Since 1954, Joe Schrag has been a participant, a spectator, a coach, an administrator or a volunteer at the Kansas Relays.
The University of Kansas has conducted the event all those decades, and it brings together high school, college and open invitational competitors. The format of the meet has changed through the years, but it has remained a fixture in the outdoor track and field season.
While the 76-year-old Schrag doesn’t date to when the Kansas Relays began in the university’s football stadium in 1923, few have his historical knowledge of the event. Schrag’s book, “The Kansas Relays: Track and Field Tradition in the Heartland,” introduces readers to some of the people and performances he has witnessed firsthand during the past 60 years.
Schrag, who ran collegiately at Bethel College and was a track and field coach at Topeka West High School in Kansas from 1962 to 2003, was inspired to write the book when the University of Kansas made the decision to remove the track from inside Memorial Stadium, where it had been housed since the beginning.
Opponents of that move, including Schrag, were concerned the decision would bring an end to the Kansas Relays. But at the new facility at Rock Chalk Park, in northwest Lawrence, Kansas, the event has kept moving forward. Rock Chalk Park first hosted the Kansas Relays in 2014.
“All the doubters, like me, can see it wasn’t a bad idea after all,” says Schrag, who has a master’s degree in English from Kansas. “It is a state-of-the-art facility. … That helps get people here.”
Schrag is an event coordinator at the Kansas Relays and does his best to ensure everything runs without glitches. Included in the book is an account of 7-foot-1 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain competing in the high jump and triple jump at the event.
“He probably would have been a great decathlete, assuming he could pole vault,” Schrag says. “He was a good enough athlete to learn how to do that. He wasn’t great at track and field because he never truly focused on it. But he was a 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-8 high jumper and a 50-foot triple jumper.”
Schrag also remembers when the Soviet Union sent some of its best athletes to the Kansas Relays in 1983 at the height of the Cold War. The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviets, in turn, were about to boycott the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But in between, the Soviets showed up in Kansas, counting themselves among the more than 150 Olympians who have competed in the Kansas Relays.