Drake Relays: A Winning Des Moines Tradition
Drake Blue runs deep.
For two former Drake University graduates, the Drake Relays in particular are a source of community pride and inclusion. Andy Verlengia is a 2002 Drake alumnus who now serves as the Director of Alumni Relations at the university. Chris Verlengia is a two-time graduate of Drake. He earned his BA in ’06 and MCL in ’13. Chris now works as the Senior Brand Marketing Manager for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, while also serving as co-founder and race director of the annual Grand Blue Mile in partnership with the Drake Relays.
Andy and Chris offer some insight into their love of the Relays, as well as how that translated into a life in Greater Des Moines (DSM).
Q: What drew you to Drake University, and what is it that keeps you engaged post-grad?
A: I was drawn to Drake by its academic reputation, smaller campus size and the fact that it was located in Des Moines. The experience was incredible, from joining a fraternity (Sigma Chi) to forming relationships with faculty members, I immediately felt part of the campus community. Being located in Des Moines afforded me the opportunity to intern at Channel 5 (for Drake Alum and now ISU Play by Play broadcaster John Walters) as well as Channel 13 (for Drake Alum Andy Fales.) These are opportunities that never would have been available at a larger school or in a larger market and it also showed me the reach of our Alumni Network.
What has kept me engaged are the many relationships I formed over the years with fellow students, staff and faculty. Having returned to Des Moines and now having the opportunity to work for Drake, I am able to see first-hand how much the experience of attending school here has meant to so many. It is humbling to hear alumni of all ages recount how a favorite faculty member gave them the tools to be successful in their personal and professional life. I’ve quickly realized that regardless of the many changes over the years whether to campus buildings or academic majors, the personal connections students and alumni form with faculty and classmates remains as strong and impactful as it has ever been.
C: I had the good fortune of watching my sister and brother graduate from Drake, and their stellar experience led me to explore the university and ultimately enroll. Of course, my dad earning his doctoral degree from Drake and my mom serving as a longtime employee of the university didn’t hurt either! What I vividly recall, looking back on my decision, was how Drake always felt like home. The campus is accessible, class sizes are small, and most importantly, faculty and staff are genuinely invested in your success. After earning both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Drake, I’ve enjoyed the evolution of my relationship with the university and appreciate that I have abundant opportunities to stay connected personally and professionally.
Q: What were your experiences with the Drake Relays prior to becoming a student?
C: Growing up in DSM, it’s impossible to ignore the Drake Relays. Even before my days at Drake, I remember the feeling of community pride being almost palpable each April. Long before we were hosting the NCAA men’s basketball championship or watching sold-out shows at Wells Fargo Arena, the Drake Relays put and kept DSM on the map.
Q: What made you fall in love with the Drake Relays?
A: The Relays are truly a magical event, both inside and outside of the stadium. As a student, the Relays signal the approaching end of spring semester, painting the street, social activities and so much more. Having been passionate about sports my entire life, I wanted to not only experience the social activities surrounding Relays but also the events themselves. I had the opportunity to serve as a field reporter for the Drake Broadcasting System, which was at the time the largest student run production in the country. Standing on the field inside the Blue Oval watching elite professional, college and high school athletes compete and interviewing them afterward was incredible. The beauty of the Drake Relays is that it means so many different things to so many people, from those that attended school at Drake, to those who have competed to those who have sat for generations in the stands, it is a singular and unifying experience.
C: If I’m being honest, my wife! She was recruited to run at Drake by former Drake Relays Director Brian Brown, and chose the university in large part due to the reputation of the historic Drake Relays and the opportunity to participate in this iconic event. To this day, she’s responsible for much of my track & field education and keeps me personally engaged in the sport. Professionally, my passion for the Relays was born from co-founding the Grand Blue Mile and helping nurture it from infancy to America’s third largest road mile and frequent host of the USA Track & Field 1 Mile Championships.
Q: What do The Grand Blue Mile and Road Races mean to you, and how do they benefit the Drake Relays?
A: My first experience with the Grand Blue Mile was when I traveled back to Iowa while living in Florida. While I enjoy exercising, running has never been something I have been good at or particularly enjoyed. As a result, I have always hesitated to sign up for a race as most are a 5K or further. What I loved about the inaugural GBM (aside from being my brother’s project) was how accessible the distance was. Whether you’re new to exercise or an avid runner, the race is appealing to both. Over the years I have run the race for time but also enjoyed walking the course with my parents, siblings and nieces and nephews. This race truly brings the DSM community together to celebrate health and wellness while kicking off Relays week.
I believe strongly that just as Drake is ‘Des Moines Hometown Team’ the Relays are Des Moines’ event, not just the University’s. These two races allow community members to actively get involved in the Relays experience aside from sitting in the stands and watching. They are also a vital part of what has become a weeklong tradition, inclusive of the Beautiful Bulldog Contest, Pole Vault in Capital Square, numerous social activities and competition inside the stadium.
C: The Drake Relays has endured because it’s rooted in community and shared experience. While it may appear as a track & field meet — and it is — the Relays have a way of uniting the people of Greater Des Moines (DSM), regardless of their alma mater. For 110 years, it’s provided a national platform to showcase the best of our city and rally support for important initiatives, including Grand Blue Mile. As the state’s largest health insurer, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield is committed to moving Iowa toward a future of better health, and the Drake Relays are helping us lead that charge through this partnership. I couldn’t be prouder of the trajectory of Grand Blue Mile, both as a Drake alumnus and an advocate for community well-being.
Q: Chris, what made you want to add The Grand Blue Mile?
C: While DSM benefits from a multitude of fitness event offerings, the threshold for participation is often unrealistic for someone just getting active. As Brian Brown and I surveyed the landscape more than a decade ago, we identified an opportunity to fill that void by partnering to create an event that would celebrate personal achievement in every form — from elite to recreational. The Grand Blue Mile meets every participant exactly where they are on their individual fitness journey and encourages them to take the next step in their own well-being. We know the importance of developing sustainable healthy habits, and the Grand Blue Mile has provided the incentive and vehicle to do just that for tens of thousands of participants.
Q: Apart from the Drake Relays, what is it about DSM that brought you back or made you stay here?
A: I left Des Moines immediately following graduation in 2002 and spent several years in Chicago before moving to Florida. In that time away I often returned to visit my family and was amazed at how Des Moines was transforming, from the Historic East Village to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park to the incredible dining scene. When professional opportunities came up, I somehow managed to convince my Floridian wife to move back. While I was thrilled to live near family, I was initially stunned by how much I enjoyed living here. I often tell friends from out of town that Des Moines has many of the amenities you would want in a larger city without the negatives. Since returning, we have lived in the Western Gateway neighborhood and enjoyed access to bike trails, walking to incredible restaurants and living what I think is a much ‘cooler’ life than we did in Florida. While family brought us back, I can truly say the city has played a significant role in why we have stayed. I can’t say thank you enough to the many who have had a role in transforming Des Moines and creating this wonderful city to live in.
As well as The Grand Blue Mile.
Find out more about Education and Sports in DSM, as well as the Drake Relays, where the world record holder in the 100 meter hurdles returns to Drake Stadium in 2019! And don’t forget to check out Drake Relays Alumni & Community Events as well as The Grand Blue Mile.
Are you interested in moving to Greater Des Moines (DSM)? Relocation Packets offer information on everything from neighborhoods to shopping, parks and local attractions. Or, kick start your career by checking out the DSM USA Career Center. It has over 10,000 jobs listed!