation, Tom took up coaching at Haverford College and is best known for his work with Sydney Maree and Marcus O’Sullivan.
Chris Mason (1967-1971) — from Sheffield, England and the first Villanova athlete of British descent, Chris became Villanova’s 4th sub-4-minute miler, running 3.59.9 in 1970. Chris left an incredible legacy of hard work and consistency winning 8 Penn Relays championships, 2 NCAA cross country team championships and 1 NCAA indoor championship.
John Hartnett (70-74) — from Ballyhooly, County Cork Ireland, John arrived at Villanova as the European Junior Cross-Country Champion (1970). His abilities on the track soon emerged—John ran a 3.54.7 mile in 1973, won the indoor NCAA 2-mile in 1974; 6 IC4A championships, all in different events (indoor mile, outdoor mile, 3-mile, 6-mile, steeplechase and cross country) and winner of 6 Penn Relays. John represented Ireland in 1972 Olympics, running the 5000 meters.
Ken Schappert (70-75) — from New York City, Ken showed his versatility running every distance from the 440 yards to the mile including cross country. Ken won the NCAA indoor 880 yards (1973) and was a two-time IC4A champion. He was part of 8 winning Penn Relays championship teams including a world record DMR and 2-Mile relay. Ken still holds the Villanova outdoor 880-yard record which he set in 1973.
Tom Gregan (71-75) — from Howth, Ireland, Tom ran 3.43.5 as an 18-year-old in 1971. At that time, this was the second fastest time ever run at that age, the fastest being Jim Ryun. Tom ran on 5 Penn Relays championship teams including the world record setting DMR in 1975. Tom won the IC4A indoor mile in a time of 4.00.6 in 1974.
Eamonn Coghlan (72-76) — from Dublin, burst on the world scene in May 1975 when he ran a 3.53.3 mile, a new European record in the same race where Filbert Bayi set a new record for the mile in 3.51.0. His accomplishments at Villanova are legend: the last two years he went undefeated ending up with 9 Penn Relays championship wins, 8 IC4A wins and 4 NCAA wins. Eamonn is perhaps best known as Chairman of the Boards, setting the world record for the indoor mile three times and the first to break 3.50 with his 3.49.4 – a record that stood for 15 years. A four-time Olympian, he was also the first Master (over 40 years of age) to run a sub 4-minute mile. He won the 5000 gold medal at the 1983 World Championships.
Mark Belger (74-78) — no Villanova runner has won more Penn Relays championships than Mark Belger with 10. Mark was a prodigious 800-meter runner as well as the 880 yards and the 1000 yards. He won 3 NCAA championships, 4 IC4A championships and was part of 3 world record relay teams – the indoor DMR, the indoor 2-Mile Relay as well as the 4-Mile Relay. Originating from Long Island, Mark became the second fastest all-time HS 800-meter runner in 1974, second to Jim Ryun. He just missed making the 1976 Olympic Team in the 800 by inches with a 4th place finish in the Trials.
Gerry O’Reilly (83-87) — from County Meath, Ireland, Gerry ran a 3.54.6 mile in 1986, third fastest ever run by a Villanova athlete behind Sydney Maree and Eamonn Coghlan. He was a six-time Big East Champion; a two-time IC4A outdoor champion; and a two-time IC4A indoor champion. Ironically, Villanova finished second to Arkansas in the Penn Relays DMR in 1987, but in doing so Gerry anchored the team to set the school record in 9:21.02. He competed for Ireland in the 1988 Olympics.
The relays in track are a little different type of race. What is the first relay race you can remember running?
Dave Patrick (DP) — I only remember running two relays in high school. A two mile relay that I anchored as we wanted to be the first team in the county, maybe in the state in 1964 to break 8:00 minutes. We did it and ran a record 7:57. I remember cheering for my teammates to go all out and received the baton from Charlie Messenger and the rest is history. I always liked the pressure of running anchor with the mindset that I had to run all out to ensure our teams win. And of course the high school distance medley at Penn in ‘64 which is reviewed in more detail. Our coach was fighting like crazy to get us in the Championship of America race which almost didn’t happen. We were never in a race in front of so many people, so the butterflies were intense as we waited in the bull pen to get our opportunity.
Mark Belger (MB) — I went to Mepham HS, a three-year high school on Long Island in New York which had run 2:03 for the 880 and 60 seconds for the 440 yard runs in Jr. HS. The program at Mepham was establishing itself as a track power with many of the upper class runners being sprinters. As a sophomore my coach focused me on the open 880 and the 4×440 mostly because we didn’t have enough half milers and milers to flesh out longer relays. When I was a junior the focus began to move from the 4×440 to the 4×880. The point being, at most meets I doubled running the open 880 and a relay. To me, relays made us a team and though I don’t remember the first relay race, I do remember enjoying running relays more than the individual races.
Tom Gregan (TG) — 4/30/72 – First Penn Relays Distance Medley: Championship of America. We won and broke the Penn Relay Carnival Record — 9:37.5, Ken Schappert, Greg Govan, Tom Gregan, John Harnett
Gerard O’Reilly – (GOR) — My sophomore year at Villanova running the 1200m leadoff on the DMR at Penn Relays. It was my first time to compete at the PR so that first experience of dealing with a large crowd, the organized chaos of the paddock area, and looking at the guys you thought would be your main threat were all thoughts that went through my mind.
Chris Mason (CM) — I began my athletic/track career as a 14-15 year old in England running for a local running club. As such we were not exposed to relay meets as in the U.S. To be honest my first relay race was a road relay. That said, the first track relay race I remember was the Quantico Relays in 1968. I ran the ¾ leg on a freshman Distance Medley.
John Hartnett (JH) — My first ever relay race was freshman year anchoring the freshman DMR at the IC4As indoors at Princeton in 1971. We finished 3rd but I dropped my PR from 4.12+ to 4.04+. That’s when I realized sub-four was possible.
Ken Schappert (KS) — I have always enjoyed the camaraderie in running relays; it does not take the place of an individual race or championship. What it does is bring a group that you become extremely close with, training together day after day, accomplishing something as a team that you all can cherish. My earliest memories of running relays were my freshman year in HS. I was put on the varsity 4X880; there were 2 seniors & a junior and me on the team. The two most notable high school relays were winning the sprint medley at the famed N.Y. State Relays and running the Championship High School DMR at Penn my senior year.
Eamonn Coughlan (EC) — My first relay race was when I was about 9 years old. We used play many sports around the streets where I lived in Dublin. My mates noticed I had good running ability and always picked me first when we had relay races around the “Old Clinic” building.
How did you get started running? With several different cultures and nationalities, the exposure and entry can differ significantly. What drew you to the sport?
MB — In Jr. HS my dad told me I had to either join a sport team or come home directly after school. I tried soccer but was too slow. I wrestled, and really liked it, however I never made the Jr. Varsity team; regardless I enjoyed the workouts. I didn’t like someone throwing fast balls at me, and I had my jaw broken playing flag football. I joined track, and without any training I ran my first 440 as a 7th grader. I ran a 63 on a cinder track wearing a sweatshirt, sweat pants, a ski mask, and sneakers. It was cold and rainy that day. The coach said I looked like a distance runner and had me run loops in the woods along the parkway while everyone else worked on the track. I’d jog to the forest and sit there watching the team train (they mostly did repeat 100y sprints). Sometimes I trained with the team. The second year I was given a team jersey to run in. Then first race that year was a little different. It was a 440. I went out harder than ever and was leading after the first turn. I remember thinking, “Where is everyone?, why aren’t they running faster?”. On the back straight I swung out wide and let the other runners catch up and pass me, and then I tucked in and from behind ran through the pack throwing elbows and zigzagging until I reached the front for a second time. Coming out of the last turn I started hitting the wall and tried to not let anyone pass me. I finished second and remember thinking, “That was fun.” I started working out more with the team. The Jr. HS program only lasted about 6 weeks. After three seasons I had run a 2:03 880 and a 60 second 440. Four months later I was on the HS XC team and running my first workout. It was a 2-mile run. I couldn’t do it. I felt ashamed and told the coach I had to quit. He encouraged me to not quit. Instead, he said, “Just show up and help out with the team”. I did that for a day or so and saw all the guys having fun. My coach started me off easy, and before I knew it I was one of the better JV runners. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun. That year, at age 15, I dropped down from a 2:03 880 to 1:53 and I had started to take training and racing seriously.
TG — 1967-15-years-old started running at my high school (“Swords” Voc Tech School). Joined my running club “Conliffe Harriers” and was coached by Maurice Ahern who became my only track coach beside Jumbo. By the age of 16-years-old I became the 2nd fastest under- 16-year-old to run the mile in 4:07.6. Jim Ryun held the record at 4:06.7. During the next three years I won most of the Irish national championships in the mile, 3-mile and half-mile.
What drew me to the sport was the feeling of complete freedom and control.
The harder I trained the better I became.
DP — When I was a young teenager, I would run everywhere I could. If it was to the store I would run it as fast as I could. When we played kids games I would always outrun kids trying to tag me. It was fun! My first quasi-race was in the 8th grade for physical fitness. We had to run the mile run and I finished a couple hundred yards in front of second place. My gym teacher knew I had talent and called the high school coach and told him he had a great runner that was heading to Kenwood as a 10th grader.
GOR — I grew up in a small town in Ireland where there were not tons of options available to young kids. We had Gaelic football, hurling and a local running club. I had a neighbor who was part of the local running club so he encouraged me to give it a try. I loved it and as I got older, I left the other sports and focused 100% on track and cross country. I think what I liked about running was the individual aspect of it, the harder you trained the more success. In team sports I found it to be a little frustrating that you could have 70% of the team committed to working hard but if other 30% didn’t bother then as a team you probably wouldn’t do well.
CM — My first recollection was in ’56 (age 8) with Ron Delany winning in Melbourne. That got my attention, as he was Irish and a big deal was made of it in the UK. A few years later when they began to show the AAA championships (believe it or not the heats too) on the BBC; I began to take interest, especially with a few “local lads” and began to be prominent in the sport, with Derek Ibbotson setting the world record for the mile. I began to daydream of breaking 4 minutes, although I was not in training. At the age of 13-14 I played soccer for my school on Saturdays; this was also the only days that Sheffield would hold its cross country race in the local parks. As one of the better players I was told I could run only when we had no game that Saturday. When I finally got a chance to participate I came in the top 10 or so. The next race I ended up winning. At that point the school’s Phys Ed teacher told me to join a local running club as he knew not much about training, etc.
JH — I had an interest in running from a very young age but didn’t compete until I was 15. I started participating in 1-2 mile runs with the local Gaelic Hurling team. A neighbor noticed I might have some potential and invited me to join a xc/track club. My high school did not actively promote the sport.
KS — This is an interesting question. Growing up in an inner city and playing many inner city sports everyone wanted to be the best at something. Some were good at basketball, softball, handball, stickball I was fortunate to be one of the faster kids in running races. We used to have manhole cover races where you race from one to another in the streets. In 4th grade we had an intra-school track meet and I won the 50yd dash & 220. Aat the time I thought the 220 was a long distance run.
EC — My dad Bill introduced me to athletics. He was an athlete and used take me and my brothers to track and cross country meets from the time I was about 6 years old. Even at that age I always wanted to be a runner.
To a man you are all very experienced relay racers who competed in high pressure situations and no doubt agree with the cliché – “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Were you ever the “weak link” on a relay team? How did you prepare and compete as you reflect on that experience? What was your interaction with your teammates on that team?
MB — I was never the weak leg. In high school I don’t remember running anything other than the anchor leg (4×4, 4×8, SM, DM). When the coaches strategized on how we’d approach district, county, and state meets, they often had to run the relays thin and score in as many events as possible which meant there was no single A Team. The A Team was broken up and the fillers were from our B runners. In a warped way you can say I was the weak link because I was typically doubling—if I failed we’d lose a lot of points. My teammates often just had to run the relay, and I remember them telling me they wouldn’t let me down. I cannot say how proud I was of every B and C runner who stepped up and ran their heart out. Regardless of the finish, when we’re at reunions even today, some have come up to me and said they didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t help me since I had to double and triple at the big meets. In college, several times the situation was the same as in high school. I’ve always been proud and happy to run on a relay. After all, they were my teammates.
CM — When you have one of the top milers in the world, I was always a “weaker link”; this always took the pressure of the rest of the team. From what I recall no discussion occurred.
JH — I was the weak man on relay teams on a few occasions. As a team, we didn’t discuss strategy a whole lot. We knew as a team that each member would give 100%. Relays had a significant tradition at Villanova and each team member was going to give his all on the given day.
TD — There was never any real pressure on me. I figured that I just needed to be as good as the 4th best guy on the next best team out there. We always had an Olympic 1500 guy anchor the years I ran so I just needed to make it around the track 4 times.
GOR — I’m not sure I was ever the “weak link” but there were plenty where I wasn’t the strongest link. I always got great satisfaction knowing that when I handed off or finished if I was anchoring that I couldn’t have gone any faster. If I felt I gave it everything I had but got beat then I could always look my teammates in the eye and tell them “I gave it everything I had.”
KS — I have to totally disagree with the above statement. I have been very fortunate to be a part of some of the greatest relays in the mid 70’s with some of the greatest teammates ever. To say that anyone was the weak link would be a travesty to a teammate. In running relays you need to know your competition and if you know that, you then know how to race them and give the team the best advantage to win. This is what puts teams like VU way ahead of teams that were faster than us on paper. Jumbo had the magic.
DP — I was placed in the anchor position which is the position I prefer. I realize I have to run 3X harder as I have three other teammates that are putting it on the line. I had only known racing anchor in all my high school and college relay races. I enjoy most running from behind so that I could size up the competition and plan a strategy to win for the team. Our guys knew that if I got the baton in contention we could get the victory as they had confidence in me and I wasn’t going to let them down. Upon reflection, I was a weak link one time when I did not run anchor and that was on the mile relay at dual meet with Tennessee in ‘68. After winning the 880 versus Tennessee NCAA half mile champion Larry Kelly, Jumbo put me on the mile relay. A leg I will always remember as I got smoked the first 220 before working my way back with a 47.8 leg. It was special knowing that the anchor of the relay was The Mighty Burner (Larry James) who tore up the track as we defeated Tennessee with at time of 3:09.4.
EC – Fortunately, I was never considered as a “weak link”. Our preparations were similar to preparations for any race. The camaraderie between teammates was important for a successful outcome. We trusted and believed in one another’s ability. That alone gave us confidence to win all the time. When I got the stick I was inspired to run, more because this was for the team, not me!
On the flip side most of you have also been on the anchor leg. How was that mindset different? Was it more pressure on you? If so – how did you cope? Or was it more, “Just get me the stick (…and I’ll take care of things)?”
TG — Being on the anchor leg was always a dream come true. The mental capacity and focus suddenly changed from running a relay race to running an individual race.
Once I got the baton tucked away, I was always given the lead or in 2nd place and completely ahead of the rest of the field and out of harm’s way. After the first 20 yards I mentally switched from running a relay race to running an individual race against one or two other competitors. I always knew their weakness and focused on my race plan.
GOR — Anchoring a relay at Penn Relays especially an event like the DMR is a real pressure cooker. You know you’re carrying the hopes of Villanova, your current teammates, and the legacy of the successful Villanova teams from the past along with your own expectations. Then you need to focus on your race plan, if I get the stick in the lead what do I do, if I get the stick 50 yards back what should I do. Who are the big kickers? For me, I always felt confident that if I got the stick in contention, I could deliver because I knew I had put in the work.
MB — I preferred getting the baton in second place which gave me some time to measure up the other runners and helped to decide when to strike. I don’t really remember telling anyone to get me the baton in second. On the other hand I remember more saying, “Just get [Dave] me the baton within 20 yards of the lead”. I loved to race and relay racing typically meant you needed to come from behind (which is way more fun than running from the front). On the other hand, if I did get the baton in the lead I’d hammer the pace early making the runners behind me go out too fast which meant you didn’t need a blazing kick to finish the race. It was a game of tag.
CM — I was only the anchor at Penn on one occasion, the Sprint Medley. I considered myself a miler + rather than an 880 runner. I was scared and probably ran that way. However, in my opinion I would have probably been beaten anyway as I was up against a bona fide half-miler. It was the relay that ended a five-year streak (‘67,’68 ‘69 and ’70).
JH — Definitely more pressure on the anchor leg because your teammates are relying on you to bring it home. Due to my lack of speed, my strategy was always the same. Go out strong and stay strong.
DP — See Above- Running anchor is the ultimate compliment a coach and teammates can have in you. Their confidence that I can do the job only helps to increase my determination and mental toughness.
KS — The mindset is somewhat different but at times it’s the same as I stated above. You need to know the competition and the best way to beat them.
You always want to make sure your anchor is given the best possibility to win. Like in the 1973 DMR when we ran against Bowling Green with [Dave] Wottle on the anchor leg we knew we had to give Hartnett a good lead so it would not end up with a sprint to the finish. When I handed off to John he had a 14-second lead and I ran 53 pt. on my final lap. At that point we knew that John was going to make him work to even get into contention.
Whenever I ran anchor and did so many times on our 4X800 I was always comfortable if I got it with the leaders. I never felt pressure. That’s something you put on yourself and it can turn into a heavy burden. To me it was always an adrenalin rush but you had to know what was the best way to beat the competition go out hard and challenge them or be super confident in you final kick.
EC — Yes, “get me the stick and I’ll take care of it” sums up my love of relay running. When you learn to consistently win individual races the same confident attitude takes over. This positive attitude applied to all teammates who carried the stick. All for one, one for all!
Jerry Bouma has stated that there are three seasons at Villanova – cross country, indoor and Penn Relays. What do you remember about the 2-3 weeks leading up to Penn? I’m thinking of training preparations, specific workouts, the conversations, the atmosphere or preparatory races.
MB — Very true. XC was build-up for indoors, indoors was the training season for Penn. Typically after the indoor NCAA’s I remember taking a few weeks off from training and just jogged some miles. Then when spring season started we’d run 4-6 quarters on the cinders’ twice weekly with the quarters being an easy float at 58-60 seconds. That was it. My mantra was “never lose at Millrose, never lose at the IC4A’s, and never lose at Penn.” As far as training went, there were a dozen middle distance runners to train with so it was easy to hide out and float in the middle of the pack, no pressure, just find the stride and be ready. A week or so before Penn we ran the Rutgers Relays (?) as a warm-up meet. I never ran well, my allergies typically hit hard in early April. I was lucky to run a 1:54 880. It didn’t matter. The next meet was Penn.
DP — Cross country was the real foundation—more miles, greater number of intervals. Although quarters were the bread and staple, repeat halves and even mile runs were challenging and helped to build the foundation. We knew what was only a few weeks away and as the day got closer our resolve to give our very best became greater. We knew the training would quicken with faster quarters 7-10 days before Penn. We worked together as a team in workouts, spurring each other on, taking turns leading, knowing if you could get through the “quicksand” on the first turn the rest was downhill. We knew that the last 2-3 would be every man for himself, pushing hard to get the most out of the workout. Fine tuning our physical side and then working on the mind!! Like other big races (IC4A’s and the Nationals) I would lie in bed at night preparing my mind to handle the physical pain that I would have to deal with in the race. Planning multiple strategies depending on where I took the baton, knowing I would draw upon my mental toughness and spurred on by the crowd and teammates.
In summary, we were all business a couple of weeks before Penn, fine tuning our mind and body no matter the obstacles—tough teams, tough weather it made no difference.
CM — The weeks leading up to Penn usually began with a week or two “rest” from the intense workouts from the Indoor season after the NCAA Indoors. For a few of us the NCAA indoors usually meant multiple races over two days too, not unlike Penn, so the roads became a nice change. Early April we began training on the “track” at ‘Nova. April it tended to rain a lot and we sometimes had to do our repeat quarters on the grass strip in front of Dougherty Hall. In preparation for Penn we would then race into shape with the rare dual meet and the Iona and Quantico Relays. The latter two being Jumbo’s version of “Spring Training” in which his team would be put together for Penn.
TG — The workouts became like race day. The pace of the training session running a 10 x quarter-mile sessions was faster than race pace itself. We would run a 10 x quarter (440) session doing 58 sec. per lap with a fast recovery time out. Each guy would be the pace setter/leader for each quarter-mile run. On the final two 440’s Eamonn and Schappert would blow out a 57 second lap pace just because we felt great and really tuned in for running that type of pace at Penn in days to come.
We never did much practice of the “baton exchange” itself. Two days before we would have a very easy workout and Jumbo always then said let’s go to the football field and have some hand-offs exchange. We did maybe five or six practice exchanges and that’s it. In one of the exchanges I was doing with Greg Eckman (440 leg man), Greg would run full out towards me and I messed up the exchange. Jumbo would yell at me and say “’Tom Cat, focus on his hand as he is coming to you. And don’t mess it up again.” My punishment was doing a few more exchanges with Greg. Our focus on Thursday and the morning on Friday was not messing up the exchange and controlling the “track space around you” where you waited for the incoming man.
GOR — What I remember was hearing from upper classmen the importance of the Penn Relays during my freshman year. I think on campus there was almost a feeling that a successful year was measured on how we did at the Penn Relays, NCAA’s were almost secondary. There was definitely more of an urgency in training in the weeks leading up to the relays, the joking around was replaced by a more serious mindset.
JH — Yea, there wasn’t much of a break between indoors and Penn relays. the first few weeks after indoors, I usually started to build some mileage on the roads again and just recover. About 2 weeks before Penn, there were usually a few fairly intense track sessions.
TD — I always thought the three seasons (indoor/outdoor/Penn Relays) was a pretty cool saying, though as a distance runner, I would say that many of us would include a 4th season, cross country. That season also spanned half of the school year with the three others covering the same amount of time second semester. Cross country also laid the foundation for enabling our great middle distance guys to double and triple effectively at Penn and other big meets. Jumbo just viewed cross country as a conditioning period. He wanted you ready and strong and in shape to start with track on January 1. Don’t think it mattered to him if we qualified for nationals as a team or ended up winning the meet (which we did four times in a 5-year period). It did matter to the guys on those teams. Still, I don’t think he was ready to hand back those NCAA championship trophies.
EC — Two to three weeks out from Penn we were not necessarily in the best of shape. We’d experience a few below par performances at either the Queens-Iona or the Dogwood Relays. Those poor runs perked us up and made us train that bit harder. Usually anything from 10 x 400’s to 20 x 400’s. We knew Jumbo expected more of us and he instilled belief in such a way that he scared us into top shape. We all got the message that we’d be primed for Penn. We had no choice!
KS — For most of us Penn Relays preparations always started on April 1st. It was the excitement of who is going to run what and in what position on the relay. I always remember the week or two before Penn we always ran Queens-Iona Relays. We all ran different events and in multiple relays to see just what type of shape we were in and then would fine-tune for Penn.
The conversations differed each year depending on what we thought we could accomplish. I remember in 1975 the evening before the DMR a few of us were chatting and I said I think we could get the world record if everyone runs to their capabilities. That’s exactly what happened that evening.
Were there any rituals you adopted or followed on the day of a race at Penn that you saw as good luck?
MB — I wished and hoped for rain, wind and cold temperatures. When race conditions were bad, while warming up, you could tell who was ready to run and who wasn’t. It lessened the need to strategize. If it was sunny out I’d jog in the shadows of Franklin Field and clear my mind. Typically, before going out on the track you’d meet with Jumbo who’d squeeze your shoulders and say something like, “Don’t drop the baton.”
TG — One hour before race time I would leave the stadium and go outside one block away and do my warm-up. This area was private, away from the crowd but close enough to hear the roar of the crowd in the stadium. There were no other people around just me and my focused thoughts and nervousness. This was very special because I was by myself getting into my race zone mental framework but so very close to all the excitement of what was happening inside the stadium.
No other athlete from other schools found this private place to warm up.
GOR — I always had the same warm-up routine and before the race, stretched on the same area of grass and did my striders on the same sidewalk. I’d look over at the Villanova section at the bottom of the backstretch when I was in the paddock area. Hearing the voice of the announcer Jack O’Reilly always got my adrenalin pumping; if he was involved you knew you knew you were competing at something special.
KS — From Tuesday on the week of PENN we all started to taper and Jumbo would be full of fun and laughter knowing this would relax us. We also never really knew what we were going to run till the day before, we also did not know what position we were going to run till Jumbo made his decisions.
Jumbo’s reasoning I learned later on was that he did not want us to worry about our races till the time of the race. He was a master at that. “You do the running and I’ll do the worrying,” was his thought.
EC — I guess there were some unspoken rituals. We knew well what was expected of us at Penn, we knew we were Villanovans, and we knew we had no choice but to win. Before we’d enter the track, Jumbo reminded us of this as we gathered under the bleachers near the finish area. We’d look at one another in the eyes and say, “Let’s kick ass.”
DP — Getting to Howard Johnson’s for breakfast which certainly beat the awful food in the cafeteria. Really, just being supportive of the team. We had a job to do, and we had each other’s back to ensure victory. We always kept things lighthearted with jokes and pranks. Most of the time we trained together, we ate together, we loved each other.
Racing consecutive days with multiple races is not something most of you had any experience with prior to college. How did you approach this physically? How did you prepare yourself mentally?
MB — I totally expected to double and triple on weekends which started in HS. Welcome to my reality. It seemed like you don’t go to a track meet to run just one event. “Whatever you do, don’t drop the baton”.
CM — Relied on the coach’s workouts, did not overtrain and made sure to get a good night’s sleep on the TWO nights before the race(s).
DP — High school was a good precursor for Penn. Winning the HS DMR championship and then running 1-2 with Charlie Messenger in the inaugural running of the HS invitational mile helped set the stage for what was to come. Freshman year was frustrating not being able to run at Penn.
Physically, the challenging cross country season of building base and some sharpening during the indoor season set the stage for Penn. We knew we were capable of multiple races and looked forward to running as many relays as possible.
JH — That definitely was a new experience for me. But since I was used to competing over longer distances, doubling up on the mile wasn’t a huge stretch.
KS — As Gerry stated there were three seasons for us at VU, cross country, indoor & outdoor. During the XC season is where we all built the base to get us through the long season that we had. It was extremely important to build that base during the fall. It didn’t matter if you were an 800 guy or 10K guy we all busted our asses in the fall many logging more than 100 miles per week. This was the foundation that we took to indoor & outdoor to fine-tune our event. When it came to Penn Relays time there could be no doubt that you were ready when it was your time. I always felt like superman when I put on the jersey to run at Penn.
From the mental approach, knowing that you put in the work and you have three other guys on the team that had the same focus as you made the challenge less stressful.
TG — The physical part took months to do. Jumbo explained it to me this way. “Tom Cat, the training work you do during the fall and winter is just like making a deposit into your bank account. The better you train (deposit) your body and mind way before race day ……and when it comes to the race day weekend you will have more energy and strength in the bank (my mind & body) to be able make the correct withdrawals for mutual races for the team.”
Mentally I just focused on one race at a time and did not worry about the other race later on in two hours or so. I had to take care of business at that moment for the team. I was always confident about my recovery time between races because that’s the way we worked out as a team….fast pace sessions with controlled short recovery time.
EC — We prepared hard. Tough workouts on the track sometimes four or five days in a row along with hard runs over 10, 15, 20 miles on Sundays. If you could handle these workouts, you knew you were ready to handle running in three relays over two days. Our mental approach was one relay at a time.
We weren’t satisfied winning just one race, we wanted them all. Each win inspired us to the next and so on! We had the mental strength to handle any physical challenges because we were prepared, and we drew off one another.
GOR — I looked at what guys like Eamonn Coghlan, Don Paige, Sydney Maree, Marcus O’Sullivan and John Hartnett did. They set the bar for the rest of us and proved it was possible to run multiple races at a high level on consecutive days.
Why are the Penn Relays different? I once heard Penn State’s coach Harry Groves say he’d rather have a win at Penn than win an NCAA championship. What was the appeal?
TG — I learned very fast why the Penn Relays are different…..
1972 was my first eligible year to compete in the outdoors. I did not know anything about the Penn Relays except that Marty Liquori beat Jim Ryun there in the Dream Mile. I made the distance medley team that first year and never saw or visited Franklin Field until I showed up on that Friday around 1:00pm for my 3:00pm race time. The team was made up of Ken Schappert, Greg Govan, Tom Gregan, John Harnett in that running order. I was overwhelmed by all the activities outside the stadium with all the vendors selling stuff. The crowds were immense, but I had to figure out where to find a place to go and warm up for my race and not be late trying to get back into the stadium for the race.
“The story goes this way….reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer sports page article on 4/30/74…
“Tom Gregan, The Villanova freshman from Dublin, Ireland, had something on his mind. “Mr. Pryah.” He said to Jack Pyrah, Jumbo Elliott’s assistant, “is the Penn Relays an important meet?”
Pyrah’s jaw dropped. His eyes widened. His pulse quickened, “Important meet!” he exclained, “Ask Jumbo that question.”
The poor bloke (Gregan) simply didn’t understand. Sure they call it the Penn Relays. Have for 78 years. But ever since the Irish began landing on the Main Line campus nearly two decades ago this has been the Villanova Relays….Jumbo’s meet.”
So my first race at the Penn Relays was running the coveted Distance Medley. To that date Villanova had won six straight DM’s. I ran the ¾ leg and John anchored the mile. I handed it off to John at the front of the pack and John ran a great race winning by 10 inches over Bob Wheeler from Duke. We broke the Penn Relay Carnival Record at 9:37.5.
GOR — It’s the biggest relay carnival in the world, attracts the best colleges so you know you get to compete with the best of the best and it’s local so even non-track fans know it’s a huge event.
MB — A relay team is special. It made track & field a team sport unlike the 880 or mile which are individual events. Besides, everyone came to Penn to win; you couldn’t underestimate the East Coast competitiveness when it came to running at the Penn Relays. It has been more than 40 years since I won a 10th Penn Relay watch, and I’m humbled to have been on a team where the coaches figured out year after year how to put us in a position to win every time we stepped on to the track. It was fun. You came to win or at least make the other guy run like they’ve never run before.
CM — For me it was the tradition and bar set by the ’68 team that made the Relays important to me. At that time Penn was the premier relay meet, in which the major programs all came with the goal of knocking off ‘Nova in the distance relays.
JH — I would disagree with Coach Harry Groves. I would definitely place an NCAA title well ahead of a Penn Relays title, even an MVP title at Penn. No doubt, Penn is very special, especially for Villanova teams. But I would have it in a distant 2nd spot. The tradition of the meet, the crowds, the atmosphere and the fact that it is primarily a relay meet all contributed to the uniqueness of the event.
EC — Well I can’t agree with Harry! Winning an individual or team title at the NC’s is a greater achievement. Winning at Penn is all about the tradition, the fanfare and an occasion to be part of the team. It was about pride. Putting four guys together to perform on the day is not easy, but we managed that so well because of the training environment created by Jumbo and implemented by one and all. Penn is a buzz when we can share success together.
DP — I think a lot has to do with the tradition. The oldest running relay meet in the world. Franklin Field has seen all the greats run there and you just wanted to have a chance to join the club. Penn had a special “aura” about it as it was close to home, in our back yard so to speak. It was reminiscent of the modern day motto, “Protect this House!” We felt this was our house and no one was going to take it from us. The crowd, the constant running of races, the roars from the North stands coming around the turn to the homestretch. The extra adrenalin we seized from the chants in the stands only served to make us a few steps faster. And so many patriotic Philadelphia track fans rooting with all they had for the Philly area school. As soon as you put on the Villanova singlet, you knew a tremendous opportunity was waiting for you.
KS — It’s definitely the excitement that surrounds this meet. There are two great relay weekends in April, Drake Relays and Penn. For some reason Drake was always a great field competition and Penn attracted strong relay participation.
The other thing about Penn is that it had a huge high school attraction with teams coming from all over the East Coast and mixing it up with the college events. So what you ended up with is the best of the best from H.S. and college. Then you inject the Jamaican attraction and you have a great track weekend.
Part 2 continues the discussion in the next issue.