The toughest distance to complete at the Penn Relays might be the journey that the event's starters make between home and Franklin Field.

In this era of heightened security concerns, the men and women whose gunshots initiate - and sometimes halt - the track carnival's races must travel with weapons.

Technological advances have limited the tools most Relays officials need to bring with them to mundane items like clipboards, pens, paper. For a starter, however, a working pistol remains the essential tool.

"The timing equipment has changed a great deal over the years," said Karen Guy, an Abington resident and, since 1991, a Relays starter. "But not the guns."

Starters flying to Philadelphia must pack the guns in checked luggage, carry all the necessary documentation for them, run the gauntlet of airport and stadium security. And since airlines ban even blank bullets, they can't bring any of the ammunition they'll need.

"Things definitely aren't easy for starters," Dave Johnson, the Relays director, said last week. "But most have their own systems worked out. We provide them with ammunition and usually, once they get to the stadium, they store their guns in one office or another here. That way they don't need to carry them back and forth from their hotel every day."

Guy, who employs a closed-barrel pistol and about 25 bullets a day, was one of six starters among the 500 officials who volunteer annually at the nation's biggest track and field meet.

Most Relays volunteers are track aficionados who have attended the event for decades - as fans, competitors, and ultimately as officials. In preppy uniforms of blue blazers, khaki pants, red-and-blue ties, and the prized red caps that have become collectibles, the starters, timers, statisticians, announcers, and others are among the annual carnival's most traditional and recognizable participants.

And, Johnson added, among its most indispensable.

"They're essential because ours is a volunteer-driven organization," he said. "These volunteers get a cap each year, a couple of box lunches . . . a cocktail reception Friday evening. That's about it. Yet they fly in from all over the country at their own expense, put themselves up in hotels at their own expense, sacrifice their own vacations and work hours."

They keep coming back, no matter the obstacles.

Though she'll start only a few minor 2017 races, Guy, 75, continues to return even though the daughters she watched compete there are grown and the husband who introduced her to the sport died several years ago.

Voice of the carnival

Burt Ritchie, also 75, a longtime public-address announcer, will journey from Maine again this year to "hang around the announcer's booth" even though a debilitating 2010 stroke forced him to surrender the job he'd performed for decades.

Ritchie, who participated in the Relays as a high schooler in 1959 and then ran track at Penn, first volunteered in 1965. His initial job, collecting postrace batons, was mindless. Then in 1968, he got his first taste of calling a race.

"They had a celebrity announcer from New York at the time," Ritchie recalled. "I was doing various things at the Relays and I got to know him. One Saturday afternoon in the booth, he grabs me by the arm and says, 'Son, sit down here. I'm going to the bathroom and you're going to announce.' "

In the nearly half-century since, Ritchie, a retired insurance salesman who became the lead announcer in 1994, witnessed countless changes, including the introduction of a computerized scoreboard.

"Now the scoreboard shows all the results and many of the races," he said. "We've got to coordinate what we say to what it's showing. But it's great. We used to have runners carrying all the results to us on paper, and on windy days the paper would be blowing all around."

Ritchie said that over the years he also discovered the best way to keep his voice lubricated during the long days of almost nonstop competition:

"Booze," he said.

Meanwhile, Guy turned to officiating as a way of easing the boredom at her daughters' high school and college meets.

"I'd go to them all, but you'd have to wait hours before it was their turn to run," she said. "I thought there had to be something more I could do. That's when I started."

She was a photo finish evaluator until in 1991 she became the Relays' only female starter, a breakthrough that didn't please all her colleagues.

"I was a recall starter once and there's an unwritten rule that when the kids are going around the first curve, if anybody falls, shoot the gun," she said. "Well, in this race somebody dropped the baton but didn't fall. I didn't call a recall and I was yelled at like crazy by this official on the sideline.

"But Lou Nicastro, the chief starter back then, had my back. He said, 'She did the right thing. Now leave her alone.' I'll never forget that. After that, the gentlemen knew I was for real and they left me alone."

The officials' days are, like marathons, long and grinding. They often get to Franklin Field at 7 or 8 a.m. and don't depart until 12 or more hours later. The demands, even with all the technological innovations, are great and the events don't stop - even when a starter's gun misfires.

"That happens once in a while," Guy said. "When it does, another starter gives you a pistol. There are so many races that you really can't hold them up. Otherwise they wouldn't end until 9 at night. We have to keep it moving."

What keeps them returning, they said, goes beyond love of track. It's the adrenaline spawned by all the noise, competition, and excitement.

"Every once in a while we have a new official come on board," said Johnson. "It doesn't take long for them to get hooked for life. There's an energy and enthusiasm here that's not present at most meets. It's exhausting for these volunteers, but it's exhilarating, too."

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