Though she was born in Washington DC, Philly can claim Rebecca Barber as one of its own, or at least as Honorary Philly Native. After all, would a mere transplant go so far as to establish the Rocky 50k?!? Barber came to Philly some 16 years ago to attend Drexel University and never left. She was an avid runner long before arriving in Philly, having run since elementary school, running competitively in high school, and keeping her legs going with Drexel’s track club. During her freshman year, at age 19, Barber notched her first marathon; she logged 27 more in the ensuing years. She also has 20 ultras to her credit, as well as the completion of two 100 milers. As for her brainchild, the Rocky 50K—not to be confused with the for-profit Rocky Run, which came later—that takes some explaining.
About ten years ago, local [Philadelphia] journalist Dan McQuade had been watching Rocky II and saw that Rocky’s training route was more than a little convoluted. It just didn’t make sense—he’s in South Philly one scene, north Philly the next, Old City, all over really. McQuaid mapped out Rocky’s route from the movie and wrote an article that showed, if you actually mapped out the locations chronological order, the route would be about 50k. After Barber saw McQuaid’s article she emailed him, “I know your article says no one should run this. But I’d like to put the race on as what the ultra running community calls a ‘Fat Ass.’ And asked for his blessing to do so.” (Note, Fat Ass is the name given to a series of low key, unsanctioned runs that are frequented by experienced runners & walkers and characterized by the phrase ‘No Fees, No Awards, No Aid, No Wimps.’)
And thus was born what has become somewhat of a cult race. There’s no cost, no bibs, no portajohns, no support on the route. Bring your own hydration. Barber shares that “2022 marked our 10th Annual Rocky 50k, which is really exciting. Every year there’s a good group of people that come. We had a guy come from Spain one year. There are a couple of guys that come from Texas most years for it. Some people run one mile. Some people run all 50k.” After the race’s first year, MGM studio sent Barber a cease and desist letter. But nothing ever came of it. “I changed my logo, which initially had Rocky’s silhouette. Now it’s boxing gloves.”
Barber became a parent a few years ago, which forced her to change gears a bit. “Before kids, I had a nice mix of a marathon season and kind of an ultra-marathon season every year—always doing the Philly marathon. I haven’t done ultras as much since becoming a parent.” But she does have great stories to share, especially about her 100 mile races. It’s hard to top her memories of the Long Haul 100 in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. “It’s a trail 100; on the website it informs you, ‘there’s wild boar, there’s alligators, snakes, deer, panthers…’ My husband very kindly paced me for 24 miles. In the middle of the night a tornado came through, with torrential rain. My poor Jewish mother was trying to get the race director to shut the race down because she’s like, ‘there’s a tornado that’s touching down….it’s touching down a couple miles away!’ They did not stop the race. And I actually ended up winning. It was a shock to me. I didn’t know until literally the last quarter mile of the race. And so it was hard to top that. I’ve not done a hundred miler since.”
On March 26th Barber will race again, albeit 153k shy of her occasional 100 mile mark. She’s running the 7.6k option at the Philadelphia Love Run Half Marathon as a sponsored athlete for Legacy of Hope. “As someone who lost her father to oral cancer, raising funds for Legacy of Hope is a great way to be able to help, to do something good in the running community and in the Philadelphia community.”
Given her long track record (pardon the pun), it’s no surprise that running (and family) is what keeps the wind in Barber’s sails. “I’ve been running for most of my life; it’s so much of my identity. I’m not racing the way I used to at this point because of where I am in my life, but I still like to get out and connect with the community that way. I’m just lucky to have a great family and really good friends. Making sure I spend time with them is really what really counts.”
Barber has also gleaned some important lessons from her ultra running experience.
“Ultra running in a lot of ways mirrors life—you’re on one really long journey. You’re gonna have really difficult times through it. You have to figure out how to mentally and physically get through. The strength I’ve gotten from ultra running that can translate to real life—in ultra running, there’s always gonna be a hard part and, at one point it generally, is not gonna get harder. You’re gonna hit a wall, and you need to find a way to keep going because that difficulty will not go away. You’ll get to a point where the pain will not increase; so you push through that, knowing that that pain is temporary. And that is a good thing for me, for the season of my life now. I try to remind myself how lucky I am that I get to do everything I get to do, that I have the health that I have, I have the family that I have, the roof over my head. Gratitude helps put everything into perspective.”
,Donate to Rebecca’s fundraiser to help provide emergency support for cancer patients in Philadelphia. Better still register to run the 7.6k option alongside Rebecca, you talk ultras and do good at the same time. Register through ,Philly Runs Free, where your registration fee is waived when you raise just $250 for Legacy of Hope. We’ll see you at the starting line.