My Regards to Broad Street

On May 1st 2016 I ran in the 37th annual Broad Street 10 Miler in Philadelphia in the pouring rain. I first fell in love with Broad Street in the early 1990s when it was a fraction of what it is today. “Back then” the Philadelphia running and triathlon markets were not yet over saturated and it was a time when you could leisurely stroll into Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum)  the day before the race, park for free, register for the race, and do a little shopping from some grassroots vendors.  The same low key process also held true for the Philadelphia Distance Classic (now the Rock and Roll Half Marathon) and the Philadelphia Marathon. “Back then” our races weren’t corporately owned with slick marketing agendas and high priced entrance fees. They were just local, home grown races. And the races were about the races and nothing more.

Boy have times changed. And not just in Philly, but everywhere. Now we fight for slots, and pay an incredible amount in fees for the exact same product. We spend massive amounts of money on shiny things at expos that we may never use. We’ve become more obsessed with acquiring finisher clothing and tattoos and “stuff” than the race itself. Somewhere along the line we must have stopped being runners (or triathletes) and simply became customers.  Our community turned into a market, our races turned into products. But I digress… back to Broad Street.

I hadn’t raced Broad Street in a few years but had the opportunity to race it again this year so I jumped on it. Now almost 40,000 runners strong, our beloved Broad Street was forced into a lottery system a few years ago to try to fairly accommodate the rising number of applicants. While the number of runners has skyrocketed, and the number of port-o-johns at Central High School has increased, I don’t think the existing overall race infrastructure can adequately support that many runners. I’m not being critical of anyone involved with the event and I’m certainly not being at all critical of the many volunteers who put in countless hours to support this event. I also don’t have the answers to some of the problems. But as an athlete, and as a guy who has worked and volunteered at a number of events, I saw some things yesterday that could definitely be improved upon.

For starters, you can’t start a corral on a side street that completely blocks the exit of the high school stadium where folks are gathering to warm up. This created a little chaos as everyone who was stuck in the stadium grounds was gridlocked in and forced to leave with a different corral. It could have been a real problem had there been any kind of medical emergency requiring staff to get in or out of the Central High grounds. Fortunately people were cordial and polite and were generally ok sharing personal space.

Secondly, Broad Street needs to better organize how finishers are “processed” once they cross the finish line. I understand there needs to be a fair amount of walking to get to a clear area for people to get their medals, heat sheets, post-race nutrition, etc. But none of that was very well organized. We all just followed each other in a slow walk to “somewhere” but I saw no signage directing people specifically where to go for what. Remember, runners are pretty dumb after they cross the finish line and need directions to be very clear and dummied down. At one point, two different volunteers gave us opposite directions to the post-race processing area. As a result, I missed the heat sheet distribution completely and was pretty cold once I finished. Luckily I found a relatively clean one that had been discarded so I snatched it up to seal in some body heat.

Also, many runners were of the understanding that there would be shuttle buses taking people from the Navy Yard finish area to the stadium parking lots and Broad Street subway lines. That’s all well and good in theory but nobody knew which buses where which. A number of us followed the directions of one volunteer which did lead us to some buses, but none of them were running. We all assumed it would be faster to just make the trek back to the cars the same way we had gotten that far – on foot. On a nice day, that’s not a bad walk. But yesterday wasn’t a nice day.

Now, on a positive note, the Broad Street 10 Miler is iconic in Philadelphia. Runner’s World Magazine calls it one of the fastest 10 milers in the country. It is extremely popular and has become a must do race for many people. Once the gun goes off, the (slightly downhill) scamper down Philadelphia’s most legendary street is a thrill. The volunteers who came out to help us in yesterday’s rain were world class and their efforts should be applauded. This is Broad Street. This is Philadelphia. This race is rich in history and tradition.

But if you are going to grow a race to 40,000 participants, you need to grow the infrastructure proportionally. If you can’t expand the infrastructure, you need to substantially reduce the number of runners. Given the size of this race, you can’t help but compare it to the NYC marathon. Both races draw comparable numbers. But you can be a non-English speaking foreigner and run the NYC marathon without a question where you need to be and when you need to be there – both pre and post-race.  Let’s make some needed improvements and changes and keep Broad Street the great race that it is. Or can be.  And again, my hat is off to all athletes, supporters, staff, volunteers, and spectators who braved the elements yesterday.

Let’s not forget why we race. It’s not for the medal. It’s not for bragging rights. We race to dig deep and tap into an inner strength we aren’t sure is even there. We race to feel good. We race to push internal limits and boundaries. We race to find ourselves.

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