by Dante Zappala
During the 1980s, the New Freedom Striders owned the Valley on any given day. Packs that swelled to 50 deep rolled down Forbidden Drive in waves. Training was religiously regimented. Certain days called for certain workouts. Bragging rights were earned and flaunted. Only one person could wear the Belt, the official title that marked the man who was the king; a man who would be revered, respected but still hunted every day.
Those that would challenge for the Belt would be humiliated for failing. If you were on the wrong end of a butt kicking, the talk about you would last for weeks. And there wasn’t anything you could do but take your licks and train harder.
Legendary figures like Moses Mayfield were regulars. Moses ran the first New York City Marathon in 1970. He was leading the race at 24 miles before he fell apart, just missing a chance at history. Less than three months later, he came back and won the Philadelphia Marathon with a time that was seven minutes faster than the winning time in New York that year.
By the time I came around, Moses was still feared. He was a front runner. He relentlessly pushed the pace. Easy runs might start out that way, but they never ended that way.
Although legally blind, he knew every tangent and landmark. He’d hold his stop watch inches from his faces as he passed mile markers. The numbers were like a shot of adrenaline to him. He’d digest the information and surge even harder.
Roy Carl was a good but not great runner at first. Yet once he started hammering the runs with Moses, he took off. Eventually, he’d take the Belt.
Things began to change in the 90’s. Some guys couldn’t run anymore. Some moved away. Some died. The large regular runs became smaller regular runs. They became more social and less competitive.
Throughout it all, the “Hangover Run” took place on Kelly Drive on New Year’s Day. This was a sometimes official but, more recently, unofficial race that offered a chance for people to get together, embellish the year behind and predict great things for the year ahead.
Though thin through several years, the tradition has persevered. Bill McClellan gets down there early to hold spots for the tables and the pot luck brunch that ensues after the run for the Striders that can make it down there to run or walk.
In recent years, the gathering has grown. Black Girls Run started showing up en masse, bolstering the numbers. This year, the newly formed Black Men Run came as well.
In fact, all over the city, running groups are flourishing again in Fairmount, Fishtown and West Philly.
Community is vital. We’re engineered to seek company and companionship. Long runs are great for conversation and confiding secrets. But then running is ultimately a solitary endeavor. An informal study I’ve been carrying out tells me that, more times than not, people run alone. Maybe this explains the growing prevalence of virtual groups on Facebook like Run 215 and iRun the Hill.
I am on that list. Most times, I run by myself. I don’t think this is a choice as much as circumstance. Life gets complicated quick, and so I have no steady routine. I run at all hours of the day, usually with little notice. I keep my gear in the trunk. I take it when I can get it.
Finding people who are training at a similar pace is also a challenge. I meet guys who are faster and slower than me, but I have begun to think that I am in some dead zone of fitness where few people train.
Nonetheless, I have been trying to breathe fresh life into the New Freedom Striders. I ordered up shirts and commissioned a new logo. I even set up a website. The yellow and black is back, even if it’s just a few guys now.
On this New Year’s Day, we jogged out to the turnaround as if we’d keep this as a fun run. But before I could blink, a few of the fellas were off, some 200 yards ahead of me. I eventually caught up to the guy out front. I tried to engage him in conversation, maybe take the edge off.
But he would have none of it. Silence ensued and the race was on. The Belt was in the offing. We tore up the last mile of the Drive. We’re Striders, after all.