Drake Relays set to kick off

Updated: April 23, 2008, 4:26 PM ET
Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Lost in all the buzz around Drake Stadium's resurgence as an elite track and field venue has been the Drake Relays, the meet that started it all.

Not long after $15 million in renovations were completed in 2006, Drake was awarded June's NCAA outdoor track and field championships -- the event's first visit after a 38-year absence -- and scored a major coup by landing the 2010 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.

But the final session of the Drake Relays on Saturday is expected to be sold out for the 43rd straight year. Such fervent support is a rarity for American track and field, and it helped convince the track and field community that a renovated Drake Stadium could support major meets.

"I'd hear from a lot of the different athletes about what a great venue this is, what a great stadium this is, how good the fans are," said pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig, who led a task force that made recommendations on sites for future outdoor championships and gave Drake his thumbs-up. "This is really what track and field needs."

Officials are boasting a strong field for this year's 99th annual Relays. Nearly 8,000 athletes are expected to compete, including colleges and universities from 34 states and Canada. But the biggest buzz will be reserved for the Saturday final session, which will feature a number of Olympic hopefuls.

U.S. star Alan Webb, the Relays' outstanding performer in 2007, returns in hopes of breaking the meet record in the mile he set last year. Webb set the American record for the mile last July, running 3:46.91 at a meet in Brasschaat, Belgium, but this will be his first mile race of the season.

The men's 110-meter hurdles invitational field is headlined by Allen Johnson, who won gold in the event at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Defending champion Anwar Moore, who set the meet record in 2005 at 13:39, and Jamaican Richard Phillips round out the field.

Des Moines native Lolo Jones, who broke through with a world title in the 60-meter hurdles at the World Indoor Championships in March, will shoot for her fourth straight meet title in the 100-meter hurdles. But she'll have competition.

Candice Davis, who finished second to Jones at indoors, will compete at the Relays for the first time, with Jamaican Vonette Dixon and American Nichole Denby also in the mix.

The men's invitational shot put will feature Christian Cantwell, who won titles at both the U.S. Indoor Championships and World Indoor Championships in 2008. Reese Hoffa, an Olympian in 2004, will push Cantwell for the title.

Cantwell's put of 72 feet, 6 1/4 inches in 2007 broke a meet record that had stood for 34 years.

American pole vaulter April Steiner, whose jump of 15 feet, 2 1/4 inches ranks tops in the world this year, will battle with 2004 U.S. Olympian Jillian Schwartz in the women's pole vault invitational. Three-time Olympian Amy Acuff will be seeking her fifth Relays title in the women's invitational high jump.

Hartwig, who owns eight Relays crowns, will try to break his meet record of 19 feet, 3/4 quarter inches set last year.

As they do every year, organizers will have their eyes toward the skies. The weather can be tricky in Iowa this time of year, and forecasts are calling for rain and thunderstorms on Thursday and Friday before things clear out on Saturday. But while good weather helps, rain hasn't kept fans away in the past -- and it likely won't this year.

"Our fan base has been critical," Relays director Brian Brown said. "When we talk about our fan base, we're talking about track enthusiasts."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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