40 Philly half-marathons? 'I think we lost our brains a long time ago'

Tina Johnson — her friends call her Titanium Tina — has had two knee surgeries, two hip surgeries, and three operations on her back.

Prince Knight has snapped an Achilles tendon.

And just five weeks ago, Gary Gordon had successful surgery for prostate cancer. 

But none of that has ever stopped the trio from lacing up their sneakers and putting one foot in front of the other for 13.1 miles in what is now called the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. For 40 consecutive years — in spite of whatever excuses they could’ve mustered — Johnson, Knight, and Gordon have shown up, making them part of a group of 23 people known as “all-year runners” who have never once missed this event.

Why?

“I think we lost our brains a long time ago,” Gordon, 71, said with a laugh.

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Tina Johnson (right), who now lives in Winter Garden, Fla., and Nancy English, of Swarthmore (center), clap for their fellow runners that have competed in every Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon — and the various other names the 13.1-mile race has had — for 40 years.  

About 15,000 people were similarly missing their brains Sunday morning, turning the Benjamin Franklin Parkway into a sea of half-marathoners. There was a man dressed as Elvis — without shoes, another wearing a full wrestling costume, and a guy carrying an American flag as he ran.

One runner wore a shirt saying he had participated in 100 half-marathons. He was running too quickly to be interviewed.

The race may not have the throngs of the Broad Street Run, in which 50,000 people traverse the spine of the city. And those masochists seeking a full 26.2 miles need to wait until November’s full Philadelphia Marathon.

But for the “all-year runners” of this event, this race has special appeal. 

Lorraine Cephus ran the inaugural event at age 47. Now 87, Cephus said she wasn’t sure how fast she’d go Sunday — but speed wasn’t the point.

“Once you get out here you feel better,” she said. “I am not a couch potato.”

Vincent Cloud, 70, lives in Palm Beach, Fla., but comes back to run every year with friends, including Peter Longstreth, who has also never missed a race. Cloud said he’s written into his will that some of his ashes get sprinkled into the Schuylkill during the run.

And Gordon, who lives in Fairmount, was thrilled and moved to be participating so soon after his cancer surgery. He barely trained, he said, but that didn’t matter — finishing was his only goal.

Nancy English, 70, had never run a race before she signed up for this half marathon — then called the Philadelphia Distance Run — in 1977. Now it’s the only race she even considers.

As she approached mile three Sunday morning, a spectator yelled out congratulations.

“Not done yet,” she yelled back, continuing on her path toward the finish line.