Michael “Gagz” Gagliardi is not just an ultra runner. He’s an ultra Philadelphian.
Since he began running in 2012, Gagliardi, 44, has completed a triathlon, seven 100-mile ultra races, and the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run (yes, that’s 200 miles).
He’s done so with a healthy supply of “wooder," an especially epic Philly beard, and with Rocky and the Liberty Bell tattooed on his shins.
“I tend to take things to the extreme,” he said. “It’s about getting hooked on the process.”
So when NASA astronaut Jessica Meir posted a photo of Philadelphia from aboard the International Space Station in March and Gagliardi was suddenly struck by the desire to run the entire perimeter of the city, he couldn’t get the thought out of his head.
With all his spring and summer races canceled due to the coronavirus, and with his job as a supervisor in the city’s Adult Probation and Parole Department on hold due to the closure of courts, Gagliardi decided the time for his epic Philly run was now.
“I said to my wife, ‘It’s on!’” he recalled.
At 4:35 a.m. Saturday, Gagliardi set off on a 16-hour run that took him around the entire perimeter of Philadelphia in exactly 76 miles.
“It’s amazing. That was just icing on the cake,” Gagliardi said, of his very Philly mileage. “I told myself I wasn’t going to mess with the integrity of the map to get to 76, but if it happens, it happens.”
Along the way he saw friends and empty streets, beauty and “desolate, post-apocalyptic Mad Max” views. He saw Philly from all of her edges — the smooth and the jagged ones — in a way that few do.
Gagliardi grew up in Northeast Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Shannan, and two sons, in Somerton.
When he started running in 2012, Gagliardi was a frequent drinker who was 70 pounds overweight and “not living my best life.”
“Becoming a disciple of running, it was the process that I really fell in love with,” he said. “If you keep making these little tweaks, they just become habits.”
Within a year, Gagliardi ran the Philadelphia Marathon, which he’s run every year since. In 2014, he completed the Challenge Atlantic City triathlon, and celebrated by getting a tattoo on his calf that reads “140.6” — the total miles he swam (2.4), biked (112), and ran (26.2) in that event.
“That taught me I can get through anything,” he said.
But it wasn’t until he competed in the Rocky 50k — a run inspired by a Philadelphia Magazine article journalist Dan McQuade wrote about the training montage in Rocky II — that Gagliardi met other ultra runners for the first time.
“I thought ‘These guys get it! They’re not asking me if my knees hurt or anything,’” he said. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I found my tribe.”
Ultra running — typically defined as anything more than a marathon but usually, no less than 50k — has taken Gagliardi everywhere from Leadville, Colo., to Huntsville, Texas.
And though he’s participated in many ultra runs in Philly, Saturday was the first time he ran around the city.
Gagliardi spent three weeks planning his route on Google Maps and by driving around the city, taking notes, and looking for clear paths. He even made his route public, via a Google Doc, so others can attempt it — in whole or in parts.
“It was so daunting,” he said. “I’d start at one place and I couldn’t figure out how to get to the next. Like anything else in life, I had to break it up into sections.”
During his research, he found a cyclist who’d biked the course, and another man who hikes it every year, whom he reached out to for tips.
He told a few friends and teased the run — which he called Philly 4 Corners — on social media.
“It got a lot of people saying ‘What’s this wacko doing?” he said.
At 4:35 a.m. on what turned out to be a beautiful Saturday, Gagliardi began his run — first reported by Billy Penn — at Forest Hills Cemetery, near the border of Montgomery County and Northeast Philly. He wore Hoka running shoes and a GPS watch and carried Tailwind endurance powder and energy gels for fuel.
At points along the way, other runner friends joined him for parts of the course, like the particularly treacherous run over the George C. Platt Memorial Bridge, which moved with the vibration of passing cars. It didn’t help that the bridge’s walkway had metal grating you can see through, he said.
“That is a desolate, post-apocalyptic Mad Max view," Gagliardi said. “There’s a reason there’s no postcards of this thing.”
One of Gagliardi’s favorite moments came on the Schuylkill River Trail when a bicyclist who recognized Gagliardi from Strava — a social media app and fitness tracker for runners and cyclists — told him he loved his running exploits and asked what he was up to.
“I showed him my watch and he almost fell over,” Gagliardi said.
Aside from the Schuylkill River Trail, which was heavily trafficked, Gagliardi said what struck him most about doing his run during quarantine was the emptiness.
“It was bizarre," he said. “I took a picture at 63rd and Market in the middle of the street, with not a car around me. I was running roads I’ve never taken before simply because I could.”
And when Gagliardi needed to fuel up — or release used fuel — he stopped, where else, but at four Wawas along his very Philly route.
“Even when we aren’t in quarantine, runners and ultra runners look for a Wawa to use the bathroom,” he said. “Wawa is my jawn.”
Gagliardi completed his run at 8:52 p.m. where it all began, at Forest Hills Cemetery. He felt great the next day, he said.
“Frankly, I was going to go for a recovery run until this went crazy on social media,” he said.