Roger Bannister was the first, breaking the supposedly impenetrable four-minute mile barrier 60 years ago. Three years before that, though the famed Englishman actually won the mile at a different venue: the 1951 Penn Relays.
That’s the select company Penn’s Thomas Awad keeps, after winning last year’s Ben Franklin Mile, breaking 4:00 for the first time in his career in the process, 3:58.43. But when the 121st Relays get underway later this week at venerable Franklin Field, the bespectacled Awad won’t be out there trying to defend his title.
Instead he’ll be vying for what he considers something more important: to be part of a Championship of America Relays title team.
"It’s all about the relay events and running with your team," said the Quakers’ junior team captain from East Norwich, NY, who’s not sure what events Penn coach Steve Dolan has in mind for him. "As much fun as it was last year I really want to put forth a good relay, whatever that may be. I think we’re gonna put together some good relays. We have a lot of options."
That’s what Dolan’s thinking too, hoping when the crowd gets behind the host school it could create one of those magic moments the Relays are most remembered for.
"Last year didn’t feel we had a championship caliber relay team,’’ explained Dolan, who arrived at Penn three years ago after coaching at Princeton and the College of New Jersey. "That’s why we let him run in the open mile. This year we want to mix it up. After college there will be lots of opportunities to run individually, but there’s nothing like the championship relays at the Penn Relays. We want to put Penn on the map as a team. He’s a big part of our focus.’’
Awad, a health science major, says the anticipation of Relays week is already starting to build. By the weekend it will reach a crescendo, culminating Saturday when literally thousands of runners — from elementary school to potential Olympians — take the track.
Whatever happens for Awad, though, it will have to go some to top the exhilaration he felt coming towards the tape last year.
"The race kind of went as I expected," he recalled in terms of the pace and the strategy. "I knew we were going to have a pacer, so it was all about settling in and just racing. When we got to the last 400 I kind of felt it was my time to move; to make a push for the win. I didn’t really want to be on the outside going into the turn. So I just went for it."
With the fans screaming, Awad outleaned Mike Rutt at the tape to secure the victory.
"It was so exciting," said Awad, smiling at the memory. "I was happy, but not necessarily so surprised I ran that fast. I knew going in breaking 4:00 was possible."
Now while his focus will change, his feelings about the Relays are stronger than ever.
"Just coming here as a high schooler was so cool, because no high school meet is this big," recalled Awad, whose longterm goal is making it to the 2016 Olympic trials, though he’s not sure at what distance he’ll compete. "People who haven’t been here don’t realize all the levels of competition. I remember Usain Bolt was here my sophomore or junior year . Hes’ the face of Track & Field. You know Bolt’s here but also some high school runner, who’s going to be a contender for world championships in 5-6 years is also racing here. Every race is high quality."
Despite that — or maybe because of i t— Thomas Awad won’t be defending his mile title Saturday, having learned one of the central themes of the Penn Relays: There’s no ‘I’ in T-E-A-M.
Chances are that famous fellow sub-four minute miler, Roger Bannister, would understand.