Philadelphia Marathon: 20 years of memories

Mark Sullivan (center) and Bob Koen (left) wearing all 19 Philly Marathon finisher medals next to Mayor Nutter at the 2012 opening ceremonies.

This year is the 20th year of the current version of the GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon, and many runners say they enjoy the race because of its consistency — no matter how big it grows, the Marathon continues to provide the same rewarding experience.

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed is the presence of Mark Sullivan. On Sunday morning, Sullivan will stride to the starting line for the 20th consecutive year — one of only two individuals documented to have run the race every year since 1994.

(The incredible thing is that isn’t even Sullivan’s longest single-city streak—he’s run 27 consecutive Boston Marathons.)

Sullivan has a special place in his heart for the Philadelphia event, however—a love he will share via an orientation-type presentation at the Health & Fitness Expo this Friday at Saturday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. He also helped us produce this overview of the course ahead of last year’s Marathon.

Days before this year’s Philly Marathon, Sullivan shared 20 years’ worth of memories and reflections with Sports Doc.

“A few months ago, I was going through some running memorabilia, and I came across an old videotape of the first Philadelphia Marathon (in 1994),” he says. “I hadn’t seen this thing in forever. It was a 30-minute program that Channel 6 had edited from the event. It was really fun to watch that video again.”

Fun because of the memories, the nostalgia? Nope.

“You should’ve seen us runners back then,” Sullivan laughs. “If it were me, I’d have called that video ‘Big Hair and Short Shorts’ because that is all you see for a half-hour!”

On a serious note, Sullivan says he was struck by just how similar the race has remained throughout years of booming popularity. “It’s very much the same setup—which is good, because they’ve got a great course,” he says.

So what was different? “Nowadays, they have online registration, the Expo, everything is very much pre-planned,” adds Sullivan. “But in this video, there was a tent and people are walking up to register just as the event’s about to begin. That’s something I’d forgotten about—back then, no big deal, but today it’s interesting to remember that.”

Sullivan remembers the days when a competitor would finish the race, wait around for a few minutes, then wander over to a RV where they’d print out your finisher’s certificate right on the spot—a task that’s been rendered impossible here in 2013 with 30,000 or so registrants ready to run this weekend. The quaint nature of the event back then is important to a lifer like Sullivan.

“For a startup race in 1994 to have 1,500 people was a pretty big deal,” he says. “Sure, events like NYC and Boston were bigger, and they received more attention. But to watch that videotape, and look back on it… it still looks like a good-sized field. It doesn’t stand out as being small, even compared to the runs today.”

In those days, the Expo was held up at Memorial Hall. “There was something kind of charming about the Expo in those days—there’s plenty of parking at Memorial Hall, and you could just walk right up there. Later, they moved the Expo to the finish line itself—which was cool because you could check out where you’d be starting and finishing the next day. Of course, as the event grew it made sense to move into the Convention Center, where they have so much to offer.”

Above all, Sullivan’s impressed by the commitment of organizers to remain true to what they initially set out to do. “Unlike so many big-city races, the event has maintained a hometown feeling to it. This event competes with any marathon in the nation, and yet has really maintained its own identity. Where else do you see the Mayor of a major city standing out there, high-fiving the finishers?”

The connection of local businesses—the pasta dinners, the discounts along the route in Manayunk—gives the event a local flavor as well. “It really gives the people of the city ownership of the event, or at least a feeling that it is their own,” says Sullivan.

So when you head to the starting line on Sunday, see if you can spot Mark Sullivan, lining up for his 20th consecutive Philly Marathon. He’ll probably be much harder to spot among this year’s 30,000 runners than he would have been in 1994.

But he certainly won’t be wearing short shorts.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.

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