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By Robert Senior
You don’t have to be from this area to find a special place in your heart for the Philadelphia Marathon. While local runners love the event’s course through the city’s historical landmarks and scenic areas, few have as many deeply personal memories of the race as Chip Bearden.
Bearden lives in Boonton Township, N.J., just west of New York City. He says he never considered himself an athlete, but took up running during the mid-70s. The 1978 New York City Marathon was his first, and Bearden ran three more races in quick succession. He then took a 15-year hiatus to concentrate on a career, relationships—and eventually, having a family, with twin girls Josie and Tina born to Chip and his wife in 1994.
“After the girls were born, my wife expressed interest in running a marathon,” he recalls. “She ran New York in 1996, so I looked nearby for a race I could enter on short notice.”
In those days, the Philadelphia event was relatively small. Chip liked the idea that his family would be able to see him several times throughout the race without rushing around the course. The 1996 race rekindled Bearden’s love of running, as he found the Philadelphia course conducive to family participation. From 1996-2010, Bearden didn’t miss a single Philly Marathon.
“It just sort of happened,” he says of his 15-year streak. “I ran other marathons, but I always came back for Philly, and I brought more and more friends with me each time.”
As the years—and the streak—went on, Bearden began to build lasting memories during the Philadelphia events. His first Philly race in 1996 was also the first time his wife ran the last few miles with him to offer encouragement. Two years later, she pushed the girls in a baby jogger along the course, following him up to a playground on Kelly Drive and then back down from Manayunk, the toddlers singing and cheering the entire way.
“After the race that year, the girls spent a couple of hours in the Please Touch Museum, and had a blast,” he remembers. “I just slumped against the wall and tried not to fall asleep!” Bearden ran one of his best times that year; a three-hour, 32 minute finish.
Bearden’s top competitive moment came in the 2006 Philly Marathon, when his finishing time qualified him for his first Boston Marathon. A year later, his then-teenage twins ran the last mile or so with him, soaking in the cheers of the crowd and enjoying the noise and spectacle. “They had just started running themselves at that point,” said Bearden, “but I think that gave them a good sense for what it’s like to finish one of these races.”
But it all led up to the 2010 race, the one Bearden will remember forever. His streak of consecutive Philadelphia Marathons was in jeopardy as he reached the halfway point around the Art Museum. “I’d contracted Lyme disease earlier that year,” says Bearden, “and we thought it had been treated with the standard 30 days of antibiotics.”
Like many people who contract Lyme, it took a while for doctors to correctly diagnose Bearden. He never exhibited a bullseye rash or any other classic symptoms. Once diagnosed and treated, he thought he was ready to go—but the race was a struggle.
Throughout the event, Bearden’s daughters alternated accompanying their dad along the course, culminating in an unforgettable family photo when Chip reached the finish line. “This photo of the three of us, crossing the line hand-in-hand—that documents one of the greatest moments of my life.”
It also marked the end of Chip’s streak of consecutive Philly Marathons, as he continued to overcome Lyme disease throughout 2011. By race day, he’d progressed beyond the point of recovery, but made the prudent decision to take a break.
“I wasn’t going to run just to prove a point—I felt I’d proven enough,” he declares. “It was frustrating, knowing my buddies were out there on the course that day. But it just makes me more determined to get back there this year.”
Bearden also hopes to spread awareness of Lyme disease to his fellow runners. There are several factors that expose the long-distance runner to the condition—the increased popularity of trail running and the inclination to ignore or run through various aches and pains. Moreover, a runner’s robust immune system can suppress the initial infection. “I thought it could never happen to me,” Bearden admits. “I was very naïve.”
But Lyme disease is behind Chip Bearden, as is the streak of consecutive marathons. Now he’s another runner, hitting the pavement this Sunday with his goals in front of him, his family behind him—and more memories waiting for him.
Five Questions with Chip Bearden
What’s your goal for this year’s Marathon? “I’m just glad to be back. I want to finish the race in a solid time and have a good race.”
What’s your favorite thing about the Philadelphia Marathon? “I just feel like this is my marathon. When I show up in Philly, I know it. I know the course, the people—just like you identify with a favorite movie or favorite restaurant. It comes to be a part of you.”
If you brought a friend from out-of-town to go running in Philadelphia, where would you take them? “Actually, as it pertains to the Marathon I’d make sure people went to the Expo. Philadelphia has the best marathon expo I’ve attended.”
If you were to run the race with a Philadelphia celebrity: “I don’t really know… when I think about Philadelphia celebrities, the only name that comes to mind is Rocky. It’d be great if we could run the course with the Rocky theme playing behind us.”
If you could change one thing about the Marathon: “I’d run it in the opposite direction. Those last 12 miles—that out-and-back to Manayunk sure is tough because you’re going farther and farther from the finish line—then covering ground you’ve already covered once before. You know exactly how far you’ve got to go.”