The Drake Relays presented by Hy-Vee is one of the jewels in the crown of the US track season. With this year's edition now in full swing, we give you ten reasons why the annual Des Moines athletics festival is not to be missed.
Like any great sporting occasion, the Drake Relays has a rich heritage. More than a century old, the event, which first took place in 1910, has become an American track and field institution.
Legends such as Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Wilma Rudolph and Jesse Owens have all competed at Drake, and relay director Brian Brown describes the event “as like a rite of passage that has become part of the tapestry and community spirit of Des Moines”.
2. Intimate venue
Held at the iconic Drake Stadium, the venue, according to Brown, has been one of the enduring strengths of the historic meeting.
“A lot of the relationship with Des Moines comes with the intimacy of the stadium,” he says.
“The stadium has a capacity of 14,500, the fans are all close to the track and the athletes and fans both feed off the energy of each other. This has allowed the athletes to perform to the highest level. It has been a mutual relationship.”
3. Happy homecoming
The event goes beyond track and field and also serves as the annual homecoming for the alumni and fans which, Brown says, adds an extra dimension to the attraction of the Drake Relays.
“It is a homecoming for both the city of Des Moines and state of Iowa,” he says. “So many of the state's schools come back year after year. Many associations and friendships are formed and rekindled.”
Matthew Centrowitz crossing the line to win the Grand Blue Mile, which took place on day one of this year's Drake Relays
4. Track Central USA
Eugene, Oregon, may be 'TrackTown USA', but not wanting to be outdone, Des Moines took on the moniker of 'Track Central USA' back in 2010. While it may have not quite taken off in the way TrackTown USA has, we like the nickname for the Midwestern City, which has consistently embraced the sport.
5. Hy-Vee sponsor
Hy-Vee came on board as a sponsor and presenting partner of the meeting in November 2012. It is a backing that Brown describes as “a game changer”. Hy-Vee's involvement has allowed the Drake Relays to evolve into a genuine week-long festival of athletics.
It has also given the organisers the means to attract the world's top stars. With $40,000 on offer for each of the prestige elite events in 2015, a stellar cast of stars has been assembled to feature in this year's meet, including Renaud Lavillenie, Jenn Suhr, Ashton Eaton, Aries Merritt, David Oliver and Ajee Wilson.
“It has allowed us to reach another level,” Brown adds of Hy-Vee's involvement.
VENUE: The Drake Stadium hosted the 2013 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships
6. Shuttle Hurdles Relay
A genuine innovation of the meeting is the annual shuttle hurdles relay. This year's event has attracted a galaxy of leading names, such as Olympic and world 110m hurdles champions Aries Merritt, the last two 110m hurdles world champs David Oliver ('13) and Jason Richardson ('11), Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton, and sub-13 second Jamaican sprint hurdle star Hansle Parchment.
“Elite athletes are used to competing against each other in fierce individual competition, but this event allows them to compete in a team environment, which is sometimes something that is lost when working as a professional,” says Brown.
7. Festival of Athletics
Now a six-day long event, the Drake Relays seeks to reach the entire city. Last year the high jump was staged at a Hy-Vee grocery store, and this year Renaud Lavillenie and co. competed in a downtown pole vault.
The Grand Blue Mile road race (which took place on Tuesday) has an elite component, but the aim is more about Des Moines locals giving the race a crack and feeling part of the event.
“It is all about your race, your mile and that anyone can race over a mile,” Brown adds.
8. Beautiful Bulldogs
No Drake Relays would be complete without the Beautiful Bulldog pageant. That's right 50 bulldogs battle it out – some complete with tutu and skirts – to be the official Drake Relays mascot. Utterly bizarre, but uniquely Drake, the pageant has proven so popular that it has attracted interest from the David Letterman Show and the Jay Leno Show.
9. Girls and boys competition
The elites may grab most of the headlines, but the heartbeat of the Drake Relays remains the boys and girls high school competitions which are “critical” to the success of the event, says Brown.
“It is the moms and dads, brothers and sisters and grandparents of the high school athletes who are the ones that are coming to the track to be supportive of the Drake Relays,” he adds. “They are not necessarily coming because of the elite but to support family members competing on the track.”
10. Looking to the future
The success the Drake Relays has had in embracing the community has caused Brown and his team “to dream and want to push the envelope” in an effort to develop the event even further.
“We are always looking to contest this wonderful event in a unique way,” he explains. “We have a river that runs through our downtown, an amazing amphitheatre with the perfect silhouette of our downtown and the river flowing behind.
“I have thought it is a great opportunity to build a runway and have a javelin throw across the river. There are plenty of opportunities, but I would say it is important to keep the integrity of the Drake Relays and try not to be too cute.”
The 106th Drake Relays runs until April 21-26.