Philadelphia: In Her Hero’s Footsteps

(Story previously published in Winnipeg Free Press)

If you want to explore an abundance of outdoors from the comforts of indoors, this urban American locale just might be the place for you. Philadelphia has a long and proud history dating back to 1682 when a grid pattern to build a city between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers was first laid out by English Quaker William Penn. It grew from this humble five public-square origin into the fifth largest city in the US today.

Along the way, it was labeled ‘the birthplace of the nation’ with the signing of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776; the 1787 writing of the Constitution of the United States; and owning the title of nation’s capital from 1791 to 1800. It currently houses the greatest concentration of American history available, including the actual Liberty Bell on 24-hour public display in a transparent encasement.

Despite all its cool history, in my mind, Philadelphia is known for freedom, cream cheese, and steak sandwiches. Perhaps most significantly, it’s hometown to the fictional boxing hero that graced my childhood and teen years.

IN SEARCH OF CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

One of my fondest memories was going to the drive-in along with as many siblings as could fit in my mother’s car and watching Rocky on the big screen. I was eight years old, and oh, how I loved that movie!

There was something about the spirit of the underdog that captured my heart and soul. His famous run along the waterfront, through the market, and up the steps would forever be etched in my memory. Hands down, Rocky was my hero. Consequently, Sylvester Stallone became my secret crush.

Jump ahead 31 years… Imagine my delight when Philadelphia Tourism organized an event that would allow participants to run the ‘Rocky steps’ during the weekend of Philadelphia Marathon. They invited esteemed writers and runners from all over the country. They also invited me.

RUNNING THE COURSE

The Philadelphia Marathon takes place each year in autumn. The 26.2 milecourse is relatively flat and considered ‘fast’ by marathon standards. It is also dubbed the ‘course of history’ in showcasing some of the city’s most significant historic sites along the way.

It winds much of the way along Philly’s extensive waterfront, offering a view of Penn’s Landing on the banks of the Delaware, and the Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill (pronounced SKOO-kill) River.

The Fairmount Water Works is a legendary landmark in Philadelphia – the first large American city to regard the delivery of safe water as a municipal responsibility. Opening in 1815, the Water Works’ houses huge water wheels, turbines and pumps in a series of buildings that resemble Greek temples.

In the 19th Century, the Water Works and its gardens was one of the top three most visited sites in North America. Even though it stopped pumping water in 1909, today it is an interpretive centre with interactive exhibits and the award-winning Water Works Restaurant & Lounge. One of the most picturesque locations in the city, visitors can take in a great view of Philadelphia’s historic Boathouse Row – home to Philadelphia’s rowing community.

ROWING ROYALTY

The sport of rowing boasts a long and proud tradition here. The Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia represents the city’s rowing clubs, and was founded in 1858. It is the oldest amateur athletic governing body in the United States. Today, a scenic string of ten Victorian-style buildings make up Boathouse Row. An impressive display of architecture any time of day, the most spectacular view happens at night, when the boathouses are majestically illuminated by an outline of white lights.

Boathouse Row has long been the centre of athletic activity in Philly, and a magnet for the grass roots development of national and world championship medalists. Home to a long list of Olympic competitors and coaches, Boathouse Row produced a number of legendary champions, starting with the Kelly’s – the ‘first family’ of American rowing.

John B. (Jack) Kelly (father of Grace Kelly) and his son, John B. Kelly Jr., were both world-class athletes. There is a statue of the senior Kelly overlooking the Schuylkill River’s race course. Kelly competed at the 1920 Olympics, and went down in history as the only man to ever win both the singles and doubles rowing events at an Olympic games – an astounding feat of victory that he repeated in 1924.

Coincidentally, the Kelly’s rowed out of Vesper Boat Club, the same place we visited to partake in a rowing lesson. The Vesper Boat House had it’s beginnings in 1865. After more than a century of accomplishments for men, in 1970, Vesper became the first men’s club to organize a women’s rowing team. Today, Rowing Adventures on Boathouse Row offers lessons and rides on the Schuylkill River, making the rowing experience accessible to all.

If you want to check out the waterways but not from the seat of a rowing shell, you’ll also find the East Park Canoe Club and the Philadelphia Canoe Club further along the same stretch of river. If you prefer to remain on land, you’ll find an endless expanse of paths suitable for walking, running, and rollerblading.

BIKING BEYOND

Cycling enthusiasts will be pleased by the abundance of trails. With more than 320 kilometers of bike lanes – more than any other US city – and 160 kilometers of off-road trails, bicycling is one of the most popular ways to experience Philadelphia. It’s no surprise the city is one of the nation’s most cycling-friendly places, consistently rated among the top five best places for cycling by national biking publications.

Bike rentals are available from Trophy Bikes on Walnut Street. Special arrangements can also be made for a biking guide, who will escort you along some of the best routes in town, and entertain you with stories of the region.

The 23-mile long Schuylkill River Trail begins at the city centre and connects to the Wissahickon Valley Park – a ruggedly beautiful area fully within the city limits, but feeling like a world away from urban bustle.

Located in the northwest section of the city, the Wissahickon consists of a deep river gorge stretching for more than 11 kilometers. This picturesque ravine has been a hot spot for more than a dozen decades, inspiring tourists, painters, photographers and writers, and luring the likes of author Edgar Allen Poe and landscape painter Thomas Moran.

The park’s best features include a covered bridge, massive stone Native American sculptures, and the historic Valley Green Inn that dates back to the mid-1800s. There are also more than 80 kilometers of trails crisscrossing the Wissahickon Creek, making it paradise for mountain biking enthusiasts, hikers, and anyone keen on spending time in the great outdoors without leaving the city.

Wissahickon Valley Park is part of Fairmount Park, one of the world’s largest city park systems, claiming ten per cent of Philadelphia’s land base. With over 9,200 acres of rolling hills, trails, waterfront, and woodlands, it offers a wealth of natural landscapes.

KEEPING UP WITH THE OLYMPIANS (SORT OF!)

At the headway of Fairmount Park is the world-famous Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is here the Philadelphia Marathon begins and ends. Right beside those steps that Rocky first made famous back in 1976.

This year’s Philadelphia Marathon on November 23 will mark the 15th anniversary. Last year was the first time they held a special event called Run With Olympians – consisting of a four-mile run the day before the marathon. On hand were Olympic runners Tim Broe, Carrie Tollefson, and Todd Williams.

Being a recreational runner who has completed five half-marathons during my illustrious yet forgettable running career, hitting the road with such elite athletes was truly inspiring.

Although I must admit that I didn’t actually run WITH them. Instead, it was more like running BEHIND them. But that dust I was eating belonged to actual Olympians, so that in itself was exciting. However, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as finally doing what I had traveled more than 2,500 kilometers to do…

STEPPING BACK IN TIME

It was my mission to retrace the path of my childhood hero and secret crush. Not unlike the gazillions of tourists who faithfully flocked to that exact same place, to do the exact same thing over the past three decades.

After two days of patiently waiting, driving by the Museum of Art countless times, and regularly pestering our very gracious tour guides by asking “Can we run up the steps now??” alas, my opportunity would present itself…

After completing our very fun run with the Olympians, we were scheduled to eat brunch with the Olympians, and I was looking very forward to it. Not because I hungry (because of all that dust I ate), but because, FINALLY, we had no choice but pass by THE steps.

There they were, nestled right between our tour bus and the Water Works Restaurant where we were to dine. So of course, I had to ask… “Can we run up the steps NOW??”

And with that, my wish was granted. Before anyone else could even blink an eye, I took off running towards the steps in full stride. I approached quickly, and within mere moments was upon them. There I was. This was it!

I took a big breath, put my head down, then proceeded to go up, and up, and up some more, until I was at the very top with no more steps to run. This time, it was ME who left the trail of dust.

As I looked out over the Philadelphia skyline, dancing around on top with my arms in the air just like my hero did, the theme from Rocky danced in my head… “Gonna fly now…”

Joy flooded my heart, as the thrill of living a childhood dream overwhelmed me. It truly was one of the most memorable moments of my life.

As I stood in Rocky’s actual footsteps embedded in cement at the top of the stairs, watching the other runners each remaking their own version of that forever infamous scene, I was choked with emotion, and almost speechless. Yet I managed to muster two words to say to our hosts: “Thank you!”

Immediately followed by two more: “Yo, Adrian!”

CONTACTS:

Philadelphia Travel & Tourism www.gophila.com
Philadelphia Marathon www.philadelphiamarathon.com
Trophy Bikes www.trophybikes.com
Vesper Rowing Club www.vesperboatclub.com
Check out ‘Run With Olympians’ slideshow posted by Greater Philadelphia!

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