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The statue of Rocky, created for the Rocky III movie in 1982, outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Photo by Leslie Gottlieb | CC BY 2.0).

Philadelphia’s Rocky 50k is nothing short of immense. 

The run, which will take place on December 3rd, covers 31 excruciating miles. It spans nearly every major area of one of the largest cities in America, ending at the towering Rocky steps, with the herculean heroics of Rocky Balboa, an iconic movie protagonist, brought to life by the people of his native Philadelphia. 

And yet, thanks to the tight-knit community that surrounds the event, it all feels so very small. 

“It’s not necessarily about who gets to the Rocky steps first,” Jamie-Lee Josselyn, professor in the Penn English Department and a veteran of the Rocky run, said. “There’s a real neighborliness to this run, where you just start talking to the people you’re around.” 

Unlike many similar races, the Rocky 50k does not require payment from its participants. There are no official registrations, no road closures, and no winners. Rather, this race is about spirit; the spirit of the bonds that have formed around it, and the spirit of the city it champions. 

Philadelphia’s Rocky 50k began as nothing more than an idea. 

In 2013, Penn alumnus Dan McQuade wrote an article for the Philadelphia Magazine entitled “How Far Did Rocky Go In His Training Run in Rocky II?” In it, McQuade deduced that the Italian heavyweight scampered a total of 30.61 miles, greater than the length of a standard marathon.

Soon, the city’s running community took hold of the concept, and transformed it from movie magic into reality. Rebecca Barber, a seasoned ultramarathoner and Penn alumnus, was responsible for founding the event, and has continued to organize it to this day. 

The route of the race is highly intriguing in its own right. In the scene it is based on, Rocky tumbles through many different parts of the city, including some of Philadelphia’s most well-known landmarks. 

“The remarkable thing about the route is that it’s completely inefficient,” Josselyn said. “And that’s dictated by the Rocky training montage itself. One moment he’s in South Philly, then he’s getting pretty far towards Northeast Philadelphia, then he might be out by the Schuylkill River, then he’s back in Center City, then he runs through the Italian Market.”

The haphazardness of Rocky’s route only further cements that the Rocky run is not primarily about the running. At its core, it is an event designed to bring people together. It just so happens that the medium for the camaraderie is a grueling test of physical stamina. 

With nothing to gain from finishing fast, those who take part in the Rocky run are incredibly supportive. More active runners, like Josselyn, will ratchet back their typical pace, and less experienced participants are given the chance to tackle a distance they may never have attempted in a more competitive environment. This attitude also extends down to the nuances of the original scene, where the goal is not to be Rocky, but to embody him.

“At Mile 29, you run behind Independence Hall, and there’s a little park there with some benches, and famously Rocky jumps over the bench…” Josselyn said. “That is something I would not be able to do at mile one.... But it’s usually pretty fun, since I’m running in a small group at that point. Everyone has to try their best to get over. Usually there’s hoisting involved.”

The sense of fellowship the run provides is not limited to its physical components. It can also serve as a stage for even more meaningful human connection. 

“One of the first years I ran, there was a group of us, and people were disclosing some pretty intense stuff,” Josselyn said. “One person was talking about converting religions. One person was talking about having lost a parent. I probably don’t remember those people’s names, but I remember those individual stories. And it was really amazing.”

Philadelphia’s Rocky 50k knows its audience.

Just as the film it is based on is defined by its setting, the fighting spirit of Philadelphia is imbued within the run itself. Rocky does not quit. The runners do not quit. Philadelphia does not quit.

“Philly goes hard. And just like this run, Philly is gritty,” Josselyn said. “...You have to carry your own water. If you need supplies, you find a store. If you need a bathroom, you find a bathroom… You have to be resourceful. You can’t expect to be pampered.”

Those traits of self-reliance are crucial to any long-distance event, and crucial to the city whose streets the run calls home. But beneath the surface of each, there is a certain compassion to be found. 

“There’s something about Philly where, even though some people maybe have a brash exterior, there’s also a caring that goes around among neighbors,” Josselyn said.

Whether they are companions in the city or companions on the course, nothing can break the bond the city’s inhabitants have with one another.