It didn’t matter so much what place Evan Woods finished at the Coyote Invitational on April 5, hosted by Clarksburg High School. Winning, of course, was nice, but his only tangible goal was to run four laps around a track in 4 minutes, 20 seconds or less — a Penn Relays qualifying time.
“I think a bunch of guys in the field today were looking to hit 4:20, make the Penn Relays,” Woods said. “But that’s not in the cards when you’re going like a 67 [second] first lap. ... I can’t complain with the place but I’m not very happy with the time. I’ve been training all through the winter, looking for a sub-4:20, but that’s why the qualifier is so hard though. You can do a 4:20 at the end of the season, but running that in the first couple weeks is really hard.”
Which brings to light a bit of a paradox for athletes and relay teams fighting to qualify for the big meet in Philadelphia: peaking early. It is scheduled for Thursday-Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I try to keep my base stretched out as long as possible, carry me into the later part of the season like states — the meets that really matter to me,” Woods said. “This is really hit or miss whether you can hit that so early and that’s why they have such good runners there.”
Cross country, swimming, and track are a bit different than the majority of sports in that winning early in the season means next to nothing. Training is predicated towards the county, region, and state meets — the final three weeks of the season or, as it’s known in the lexicon, “championship season.”
“We don’t really care about winning right now,” Winston Churchill coach Scott Silverstein said. “It’s all about what we’re running in May.”
But the Penn Relays are not in May, they’re at the end of April, and the final day for individual qualifying was earlier this month. For the 3,200-relay teams — all 400- and 800-relay teams submitted make it, 3,200-relays have to hit a qualifying mark. It puts athletes in a peculiar position of attempting to run their best times far too early in the season, fresh off a few-week break between indoor and outdoor, when some are coming from other sports, such as swimming or basketball, or injuries. Most are still several seconds off their marks from the previous year.
“The truth of the matter is, a lot of the Penn marks you almost have to do in indoor,” Silverstein said. “Part of it is weather, part of it is that you have to shift gears down a little bit because you’re starting off again. You have to give the kids a few weeks off in between indoor and outdoor so they take a few steps back.”
Relay times can be used from the indoor season, but if they don’t cross in the requisite time, as Walter Johnson’s 3,200-relay hadn’t — the Wildcats easily surpassed the needed time at the Coyote Invitational — then there are roughly three weekends in the outdoor season to do so. Unfortunately for the east coast teams, the weather hasn’t been too cooperative for Penn Relays qualifying times.
“The [jumpers] aren’t hitting it because it’s early and the weather is not great and so it happens,” Silverstein said. “You don’t want to make excuses it just — if they don’t hit it they don’t hit it. There are a lot of events — we entered a lot of individual events with just the chance ‘Hey let’s hope it’ll be a nice day and hope they do something.’”
“It just takes awhile,” he said. “The process isn’t something that you can force.”
But that’s the tricky part: in order to qualify, if a team hasn’t hit the mark, the issue has to be forced.
“Realistically you always try to hit it in indoor,” Silverstein said.
Discus throwers, such as Churchill’s David Kaplan, don’t get that opportunity. Because it’s only an outdoor event, they are allowed to use marks from the previous season, but there’s a monumental difference between a high school athlete’s physical abilities between entire years. Kaplan surpassed the required heave of 150 feet at the Coyote Invitational, but he’d have been fresh out of luck if he hadn’t.
Such is the Penn Relays system. It’s not perfect. It’s not easy. But it’s what has to be done.
“It’s definitely hard, especially because I didn’t do indoor,” Bethesda-Chevy Chase distance runner Nora McUmber said. “It’s definitely hard coming back when everybody else has a base. You have to do a little extra.”