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The spirit of Broad Street

Runners of all speeds and talents love the Broad Street Run.

Mother Lenora Wagner, daughter Christa Policella and son Alex Wagner will tackle the Broad Street Run together.
Mother Lenora Wagner, daughter Christa Policella and son Alex Wagner will tackle the Broad Street Run together.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

TALK TO a selection of the 40,000 runners, from those who tear through the Broad Street Run at record speed to those who painstakingly trudge to the finish line, and you'll hear a different story from each one.

To some, the 10-mile course that cuts through the heart of Philadelphia is all about breaking tape and personal bests.

To others, it's all about a "Rocky," "Run, Forrest, Run" spirit.

They lost 100 pounds or clawed out of despair to get back on their feet. They beat cancer or want to memorialize someone who didn't.

Some will run alone tomorrow among a sea of strangers. Others will clock each mile alongside children, siblings, friends, husbands and wives.

Rory McManus has run the race - which starts near the Central High School athletic field at Broad Street and Somerville Avenue and ends in the Navy Yard - every year since its inception in 1980.

McManus, 65, is one of only six who have completed it all 34 times.

"The first year, there were 1,576 runners [only 122 of them women] and it cost $2 to enter and no one knew if we'd ever have it a second year," he said.

Each year, the race grew in popularity for a number of reasons. The course is a gentle downhill (from 151 feet above sea level to 18 feet.) Cheering crowds line most every block of Broad Street. And it's not a meandering, isolated course, so runners never feel alone.

All that has made it the largest 10-mile race in the U.S., only behind the Dam tot Damloop 10-miler in the Netherlands. It's so coveted that the organizers have used a lottery system for two years to award spots.

McManus, who lives in Springfield, Delaware County, and had been a distinguished water-polo player and ocean swimmer, finished his first Broad Street in 1 hour, 13 minutes.

Running 35 to 40 miles a week, McManus, who works as a Capitol Hill briefer, has logged about 60,000 miles and competed in more than 200 races, including the Boston Marathon at age 60.

"I've basically circled the Earth twice," he said with a laugh.

"It makes me feel immortal," he said. "Running is a large part of my life. I couldn't function being a briefer if I was not mentally sharp and I couldn't be mentally sharp if I didn't run."

For Sandra Folzer, who will celebrate her 75th birthday next Saturday, running helped her cope with breast cancer after she was diagnosed almost 20 years ago, had a double mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy.

"I like feeling strong. And I don't feel as old," she said. "I like my body even though I don't have breasts because it's a strong body. . . . Anyway, it probably makes running easier. I'm more aerodynamic."

Bruce Springsteen must have been thinking about Folzer when he wrote "Born to Run."

She started running in 1976 "for fun" and to train for her first marathon, she did the River Drive loop twice, almost 17 miles. That was it. She ran the Philadelphia Marathon and placed fifth among women, finishing the 26.2-mile course in 3 hours, 45 minutes.

Folzer is a former college professor and psychologist, a mother of three daughters and grandmother of three. She doesn't do full marathons anymore. "I want to save my legs," she said.

These days, she's her daughter's "rabbit," waiting for her at mile 13 and running the second half by her side.

Her best Broad Street time was 65 minutes and she's placed first or second in her age division nearly every year for 25 years. Age has slowed her down somewhat - to an impressive 86 minutes.

This year, Folzer, a spry, slender, feisty woman with a shock of gray hair, will face an extra hurdle.

"I broke my shoulder in November on Forbidden Drive. I tripped on a rock and hit another rock. I had to wear a sling for a while," she said.

But she knows how to roll with the punches. She's run weak and bald from chemo surrounded by family and friends who wore T-shirts that read, "For Sandy."

Folzer will be ahead of many other runners - with all varieties of fight in them.

For years, Lenora Wagner, 59, ran two to three miles a couple days a week. Nothing big.

"But when I went through a separation and divorce in 2007, I started running more as a way of doing something for me," she said.

"It was a way to help me cope with all the emotions I was going through," she said. "It helped me get rid of the stress and anxiety and the endorphins made me feel good about myself."

She ran her first Broad Street in 2008.

"I wasn't very fast. I never was. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in life . . . but it was such a great feeling of accomplishment."

Wagner, of Wilmington, Del., who works as an accounting manager, has run Broad Street every year since with her daughter, Christa Policella, 30, of Northeast Philadelphia.

In fact, her daughter, Wagner said, encouraged her to run Broad Street and trained with her.

"It's something we can do as mother and daughter," Policella said. "It was partly to help her heal, help her deal with everything she was going through."

They did their first marathon in Niagara Falls in October 2012 with Policella's brother, Alex Wagner.

"But Broad Street started it all," Lenora Wagner said.

Alex, 26, has joined them at Broad Street three times. Tomorrow will be his fourth.

"I just love the crowd," he said. "It gets you going. It keeps you going."

One year, he saw an old woman trying to cross Broad Street in the middle of the race.

"This runner stopped to help her across the street," he said.

"That said to me what Broad Street is all about."