The weekend before Thanksgiving in Philly means roads closing to traffic and neighbors taking to the sidewalks to lend their robust fan energy to a few elite athletes and thousands of normal people who decided to run a ridiculous number of steps…for fun.
This reporter participated in Philadelphia Marathon Weekend for the sixth time this year, running Saturday’s 13.1-mile half.
The first time I did so, in 2014, I had just moved to Philadelphia — I got the best by-foot welcome tour I could have asked for. Eight years later, I realized I knew it all by heart. I could scarcely go a couple blocks without seeing a place I had eaten lunch, attended an event, met up with a friend, or walked around with my family. I even responded with enthusiasm when a fellow runner shouted out “Is anyone around me from Philly?”
“I am!” I cried out. She explained she’s not from here, and wanted to know more about the neighborhood we were running through. I gave her my best description of South Street.
It reminded me that thousands come from outside the region for this race weekend, which attracted nearly 30k athletes this year. That includes participants from every one of the 50 U.S. states.
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Runners visiting from out of town will surely notice the Art Museum and Rocky statue, near the start and finish lines. They’ll likely see the thousands of Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers hats topping Philadelphians’ heads (OK, probably Union hats too). They won’t be able to miss City Hall, the Delaware River, or Rittenhouse Square.
But marathon weekend offers some other sights and sounds that are quintessentially Philly, if you know where to look — and listen.
Shouts of ‘Wooder!’
Any experienced runner will be acquainted with the messy (but essential) fumbling of paper cups at hydration stations. But for those from outside Philadelphia, the volunteers’ chants may seem unfamiliar.
It’s the most stereotyped affectation of the Philly accent because it’s unmistakable.
In this case, the racing visitors may quickly brush off the pronunciation, distracted by the sweet relief of some mighty fine H2O.
For Philadelphians, the familiar sound will make them feel right at home.
Throughout the city, eager residents set up cheering stations and take advantage of the opportunity to blast upbeat music early in the morning without attracting the ire of their neighbors — or at least to have a good excuse when they do.
And many cheering onlookers play the same music. If you’ve seen a Rocky movie at least once or twice (or watched any sports game featuring a Philly team) you’ll recognize the film’s two most well-known songs: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor and “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti.
It’s hard not to be pumped up by these timeless bops, even if you’re not a big fan of the Italian Stallion.
Dangerously creative signs
Interactive signage is a hallmark of road race spectatorship, and Philly supporters do not disappoint. Along with the usual running cliches — “Worst parade ever!” or “Hit here for a power-up!” — you’ll see a plethora of Philly-specific jokes and encouragement.
In particular, out-of-town runners may be scratching their heads about all those signs using the word jawn. (Too much to explain here, so check this out instead.)
Another example of local creativity: the sign pictured below, which is notable mostly for the fact that its owners stayed true to their word. To be honest, they were already drinking by the time I shouted out a fatigued “PHILLY!” with a cracking voice, but they certainly didn’t stop. Probably not all morning.
Angels in Manayunk
The half marathon turns back toward Center City before reaching the Northwest Philly neighborhood of Manayunk, but it’s always a highlight on the full marathon route.
Jokes are often cracked about how the bar-filled neighborhood is named after the Lenape word for “place to drink” — and its residents know how to bring the fun.
Manayunk is the location of the 20-mile marker, where many runners experience the dreaded feeling of “hitting the wall.” Spectators are well aware of this, and nobly step up to the task of giving runners one last push.
This reporter has only run the Philadelphia Marathon once, seven years ago, but I can tell you with absolute journalistic certainty that these people cheering in Manayunk are the equivalent of angels.
It was just past the 19-mile marker. For about four miles, I had been fully regretting my decision to run a marathon. Then I crested a small hill with the “Welcome to Manayunk” sign overhead, and heard the cheers of a crowd ahead. Their joy shined like a beacon in the distance, as I realized they were somehow having a full-on party before 11 a.m. on a Sunday, and providing a raucous pep talk to each weary jogger who passed.
A kind older lady gave me a handful of Swedish Fish, and I saw the next group of spectators distributing small cups of beer. At the time, I was a very serious runner. My immediate thought was, “No, I shouldn’t.”
As I grew near, the volunteer eyed the first name on my bib and made an apt observation. “Lizzy, you look like you need a beer.” Nodding, nearly crying, I took the cup and downed his proffered elixir of life.
Occasionally over the next 7 miles, a bubbling burp reminded me of the stranger’s kindness. It propelled me toward the finish line despite my heavy legs. Like I said, angels.
The trail along Kelly Drive
The last leg of both the half marathon and the marathon takes runners back to Center City via Kelly Drive’s winding and picturesque path along the Schuylkill River.
For locals, the scenic final miles may provide comfort, as it’s where many have logged at least some training runs throughout the summer and fall — perhaps with a regatta alongside them.
For out-of-towners, it’s a chance to see why so many runners love to call Philly home. Along with the hundreds of eclectic businesses and welcoming rowhomes they ran past in Center City, Old City and West Philly, Philadelphia is home to the largest urban park in the world, and it sits at the center of hundreds of miles of trails.
It also looks damn good dressed up in autumn leaves and lined with people enjoying the sunshine on a brisk autumn morning. It might even be enough to make a new-in-town runner fall in love.
I should know, I was one of them.