Erin Donohue first competed in the Penn Relays for Haddonfield High School and returned to Franklin Field both as a collegian at North Carolina and as a professional runner. She collected eight watches in addition to hundreds of memories during those years.
But Donohue, now 34 and living in Center City, has one memory that sticks out above all the rest, from the 2003 carnival.
“It probably was my sophomore year of college when we did win the three relays – the [distance medley relay], the 4-by-1500 and the 4-by-800,” she said Monday. “It felt pretty easy. In hindsight, that was a great memory to be on a team that was not just dominant that year, but I think one of the better women’s distance crews that had come through in a long time.”
History would prove that they were. Three members of the team – Donohue, Shalane Flanagan and Alice Schmidt – ran on all three relays. After their college days, they all would enjoy accomplished professional careers, with each of them participating in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Donohue, who stopped competing professionally after the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, returned for the Penn Relays kickoff – a RunJumpThrow event at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary School in West Philadelphia, where students were coached by Donohue, former Olympian Mark Everett and members of Penn’s track and field team.
Donohue, a four-time Inquirer high school track athlete of the year, won five relay events at Penn with North Carolina. She also captured three individual titles – the 2001 high school mile and the 2006 and 2007 women’s Olympic Development mile.
Her interest in the carnival began when she came to Franklin Field with her father for the first time at the age of “9 or 10 years old.”
“My dad got me into running, was always into it,” she said. “He would bring me over on Thursday night a lot when I was a really little kid to watch the distance nights. Yeah, it was cold, but you could always walk in for free so that was good. Plus it wasn’t so crowded and I think he was afraid I’d get lost or something.
“I was interested in all kinds of sports growing up and I played basketball and soccer. But going to the Penn Relays was definitely cool. You were in South Jersey running at all the little high schools and stuff, and then coming over into the big giant stadium was always a thrill.”
Donohue first competed at Penn as a high school freshman in 1998 in the mile, and also on relays for Haddonfield High.
Other than running in “a couple of road races here and there,” Donohue no longer competes. But she will keep an eye on the Penn Relays.
“It’s kind of neat because a lot of times track and field is not the main sport that everybody is watching,” she said. “But this weekend, at least in the Philadelphia area, there’s a lot of publicity. It’s kind of a unique event for track and field to be the center of attention.”