At a recent Missouri track and field practice, coach Rebecca Wilmes brought out a golden baton. Although the baton itself was nothing out of the ordinary, its familiarity depends on the carrier. On Wednesday, even the distance runners were practicing handoffs in preparation for the Tigers’ trip to the 97th-annual Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa.
For three days, the 112-event meet becomes a carnival-like attempt to make Des Moines the track and field capital of the Midwest by enticing spectators out of a cyclical lull that comes without Olympic hype. Historically, the event has fulfilled that goal.
In 2001, a record attendance during the three days was set at 39,280. The Saturday sessions alone have sold out to 18,000 capacity for the past 40 years. Although the 59 events to be held this Saturday will once again be performed in front of a sellout crowd, the arena itself now holds only 15,000.
Drake Stadium, built in 1926, has undergone $22 million worth of renovations to better accommodate the estimated 8,148 athletes that represent 720 various grade schools, high schools and colleges from 25 different states.
In addition to the stadium’s evolution, the event itself has come a long way. In the first year it was held, the meet had just 39 events, which would now easily fit into a single Saturday.
The event’s size now, in terms of number of events, results from adding relays that are not typically run in collegiate competition.
“They don’t have these relays outdoors anywhere else we compete all year,” said Missouri distance runner Amanda Bales, who will be participating in the atypical distance medley relay and the 4x1600-meter run.
A native of Bettendorf, Iowa, Bales is excited about returning to her home state to run. Although she usually competes individually in the 1500-meter run, Bales said that running a relay provides an entirely different atmosphere.
“I love relays,” she said. “Knowing that there are three other people who try just as hard as you, it’s awesome.”
Bales added that Missouri’s strong middle distance program will make the team extremely competitive.
Last year, Bales was a part of the distance medley relay team that finished second for the second year in a row, and she said the Tigers’ strong middle distance program will once again elevate the level of competition.
“It is particularly fun with a strong program because you have four really strong legs,” she said. “We’re not just relying on one person because we have four equal contributors.”
Over the years, 14 world records, 49 American records and 51 national collegiate records have been set at Drake Stadium, six of which were set last year.
Tiger post-collegiate Christian Cantwell will attempt to add a new record to Drake Relay’s books in the shotput after opening his outdoor season as champion of the Kansas Relays with the best throw in the world so far this year at 70 feet, 3 3/4 inches. Tiger post-collegiate and 2004 Olympian Derrick Peterson will also attend.
Missouri’s Audrey J. Walton Stadium will also soon be the site of a major track and field undertaking as the Tigers were selected to host the 2007 NCAA outdoor track and field Mideast Regional Championship. It will be the first time in 17 years that the Tigers have hosted an NCAA championship season running event.