“Is Somerset coming up?”
“Yes, it’s just ahead. The next block is sketchy.”
Yes, there were some sketchy portions of this run. Well, I prefer to call them “gritty” sections of Philadelphia. After all, this is a gritty town but with so many hidden gems. This combination made for a unique and amazing run through Philadelphia. I felt like both an athlete and tourist at the same time.
This was the third year for the Rocky 50k, an event cooked up by Rebecca Barber who was inspired after reading the Dan McQuade article that tried to lay out the area covered by Rocky in the training montages from the movies. The route / course is a planning marvel.
This is known as a “Fat Ass” race which means no awards, no amenities, no road closures. It is a “run at your own risk” kind of event, and it does not disappoint. When you think about it, it’s simply about running and the enjoyment of our sport. At the same time, it is a great way to see Philadelphia. I’ll take a run vs. the Duck Boats any day of the week as a wonderful way to be a tourist in the City of Brotherly Love.
That being said, 50k is a long distance…31 miles. The distance requires a certain level of respect and preparation. In the previous five weeks, my longest run was the NYC Marathon; however, since then, I hadn’t run more than eight miles at a time. It probably was not the smartest idea to decide to run this only four days before the event, let alone run it in full Rocky sweats. On the other hand, I went with the “Don’t overthink it and just have fun” mentality, and it somehow worked.
I figured I would run much slower than my marathon pace, so my body wouldn’t be beaten up as much. Also, I did use my hydration vest to have some kind of safety net. In addition to liquids, my vest held my phone, energy gels and the course directions. I know I know…Rocky didn’t
have a hydration vest, but he didn’t run 31 miles all at once…oh, and he is fictional.
The race starts at the convergence of the intersection of Wolf, Lambert and Passayunk in South Philadelphia, just near the fictional home of Rocky himself. As I arrived with my wife and her friend (both planned on running the first ten miles), we were greeted by an enthusiastic Rebecca who was carrying Dunkin Donuts munchkins for anyone interested. While we waited to start at 7am, dozens of Rocky look-alikes showed up, including a woman carrying a stuffed chicken who was nice enough to allow us to pose with it.
This chicken was easy to catch
At 6:57am, we posed for a selfie and Rebecca made a few announcements, including thank you’s to those who donated sneakers to Back On My Feet. Without a ton of fanfare, we were off, heading northeast on Passayunk through South Philly and eventually into Society Hill and Old City. I stopped here and there to snap photos during the first few miles.
Lots of food / fueling options along the route
Initially, I was on my own, but around Mile 4, I met up with a pack of runners, including a woman from DC (I never got her name), and Terry, a runner from South Jersey as well as two other runners. In the Port Richmond area, Terry and I stopped to use a porto-john (near a construction site as opposed to one being provided by the race). This was a lucky placement because I needed to use a bathroom since the start. The downside was we got separated from the other runners as we ran across Lehigh Avenue.
Somewhere around Mile 8 or 9, we caught another pack of people as we ran down Broad Street. This group would become my comrades until Mile 23. There was Preston, Hannah, Brendan, Terry and me.
Our pack – as seen on Broad Street
The pace felt good with this group, and I vowed to stay with them as long as I could for fear of getting lost. We trekked back into South Philadelphia, and headed east on Washington Ave.
Eventually, we worked our way up the streets of the Italian Market, and since a car was holding up traffic as the driver parallel parked, I took it upon myself to run in the middle of the street.
As I passed a guy unloading a truck to deliver vegetables, he yelled “Go Rocky!” I couldn’t help but smile. It was one of those memorable moments that won’t be duplicated.
As we worked our way north for the second time, this time up 2nd street via Northern Liberties and Fishtown (Miles 15-17?), the pack’s pace as just under 9 min / mile, and included Mile 17 in 8:34…the pack agreed this was a bit fast so we slowed it down after that.
At Mile 18ish, we made that right onto Somerset (in an area someone called sketchy).
It wasn’t the prettiest of neighborhoods, but we were greeted with confused, polite smiles from people and we got the occasional cheer. One house even had a Christmas tree and Santa outside, which helped the area feel more festive. I must have smelled marijuana at least five times in this stretch just beyond the B Street Bridge; however, I never felt unsafe. I will say it was an eye opening experience to traverse such a blighted part of Philadelphia while running.
As we ran across Lehigh Avenue the second time (this time all the way to Ridge Ave), I began to feel the effects of running in my Rocky sweats. I was sweating a ton, but I stayed with my pack
(although Terry fell back at this point, so we were a pack of four). One of the biggest challenges of this run is the up and down of the corners and curbs…by Mile 21, I was getting clumsy.
Also, our group missed a left turn onto Hunting Park Ave, and ended up running an extra 1.3 total miles. As we ran along Kelly Drive toward Center City again (Mile 23 or 24), I fell off the pace of the pack. I was warm and had a bad headache. On my own at this point, I took a few walk breaks and decided to keep my pace slower to keep my heart rate down. I vowed not to shed the Rocky outfit out of sheer stubbornness.
Feeling warm and headachy at mile 24ish
As I got closer to the marathon distance, my wife was running out on Kelly Drive, and ran toward Boathouse Row with me. I stopped at the Cosmic Café to get water, and ran passed the Art Museum Steps (I was so tempted to just run up the steps at that point since I had run over the marathon distance; however, I decided to run on to get in the full distance).
My wife ran the last few miles with me which was probably smart because running across town on a crowded Chestnut Street was dangerous for a delirious runner. She was my brain. After I made a left onto Front Street, and a left onto Race Street, I headed toward the Ben Franklin Parkway for the home stretch. By now, my wife had run ahead of me so she could set up and take photos / video of me eventually coming up the “Rocky Steps.”
Seeing the Art Museum from the Parkway, I got a bit choked up. It wasn’t because I was about to finish a 50k (52ish kilometers to be exact…32.29 miles), it was because I was reminded how much I love this city. In fact, I was reminded over and over on Saturday morning why I fell in love with Philadelphia nineteen years ago.
Yes, it is a rugged, scarred city with an inferiority complex at times. Yes, it is a city that can be a bit parochial in its way of thinking bigger than itself. But it’s MY city, and the people of my city showed nothing but love all morning (some of whom didn’t even know what we were all doing running in such areas of the city. They simply waved and smiled or cheered or honked their car
horns…then went about their business).
Philadelphia has changed so much since I arrived here, yet has somehow managed to stay grounded and welcoming. I know the Pope recently experienced this love.
I can’t think of a better way than “running” to see such a cross section of Philadelphia…the famous and the not-so-famous areas of the town. Each year, I find something new to love about this place. So, as I made my weary way up the steps, I got a second wind and skipped up every other step. Yes, they are steps that a fictional character made famous, but these steps are real, as is Philadelphia. It is home.
If the circumstances allow for it, if you asked me if I’d run this again, my answer would be “yes.”
Or, as Rocky would say:
Lehigh Avenue did Shine
Trick photography at Mile 29
Amor para Philadelphia