Finally, the Marathon Philly Deserves

Necessary — and long-overdue — change is coming to Philly’s big race.

Photograph courtesy of the Philadelphia Marathon

Photograph courtesy of the Philadelphia Marathon

World-class cities tend to have certain attributes in common: towering skyscrapers. Public transit systems locals love to hate. The occasional official under FBI investigation (maybe that’s just here).

Oh, and most of them have big marathons: New York, Chicago, Boston, London, Berlin, Tokyo. Maybe you’ve heard of them? All these races shut down their cities to send tens of thousands of runners in furls of neon down their streets, cheered on by tens of thousands of jubilant spectators — all of them dropping cash into hotels and bars and restaurants along the way.

Notice a city that isn’t on that list?

It’s an open secret that the 62-year-old Philadelphia Marathon has sucked. What needed to be fixed? For starters, the races — there are a half marathon and an eight-kilometer race on the same weekend — haven’t been managed by a true race director, but rather by the Office of the City Representative, via a rotating cast of characters in patronage positions whose duties have also included putting on the Welcome America and Cherry Blossom festivals. This has lead to boneheaded decisions: moving the entire race weekend in 2013 because of a Convention Center booking; a bad marathon course with a dogleg over the East Falls Bridge that added turns and time; split attention between the half and full, leaving runners in both feeling slighted.

As a result, the races have shrunk: In 2015, the marathon had 9,161 finishers and the half had 10,903, according to Running USA. Those are down from all-time highs of 11,635 for the full in 2012 and 12,796 for the half in 2014. Even if you’re not a runner, this matters: City dollars are being spent on these events, and they aren’t producing much bang for the buck. In 2013, the race weekend had an economic impact of $13.5 million on the region, per the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. The New York version: $415 million. Chicago: $254 million. Boston: $188.8 million.

There’s no reason for Philadelphia not to have a great marathon — a citywide party to revel in some serious athletic endurance. There’s plenty of space for a flat, fast course, and Center City and Fairmount Park are close enough to give runners both urban and park views while they toil away. But race organizers have gotten in the way of growth. That changes this year.

Where the half and full marathons both used to run on Sunday — on the same course, at the same time — the half is now moving to Saturday. That will give each race space to grow. Half-marathoners will feel like rock stars one day; full marathoners won’t see most of the field finish while they still have 13.1 miles to go.

A runner’s point of view is now part of race planning. The Office of the City Rep is still involved, but it’s partnering with Parks and Recreation, which puts on the Broad Street Run, the sixth largest race in the country. Jim Marino, Broad Street’s director, will direct the marathon, too. This has already led to better courses and a doubled marathon purse, to attract a bigger and faster front of the pack.

And yet, some in the running community are up in arms over changes that can only make the race better.

I get it. Change is hard. This is going to be a transition year — and next year might be, too. Runners are right to have concerns: that fewer spectators will show up because they’ll be split between the races, that the new half-marathon course spends less time in Center City, that friends in different races won’t get to run together. But Philly has become fond of projecting itself as a world-class city. It’s beyond time for it to have a world-class marathon. This year is the start.

Published as “Finally, the Marathon Philly Deserves” in the November 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.