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Features Relays Edition

How did it start? The history of the Drake Relays

Photo by Liv Klassen | Photo Editor

Nothing was going to stop John Griffith from hosting the Drake Relays. Not even a blizzard or low attendance in the Relays’ first year. This attitude permeated the Relays, which began in 1910 and went on through both World Wars and the Great Depression, only stopping for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s such a rich history, it’s been around for over a hundred years. It’s remarkable for something to continue with only one blip on the radar,” said Benedict Chatelain, archives associate at Cowles Library. 

The purpose of the first Drake Relays was to get students interested in track early in the season. Other schools’ indoor track meets were difficult to get to because of traveling costs, so John Griffith, who coached football, basketball, track and was athletic director before becoming Relays director, decided to bring other colleges to Drake. 

Griffith later became the namesake for Griffs I and II, Drake’s live mascots. 

Today, runners train for events year-round, rather than during one season. 

“Our preparation depends on each one of us and our needs, and what our coach thinks works best for us and our bodies,” said Carmen Krawczynski Gonzalez, a transfer student in her first year at Drake who will be running in the Relays. “The week leading up to Relays we will have a bit of a down week where we will be training but it’s really to let our bodies recover and get ready to push hard.” 

The Relays expanded their audience when directors paid for pro-athletes to run. 

“They have three levels of competition – high school, college and pros, and I think Drake has always put an emphasis on all three, and that one is no more important than the other,” said David Peterson, author of “The Drake Relays: America’s Athletic Classic.”

Paid athletes included Olympians and other popular runners. Many college athletes who ran in the Relays went on to run in the Olympics, including Jesse Owens, elected “Athlete of the Half-Century” in Bob Spiegel’s “The Drake Relays; 50 Golden Years.” Owens ran once in the Relays as a college sophomore, and set a new American record for the broad jump and equaled the century record for the 100-meter dash. 

One paid pro athlete, Wilma Rudolph, was the first woman to run in the Relays. She had previously run in the Olympics, and had a special 100-meter dash set up for her. Two years later, Relays directors set up a dash for high school girls, but didn’t set up a collegiate-level women’s track race until 1970 because of a lack of teams. 

Beyond the athletes, the Relays are also unique because of the venue and fans, whom athletes have recognized for their energy. 

“I think the venue itself is unique – the stadium is relatively small, which kind of suits the sport of track and field,” Peterson said. “The stands are right next to lane eight, all around the stadium. So there’s a lot of interaction between the fans and the athletes.” 

The Drake Relays are also separated by their unique weather conditions. The first Relays’ blizzard was not the only occurrence of weather impacting the races. 

 “The joke is that the weather is always bad. I’ve seen in a lot of the pictures that there’s rain, there’s snow, there’s wind,” Chatelain said. 

Chatelain added that in the Drake Archives collection there is a letter describing every Relays weather occurrence over the years, where it proved that some years had benign weather. 

In the 2000s, emphasis was placed on special activities at the Relays such as the pole vault in the mall or the shot put. These events utilize different venues, such as the Jordan Creek Mall. 

“It’s a community-based event as much as it is a university event,” Chatelain said. 

Another thing that has changed over the years is the buildings that the Relays are hosted in. Originally, athletes practiced in Alumni Gymnasium. After the completion of the Drake Fieldhouse, the building became the Women’s Gymnasium, later torn down in 1975. Currently the Relays take place at the Drake Stadium. 

For the Relays season, Drake Archives set up a Cowels Library Relays History exhibit in the James Collier Heritage room, highlighting moments and the story of Relays history. In late April, archival staff will host an open house for the collections of memorabilia. The archives are also sorting through athletic memorabilia collected by Morrison in his years at Drake University. 

“As someone who isn’t as big into sports, having that historical background made it mean a bit more to me,” said Ansleigh Ragan, a sophomore and student archival assistant at Drake. Ragan highlighted the Morrison collection’s letterman rings and stopwatch rewards. 

Griffith’s goals will continue at the Relays this year, and many athletes are excited to get on the field. 

“I’m excited about the event in general,” Krawczynski Gonzalez said. “Racing, getting a good race environment, watching my teammates race, watching a bunch of really good elite athletes race, I’d say just everything.”

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