The Penn Relays have been marked in the calendar of Unionville junior Courtney Smith.
Hosted within the rustic brick walls of Franklin Field in Philadelphia, a site that's housed the event for over 100 years, the Penn Relays are a place where high school runners can measure themselves not only against the best in the state, but against the best in the country.
It's proving ground for most, and a glance into the future for many more-- some of the same athletes competing will likely go on to successful collegiate programs.
On April 25, Smith will have her first crack at the Penn Relays. The accomplished distance runner, who was the PIAA Class AAA state champion in cross country and the PTFCA Indoor state runner-up in the 3,000-meter run in February -- which broke a previous state record -- will feature in the 3,000-meter run.
"We've had the Penn Relays on our calendar for six months now," Unionville head coach Mark Lacianca said.
Since the beginning of the spring season in March, Smith has targeted the relays as an early season peak performance. This will be her first full-capacity race this season.
“I’m really excited,” Smith said recently. “Looking at the seeding list, there are so many great runners who have good [personal records]. I’m excited to hopefully come through with a faster time. I’m honored to have made it this year.
She'll have an opportunity to race against Abington Heights' Tessa Barrett -- who took the PTFCA indoor title in the 3,000 this February -- and Dallas' Regan Rome, another top distance prospect. All three talents are juniors. Runners from nine different states will feature in the event, making it a truly diverse field.
"It's actually a very unique meet," Lacianca said of the Penn Relays, "because the competition is so good. At the state meet, you might have six or eight girls who go out with the lead and then it separates. With the Penn Relays, you could have 15 to 20 of the girls go out with the leaders for the first three or four laps."
This may have been nerve-wracking for Smith in years past, when she first was learning how to carry out race plans and strategy. But over the years, the junior has developed the know-how and intelligence to dictate races.
“I think just mentally staying tough throughout the race has been important,” Smith said. “In practice we try to stay focused. In a race you have to be actively engaged the entire time. You can’t let up or check out at any point.”
She has developed into a lead-runner, one who understands when to push and when to blend in.
"I think she'll still be nervous," Lacianca said of Smith at the Penn Relays. "When you stop being nervous you're in trouble. But the one thing now is she's confident in how much she's worked and that pays off in races."
Smith set a PR of 9 minutes and 48.24 seconds in the 3,000 at the PTFCA Indoor State Championships in February -- this was her qualifying time for The Penn Relays. The time was 16 seconds faster than her previous best in January, indicating that at big races, something primal comes over the runner.
She's only had one solid opportunity to race over 3,000 meters at full capacity thus far this season, securing a runner-up finish in the Downingtown West Spring Invitational in the 3,200 with a time of 11:22.38 -- she finished side-by-side with teammate Emily Fisher, who ran a 11:22.43.
She also scored a win in the 1,600, hitting a season best of 5:08.25 in the process.
There have been other meets. But at dual competitions, Lacianca says, Smith concentrates on foot turnover -- especially in the 800 -- and building mileage, saving key resources for more important meets later in the season.
This is important for many reasons. It keeps Smith in good form without wearing down muscles and joints. And it also works toward building up to a final peak later in the season, when the District 1 and PIAA Class AAA state championships arrive in May.
While the 800 and 1,600 aren't Smith's strongest events, it is an area Lacianca hopes to improve in the future. In training, he focuses on pushing toward Smith's aerobic capacity with concentrated interval work with slight rest.
He hopes Smith will dip below the 5-minute mark in the 1,600 midway through the season, giving her confidence to hit the same mark at later meets.
And in District 1, where some of the best teams in the state reside, there is ample opportunity to do so. Among key teams in the division with distance standouts are Pennsbury, Pennridge and Council Rock North.
"She's going to have girls who push her," Lacianca says.
It first begins with the Penn Relays this week.