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They Can’t Take The “Rocky Run” Away From Us

Bunch of people dressed like Rocky, woman standing on a blue car talking to them
Dan McQuade/Defector|

Rebecca Barber talks to the crowd just before the Rocky 50K start in 2021.

Rebecca Barber saw the story just hours after it went up in October 2013. A writer had done a very silly blog for Philadelphia magazine in which he connected the scenes in the running montage from Rocky II, starting with Rocky Balboa’s house in South Philly and ending with his run up the Art Museum's steps. In that montage, Rocky goes all over the city, to North Philly and back to South Philly and through an underpass meant only for cars. The movie montage was surely not meant to suggest that Rocky had gone on one long run, but the distance the writer calculated was 30.61 miles.

That, coincidentally, is just about one of the standard ultramarathon distances: 31 miles, or 50 kilometers. Barber is an ultra-runner, and one who had suddenly discovered a new course design in the city where she lived.

“Immediately it was like—this is such a cool article,” she says. “I love this. I was paranoid someone was going to beat me to the idea of making it a real idea. How would you not? You have to run that! You have to.” She emailed the writer of the article, who by now you have probably guessed is also the writer of this one.

I saw your article about how long Rocky runs in Rocky 2 and it’s freaking fabulous. It gave me the idea of putting on a fatass 50k race, which would cost nothing or next to nothing (price would cover costs and that’s it) and just essentially be a fun run that covers the course, making it a solid 31 miler. Fatass races are low-key, which would be perfect since it wouldn’t require the city to close any roads. It’d be small, for sure. 

The email, sent at 12:14pm; the article went up at 8:50am.

Barber was wrong about that last part: It was not small. About 150 people showed up to the first edition, held in December of that year. The Wall Street Journal did a front-page story, complete with a stipple portrait of Rocky Balboa. “At one point, a fellow Rocky runner even peeled off to help a few locals push a stalled-out car for a couple blocks,” Caitlin Giddings wrote in Runner’s World. The fat ass run has continued. The Rocky 50K will have its 11th edition this year on December 2.

“I have so much fun every year I run it,” Barber told me. “And I don’t think it’s because it’s my run. I think it’s because the people are so much fun and it has built this community. It means a lot that people want to participate in it every year, whether they’re doing a mile or the whole thing. I had a guy come from frickin’ Spain. Like, a dude came from Spain for that! That’s wild to me.”

People really love this frickin’ run. So many people dress as Rocky Balboa. A baby is named Rocky because of the run. Stock’s Bakery, a Philadelphia staple in Port Richmond, has become an unofficial break point in the race. They give out free donuts. Sometimes people just run to Stock’s, eat a donut, and head home. Other people do the whole 31 miles and sprint up the steps at the end. It’s a heck of an event, and by now a small, strange part of Philadelphia's civic life.

Sometimes the race can be life-changing. Michael Gagliardi did the second edition of the Rocky 50K in 2014. He loved running, and had run his first marathon the previous year. But something about that event clicked for him. In a conversation on Monday, he compared it to Saul of Tarsus’ conversion at Damascus.

“Saul gets hit by the light of God, he falls off his fucking horse, changes his name to Paul,” Gagliardi says, crediting ultrarunner Mary Arnold as his beam of light during the run. “And it was like, I had this fucking epiphany, man, this is exactly what I should be doing. I found my tribe. I finished that run, and it was miserable that day: A sideways Scottish rain, 30-something degrees, sideways, cold and miserable. I left that run and when I got done, I just went home, I took a shower, and I was on Ultrasignup that night.”

Saul became Paul the Apostle; Gagliardi just got a tattoo of the Rocky statue on his leg. He is now about as professional as an amateur runner can be. He’s done 54 ultras with no DNFs and has a podcast, Running Times with Gagz. He has sponsorships. He has won all four editions of the Loopy Looper 12-hour race. He ran the entire 76-mile border of Philadelphia. He once ran the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia to Camden and back 120 times in a month. This year, he’s trying to do it 500 times. He’s at 317 for the year.

“I was around people who were talking about these 100 mile races the way I’m talking about a cup of coffee,” he says. “And I was just like a sponge, like: ‘Oh my God, I want in, I want to be a part of this world.’ This feels normal. This feels natural to me. And that feeling has never changed.”

This is all so wonderful. It makes me cry at how beautiful Philadelphia can be. I can be an emotional person, but I am especially attached to this run. It’s everybody’s, by now, but also it’s mine. With the help of friends and colleagues, I tracked down all the scene’s locations. I mapped out the distance, deciding which route Rocky would’ve taken. I was hopeful the story would do well, but the amount of attention it received was incredible. It was such a memorable day. Everyone seemed to be talking about my story online, and it was pretty much all positive. I had rarely felt cooler. I didn’t have an epiphany like Gagz, but it did probably make my career. I was a Comcast contractor doing one freelance story a week while I slacked off at my actual job when I wrote it, but Philadelphia brought me on as a regular freelancer not long after the story. I am a runner and a track fan, but I never considered someone would want to do the race.

What makes it perfect, to me, is that it was only my thing for just one day—for only a few hours! Barber emailed me just three hours after the story was published asking if she could take it further. I did not even think about anyone actually running this course. I could never have fathomed there would still be a Rocky run a decade after this article. Maybe I should have.

It was not a year until there was a second Rocky run. A company now known as RUN MFG licensed Rocky from MGM and created an official, sanctioned Rocky run complete with entry fees and prizes. At the time, company founder Nate Barnhart said that his company had actually already been working on the run before the Rocky 50K began; MGM said they’d “previously licensed” it. This is what you’d expect all of those parties to say, and I am not the first person to think about Rocky running and do not own the concept.

That said, I think there is no way Barnhart got through all the corporate red tape to license his event in less than a year. MGM sent a cease and desist to Barber over her run, but all she did was change the logo and add a line to the website that the run was not endorsed or sponsored by the movie studio. I don’t think MGM can stop people from gathering to run an unofficial course; she has continued to hold the run without interference. It’s all good. Of course I get a little jealous when I see banners for a Chicago company’s race near the Art Museum, or when the news covers that event. But I wouldn’t want to be involved in a sanctioned Rocky run. Most people don’t want to run a 50K, and some other people want to pay $40 or more and get a medal. This is all cool.

More than that, it’s not really new. I’ve been online since 1995; I was 12, and AOL 2.5 came out a week later. I have been a journalist since I was 17. I am 40 now. This is all to say that I am used to seeing my ideas show up elsewhere, whether that’s through parallel construction or outright theft. (It’s usually easy to tell which one.) Do I get slightly furious every time @90swwe steals my Steve Austin tweet? Look, I can’t report it anyway since that account has me blocked so it’s a moot point. But yes. Only a little furious, though. Or maybe more than a little. That is also something that happens if you stay online for a long time.

This stuff doesn’t usually bother me, though. But there’s a line, and “blocking me so you can steal my joke” is somewhere across that line. Another line-crossing bit of theft revealed itself last week, when I became aware of a running influencer who was holding a Rocky run of his own this weekend. He said it was in partnership with Endorphins, whose website says “the mission of Endorphins is to inspire and empower people to live happier and more fulfilled lives through the power of movement and exercise.” Brooks Running would be giving out free gear at the event.

“I’m here at the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia, where people traveled all over the world, just to have their Rocky moment and run up the steps,” the influencer, Jon Cervi, said in a social media video. “But how many people out there have actually run Rocky’s exact route? Endorphins is going to give you that opportunity. Next Sunday, in partnership with Brooks. We’re running Rocky’s exact route from the second movie—22 miles long.” There was an official signup page on Endorphins (whatever the fuck that is).

The Rocky 50K does not own the rights to the concept or image of Rocky Balboa running, of course, and people are free to run on the streets where they like. But Cervi presented this idea as if it were his. He literally asked how many people had run Rocky’s “exact route.” The sign-up page said “we are hard at work retracing Rocky’s Route so make sure you RSVP to be notified when the route goes live.” The answer to the question of how many people had run Rocky's route is a matter of public record: Hundreds of people have done it. Cervi noted the licensed Rocky run in one post, saying his was different: “This run will actually retrace Rocky's footsteps on his iconic training run through the streets of Philadelphia.” This, too, had already been done. He said Endorphins (whatever the fuck that is) and Brooks (a division of Berkshire Hathaway) were finally going to give you the opportunity to run “Rocky’s exact route.” I can exclusively report, in this post, that said route doesn’t exist; I made it up, or anyway I extrapolated it. And the guy didn’t even get it right! It’s a 50K! Where did 22 miles come from?

This is what “a little furious” looks like. I didn’t care about @90swwe anymore. I cared about this. I sent Cervi a note saying he should credit Rebecca’s Rocky 50K, and then I contacted Endorphins (whatever the fuck that is), and then I contacted Brooks. I talked to Brian Howard, my old boss and now the editor-in-chief of Philadelphia magazine. He said the mag had not been contacted about it. I emailed Barnhart, the official race’s organizer, and he told me that it was the first he’d heard of it. An influencer came into Philadelphia and pretended the city had not existed before he got here. You do not really need to know very much about Philadelphia to know that this is both common and unwise.

After the video went up, people started posting in the comments of Cervi’s Instagram account. Two of those people were my friends, who no doubt had gotten tired of my whiny texts and felt compelled to do something, even though I didn’t ask them to. (I just wanted to whine.) Cervi eventually responded in the comments: “Brooks approached us about a run in Philly and I thought this would be the most ‘Philly’ run we could do! Was honestly unaware it was a yearly thing, should’ve done my research—not trying to steal an idea just provide an unforgettable experience and share some miles with the community! :).” He did not talk about it again, and the run went off as planned. It didn’t seem huge, but there were some social media posts of people running around Philly in this group run. People posted throughout the run—stopping for snacks, posing for cute influencer photos, gathering on the steps at the end.

I never heard back from Cervi or Endorphins (whatever the fuck that is). Brooks finally replied to an email with some hand-washing bullshit:

Brooks partnered with Jon Cervi as a content partner as part of our larger It’s Your Run campaign, collaborating to capture content during Endorphins Running group runs. As part of that partnership, Brooks seeded product to Jon and some of his Endorphins Running crew to be featured in related content. Endorphins’ Rocky group run was not formally sponsored by Brooks. 

We connected with Jon and Endorphins after being made aware of the existing event and the language around Brooks’ involvement.

So: Brooks gave some shoes to an influencer and he did his own thing. I have decided that I think that’s true, although I also think it doesn’t matter. By dint of giving him some shit, the company was involved, and that means Brooks was promoting itself on the backs of stolen ideas. Every webpage and Instagram post I saved from around this event are unchanged as this story goes up. I believe Barnhart, too, but I do not believe Berkshire Hathaway’s running division gives a shit if one of its promotions turns out to be stolen. If I ever see Warren Buffett, oh man. He’ll get an earful.

I have been online long enough to know that this is not something you're ever supposed to admit, but: I am angry. I will get over it, though. I think I know when I will, too. Barber's Rocky 50K will go on this December, and I will be there. Maybe I will even run a mile or two. It will be the 11th Rocky 50K, and it will be the only one that frickin’ matters.

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