Raleigh is a running town. Jot that down.
Okay, let’s get straight to it. Anyone who denies that Raleigh is a running town is a big fat liar. It’s a Thursday in March and the length of Hillsborough Street in Raleigh is encompassed by runners from practically every state across the country. We might as well temporarily rename it Shake Out Boulevard. Raleigh Relays signals a promising beginning for teams every year around this time. A clean slate in the form of a blank race results sheet. It’s a weekend of races yet to be run and watches yet to be started. A meet that materializes as the launch of a new season and the end of an old one. The gloves and beanies of a forgetful February find themselves rolled up into a warm ball on the shelf of a closet for the foreseeable future. Abound with blossoming flowers and runners alike, Raleigh Relays personifies the shedding of an old layer to make way for a new, faster one.
The surrounding lights of Paul Derr track stand like skyscrapers as Thursday afternoon turns into Thursday night. Students getting out of class and adults getting off work fill up the stands as the sun says goodnight. There is a somewhat satisfying and steady increase in the distance of the events as the Relays get kicked off. We see a couple Virginia boys go 1 and 2 in the 1500 as Conor Murphy dips his toes under 3:40. Right behind him is his fellow comrade, Gary Martin, just ever so slightly missing the exit off 3:40 highway. Is the saying Virginia Is For Runners? Or Lovers. I pondered that as the 1500 meter men gasped for air on the infield and hoses filled the steeple pits with water. What if they used saltwater in the steeple pits? Somebody get Seb Coe on the line. I can’t help but to face the juxtaposition of the steeple pit now and the steeple pit one lap from now when Issac Updike comes crashing in like an old friend splashing in off a diving board just to drench me and piss me off. But in this case, he’s drenching me in order to eventually come away with a Meet and Facility Record. The ends justify the means this time around. I am always a little disappointed when I come to find out it is not always about me. So he runs 8:25 and convincingly, once again, puts the rest of the steeplers across the country on notice that the Empire Elite crew is, indeed, Elite. Take that, LetsRun.
Fast forward through ten heats of the Men’s 5000 meters and Toby Gillen running a U.S. collegiate lead 13:35, you may wonder… How could the Raleigh Relays start any better than this?
This is the part of the movie where Allie Hays says “Hold my beer.” The Women’s 10,000 Meter race just so happened to be 25 laps of pure entertainment. Moreso for the spectators than the runners, yes, but it was truly a spectacle for any real running fan. It was a strategic battle for nearly the whole race between Chmiel, Nadel, and Hays. With 600 meters to go, the Wolfpack senior seemed to just have the answers when the others ran out of them. Perhaps more hay in the barn? We’ll get to the bottom of that. Allie took a 23-year old Meet Record and made light work of it. For Hays, it was a personal best, a school record, and a facility record all at home during her last Raleigh Relays. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: How can you not be romantic about running? Allie gets greeted from the stands by 10+ teammates with open arms and smiles and even some happy tears. 3 out of the top 5 finishers are NC State women and for the millionth time we are reminded that the strength of the wolf really is in the pack. Thanks for that gem, Rudyard Kipling.
Like any other North-Carolinian would, I walk towards the track on Friday morning with a coffee and biscuit sandwich in hand. My New Jersey heritage beckons for a bagel, but my appetite digresses. When you’re feeling the heat before noon here, you can bet that the day is going to make you feel its wrath. I welcome the hot day with arms wide open as I slammed the door shut on winter a month ago. I think about the poor souls who will have to race as the sun peaks. I hope they have the Liquid IV ready. I cross paths with my new friend Athanas Kioko and we trade friendly waves as he trots by. He’s an assistant coach for Wake Forest and also just ran the 3rd fastest 10,000 meter time in the world so far this year. It’s already a humbling Raleigh Relays for this hobby jogger! I let the track security check my camera bag and she asks me if I’ve applied my sunscreen today. I make sure to leave her reassured that I most definitely have applied protection, albeit haphazardly, but still applied.
I make my way down the steps as I worry about the need to reapply as I’ll probably be here longer than the sun will. A fistfight with the sun is one that no one ever wins. I see Myles from a distance and think about stealing his bucket hat. Lord knows I can’t rock it like he can, but that’s beside the point. I set up shop for a bit near the finish line and try to keep up with the hurdlers. Heat by heat goes by as runners smash the bottoms of their spikes against the hurdles. I ponder the margin for error when running the hurdles. The goal of the hurdler is to clear the hurdle with the most miniscule amount of space possible between foot and top of hurdle. It’s basically a race of “Who can be the most perfect at the right time?”. But then again, isn’t that every race ever?
I congregate with Ethan (A.K.A. Waldo) and Myles at the fifty yard line on the infield as they drop their boxes onto the grass. “Free shirts” written in sharpie on the side as the exclusive Adidas and Runologie t-shirts overflow out of the box. The goal was for runners, spectators, basically everyone and their moms, to find Ethan in his Waldo outfit for a free shirt. Find the Waldo impersonator and find yourself your new favorite t-shirt. I’m impressed by his courage to stick with the long sleeve rugby shirt as I’m sure that shirt will stick with him by 1PM. Sweat gathers on all of our brows cumulatively as we discuss the events we’re looking forward to the most, the Wendy’s 4for4 challenge (IYKYK), and the over/under for how fast they’ll run out of shirts.
The boys get taken away from me by a crowd of assorted runners in need of a crisp t-shirt. We part ways and I find myself on the back turn of the track snapping photos of countless guys running sub-50 second laps. The quarter mile race always fascinates me because it always seems to be that the strategy is no strategy. Who can go the hardest for one lap before being swallowed up by the ever-so-haunting lactic acid monster? It’s like Indiana Jones scurrying away from an unstoppable boulder. It’s not even 3PM and all of the Adidas shirts are 86’d. Gone forever to kids from Lenoir-Rhyne and Toledo and Georgetown and then some.
Now that everybody had concluded wondering “Where’s Waldo?” perhaps it is the right time to ask “How’s Waldo?”. The sun rises to the highest and hottest it’ll get as the high school boys and girls prepare to run 3200 meters. Poor kids. Welcome to Raleigh: Do you like to suffer? Regardless of temperature, it was a couple of great races from the youngsters. The future of track & field keeps on getting brighter, like blinding-in-your-face-bright. The West Johnston Heartthrob Harper Clark doesn’t run his finest race, but he shakes it off and keeps his head held high. We’ve seen his potential and know the greatness that is coming. It’s his resolve and patience that will help him be his best when he runs at Charlotte next year. The Clark brothers are silent killers on the track.
The 1500 meter women shoot out of a freakin’ cannon as the sun settles and slowly fritters away behind campus. We witness four women dip below the old meet record and I wonder if Paul Derr track is on fire. Maybe there’s something in the Raleigh water that is making everyone run as fast as they are. Or maybe it’s Bojangles. Fresh off of transferring from Alabama to NC State, Amaris Tyynismaa runs a very promising 4:12 in her first race as part of the Pack on her new home track. One of the most foolish things one can do is start to think that NC State is not going to get better as the seasons change. The number of weapons they have in their arsenal is a bit worrisome for the rest of the NCAA. Okay, let’s be brazen: maybe a lot worrisome.
I order a pizza for our little crew and jog past the gates to find the delivery driver amidst the perpetual traffic of the relays. We lay in a semi-circle on the grass and scarf down slices of pepperoni pizza as Emily Cole stomps through the steeple pit. The women’s 5000 meters takes us into the night as I upload some photos to my phone and check my sunburn in the bathroom mirror.
The Raleigh crowd is treated to a delight as Sam Bush and Olivia Markezich kick down Susanna Sullivan in the final heat. No one ever seems to grow restless throughout the day. People come and go for dinner or a change of clothes, but the cheering for the racers never subsides one bit. As the men close out a full day of racing with the 10,000 meters, I start scrolling through the thousands of pictures I took throughout the day. It’s definitively the most pictures I have ever taken in a day. I’m still quite new to considering myself a photographer and opportunities like this one make me feel optimistic about what’s to come.
The explosive growth of running media and the culture of running media is absolutely good for running. I will always want to see your long exposure shots of a group of runners. The night gets darker and I get sleepier and for a moment I see a bib number blow in the wind across the infield. The true tumbleweed of track and field. It’s a wholesome and serene moment. I decide to pack it in and take my finger off the shutter and get my head on a pillow.
The weekend greeted us the not-so-sunny skies that some might fancy for race day, but along with it was a wet track. The clouds open up here and there to keep it unpredictable in true North Carolina fashion. I’ll take cooler temperatures and puddle splashing over sweat puddles any day. Even if the photos don’t end up being as golden and bright as the people like ‘em. I find Hayley Jackson just in time to catch her warming up for her 800 meter race. She’s Raleigh-bound this Summer and joining the Runologie team. She also executed the immaculate braid of beads in my hair to fully complete my ‘trailer-park-hippie-chic’ vibe.
My lens finds her in a state of zen as I assume she is envisioning the kind of race she plans to run. But she could also just be envisioning whatever it is she might eat after the race? I know that’s what I am doing when my eyes are closed pre-race. The heats keep on heating and Hayley’s race is the second to last 800. She nearly leads it from start to finish and runs a top collegiate time in the country. She gives me a thumbs up and I feel some fuzzy warm feeling as I realize I’m surrounded by rockstars.
In the men’s 400 meter hurdles, we almost get to finally see Bershawn Jackson’s facility record fall, but David Kendziera just misses the mark. Although it ends up being a top time in the world this year; I’m sure he wanted that meet record. It’s a tough task to tackle a time from Batman. Kendziera smashes a time of 48.74 for us and didn’t even warn us. Everyone collectively helps pick the jaws up off the floor as the day carries on like it should. The clouds eventually depart to reveal a sunny Saturday afternoon.
I spend most of the afternoon on one knee just shooting the day away. I watch Coach Geiger put more miles on his golf cart than I would on my car in a single weekend. The warming constant of Raleigh Relays weekend is the presence of the Pack athletes, coaches, and staff. They always seem to be smiling and that makes me want to clear my schedule for this weekend year after year. Eventually it ends up being time for the pinnacle of the whole meet.
Any meet that has ever happened has pretty much been summed up by the 4×400 meter relays. Most of the seats in the stands end up empty as everyone stands and yells and points and picks favorites. The starting line is constructed chaos as runners shift spots as their respective teammates come around the turn trading places. Their eyes glow wide open as batons are pointed in the air like a sort of holy grail waiting to be snatched.
The women’s relay certainly entertains as the Duke women take the top spot in commanding fashion. It’s hard to imagine the Blue Devil women being taken down in a 4×400 this season. I’ll report back after ACC’s. The men of Lenoir-Rhyne prove themselves once again to be a powerhouse in track and field as they edge out Virginia and George Mason. They take the win like they’re businessmen here to conduct strictly business. The baton gets passed three times in 3 minutes and 9 seconds and that’s just business to them. My last photo gets snapped and the Relays seem to poof into thin air. The last runner crosses the last finish line and now a year stands between all of us and this meet again.
The whole crew at NC State did such an amazing job the whole weekend. We even built up the week with the Adidas X NC State women’s event at the shop. The girl’s team came equipped with their national championship hardware as highschool girls from across the triangle filled up Runologie. There was bracelet making and pizza and s’mores. It was one helluva event for everybody. I believe that for a young runner who wants to strive to be just like the girls across the table from them can be the most rewarding prize. The girls in the posters on their walls are there to support them and that can make all the difference. I believe in the pack… How could you not?
The lights that stand like skyscrapers around Paul Derr track don’t need turning on as spectators and runners make their way home. Tents fall to the ground and water cups fill up garbage cans as the gates close. I put my camera bag in my backseat, ditch my shirt, and meet with Waldo to catch some “easy” miles of our own. The pace flutters a little faster than usual as the post-meet adrenaline affects even us. We pass a security guard and he wishes us good luck for the rest of our season. We laugh it off onto the greenway and talk of the future. Rest assured, Raleigh continues to prove itself to be a running town. I know y’all got your Eugene and your Boston and your Boulder, but you are doing a disservice to running if you’re leaving Raleigh out of that conversation. There is a buzz in this city that continues to compound as the weather shifts and the sun stays a little longer with us. We look towards the ACC Champs, the Runlogie Race Series, and a Sir Walter Summer all right in front of us. It’s undeniably an exciting time to be a runner in Raleigh. I don’t know how many times we have to say it: We wish you were here.
Photos by Joshua Dwight and Myles Pringle