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Columbia College Chicago
Passing Philly
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Passing Philly

By Wattenbarger

The Broad Street Run is the cheesesteak of races. Its ten miles of history and muscle pain are as markedly Philadelphian and just as obnoxious. Though one celebrates fitness and the other clogged arteries, the partakers of both poke fun at their own senses of virtue. Outside Geno's or Pat's, diners extol the oily taste of high cholesterol. Outside Central High School on race day, runners, whether first-time or veteran, guzzle Gatorade and chuckle to their friends that they're not gonna make it.

My aunt, who's from Seattle and tasted her first cheesesteak only a few years ago, once remarked that the sandwich's inventor must have been afflicted by an insufferable hangover at the time. That intoxicated innovator would fit in here: this year, boozy self-deprecation is in vogue. T-shirt slogans include "I thought they said 'rum'" and "When I signed up, I was wasted." Families and friends cheer on their runners along Broad Street with signs insisting "Cool Beer At The Navy Base." Variations include "Huge shoe sale at the Navy Base!!" Some are more direct: "Where are you guys going??" or "It's not too late to stop."

False assumption number one: the cheesesteak and BSR crowd don't overlap. False assumption number two: the Broad Street Run is about running.

Friday and Saturday before the race, the "Not For Runners Only" Expo takes place at Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles. Here is a weird clash of worlds: as the name suggests, the crowds include more than serious veteran runners. Until two months ago, after all, I hadn't run more than three miles in a row. I definitely hadn't timed my pace or trained in intervals. But the vendors lining the walls of the stadium's West Club Level indicate that novices like me may be in the minority.

Selling three-hundred-dollar running sneakers and technical shirts accompanied by diagrams, most of them cater to the seriously fit, those who've traveled from California, Hawaii and even South Africa to participate. Their customers represent a world entirely apart from the cheerfully inadequate, slapdash Philadelphians with whom I run two days later. These cardiovascular connoisseurs subscribe to Runner's World magazine and replace their shoes on a schedule. They sort through the assortment of specially engineered energy foods and pick out their favorite flavored running gel, while others poke fun at the endless variety: jelly beans? Paste? Chewing gum? IV?

I pick out several flavors of electrolyte-infused Jelly Belly jelly beans, but not without chuckling. Though they'll prove invaluable during the race, the idea of popping energy foods disguised as candy feels absurdly sci-fi. Many of the wares, in fact, evoke such an aesthetic. Streamlined shorts are composed of several kinds of spandex, with seams formulated to prevent chafing and weirdly shiny fabrics to trap just enough warmth. Sneakers have gel-like inserts sandwiched between layers of silver rubber. Combination watch-GPS-heart monitors have displays the size of my palm.

Considering those details, this scene may appear staunchly anti-amateur. It bears traces of a pretension stereotypical of academia. But racks of the aforementioned self-deprecating t-shirts face the sweat-wicking microtech tops, so maybe, I think, all of us are chuckling our way through the ten miles. Humor is about acceptance. Maneuvering through the masses of chatty competitors, I realize that maybe running is, too.

Race day begins when I arrive at Central High School at 7:30 a.m., leaving myself some time before the 8:30 start. During the hour that follows, I eat one package of electrolyte-infused, fruit-punch-flavored Jelly Bellys; I take advantage of the rows of Port-a-Pottys twice, spending between thirty and forty minutes, total, in line; I notice several people I know; and I eavesdrop on multiple conversations between people from several distinct demographics.

There are, of course, the wiry, wealthy business professionals who run marathons for pleasure and sport pricey sci-fi gear. Stolid expressions reveal their expertise: these guys know what they're doing. They carry out their pre-race rituals with a religious precision. My dad, a one-time veteran of both the Broad Street Run and the Philadelphia Half Marathon, aspires to their intensity. He counts his jumping-jacks and makes a show of taking deep, deliberate breaths. Though he began running only about a year and a half ago, my father is committed. He blogs about his weekly runs. He buys those GPS watches.

In contrast, though, much of the crowd consists of middle-aged women with names like Gina and Valerie, Italian-American mothers from South Philly or Roxborough, gossiping with friends about their sons' girlfriends and nieces' new babies. They make small talk about the race, most of them confiding that they just hope to finish. "I'll be walking by the end," one woman chuckles to an acquaintance she's encountered by chance, "but since we're both alone, you wanna run together?" Her cheer captures the dominant attitude: this might be miserable, but we're here, so why not?

At about 8:20, I join the rest of the Yellow Corral, runners who will finish between one hour and 40 minutes and two hours. Around me, people stretch, run in place, drink water, suck down energy gels (they're more prevalent than I expected; during the race I see discarded wrappers every few feet). The first corral leaves at 8:30, and we slowly shift into their space, approaching the start line. Each time we push forward, no matter how small the distance, cheers arise from the crowd.

We finally reach Broad and Somerville several minutes after nine. At the starting line, speakers on either side of the street blare "Eye of the Tiger" (as Philly runners, Rocky references are inevitable). The song is our motivational mantra, or our anthem of patriotism, or both. We'll hear it several more times this morning, echoing from stereos held to rowhouse windows and played by the spirited cover bands, composed of aging Rolling Stones and Journey fans, that appear every few miles. For now, though, our adrenaline soars, and we cross the line roaring.

For the first five-or-so miles, we move as a pack. We punctuate our diaphragmal breaths with triumphant shouts as we approach the half-mile markers. Someone has fixed sprinkler attachments to fire hydrants, and we run through their mist for short-lived relief. The course stretches downhill the whole way, and the few uphill inclines are stunning: from a block away, the mass looks so thick that it seems completely stationary. Strangers shout encouragement to one another as they pass. Excitement is inevitable: no matter how tedious running itself may be, the crowd of 30,000 provides endless opportunities for people-watching. Despite the growing aches in my thighs, despite the idiosyncrasies of my neighbors, I find myself completely absorbed in my surroundings.

We've merged into a single rhythmic mass, spray tans or aerodynamically engineered spandex notwithstanding. The people bordering the road cheer us on. We pass countless churches, and congregants leaving morning services wave and whistle. Broad Street traverses almost the entire city, crossing through historic neighborhoods, passing City Hall and the Academy of Music. As buildings scroll by, I adapt to the city's rhythm. This, I think, embodies the ultimate Philly experience. Our common sweat and mounting discomfort offers us a glimpse of history far more visceral than any fourth-grade guided tour.

I find respite every half-mile or so, where volunteers line the sides of the roads, holding out paper cups of water and Gatorade. Marching bands and dance troupes grin and urge us onward. I grab a cone of water, gulp the contents, toss it down, and repeat. My neighbors do the same. Miles six through eight grow tedious, as the adrenaline ebbs and the groups of supporters shrink.

I eat more jelly beans. Other runners revive themselves with Gatorade. We pass Italian South Philly and descend into unfamiliar territory. By now, I feel drained. The fatigue reminds me of my progress, though: I have something to be tired about. Chatter and giggles have subsided. When we reach the eight-mile mark, though, everything picks up. Signs now proclaim "keep going!" or "just a few blocks!" One popular slogan: "pain is temporary, but quitting lasts forever." At the edge of such physical pain, my cynicism disappears. The platitudes lose their banality; they even—dare I say?—invigorate me. My scorn melts into movement of heel, toe and thigh; arms pumping; chest held high. Asphalt, meet heel; asphalt, meet toe. And again. And again.

Perhaps because of my focus, but maybe just my exhaustion, I remember little from the last mile. I know, though, that as I cross the finish line, I raise my arms in disbelief. My stance reflects that of the statue of Rocky Balboa at the Art Museum steps: another inevitable gesture of patriotism, a signal of surrender to the spirit of the city. Lowering my arms, I slow to a walk, stumble over my now-fatigued feet, and move with the crowd as it surges with a cheer.

Everyone gets a medal: for black toenails, for weeks of forsaking junk food, for shin splints and lost sleep. We deserve it. We also receive bags of free Peanut Chews and Tastykakes and other Philadelphia-manufactured snacks. Workers at a Dunkin Donuts truck hand out tiny shots of iced espresso to an ever-growing caffeine-starved cluster.

Everyone scrambles to find spouses and friends and families, most of them in vain. Cell reception is poor due to conflicting signals. Resigned to the chaos, I plop onto the grass among several thousand strangers and eat my complimentary Oatmeal Cookie Bar. The kindergarten cliché that insists that everyone's a winner? This time, it's true.