The Outside Rail

There were three naked, hot, wet women in my car Sunday. If that doesn't make you keep reading, nothing will. But, sorry, that's as risqué as this gets. The women - Sam Clancy, Julie DeFelice and Cathy Roelke - ran Philadelphia's Broad Street Run Sunday morning in the rain and cold and rain and cold and rain and cold.

I was the driver, and they weren't naked for long or completely or all at the same time. But they had to change out of some really wet running clothes. And no one saw, other than maybe that one guy walking along Pattison Avenue.

But the ladies ran, on a day where it would have been easy and forgivable, to stay in bed. It was 45 degrees (at best) and rainy in Philadelphia Sunday. The weather app predicted a 100-percent chance of rain and didn't miss. If you're a racing fan, the weather was very close to the 1988 Breeders' Cup or 2000 Colonial Cup. In a word, rotten. 

The day started 5:45 or so Sunday morning. Julie and Cathy, friends and running partners of Sam's, came to our house. They wore running clothes, including matching yellow shirts (each with an orange duct tape X on the back so they could spot one another in the crowd), topped by sweats they intended to discard on the street for the homeless once the race started (somebody got my blue fleece). Cathy brought a cooler with celebratory beer for afterward. Julie brought Gu and two bananas. Sam ate peanut butter toast, had a cup of coffee. I made tea and toast.

We left at 6:15 and stopped at their traditional pit stop (they've done this before) at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center just over the Delaware line, then headed north. The city closes Broad Street for the race and the course simply follows the main artery for 10 miles - from the city's Logan section near La Salle University south toward City Hall, through the Avenue of the Arts area and past the sports complex. The race finishes in the shadow of retired warships at the Navy Yard, now a 1,200-acre business campus.

Most runners park at the stadiums and take the subway or shuttle buses to the starting corrals 10 miles north. From our house, that strategy requires a far earlier start and involves thousands of nervous, tired, already sweaty people packed on to moving vehicles. We aimed for a later departure, a dropoff near the start and then a parking spot down by the finish line.

Somehow it all worked out. The ladies, stylishly wearing clear ponchos provided by Julie, jumped out near the half-mile mark (in the rain) at the corner of North 15th Street and West Rockland Street. I headed south - Route 1 to the Schuylkill Expressway to Pattison Avenue to FDR Park (in the rain). I parked in the park and walked to Broad Street (in the rain). Four lanes of runners streamed south, so crowded that crossing the street felt like a game of Frogger. On a course that straight for that long, the runners just flow for as far as you can see. Along the way, there are cheerleaders, bands, churchgoers, families, water stops, spectators of all ages.

It was cold and wet, a hard day to run. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, a long-sleeve T-shirt, a fleece pullover and a waterproof jacket, I was glad to be watching from under a golf umbrella. But I was cold. The runners were soaked to the skin. Some ran in jackets, others in simple shirts, a few wore trash bags. One guy dressed as a penguin. Another ran as a human-sized Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup. A few men ran shirtless. How wet were they? Sneakers squished, hair dripped, faces turned red, fingers ached. I can only imagine the socks.

On the drive to Philly, all three women talked about having to walk at least part of it. They said they weren't fit, or fit enough. They said they hadn't trained enough. Cathy had been sick. Julie didn't trust her bananas. Sam said she'd miss the pull she got on training runs with Katie the Labrador. I figured they were OK, just didn't know about the weather. A lot can go wrong on a rainy run with 40,000 people on a cold morning.

Nobody walked, nobody stopped, nobody fell in a puddle. Jammed in with a few hundred other revelers - some fueled by more than energy bars - I saw Sam, Julie and Cathy 50 yards before the line. They were together, strong and headed for the finish. I cheered, they didn't hear me. They came home in 1:37.53 - a PR for Sam - and extended to four a Broad Street Run streak for Julie and Cathy (Sam missed last year). I'm not sure time really matters when you're wet, cold and crowded. They kept running on a day when the more rational decision would have been to stop - or never start - and finished in the top 40 percent of the women's division of about 19,000. Each one said they couldn't have finished without the other, which is what it's all about I guess.

I found them afterward, wrapped in silver/plastic blankets and carrying bags of swag. They were smiling, shivering and soaking wet. I've seen drier people get out of a swimming pool. They scored American flag sunglasses, headphones, bananas, some free Kind bars. The T-shirts were at home. The memories will last forever.

Cold, wet, hungry we walked back to the car - played Frogger on the road again as the runners continued to stream south with the rain - and headed home after vowing to park closer to the finish line if this ever occurs again. We took a few photos and stopped for free beer and food at the Philadelphia Runner tailgate party overlooking the lake in the park, which would have been more popular if the rain ever stopped. There was some awkward changing into dry clothes in the car (see the first sentence), a stop at Starbuck's on I-95, liberal use of the Subaru's heated seats and a gradual return to everyone's regularly scheduled Sunday.

The Broad Street Run attracts about 40,000 runners, even in the rain. It's part road race, part party, all phenomenon. It's long enough to be a challenge, short enough to be achieved, fun enough to be an event.

Sam and her friends love it. It's their thing. They say they're never doing it again. I don't believe them.