When College sophomore Thomas Awad crossed the finish line after winning the Olympic development men’s mile run at the 2014 Penn Relays, D. Elton Cochran-Fikes C’74 WG’79 was the first one to greet him.
“Welcome to the club,” Cochran-Fikes exclaimed, before wrapping him in a hug.
Deliriously exhausted, Awad muttered a response he doesn’t exactly remember.
“I probably said, ‘Thanks’ and ‘Ow,’” Awad laughs now. “I wasn’t saying much right after the race.”
Forgive him for not knowing exactly how to react. At that moment, Awad had become the first Penn athlete to run the mile in less than four minutes since 1974—when Cochran-Fikes did it on the same track, in the same race, at the same meet. Even more than a month later, as the former track star and current track star sit side-by-side in Cochran-Fikes’ office, neither can easily express how much it means for them to be forever linked in the Penn record books.
Awad: “It was one of the cooler moments of my life.”
Cochran-Fikes: “It was a very, very powerful moment in my life.”
Although his track days are long in the past, watching Awad win the Penn Relays mile in 3:58.34 at Franklin Field meant a lot to Cochran-Fikes because of how long he had waited for that moment. An avid supporter of the University’s track and field program who has worked for Penn’s Division of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics since 1986 (the last 16 years as the department’s compliance officer), Cochran-Fikes has always longed for someone from his alma mater to join him in the sub-four-minute-mile club—one of the sport’s most illustrious fraternities.
“It’s been 40 years,” he says. “And every year that you get a new crop of student-athletes coming in, you say, ‘Will this be the year? Is it going to happen?’ And the anticipation was building.”
Although the four-minute mile has become something of a standard achievement for today’s elite distance runners, it was a far more exclusive club when Cochran-Fikes joined it in 1974, 20 years after Englishman Roger Bannister became the first to accomplish the feat.
And it nearly didn’t happen.
Because the Penn Relays had discontinued the individual mile run after Bannister won the event there in 1951 (he didn’t break the four-minute barrier at Franklin Field; that came three years later at Iffley Road Track in England), Cochran-Fikes had been only preparing for the 5K and the steeplechase for his final Penn Relays in 1974. But shortly before the meet, he found out from a teammate that the mile was returning to Franklin Field and immediately asked his coach, Jim Tuppeny, why he didn’t know about this. When Tuppeny, the Penn Relays director from 1970-87, replied that he thought his star runner would be too busy with his other races, Cochran-Fikes retorted: “Tupp, how can you have an open mile and not have me in it?”
And so, Cochran-Fikes ran the mile. It ended up being one of the most exhilarating races he had ever been a part of. With fans from all corners of Franklin Field going wild, no fewer than five runners finished in under 4:00, with Cochran-Fikes placing second (3:55) to North Carolina’s Tony Waldrop (3:53.2).
“It was just one of those great races,” Cochran-Fikes says. “When you run a perfect race, it’s effortless. And when I finished with no pain—nothing—I knew it was a good race.”
Since that magical April afternoon in 1974, Cochran-Fikes has attended every Penn Relays but one (when he was in the Marine Corps). But his connection to Penn track doesn’t end there. Although he’s careful not to step on the coaches’ shoes, he goes to other meets and often interacts with the Penn runners —“one of the side bennies of the job,” as he puts it.
“We’re fortunate because we see Elton regularly,” says Steve Dolan, Penn’s director of track and field. “He’s always around our team, around campus, and is well-known amongst our group. He kind of set the bar for excellence for running a long time ago. Everyone is well aware of his name on the record board and who he is. It’s certainly an inspiration to have Elton around.”
Awad first met Cochran-Fikes during a meet at Harvard in his freshman year, but it wasn’t until recently that he began to seriously think about chasing his record. In the midst of a dominating outdoor season in which Awad won six events, Dolan told him to prepare for the mile at Penn, even though his victories leading up to the Penn Relays came in the 800 meters, the 1,500, the 3,000, and the 5,000.
Awad’s previous personal record in the mile was 4:04.54, which he set during the indoors season at Penn State, but he felt that going under four minutes for the first time in his life was attainable.
“I knew I was in good enough shape,” Awad says. “And I felt really good that race. It wasn’t very difficult, essentially. I knew going in that it would be awesome. And at Penn with 50,000 people in the stands, it was.”
Remarkably, Awad joined senior Maalik Reynolds (men’s high jump) and freshman Noel Jancewicz (women’s heptathlon) as individual champions, marking the first time three Penn athletes won titles at the same Penn Relays since 1922. And sophomore Sam Mattis nearly joined them on the medal stand after placing second in the men’s discus.
For Cochran-Fikes, that’s a sign that the Quakers are returning to the forefront of track and field, both at the Ivy League and the national level.
“A lot of wonderful things are going to happen in Penn track and field,” he says.
Perhaps one of them might be for Awad to run an even faster mile, and break Cochran-Fikes’ record. And if that happens, Penn’s four-minute-mile pioneer will make sure he’s on the track, waiting for him with a smile and a hug.
“I’m more than ready to have a new name for the Penn mile record,” he says. “It’s time. Records are meant to be broken. And I think Tom is the guy that’s going to get it.”
—Dave Zeitlin C’03