For those who truly want to go the distance, the real deal is back.
That would be the Philadelphia Distance Run, the beloved half-marathon which raced onto the scene at the start of the first great running boom in 1978 and stuck around for three decades.
Eventually the title rights changed hands over the past dozen hands, with corporate ownership expanding the 13.1-mile challenge’s field into the tens of thousands under the new name, Rock ‘n Roll.
But now, after current rights holder Ironman scratched the September event for a second straight year due to the pandemic, some of the original PDR cast decided to bring back an old friend.
No doubt it’s going to be a lot of toil and trouble but don’t forget some of these people showed a lot of gumption getting the first one in gear.
For health reasons, organizers plan to have a field of only about 8,000 runners but from our perspective, that’s just fine because it’s the kind of feel one got from the old PDR.
The PDR course through the historic section of Philly, along the Schuylkill and finishing at the Art Museum remains one of the fastest in the world and certainly is the quickest in the U.S.
In fact, the fastest male and female half-marathon times ever on United States soil took place right in the City of Brotherly Love.
Likewise, numerous Bucks County area runners set their own personal record times on this course.
Many memories were made along the way, including that emotional September day in 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Race officials weren’t even sure they were going to hold the race but after much debate, the decision was to give it a go.
As thousands of runners lined up for the start of the race on Market Street, the Star Spangled Banner was played and it was quite difficult to keep emotions in check.
The tears flowed. This was a time when America stood united.
“I recall the reverence of the start the week after 9/11, down by 8th and Market near the old Gallery, and all the trepidation leading up to it, whether or not to have the race,’’ said Joe Boyce, a veteran Bucks County runner and cyclist, who once hit the finish line in the 1:30 range.
“If it was on, I was going to run, and thousands did, despite the worry of the large gathering. It was a similar feeling to when runners gathered in groups to stand strong after the Boston Marathon bombing. Runners are a community, strong in numbers, a force not to be deterred. If there’s running to be done, we show up.’’
Richboro’s Mary-Pat Ezzo is one of only five runners to have complete all 43 PDRs and Rock ‘n Rolls. She completed the virtual event in 2020, a race which lowered the elite “streak’’ list from 15 to the current quintet.
Mary-Pat, a 1:55 runner in her top racing days, was thinking about “retiring’’ but now the streak may have to keep going.
“Not sure if that is good news or bad news that they might have the PDR again,’’ Ezzo joked. “Was hoping after September 2020 and my 43rd PDR that I might be able to retire
“I would run the PDR again if they have it to continue the streak and represent Bucks County. I would hope to be grandfathered in to the 8,000 runners.’’
It should be noted two other Bucks County-based runners, Larry Waldman (a 1:20 best) and Mark Fite (1:12), also had streaks of more than 40 years but are not planning to run this year.
Two veteran elite runners, Mike Clarke and Terry Permar, also have favorable memories of the PDR. Each has coached high school cross country (Clarke at New Hope-Solebury, Permar at Pennridge) and set fine examples for their young athletes.
Council Rock South cross country coach Mike Gross ran some of his fastest half-marathons at the PDR.
“Many half-marathoners will be elated the Philadelphia Distance Run is returning led by hometown running enthusiasts,’’ said Clarke, who ran a 1:25.54 to win the 55-59 age group in 2003. “The PDR was one of the premier half-marathons worldwide. Very fast course.
“I think the downsizing of the PDR due to pandemic considerations will bring back memories of the early hometown feel of the race.’’
Permar posted national class times at the PDR (1:08.00 in 1982; 1:14.30 at age 51), but his most special moment came by way of running one Sunday with his dad.
“My dad ran in the 1982 race,’’ Permar recalled. “I believe that was his longest race and the only half-marathon he ever ran. He was 58, had been running only about two years and finished with a time of 1:44.
“I was very proud of him. I remember he said it was really hard and that he would stick to 10Ks and under races from here on out. So while we didn’t actually run the race together, on that day, we certainly experienced and shared that magical feeling that the PDR provided runners at that time.’’
Two other elite runners – Steve Hallman (a 2:22 runner at the 2019 Berlin Marathon) and Tracey Sawyer – checked in with us and said they have not run the PDR yet but have hopes of doing so this year.
Registration for the Sept. 19 race is set to open next month. My guess is entries will sell out faster than tickets to a Springsteen concert.
Bucks County Roadrunners Club Winter Series Terrible Tyler 15K (9.3 miles), 9 a.m., Tyler State Park, Newtown. Contact www.bcrrclub.com
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