By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
The first time I ran past the Philadelphia Museum of Art there was no Rocky statue.
There was no Rocky Balboa, outside of a seed in Sly Stallone’s imagination.
That was in November 1970 as I was passing the midpoint of the Philadelphia Marathon. I recognized the spot immediately several years later in a movie theatre when Rocky Balboa made his famous run up the museum steps.
Returning nearly 45 years later, it was amusing to see how Stallone’s fictional run celebrated like an Olympian. He only had 72 steps to climb. I had 26 miles and 385 yards to run that Sunday.
It has, of course, become a tourist cliché to pose with arms raised in front of the Rocky statue, rivaled in cheesy predictability perhaps only by having one’s photo taken while appearing to prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Most gratifying in my recent visit to Philadelphia was to see how the art museum had become a focal point for physical fitness. It was a Saturday morning and area was pulsing with runners, cyclists and others immersed in various forms of workouts.
There was a fitness instructor with an array of workout stations and equipment set up in front of the museum steps leading a group workout next to the Rocky statue.
As I waited for a chance to photograph the statue without a mugging tourist in the shot, a pack of runners wearing race numbers passed by in pursuit of a distant finish line.
I wondered how much Rocky was responsible for the confluence of fitness fanatics. Most likely it had more to do with the venue, an appealing waterfront path adjacent to the museum that runs for miles along the Schuylkill River, which we followed in the marathon. And with how participation in physical activities has flourished like never before.
There are now more than 30,000 participants in the Philadelphia Marathon, still staged each November. In 1970 when I ran there were 268 runners. None of them were women.
There were numerous determined female runners passing me as I jogged around the museum and began following the river path retracing my steps from the distant past. It was surreal to pass the row of boathouses that had been the staging area for the marathon; we used a locker room in one of them to change and stow our street clothes.
The big surprise was in coming upon a large cluster of tents. By coincidence, my visit coincided with the Stroehmann Back on My Feet in24 Philadelphia Race Challenge. Those competing in the ultra-marathon had that morning begun a 24-hour run.
My unforgettable run seemed to go on that long, but in reality lasted less than four hours. The last half of the race had been an ordeal because I hadn’t trained to run that far.
My high school cross country buddy Kurt Wilkens, his older brother Eric, and I had traveled from Ohio to Philadelphia that Thanksgiving weekend more as a whim than a competitive venture. I hadn’t done a run longer than 10 miles in the weeks leading up to it.
When you’re 17 you believe anything is possible. I found otherwise when I reached the limit of my training a few miles into the second loop of the course. Without warning my left hamstring cramped and I sprawled face down on the asphalt path.
As I recall there were about nine miles remaining, and getting through them involved frequent stops to massage the cramp in my leg.
I was determined to finish, and I feel prouder of the accomplishment now than I did then in capturing the spirit of “Rocky” six years before Stallone’s character inspired underdogs everywhere.
A clipping from the school newspaper that I still have says I finished 98th, ahead of more than half of the field (Kurt was 51st); it took 3 hours, 55 minutes. I’d be satisfied to match that time now, though I’ve acquired enough sense to not attempt it without the training necessary to go the distance.
Another landmark I recognized from running the marathon was the gilded statue of Joan of Arc astride a horse. It is on a pedestal across the street from the Rocky statue. Curiously, no one was posing for photos with the tribute to a remarkable historic figure, flocking instead to the fictional hero.
It should be noted that Rocky is not universally embraced as a Philadelphia icon. A former president of the art museum had it banished from the grounds and it spent a number of years in exile outside the city’s sports arena.
But it staged a comeback. Rocky always does.