A True Appreciation of the Drake Relays by Kyle Kepler

Kyle Kepler coaches at Utah

In the spring of 1990 a Iowa HS coach had and extra ticket to the Drake Relays and decided to ask one of his freshman if he’d like to travel down with the team to watch.  That freshman had heard of the Relays and had an idea that it was a “pretty big deal”.  So the school suburban was packed up with the qualifying team members and their gear.  There wasn’t much room left for the freshman so he actually laid on the bags in the back of the bus.  Today this would probably be grounds for a lawsuit, but then it was making the most of an opportunity any way possible.

A year later that same freshman, now a sophomore, would be the final qualifier into 3200 meter only after the HS coach had to call the Relays office.  The runner was omitted off of the qualifiers list which was listed on Monday morning in the DM Register.  The coach was met with a voice on the other line who acknowledged that weeks before had told the coach his runner would be in the meet because the cutoff was always just over 10 minutes.  His direct quote was… “I remember our conversation and I’ll let him in the meet, but he’s going to get last”.  That quote combined with a coach who knew how to use it to motivate his runners can be better than any weapon of mass destruction.  The only qualifier not to have run under 10:00 in that field was never once in last place.  With 500 meters to go the runner with the slowest qualifying time went from 10th to third down the homestretch and into third place as the runners started kicking down the backstretch.  The defending champion from the previous year then passed the unknown runner and went after the leaders.  The runner that couldn’t be identified by the announcers was now in fourth heading onto the homestretch for the final time.  After one last battle with 50 meters to go one final senior, a State XC champion, was able to make his way around the unnamed runner.  Fifth place, a medal, and the real beginning of a running career that included two runner up finishes in the 3200m, two sixth place finishes in the 10K as a collegian, and two 8K road race titles after college.  Not too bad for some unknown, slowest qualifier in the field.

Now as a collegiate coach at two different schools that same unknown, slowest qualifier has coached two relays and an individual to Drake Relays titles.  The first relay title might be one of the most remembered in Drake history as senior anchor Balazs Csillag blasted down the homestretch and out leaned Brad Hauser to give UNI a 4x1600m title over a vaunted Stanford program that won an NCAA team title a year later.  Iowa HS distance legend Rob Brock ran the third leg on that relay and put Csillag in perfect position with a 4:04 carry.  Brock was the primary catalyst of that UNI relay quartet which also won 4×1600 and 4×1500 titles at the Florida State and Sea Ray Relays that Spring.

The other two titles came from a school that had never been to the Drake Relays until 2006 when this nameless runner left UNI to take over a rebuilding University of Utah program.  The first year it was a couple relays that didn’t finish very high and an individual or two who barely qualified for the Relays.  The next couple years it was marginal improvement and experience that were gained.  Finally, in Utah’s fifth annual trek to Drake (2010) a slightly built blonde gal with a stride that was as long as it was fluid would give Salt Lake City it’s first ever Drake Relays title.  Alyssa Abbott sat comfortably in the pack through halfway of the 1500 meter event.  Then as the group moved down the backstretch she moved to the lead.  Challengers came and went, but none could get around this fiercely determined junior who had overcome two knee surgeries and a few other typical runner ailments throughout her career.  Her winning time of 4:23 would be a new personal best and one of better winning times in the 20 year history of the event at Drake.  After a few interviews Abbott took her champions flag and her victory lap.

Last year that same blonde with the smooth stride would have a hand in Utah’s first ever relay title.  Abbott would lead two sophomores and a junior into the Distance Medley relay on Friday afternoon.  This was a relay that had been dominated by Midwest teams in recent years.  However, this was Utah’s race from start to finish.  Leadoff runner Amanda Mergaert ran near the front of the pack until 300 meters to go when she bolted to the front down the backstretch and built a four second lead at the exchange.  By the time the 800 meter runners got the batons the race was even again between Utah and Iowa State.  After a slow opening 400 it was Utah’s Lucy Yates that opened up another large gap, again down the backstretch, before handing off a five second lead to Abbott.  Four evenly run (70-71-72-71), unchallenged victory laps later Abbott broke into a huge smile as she and her Ute teammates crossed the finish line as Drake Champions.  After interviews by local and national media the quartet got their flags and took their victory lap to an adoring crowd who congratulated them all.  The unknown, slowest qualifying runner was now no longer unknown. The stadium announcer made sure the sellout crowd knew he was the coach of that fine Utah relay and a local boy from just up the road.  That journey has gone from Webster City, to Cedar Falls, and now Salt Lake City.  Regardless of where the trip has began each spring the last weekend of April for each of the last 22 year the destination has always been the Drake Relays for Webster City runner, UNI runner and coach,  and now University of Utah Head Coach Kyle Kepler.

Why Drake and not Penn?  Both meets are amazing.  Both produce some of the best marks in the country each spring.  They are the longest running meets in the country.  Franklin Field and Drake Stadium are very unique and historical venues.  While Penn might have 3-4 times as many spectators attend their meet, I just don’t think it will ever match the way Drake brings the athletes, spectators, and officials together.  The fact that I have local ties helps our athletes feel more at home.  The officials talk to them, wish them good luck, or even try to tell them “stories” about their coaches.  (Burke Bockman from Decorah and UNI is my associate head coach).  I’m not going to say we get the same type of reception from the fans as the State of Iowa schools do, but our kids do hear several cheers for them when they compete.  This allows them to relax which is all you can ask for as a coach.  At meets like Drake, the kids who typically perform the best are those who can stay relaxed and focus on repeating what they do in practice…nothing more, nothing less.  Other reasons for coming to Drake:  It’s closer, Iowa Bakery Café, Jethros, Carolyn Hill (Ass’t Drake Relays Director), friends and family, and the announcers now know who we are:)

I have always felt very fortunate because I’m just old enough to have experiences in both the old and “new” Drake Stadium.  I competed in the original venue with the raised track and grass infield.  The experiences of warming up next to Olympians and NCAA champs was amazing.  How the officials controlled that chaos no one really knows, but they did.  Today, with the infield raised and the stadium renovated it still provides a unique experience, but with much better sight lines and less risk of interfering with races or having athletes get injured while warming up.

The fact that the meet is over 100 years old and has only had 11 meet directors also says a lot.  I know a few of the first eight directors by some of their career accomplishments or Hall of Fame inductions.  The last three I have actually gotten to know.  Mr. Ehrhart was an exceptional leader for 31 years.  Mark and Brian have both done some great things as well.  I think they all tried to keep as much of the history as they could and then combine it with some new ideas that were needed.  Each has understood the history of the event, but they have found ways to include some much needed modernization and upgrades to keep the event fresh and fun for everyone involved. I tend to be a traditionalist at heart so to see the old scoreboard, the straight curve, and sunken infield all disappear was hard at first.  Other than not being able to enter the track through the old tunnel on the East side the environment of the Drake Relays as I’ve always known it is still there.

Other than winning events my best story/memory came from my senior year of HS (1993).  I finished second in the 3200 for the second straight year.  That was in the days when it was on Saturday morning at 9:30am and everyone warmed up on the track (including the pros).  We always stayed for the rest of the meet.  I liked to watch different events from different parts of the stadium.  The big attraction that year was the 200 meter race that featured up and comer Michael Johnson, former Drake star Kevin Little, and collegiate standout Olapade Adeniken of UTEP.   I’m sitting on the old cement curbing just outside lane 8 at the start of the 200m.  The runners are called to take off their sweats and stand behind their blocks.  Johnson sits on my left and Adeniken on my right.  I look at Johnson, he looks at me…no words.  I turn and look at Adeniken, he looks at me…no words.  To this day I’m not sure if they were really looking at me…or looking THROUGH me:)

In 1996 I was a sophomore in college.  I had run what would end up being my lifetime best in the 10K on Friday night with my mom and grandma present.  They had left my grandpa (who never missed any of my races in HS or college races in Iowa), but was very ill at the hospital in Webster City to come watch at his request.  Early on Saturday morning with my mom and grandma at his side my grandpa asked how I had run.  They told him about my PR and then a few hours later he passed.  My mom didn’t call to tell me until I had returned to Cedar Falls after the meet that evening.  She said she waited to call because grandpa knew how much I enjoyed being at the Drake Relays.

I don’t have to tell my athlete’s stories about Drake to pump them up.  It has become a meet that everyone in our program knows about and a trip they all strive to make.   Between our current and past athletes experiences along with they way our kids are treated when they are at the meet provides all the motivation they need to be successful at America’s Athletic Classic.