Running Into Trouble

I’ve said multiple times before and I’ll probably repeat myself one way or another – I love living in downtown Philadelphia as for someone like myself it’s solid city living (no folks, smaller cities like Louisville, KY, etc don’t compare) without the insane price tags of DC/NY. If I really want to, I can live in the most prime areas of the city and not worry about my bank account and that’s a huge plus. Granted I live in a decent neighbourhood right now although the main reason I currently live there is sheer convenience – right off the blue line, every bus line needed to get to key places (King of Prussia mall, Italian Market, Columbus Blvd shopping center, RTM, etc) is just a few blocks away. And time is critical when you are working full time, studying part-time and balancing loads of other things. Every minute counts…literally. When I was taking post-bac courses at Villanova, it was very convenient getting to school.

When I finish my graduate degree, depending on how much money I have – and perhaps where I stand personally with a partner or transient friends I could have as roommates – I’d love to continue doing the Rittenhouse thing for a couple of years but ultimately my dream residence area – and ultimately the preferred area to settle in – would be the quieter yet still relatively convenient WSW (Washington Square West) area, preferably in a condo or highrise building.

However just like any other living space or type of living space, city dwelling has its drawbacks. There’s obviously higher crime rates in cities, but that goes anywhere, and most city dwellers are well aware of such risks and deal accordingly. Philadelphia city residents pay higher taxes, our sales tax here is 8% (used to be 7%) whereas the rest of PA is 6%. Thankfully clothing aren’t taxed in PA but if I have to get a singular wedding present for a friend, it’s a tad annoying.

But one main element that is royally annoying, especially to me as a runner, is coming up with half decent running routes. To be quite frank, even compared with other cities on the East Coast (I have run and kept up with my mileage in Boston and in DC whilst on the road for business, even did a run in Chicago when I was there for business), Philly is simply terrible. There are a few reasons for this, partially related to terrain, partially related to the city layout itself, and partially related to the greener areas of the city as well as the weather.

1 Biggest reason by far is Fairmount Park. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but the more I run on Kelly Drive and the more I run around Fairmount Park, even sticking to Kelly Drive, I am noticing more and more random bums even on the main roads. This is regardless of what time I run. I am a morning person now, so even at 6:30am I will see random people. At 6pm at night…same thing. If I run on an off day where it’s not so hot, even midday I see too many shady people getting deeper into the park. Now if I was able to run regularly with Team Philly or another running club I wouldn’t care. But hearing about midday incidents in Fairmount even on the shallow end of the park, I am becoming a lot more averse to running in the park unless it’s a race or unless I’m rolling with a large group of people. Due to work hours, I cannot make most of the local club runs, particularly on Mondays and Wednesdays. As a result, I generally am forced to stick to Boathouse Row and south; in Center City, I have designated loop runs between South Philly, Society Hill, the WSW loop (which I used to build up to my first 5k), Rittenhouse into UPenn’s campus and even as far as the shallow side of Baltimore Avenue near the VA hospital.

Contrast that to Rock Creek Park in DC – granted I’ve heard a lot of things about that place, but then again DC is loaded with more hardcore runners and there are more runners in general in that park than there are in Fairmount. Boston Common/Beacon Hill – wide open and no issues, I’ve gone as far as Cambridge even without problems if I’m on the road.

And as the days get shorter…forget it.

2 Monotony of routes. Routing through Fairmount is the key to making a run interesting, however, even people that I know of that do go deep in Kelly Drive and even those training for full marathons are forced to reach as far north as Manayunk do complain that it’s the same bloody route every time. Every Philly race (even the 5ks!!!) all have the same route with the exception of the aptly named 10-miler Broad Street Run. There is no other easy feasible way to make a 12-plus mile route and a lot has to do with how segmented and compact the city layout is.

3 Philly is completely flat. This isn’t such a bad thing for beginners and compulsive PR (personal record) seekers, but if you’re a veteran trying to challenge yourself, the oh-so-slight incline of Lancaster Avenue in Powelton Village (3400 block and westward) doesn’t quite cut it. For me, I have no personal complaints on this – even out-of-state, I will pick races that are completely flat with more lenient pacing requirements. If one has to train for another race out of state that requires inclines, even working a serious incline on a treadmill will beat just about any route created in Philly. So if you’re a vet living in Center City trying to get your hill routes in…good luck.

4 Land mines, part 1. I’m referring to the random blocks of shadiness in Center City where if you go two blocks the wrong way, well you’re in no-man’s land. This is more an issue for the evening runners than it is for morning runners – I’ve checked out some “questionable” areas or blocks that would be questionable at certain times at night and there are no issues running certain blocks at 7am. 7pm though, is another story. In certain other cities, you can avoid the bad neighbourhoods altogether and nearly take on any block in a given neighbourhood, but even in the better areas in Philly, there are so-called pockets of randomness that you generally won’t know about until you know the city better. More of a real nuisance for runners new to living in Philly or runners not used to certain neighbourhoods in Philly, veterans or longtime residents know where and where not to go.

5 Land mines, part 2. There are certain intersections in downtown Philly where simply crossing the intersection is borderline asking for trouble. When I was an undergraduate at UPenn, I lived in Mayer Hall on the corner of 38th and Spruce. To get to biology classes I would have to cross that intersection both ways (diagonally) and that was annoying to say the least. I’ve been run over by cyclists crossing that intersection at least 3 times, and had several near misses with cars hitting me even having the right of way. Now take that to Center City. 6th and Chestnut running my WSW loop has been notoriously bad; even the presence of Independence mall park rangers and additional cops doesn’t deter people from running red lights. Even worse is the so-called “Donut” area by 24th/25th and Locust draws the ire of many – there are way too many things flying in the loop, unfortunately is the main if not only way for those living in the Rittenhouse/graduate school area to get themselves onto Kelly Drive for a long run. The other two potential alternates don’t work: Mantua is completely unsafe regardless of the time of day, and Fitler Square/MCW becomes a bit shady (and problematic) for evening runners. But yeah, I know at least ten people that have been hit by cars taking the Donut into Kelly Drive, some running, others just taking a morning walk. If that doesn’t tell you something I don’t know what will.

6 Traffic lights. This is a problem regardless of what city I’ve trained in, and as glaringly obvious as it is, well, there it is. The stop and gos were annoying adjusting to running in Center City versus, say, Lancaster County but I’ve gotten used to it. Looping around the squares in CC (Rittenhouse, WSW, Logan) for a couple of miles will prevent this if you are working on shorter distances. For couch to 5k people, building your base around the squares is a pretty solid and safe bet especially in your first couple of weeks. Longer distances, not so much.

Now I know you suburbanites are probably reading this and laughing at me “haha that’s what you get…” but I’ve also learnt to compare notes with other city dwelling runners to make the most of what I have. If you are unable to keep the times of a running club, the key to keeping the routes interesting yet safe in Philly going it solo is knowing your neighbourhoods and your streets. If you don’t know certain areas as well, ASK. Post on internet forum boards if you have to. Even living in Philly for 9 years now (4 at UPenn, 5 in CC) I’ve still swapped notes and routes with a colleague of mine who has done serious running since 2005 and it’s helped. Generally speaking running almost anywhere in the morning is a lot safer than running in the evening, and that’s regardless of the city. If you cannot do morning runs, then make sure you are even more vigilant for traffic and bystanders. Stick to stretches where you aren’t caught up in traffic lights, so far Penn’s Landing and the squares have worked for me.

Finally if you are a beginner, in addition to your key and a couple dollar bills to grab some water in emergency, carry your septa pass and/or a token as well. (If not, then carry an extra 2 singles as the base fare I think is still $2.) In the (hopefully unlikely) event you injure yourself or pull a muscle it pays to be near a bus/subway line that can take you home. As a beginner runner, I tried to create my routes a little closer to home, as I built endurance, I felt better getting further. One mistake I made early on was putting my “reach” (goal) distance a bit too far from home, and when I came down with shin splints on 2nd/Lombard Streets it was still a good 6 blocks I had to walk up 2nd St to take the blue line back home. Not fun.

But yeah, that’s life as a runner in downtown Philly. We complain a lot about things around here, but the benefits of city life as a whole generally outweigh the costs…we deal.


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