In all likelihood, the athletes who participated in the Cougar Relays were not watching basketball the night before the meet, but rather dreaming up some madness of their own. Anything could happen for those athletes who chose to run the Devil Takes the Hindmost race, a race in which the length is undetermined until the race unfolds. In both the boy's and girl's races, there were roughly 65 individuals entered and all were eliminated until there was only one standing. Does that remind you of any other traditional March sporting event?
According to the website made for the Cougar Relays, the rules for this unique race are as follows. All contestants start together and after completing two laps, the devil removes the last three runners. This process repeats each lap until there are fewer than 20 runners, at which point, the devil will only remove the last two runners. When there are fewer than 8 running, the devil takes only one runner. The event ends as the final two runners race it out to the finish. If a runner is lapped, they are removed from the field automatically and the judge may still remove two runners depending on where the runner was lapped. If the third last runner has crossed the start line before the judge is aware of the lapped runner, that runner remains in the race…though not for long!
Madness! Who would host such an event? Ron McGaw is an assistant track coach at Sherwood High School, but is also the former track coach for Magruder High School and the former meet director of the old Magruder Relays. Says, McGaw, "I saw this race run when I was running track in college. When I started the Magruder Relays, I wanted something unique to have in the meet so I put this in. It took a couple of years to catch on, but as you saw Saturday, it has become quite an exciting race." McGaw also explained that the race has evolved over time. He added the rule about eliminating lapped runners to reduce confusion. He also adjusted the number of runners removed after each lap to allow for more runners to run without the race getting too long.
Over the weekend, I had a conversation with the devil himself. Cougar Relays meet director and Quince Orchard High School head coach Seann Pelkey explained that he took the idea from the old Magruder Relays when he began the Cougar Relays four years ago. "I love the Devil Takes the Hindmost. It\'s fun for me to be the devil, although, I think I\'m too nice to be a devil. It\'s something I look forward to all year." Pelkey could be seen for the first part of the day with red devil horns on his head and his devil tail hanging out of the back of his pants, putting on a show for the athletes and spectators. "The best part, though, is seeing how excited the athletes and spectators get watching this race. Only in this sport do people get excited for a race in which the winner runs the furthest!"
The general strategy for this race is to stay in the front half of the competitors, pace one's self, and sprint the last 50 meters of each lap to prevent being eliminated. This idea seemed to be lost on many of the girls, as not many put up much of a fight to stay alive. It was especially unusual that Quince Orchard's Anya Oleynik burst out 50 meters in front of everyone else on the first lap. This strategy is risky considering the race could be as long as six or seven miles with so many competitors, but the payoff for going out hard would be great if she could lap the other competitors to make her race shorter. Coach Pelkey explains her strategy, "Anya wanted to run and win the Devils race. She wanted to take it out hard from the start and see who would go with her...all the while knowing that the longer the race, the more to her advantage it would be. When no one went out with her, it made her job even easier." Oleynik began lapping athletes not long after her first mile and it soon became obvious that she was locked into a pace and would not be caught. She ran for a total of 24:46.
The boys understood the concept. They were running for their lives and it showed. In almost every lap after the first two, there were sprints to the finish so as not to be claimed by the devil. The race featured many of the young, developing county distance runners and one standout distance runner in Chris Bowie from B-CC. If this were a 3200m race, Bowie would be the heavy favorite, but in the "666 meter" race, he needed to play his cards right or he would soon be playing cards with the devil. Says B-CC Coach Chad Young, "The only thing I told him was to let some others do the work and to run his own race. Tactically he ran a perfect race by not working too hard in the beginning and allowing some of the other runners to get carried away." He did not lead the race until around the 8th lap when he broke open a huge lead. According to Coach Young, he came through five miles in 27:45. Bowie ran for a total of six miles with a time of 34:51.32. It was the longest race in meet history.
Later in the meet, both bundled up champions went onto the football field with the meet director to be presented with the Devil Takes the Hindmost plaques and their playful red devil horns. The audience gave a huge ovation as the winners were announced. Everyone in attendance could appreciate the mental and physical strain that it takes to win a race of this nature.
It was March, and it was Madness. Pelkey liked the date of the meet, but was uncertain whether it would permanently be held in March due to the variation of other local meets and spring break from year to year. One thing is for certain. The devil's race is a local tradition that will continue to grow and will not soon be lost for area athletes and fans.