Think about your own high school athletics experience. What do you remember the most? When you bump into former teammates, what do you talk about? When I bump into my former athletes from my tenure at Antioch Community High School (2006-09), the answer is almost ways the same. Banana Relays. That’s what kids remember. That’s what they want to talk about.
What are Banana Relays? A lot of you probably think I’m talking about a weightman 4x100m Relay, where four throwers run a 4x100m and the anchor leg has to eat a banana. Unfortunately, that’s not what I’m talking about, though those events are outstanding (we ran one at Antioch as well, at our frosh/soph invitational). But the premise of the Banana Relays I’m talking about are the same.
The Banana Relays we ran at Antioch could be better described as Continuous Relays. This means each team member doesn’t just run one leg. Each team member will run multiple legs, with the anchor leg eating a banana to finish the race. Our short sprinters ran a 100m and 200m leg, our long sprinters ran a 400m and 200m leg, and our distance runners ran a 400m and 800m leg. With all these legs taking place, organization is essential. We’ll get more into that later.
Let’s say each relay has four short sprinters, two long sprinters and two distance runners. I’m going to give each of them labels so you can understand how the relay is run. The first short sprinter will be called SS1, the second SS2, etc. Long sprinters will be LS1 and LS2. Distance runners will be D1 and D2. Here’s the order and distances we’ll run for the relay.
SS1 – 100m
SS2 – 100m
SS3 – 100m
SS4 – 100m
LS1 – 400m
LS2 – 400m
D1 – 400m
D2 – 400m
SS1 – 200m
SS2 – 200m
SS3 – 200m
SS4 – 200m
LS1 – 200m
LS2 – 200m
D1 – 800m
D2 – 800m
As you can see, this is a long relay (totaling 4800 meters). The athletes will get adequate recovery between their races, and I’ll even give them a little sheet of paper that shows them which exchange zone to go to after their first leg. Thankfully, in this example, once the 100m legs are finished, there are only two exchange zones we need to be concerned with. We make sure each athlete know exactly whom they’re catching the baton from and whom they’re handing off to (it’ll be the same for both legs). The coaches need to make sure to yell out after each leg where the athletes should be next, stuff like, “SS1, you need to head to exchange zone 1 for your next leg! That’s the common finish line! You’ll be catching it from D2.”
Is this a large task to take on? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. As long as you’re organized and the kids are prepared, they will love it, they will talk about it, they will look forward to it. Why? Because it’s fun!
Why the heck are we eating a banana at the end of this relay? Isn’t just running a long relay good enough? There are two main reasons why we eat a banana at the end.
1. It’s fun. Your athletes are going to see literally thousands of races during the year where the athlete who crosses the finish line first wins. How many do they see where the ability to eat a banana while fatigued comes into play? Your team will love this part of the race. Everybody will gather around to cheer on their team.
2. It keeps your team in the competition, no matter where you are in the race. This is a long race, and the teams may be lopsided. If your team gets down by 100 meters, it’s easy to just give up. But…the banana keeps your team in the race. Yeah, maybe you’re behind, but your anchor leg is a virtuoso! You never know. That banana is the Hail Mary. Everybody is still in it. Only once in the four years we ran this race at Antioch did the team that finished first in the running portion actually win the race (and that’s because they somehow ended up with the two best distance runners on their team; we’ll cover how to draft teams later).
You don’t have to run with the banana as a baton; the first handoffs would be very difficult and the banana would be mush by the end of the race. We ran with batons and handed the anchor legs bananas as they crossed. The anchor leg has to weigh his pace against his wind. If he runs his last 800m leg ten seconds faster, will that harm him by more than ten seconds in eating the banana? Somebody sucking for air will not be able to eat a banana quickly. Strategy becomes key.
Team Names, Jerseys, Promotion, etc.
Remember, in addition to this being a good, competitive workout, the main reason this is worth your time is because it’s fun. So embrace that and turn it into an event. Picking a team name helps tremendously. Almost ten years after the fact, I have plenty of athletes who still remember their Banana Relay team name (especially if they won).
Why not wear a bunch of crazy uniforms? Remember, it’s fun! The crazier the better, as long as you can compete in it. We’d take a big team picture after the race every year with all the athletes in their crazy uniforms. Old school jerseys, capes, headbands, wigs, wrestling singlets, championship belts, tutus, Halloween outfits, sunglasses that wrap over the top of your head. The more far out, the better.
Promote your event! Put up posters in the school advertising it. Put a picture of the winning team in the trophy case. Mention the winning team at the banquet. Recognize former champions in practice. Create a culture of fun. We had a King Kong trophy that would sit in the trophy case all with a picture of the winning team attached.
Want to know another great idea? Have your athletes practice with their Banana Relay team during the week leading up to the event. We’d usually hold Banana Relays on a Wednesday during a week in March when we didn’t have any meets. For that week, the relay teams would gather with each other. They’d warm-up with each other. The day before, we’d do a “practice run” where they’d have to hand off to their teammates. We’d set up where the handoffs were going to be, so they wouldn’t be confused on race day.
Choosing the Teams
How do you pick teams for such an event? Obviously, you want to strive to make the teams as even as possible. The event becomes significantly more fun if it’s close. In the four years we ran Banana Relays at Antioch, we chose teams three different ways. There were advantages and disadvantages of each. I cannot tell you which is the best. That’s a subjective decision you can make for yourself. Maybe you have your own theory as well. Here are the three ways we chose up teams…
Coaches Draft the Teams
This is pretty simple. I just went through the roster and picked the teams myself. As the head coach, I had an idea how good each athlete was, but I’d still ask my other coaches for advice at times. The main advantages are that it doesn’t take up any practice time, and the race will usually be pretty even. In general, I had a lot better idea of the athlete’s abilities than their teammates did, and I had no bias.
Team Captains Draft the Teams
We had a six-lane track at Antioch, so we always divided up into six teams. I’d pick six kids who were leaders on the team and let them draft their own team. The kids loved doing this. In this age of Fantasy Football, kids love to show how great they are at drafting. Before the draft, I would separate out the athletes into the three categories (short sprinter, long sprinter, distance) to make sure one team didn’t end up with seven short sprinters and no distance runners, or vice versa. One year I had the captains pick by category (we drafted all the short sprinters first, then drafted the long sprinters, etc.), and another year I just let them pick any athlete they wanted first as long as they didn’t take too many from each group. You can set the draft order however you like, but strive to make it as fair as possible. The disadvantage of having the athletes draft is that the teams will probably be a little lopsided. Captains will pick their friends instead of the better athletes, plus they just aren’t as knowledgeable as the coaches are on each athlete’s ability. The main advantage, of course, is that it adds to the fun. Captains love picking teams. Athletes love the fact that their peers picked them.
Anchor Legs Draft the Teams
This is a simpler way to have the athletes pick the teams. Beforehand, you should know who your anchor legs (i.e. banana eaters) are going to be. By having these athletes draft the teams, you’ve got a nice, clean draft. You may want to bring in a couple of the older athletes on the team to help advise. The coaches can obviously make suggestions as well. When we drafted this way, we’d draft by category, and have the slowest anchor leg pick first. Main disadvantage, again, is that the teams will be a little more lopsided than if the coaches picked. Advantages are the same as having captains pick, plus it gives more credence to the anchor legs. The anchor legs are the star of this relay. There’s no way around it.
We’ve covered a lot in this article already. Hopefully by now you’ve figured out two things about hosting a Banana Relay…
1. It’s a lot of fun.
2. It’s a lot of work.
The more organized you are, the better. Part of being organized is having a backup plan. What if somebody is sick? What if somebody twists an ankle right before the race? What if an athlete pulls a hamstring on his first leg? You have to have some “backup” athletes ready to go. There are really only two good options for your backups: coaches and throwers.
Hopefully you have at least one coach on staff who’s still in pretty decent shape. If so, they’d be a great backup. I was in my late 20’s when we ran these at Antioch, so I was a backup all four years (and was called into duty twice).
Basically the only event group on my team that wasn’t involved in the Banana Relays were the throwers. Most were very happy about not having to run (and loved being cheerleaders instead), but a few wanted to be involved. If somebody wanted to run, I’d always let them, as long as we had space. You need your numbers to match up for each team to be even. I’d fill in the gaps with throwers who were enthusiastic about competing. And we’d get another couple athletic throwers to be backups. Am I going to make them run a distance leg? Of course not.
You as the coach have to figure out the starting lines and such as well. We never had two years in a row where the race was exactly the same. One year we had six athletes per team, the next year we had nine. Figure out your numbers, then count backwards from the finish line to figure out the starting line. I always hoped to start the race with a straight-up 4x100m Relay and cut in from there.
I couldn’t possibly cover everything about the Banana Relays in one article. That would be like trying to cover all the basics of running a track meet in one article. You might be thinking, why did you stop running these when you went to Lake Forest? Great question. The main answer is that my teams at Lake Forest are around twice as big as they were at Antioch (probably 3-4 times as big in the distance crew). Instead we’ve run T-Shirt Relays, where I unload a bunch of old t-shirts on the athletes by having my sprint crew run a continuous relay (say, 6x200m) that I pick teams for the day of. It’s not as fun, not as memorable, but much more manageable. But you know what? Maybe we’ll start Banana Relays up at Lake Forest High School this year. Help build some lasting memories.
Hopefully I’ve given you enough information to help you consider whether this would be a great activity for your team. If you have any questions, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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