By Jim Irish
Power Memorial Academy runner Pete Lovett sat alone and dejected in his Philadelphia hotel room.
Earlier that afternoon on Friday, April 25, 1969, Lovett had received the baton from his younger brother, John, with a “substantial lead” on the mile anchor leg in the high school distance medley relay at the Penn Relays at Franklin Field. However, despite running a personal record of 4 minutes, 20.1 seconds, he was unable to hold off Rice High School’s Denis Fikes and St. Peter’s Danny Carroll.
Fikes, a future middle distance star at the University of Pennsylvania and sub-four-minute miler, was timed in 4:12.1 to lead his relay team to victory. Power finished third.
“I’m bummed out,” remembers Lovett, who shared the hotel room with Tony Colon, the half miler on the relay. “I’m so upset with myself. I felt I let the team down. I wanted to win this thing.”
Power Memorial track coach John Bielen, a member of the order of the Christian Brothers of Ireland, entered the room as the downcast Lovett was mentally berating himself.
“You seem to be upset,” Bielen said in a quiet tone. “What are you upset about? We just got medals. Right?"
“Yeah,” Lovett replied.
“And you’re the one who wanted to do this,” said Bielen, who had handed Lovett the application for the event to mail in.
“Yeah,” Lovett responded.
“You just got your best mile, didn’t you?
Bielen went through a litany of positive events and then wrapped it up, Lovett recalls.
“What’d we originally come down here for?” Bielen asked.
“The two-mile relay,” Lovett replied.
“How do you think we’ll go with that?” Bielen asked.
“We’re gonna win,” Lovett proclaimed.
Fifty years later, Lovett recalls the astonishing conversation with wonder and gratitude.
"...He talked me off the ledge."
-- Pete Lovett about John Bielen
“So (Bielen) gets me from being down on myself to being up and prepared for the next day,” Lovett says. “He talked me off the ledge.”
Bielen arrives with a winning formula
When Bielen arrived at Power Memorial, a Catholic all-boys school in Manhattan, New York City in 1967 after guiding Leo High School of Chicago to new heights in cross country and track, he established a similar formula: attention to detail, demanding, consistent workouts, and concern for the athletes. After Saturday meets, Power runners knew that their splits and times would be posted on the school bulletin board on Monday morning.
“(Bielen) organized it; (he was) very disciplined,” Pete Lovett says. “He would document everything we were doing. He got us focused. That’s what it came down to. He worked methodically to get things done.”
With no track of its own or one nearby, Power athletes ran most outdoor workouts at Sheep Meadow, a 15-acre expanse of grass in serene Central Park that was inhabited by herds of sheep in the 19th century.
They ran on the cinder tracks at Van Cortlandt Park at Broadway and 242nd Street and Bainbridge Ave. at 205th Street only during Easter recess by riding the subway to the Bronx, John Lovett recalls.
“We were the bastard stepchild, looking for a place where we could run quarter miles,” teammate Andy Walsh says.
"We were the bastard stepchild, looking for a place where we could run quarter miles."
-- Andy Walsh
Power Memorial trains on the grass of Sheep Meadow
To reach Sheep Meadow, runners jogged about a half mile from the school at 61st Street and 10th Avenue to the park entrance at 65th Street and Central Park West at 8th Avenue.
Colon recalls Bielen using a measuring wheel to mark off a half mile at the park. Walsh says they ran a square to the four corners.
“(There was) a tree halfway out that we ran around and an elevated rock patch,” he recalls.
In preparation for the outdoor season, Bielen prescribed doses of mostly intervals of 220, 440, and 880 yards, John Lovett says.
“They were fast and tough,” Lovett says.”“We would really push each other. We were racing each other. We ran hard. That was one of the reasons we were so good. We knew as a team we were ready to run fast from those workouts. I know for myself I felt very confident to compete against anyone.”
Colon concurs with Lovett about the speed work. He says they trained hard Monday through Wednesday, then “backed off” on Thursday and Friday.
“(Bielen told us) ‘Just go out and jog a little bit and go home,’” Colon says. “He wanted us to have fresh legs.”
The lack of a track never hindered Power Memorial runners from competing at the highest level. Colon and later Matt Centrowitz ran the fastest miles in the nation as seniors in 4:06.0 in 1970 and 4:02.7 in 1973, respectively.
Lovett says Bielen instilled confidence and a winning attitude in his runners.
“He was an amazing coach,” he says.
Bielen wasn’t satisfied with routine daily workouts either.
“(He) was always experimenting, trying to take you out of your comfort zone, where he could learn something and we could learn more about ourselves,” Walsh says.
A week before the Penn Relays, the foursome of Walsh, Colon, Peter and John Lovett -- all seniors except for Colon, a 6-foot-1 junior -- won the two-mile relay at the Queens-Iona Relays on a sodden cinder track on Randall’s Island in 7 minutes, 55 seconds. The time would have been faster on a dry track.
“The clay got in your spikes, and you had clumps,” Walsh remembers.
Following the disappointment in the distance medley at the Penn Relays, the team was primed for the two-mile relay on Saturday, but they expected to encounter stiff competition. State College, Pa., had beaten Power Memorial indoors in the two-mile relay at the Loughlin Games in December without Pete Lovett, who wasn’t eligible until January. With Lovett in the lineup, Power won four consecutive races against State College, including Eastern States at the 168th Street Armory in a meet record of 7:53.7.
Essex Catholic and Roselle Catholic, both from New Jersey, were also dangerous. Roselle had won the two-mile relay at the Penn Relays the previous year with Joe Savage on the anchor leg.
"They were running with an element of vengeance."
-- Walsh about his teammates
“They were running with an element of vengeance,” Walsh says about Peter and John Lovett and Colon after the Friday loss.
Colon remembers standing with John Lovett in the lobby of their hotel when a runner from another school approached them and said that the team from State College, which was also staying in the hotel, bragged how they would win the two-mile relay the next day.
“I kinda looked at John, and he looked at me,” Colon says. “We’re like ‘All right. I’m glad they’re confident. They don’t know what it’s like to run against New York kids. We don’t play around.’”
A perfect day for a record time at Penn Relays
The weather was ideal on Saturday: sunshine and about 60 degrees.
As far as spectators, “It was easily north of 30,000, probably 35,000,” Walsh estimates.
Two years earlier, the University of Pennsylvania had installed a synthetic track with polyurethane at Franklin Field, one of the first in the nation to do so.
“It would be like having lightning under your feet,” Walsh says about the synthetic surface. “You felt you were on a trampoline.”
Colon says Bielen exhorted the four runners before the race.
“Don’t worry about times,” Bielen said. “The goal is to win.”
Walsh recalls Bielen saying to them: “You guys have done the work. You’re ready for a good race. Now, let’s get it done.”
The start was staggered: six runners on the inside lanes and six, including Power Memorial, on the outside, closer to the wall.
Running the leadoff leg, Walsh remembers the gun starting the race and making an aggressive move. But officials called for a restart.
Now, Walsh’s cover was blown. At the second start, two runners to Walsh’s left were far more aggressive.
“I was on the outside,” he says. “I had to stay in that lane all the way around the (first curve). I didn’t have enough strength to get all the way in past the six guys who were already on the inside rail at the start. It became a bit of a slalom for me. I had to weave my way through.”
Although it’s hazy, Walsh remembers being in about sixth place coming off the final curve. He passed a couple of runners and handed the baton to Colon in third or fourth with a time of 1 minute, 59.6 seconds.
“In all the times we ran that year, I never gave (Colon) the lead,” Walsh says.
Colon, who had run 1:55.7 on the distance medley relay on Friday, says he exploded “with a lot of adrenaline. I passed everybody right away except for the (State College) guy.”
He was “a step behind” the State College runner in 1:54.2 when he gave the baton to Pete Lovett.
“I knew when I handed off the baton, it was over,” Colon says. “I didn’t even bother to watch.”
He moved to the infield, removed his spikes, sat on the grass, and caught his breath. When Colon finally looked up, anchor John Lovett was in the lead. Walsh arrived at that moment.
“Those gold watches are looking real nice right now,” Colon said to Walsh.
After taking the baton, Pete Lovett went after the State College runner.
“I can hear Bielen on the (first) turn yelling to me, ‘Slow down,’” Pete Lovett says laughing. “That put me in a rhythm after that.”
Pete Lovett passed the State College runner after the first 220 and increased the lead before handing off to his brother in 1:54.6.
John Lovett estimates that his brother gave him a 10- to 15-yard lead.
"They made my job easy. All I had to do was smile."
-- John Lovett
“They made my job easy,” Lovett says. “All I had to do was smile.”
He didn’t relax on his leg, however.
“I’m going out as fast as I can,” he says. “I probably went out in 52, 53 (seconds in the quarter mile). If anyone wanted to go with me, they had to run under 50.”
Lovett is shown in a photo crossing the finish line in 1:52.1 with the State College runner a distant second. Roselle Catholic was not a factor after its second runner dropped the baton.
“You put a brand new pair of spikes on a track like that, you have to run fast,” Lovett says.
All except Pete Lovett ran personal records. As the team stood in the infield holding the large circular Penn Relays winner’s plaque, Bielen told them their time was 7:40.7. John Lovett wasn’t initially impressed.
“I was more excited to get the Penn Relays watch,” says Lovett, who was selected as the high school MVP of the meet. “I’m more about the toys and trinkets.”
The time was a Penn Relays record,
eclipsing by almost four seconds the 7:44.1 by Boys High of Brooklyn in 1967. It was also the third fastest in U.S. high school history. Only the 7:35.6 shared by Andrew Jackson High of Queens and Boys High at St. John’s University in New York in 1966 was faster.
Power Memorial’s record remained intact for 21 years until St. Jago from the island of Jamaica was timed in 7:35.89 for 3,200 meters. The Penn Relays converted to meters in 1976. Power’s metric time was 7:38.1.
“The Penn Relays was the crown jewel of running,” says Pete Lovett about the oldest and largest track competition in the United States.
Power’s national Catholic school record wasn’t broken until 2011 by St. John the Baptist of West Islip, N.Y., in 7:37.93.
"The Penn Relays was the crown jewel of running."
-- Pete Lovett
In 1995, the Power Memorial relay team was the first high school inducted into the Penn Relays Wall of Fame.
All four own their Penn Relays watches to this day. Colon says he told his daughter he wants to be buried with his watch.
Despite protests by alumni, teachers, and students, the Christian Brothers closed Power Memorial in June 1984 after 53 years because of “increased operating costs and the deteriorating condition” of the 90-year old building, according to a June 8, 1984 article in The New York Times.
The property sold in 1985 for $13 million. The school was demolished, and a luxury apartment building was erected on the site.
Fifty years later
Walsh competed in track at Fordham University for four years and was a utility athlete, competing in the triple jump and steeplechase among other events. He completed the New York Marathon -- his only marathon -- in 3 hours, 22 minutes in 1983.
After graduation from Fordham, he worked in accounting for pharmaceutical companies such as Bristol Meyers and Colgate. He spent 15 years at Geller and Company, a financial advisory firm, before retiring in 2017. He lives in Ramsey N.J., enjoys his three grandsons, and plays golf left handed.
An All-American at Manhattan College, Colon ran the mile on the winning distance medley relay in world-record time at the Division I NCAA Indoors championships in 1973. Manhattan won the NCAA Indoors title that year -- the only one in school history. A sub-four miler, he competed for Puerto Rico in the 1,500 meters at the Olympics in 1972 and 1976.
Colon teaches Spanish at Garland High School in Garland, Texas. He runs about 25 miles a week to remain fit.
Pete Lovett entered Western Kentucky University with a track scholarship, but he says the university reneged on its promise after his arrival. Lovett refused to run, ending his career.
He has worked since 1986 for the New York City Parks and Recreation Department and is currently the manager at the Fort Hamilton Senior Center in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
John Lovett, a five-time All-American at Manhattan College, ran the half mile on Manhattan’s distance medley relay at the NCAA Indoors meet in 1973.
He worked for Allstate Insurance as a claims adjuster and manager for 38 years. From 1999-2017, he was the head track coach at Bishop Kearney High School in Brooklyn and is currently an assistant track coach at Manhattan College.
Bielen coached and taught at Power Memorial until 1977 but never coached track again. Power Memorial captured six Catholic city high school cross country championships during his 10-year tenure. Colon and Centrowitz were both two-time Olympians. Bielen was selected as a USA Junior Olympic coach and as a coach for the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Junior Dual Meet in 1974.
He resigned from the Christian Brothers and worked as an administrator at two public high schools in suburban New York City.
He died suddenly while visiting his family in California on Jan. 12, 1992 at age 53. Bielen's memorial service was attended by hundreds -- including the four members of the record-setting two-mile relay -- at Blue Chapel at Fordham in March.
In 1997, he was inducted posthumously into the Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) Hall of Fame.
Jim Irish is a freelance writer living near Austin, Texas.