15 within 15: Running River to River in Philly

The author takes a 10 mile run across Philly, laying eyes on the Delaware and Schuylkill, and reflecting on city life.

The Benjamin Franklin Bridge as seen from Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown, Philadelphia, on May 15, 2020. [Photo: Kyle Bagenstose]

By Kyle Bagenstose

15 minutes.

That’s the driving distance limit still being championed for outdoor recreation under the novel coronavirus, by entities such as the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The idea is to stay near home and limit the spread of the disease by decreasing community-to-community infection. But it’s a tough pill to swallow. Those not blessed to be immediately adjacent to their favorite recreational spots might not have much recreational opportunity within a quarter of an hour. I know it’s put my plans on hold: a guys’ trip to the Poconos in early May was cancelled, planned visits to new state parks in northwest and southwest Pennsylvania are delayed, and a goal to visit Acadia National Park by the end of the year is up in the air.

Nevermind my usual trips from Philly to campgrounds like French Creek and trail networks like Hawk Mountain.

But, I’ve decided to give it a go. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do 15 outdoor activities within 15 minutes (maybe a few extra depending on the red lights!) to see how it feels. I’m trying to approach this with what some call “beginner’s mind.” Looking carefully for nature and taking it slow in places I may have only sped through before. But I also plan to turn it up a notch from time to time: Can I get my vigorous exercise and strenuous accomplishment kicks within 15 minutes of home?

We’ll see.

Activity 5: Running river to river through Philly

I used to hate running. Like, only a little over a year ago.

Wrestling was my sport through school, and when I dabbled in others it was usually something more dynamic and head-to-head. Running was always a chore, something coaches would force you to do at practice as a part of getting in better shape for the real competition.

Believe it or not, that all changed with a wristwatch. I received one with GPS-functionality as a birthday gift, with the idea I’d use it for hiking and backpacking, to keep track of my mileage and my location. Then one day I used it for one of the rare, short runs I’d do just for the hell of it. I was curious about how quickly I could do a mile or two.

I got my time. Then it sat there in my brain for a few days, until I wondered, can I do better? So off I ran again, and again, and by the end of the first season, I ran a 13.1 on my own and competed in a formal 10k.

I’m not going to be gracing the cover of Runner’s World anytime soon (that’s the main running magazine, right?), but with the days of organized sports mainly in the rearview mirror, I’ve come to appreciate running as a challenging and rewarding solo activity in its own right. In a way, it’s a bit like wrestling: it’s just you out there, pushing yourself as hard as you can to try and perform better than you did the time before. And with fewer sub-concussive hits to the head to boot.

Another thing it’s done for me is open some “outdoors doors.” You can obviously cover more ground on a bicycle, but that comes with its own maintenance and expenses. And in a city, it’s also subject to the rules, and dangers, of the road. Running has all of the benefits of hiking, such as taking your surroundings as they come and being able to change directions and explore spaces, but has the extra perk of seeing more in the same amount of time.

Exhibit A: my recent “river to river” run through Philly. My regular running route from the Fishtown area takes me through the neighborhood and then down Columbus Boulevard along the Delaware River. Typically, I’d stop somewhere near Penn’s Landing, turn around, and head back home. Often I’d be tempted to make a right and head across the city to the Schuylkill River on the other side. I knew it was within my manageable range, but just never made the effort.

I took the dive on Friday evening, the first day this year air temps in Philly hung over 80 degrees.

The first leg encompassed the typical sites of the Delaware, highlighted by a trip to Penn Treaty Park and then the approaching Ben Franklin Bridge. But no matter how many times I see it, the Delaware River’s half-mile width, with the winds whipping up chops, is always an impressive sight.

From there, I took a right somewhere around Callowhill Street, bouncing up and down a few blocks as I worked to avoid red lights or crowded intersections. I eventually funneled onto Spring Garden, a semi-major four-lane thoroughfare that positioned the slowly setting sun directly in front of me. This section of the city is fairly concrete-laden, with little green space to look at, and by the time I arrived at Broad Street I was thinking this activity would most likely be getting a thumbs down.

But that changed as I continued to make my way west. I actually don’t know the history of the name Spring Garden, but as I entered the eponymous neighborhood, greenery did start appearing more and more. Since the point of this run was to enjoy my surroundings, not push myself to the limit, I stopped on several occasions to admire some of the flowering shrubbery and trees.

Before I knew it, I had arrived all the way at the other end of the city, making my way briefly up the Ben Franklin Parkway until arriving at the Art Museum. I did the obligatory run of the steps before working my way around back and taking a look at the Schuylkill.

Then came my favorite part of the run. I lived for several years in the city’s Fairmount and Francisville neighborhoods, perhaps most famous for their being home to the weird and beautiful Eastern State Penitentiary.

To me, the main point of getting outdoors is to feel and experience things, which of course often go hand-in-hand. The run through my old neighborhood checked the former box to a surprising degree. Seeing the front doors and familiar sights still largely intact, with little novel changes here and there, sparked nostalgia and profound appreciation. As I transported myself through physical space I also ventured through time in a way, remembering the thoughts and emotions that defined me at that point of my life, and reflecting on how I’ve changed since.

Seeing that crazy looking penitentiary did something else for me, too. In recent years, I’ve thought about whether a city is really the right place for me. Or, whether I’d be better off somewhere greener. But all through my run, culminating when I ran by that structure as large as a city block, I was reminded about what drew me to Philly in the first place: its vibrancy, its abundance, and frankly, its coolness. The city offers so many different sights and places and things to do, all with overlapping histories and communities. It’s dynamic, with something interesting waiting to be discovered around every corner. And running through those corners, ones both new and familiar, reminded me of that.

The final leg of my journey took me back across Broad Street, down Fairmount Avenue before winding up through Northern Liberties. Along the way I stopped to take pictures of some new places, including little pocket community parks and gardens. It reminded me that even in some of the most classicly urban neighborhoods, residents find a way to cultivate and interact with our natural world. And that if you live in the city, “escaping” to natural spaces is only one way to get a break from all the concrete. The other is to tear some of it up, and bring the green to you.

As I approached home, serendipity became apparent. My fancy watch, the same one that led me to running in the first place, told me I was near pace to end my run at the precise minute the sun set. Kicking it up a gear for the last mile or two, I stretched out my legs and basked in my experience. The time hit 8:08, and my ten-mile journey was complete. I turned to snap one last photo of a darkening yellow sunset, and felt love for Philly.

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