Over 40,000 runners will lace up for Philadelphia's largest run.
When it comes to road races, sometimes it can take a while for a good thing to catch on. For the more than 40,000 athletes taking part in this year’s Broad Street Run, it might be a little a surprising to learn the inaugural 1980 run played host to only 1,576 runners. From elite runners to weekend warriors, the Broad Street Run is Philadelphia’s most popular run and the biggest 10-miler in the country. But why is it so popular? To get to the heart of this question, one has to go beyond the basics of running 10 miles, and take a closer look at what makes this race the pride of Philadelphia.
It’s All (a net) Downhill from Here
For a major race in one of America’s largest cities, it literally doesn’t get more straightforward than the Broad Street Run. Beginning next to the Central High School athletic field at Broad Street and Somerville Avenue, the race is almost a perfect straight line - save four turns at City Hall - to the finish at South Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. As anyone who has run on a track knows, the less turns in a race, the faster the results. Compounding this, the course is a net downhill. According to USA Track and Field’s Course Database, the course begins at 155 feet? above sea level and goes all the way down to 18 feet. That’s a descent of 127 feet. And while some downhill courses like the Boston Marathon are known for being difficult to handle with nearly 16 miles of elevation loss before any uphill segments, Alexis S. Tingan, MD, CAQSM, an assistant professor of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, says Broad Street’s downhill is definitely a benefit for runners.“For the Broad Street run itself, the net downhill does not present any particular challenge. The downhills on the course in general are gradual which still allow for a natural running style on these downhills. Steeper downhills present a challenge as muscle energy is needed to slightly slow the body to prevent you from toppling over yourself.”
Above: The Broad Street Run’s elevation profile (top) against the Boston Marathon’s famously downhill then hilly course (bottom)
Home Field Advantage
Strava’s 2018 Global Heat Map (running/walking for exercise)
When it comes to running in Philadelphia, everyone loves Kelly Drive. In the most recent update to Strava’s user-generated Global Heat Map, the area around the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Schuylkill River Trail, and Ben Franklin Bridge glow white hot, illustrating the most popular local destinations for runners. But, this doesn’t mean Broad Street isn’t popular. In fact, broad Street is in close proximity or intersects most of the city’s most popular running routes. More importantly, the Broad Street Run brings out thousands of spectators from North Philadelphia to South Philadelphia, and every neighborhood in between. Sports psychologists have found that crowd noise can benefit athletes greatly, especially in sports that require less fine motor skill and more power/speed. Throughout the course, runners will find musicians and bands, cheering students, community members, plus family and friends ready to cheer them on. With the course being so accessible via public transit, spectators ready to pump up athletes are in no short supply.
Good Weather, Will Run Fast
While the 2015 edition of the Broad Street Run had a steamy high of 81 degrees, 2016 and 2017 both had highs below 60. For 2018, it looks like the high for the day will be in the upper 60s to low 70s. This is good news for runners looking to run fast times. While there has been some debate about what the ideal temperature for runners is, most believe it’s somewhere around 50 degrees. With an 8:00 a.m. start time, it appears runners may get their weather wish. In fact, a look at the race since 2000 shows 14 race days with a high either below or slightly above 70 degrees. And, as if there wasn’t any way to sweeten the deal for this year’s participants, there is a predicted northerly wind of 8 mph, which will make for a strong tailwind. For those wondering how helpful a tailwind can be, consider that the 2011 Boston Marathon, which boasted a 20 mph tailwind, saw the winner set a 57-second unofficial world record and nearly 3-minute course record. If all this information leaves you wondering what to wear for the race, Tingan has some tried and tested advice: “You should plan to dress for weather about 15 degrees warmer than the race start time temperature. This is because the body heats up during the race, and typically the ambient temperature increases as the morning progresses on race day."
It’s Not a Marathon
Don’t get it wrong, 10 miles is quite a distance to run, but there are a number of physiological issues participants won’t have to deal with that are typically associated with running greater distances. Most runners have heard about the need to “carbo-load” and the pain of “hitting the wall”, especially when it comes to marathon running. “Hitting the wall” refers to the point at which the body is depleted of glycogen, a substance the body creates by ingesting carbohydrates. Tingan notes a large portion of runners (33% based off 2017’s results) won’t have to worry about either of these issues, saying, “hitting the wall typically only happens for races more than 90 minutes. So, carbohydrate loading at any point for races less than 90 minutes offers essentially no benefit.” Additionally, the body typically stores anywhere from 1,800 – 2,000 calories of glycogen, and only burns about 100 calories of glycogen per hour, so runners whose diet includes a sufficient amount of carbohydrates should have no issue.
However, this isn’t to say that the Broad Street Run isn’t going to give athletes anxiety similar to that felt before running a marathon or any major athletic event. Tingan gives a measure of reassurance to those who may cope with a sleepless night before. “It is essential that the mind and body be well rested for your race. Many runners experience “pre-race night jitters” and find it hard to sleep the night before. Fortunately, there is evidence that it is possible to “bank” sleep from previous nights. So, good advice is to make sure that you get excellent sleep the nights leading up to the night before race day to compensate for any potential sleep disturbances the night before the race.”
Your Day, Your Race
“The one thing to remember the day before your race: ‘all your training is complete,’” Tingan says. Whether you’re starting the race among the elites, or going for a mix of walking and jogging, this is your day. For 39 years, runners have been falling in love with the Broad Street Run. Whether it’s the fast course, comfortable weather, a famously Philly crowd cheering athletes on, or the fact that it could always be longer, the first Sunday of May is one so many runners from Philadelphia and beyond have come to love. It’s your day. Your race. Your finish. Embrace the city, its people and a run that truly is a perfect 10.