It's the most popular 10-mile race in the nation. Randy LoBasso digs for its spiritual meaning.
It’s a Saturday in mid-April, and I should have trimmed my toenails. As I stand in this one-bedroom apartment on Fairmount Avenue, my socks are soaked with blood. I catch a backward fall–on thin, beige carpet—with my palms. Lift my legs, peel the socks off. Rub them over my raw toes, crusted dry and brown, and toss them in an old Jansport backpack. Using both hands, I lift myself up and limp over cold tiles to a refrigerator and reach inside for a Molson Canadian. Step outside onto some Fairmount Avenue steps, twist the bottle open.
Sip. The sun and wind are in contrast to each other today—the sun, hot; the wind, cold—which made for perfect running weather along Kelly Drive.
It’s the first time I’ve made it from Fairmount Avenue and 24th Street to the East Falls bridge, and back along Martin Luther King Drive, in five years. It’s also the first time I’ve tried. And judging by the way the bottoms of my feet and the joints in my knees feel, I made the plunge too soon.
The friend whose house I stopped at after my jog says he figured my first move would have been for a glass of water. I tell him I’ve been craving this beer on his steps since crossing Montgomery Drive. I unplug some headphones but continue the Spotify app playlist through my phone’s small speaker—music based on the Descendents’ song “Coolidge”—I’ve perfected with up and down votes over the past few months, letting the next track play, though I can barely hear it.
The short-term injuries and aches that result from my workout become worse as the afternoon progresses. When I take a shower, for instance, I notice my inner thighs are rubbed raw, something I unsuccessfully attempted to correct around mile five with what I’ll call “wide strides.” (I must’ve looked funny.) I don’t remember the bottoms of my feet being in this much pain when I trained for the Broad Street Run five years ago. Suddenly, I wonder if I should’ve followed the Foot Locker salesperson’s advice months earlier and opted for the form-fitting soles as a supplement.
Like some 44,000 other Philadelphians, Greater Philadelphia area-ers, out-of-staters, Africans, Europeans, Asians and others from all over the world, I’m scheduled to run 10 miles down Broad Street, from Olney to the Navy Yard, on May 4, in the most popular 10-mile run in the United States. And, like many of the runners that’ll be there, I’m not really a runner, but I have my own motivations for putting myself through the time and pain that goes along with this most basic of exercises. Depending on who you’re talking to, the run is either just that—a run—or it’s so much more. It’s a goal to reach via a New Year’s resolution, an accomplishable way to fulfill a promise, a way of coping with getting older, lingering motivation to force yourself to get up and get out of the house, and, ultimately, a way to avoid death’s shadow.
Broad Street Run participants come from all over the place, but for those within the city, it’s an unspoken (or sometimes spoken) rule that if you can run the Schuylkill River Loop—from the Art Museum to the East Falls Bridge and around on MLK Drive, back to the Museum, a total of about 8.5 miles—you’ll be able to finish Broad Street. The total mileage is less (Broad Street is about 10 miles), but the terrain is tougher in that it includes some inclines, mostly, and Broad Street is unique in that it’s almost exclusively downhill.
The herd of runners clotting Kelly Drive along Boathouse Row on a given pre-May weekend or after work hours tends to thin out after the Girard Street Bridge. Past the Temple and St. Joe’s boathouses, the Strawberry Mansion bridge, it can get pretty silent, save the cars whizzing by at illegal speeds. By the time you hit East Falls, the people start picking back up, but many of them are on bike tours of the city, fishing in the Schuylkill, walking east from Manayunk, or hitting In Riva, a restaurant near North Ferry Road.
That’s also when a run along Kelly Drive goes from anxious to relaxing. My breaths are in place, my cramps are gone, and now, it’s just me and the oft-ignored Philaelphia greenery. After getting up there, you can turn back, sure, but there’s no shortcut home. Pretty soon, I begin thinking about my inevitable beer and outdoor sitting. My thirst for a beer at the end of my trip is not unique. After all, beer is good. It’s also something that brings together hordes of runners everywhere. Just ask someone in a local running club, like the West Philly Runners, who are well known for grabbing beers after their six-mile jogs; or the more-obviously named Fishtown Beer Runners. The latter group was begun, it’s told, as a reason to test out a study done by Manuel J. Castillo-Garzon, MD, professor of medical physiology, who found that beer and water have similar rehydration effects, then created a group which would use the idea to motivate runners, run to a tavern, and drink quality beers.
Beer is just one way to get people off their asses, though.
Philosophers, writers, doctors and everyone in between have been pondering exercise for millennia. And if not for mental health, then for physical. Fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca taught in his 1354 work “Protest Against the Doctor” that exercise is a “natural remedy to replace medicines that poison the body”
Closer to home: In Philadelphia in 1772, physician Benjamin Rush recommended sports and exercise in his “Sermons to Gentlemen Upon Temperance & Exercise,” which laid the foundation of exercise and fitness in preventative medicine. Since then, we’ve heard it all: Staying physically active will keep us thinner, make us happier, feel us better.
So it makes sense that the Broad Street Run, and mass exercises like it, have become exceedingly popular in recent years. Jim Marino, the race director at the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, and in charge of the Broad Street Run, has some theories as to why it’s gotten so popular, with potential racers now entering a lottery system just to put their body through pain and gain.
Other than the light cost factors and the run’s single road making it unique, he says there’ve been two deciding factors: Money and women—not necessarily in that order.
“Women in the running industry have skyrocketed,” he says, and “our numbers really jumped after the recession in 2008.”
Between 2008 and 2013, the Broad Street Run’s popularity increased 67 percent—and the demand for runners wasn’t limited to Philadelphia. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association says that in 2012, 51.4 million Americans went running at least once, and 29.4 million Americans ran at least 50 days during the year. That’s an increase of almost 3 percent from the previous year.
Over the past 20 years, according to Running USA, every year, save 2003, saw an increase in the number of finishers of U.S. running events. And in 2012, of the 15.5 million finishers, 8.6 million of them—more than half—were women. In 1990, for comparison’s sake, women made up about a third of all finishers.
Regarding the money, Marino suspects “more people had the opportunity to train” during the recession and the down-economic years of 2008-2013. “They were running off frustration and things like that. They were getting it out through exercise while they were waiting to get back into the workforce. With that, they developed a passion for running and have been there ever since.”
Psychologically, that makes sense, since economic downturns often have an effect on happiness. But James Herbert, head of the psychology department at Drexel University, says it’s hard to draw a direct cause-effect relationship between the recession and running.