When I was planning out my races for this year, I never thought Bethlehem, Pennsylvania would end up being the site of one of my favorites. In fact, until this year, I didn’t know that Bethlehem, PA was even a place….
The main reason I signed up to do the Runners World Half Marathon didn’t really have anything to do with the event itself. It was because my friend Mark asked me to run it with him and a few other friends to celebrate his 40th birthday. It sounded like it would be fun so I was in. Both the event itself and the rest of the weekend’s activities definitely did not disappoint.
The Runners World Half is part of the larger Runners World Festival, which an annual three day event that features multiple races. There’s a trail run, a 5K, a 10K, and a half marathon. Runners can do any combination of them or all of them. There are also seminars given by running experts and a few other activities available to runners throughout the weekend. Sadly, I was only able to make it to Bethlehem in time for the Half Marathon on Sunday morning. I had a prior commitment on Friday and my flight got delayed on Saturday. The half marathon course was great though. And from what I heard, the rest of the weekend’s events were just as awesome.
A Little Bethlehem History
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is a small city that’s next to Allentown, and also just over an hour north of Philadelphia and an hour west of New York City. If you want to travel there, Allentown is the most convenient airport to fly into, but if you don’t mind doing a little bit of driving, flying into Philadelphia or Newark will save you a few bucks.
Bethlehem’s economy was driven by the steel industry for almost 150 years. Bethlehem Steel Corporation opened in the mid 1800’s and was one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world until it closed its doors in the mid 1990’s. The loss of the steel mill caused the city’s economy to dip, but things picked up about 10 years later when the Sands Corporation purchased the site and began a massive redevelopment project. The result is a re-designed section of the mill that includes casino gambling, retail outlets, restaurants, hotels and multi-use areas. The project is currently classified as the largest brownfield redevelopment project in the United States and in addition to reviving the Bethlehem Steel site itself, it’s also led to a resurgence in businesses opening throughout the city’s downtown area. All of this helps to make Bethlehem a fun place to visit today.
The Runner’s World Half Marathon Festival started in Bethlehem in 2011. The old Bethlehem Steel site is the location of the start and finish lines of most of the races along with the seminars which are given by Runners World Editors, Subject Matter Experts, and Running Legends like Bart Yasso and Deena Kastor. The seminars have a variety of topics that range from nutrition to gear to running techniques. Some of the weekend’s other events include a dog run, kids races, and a pre-race pasta dinner with the Runners World Editors the night before the Half Marathon.
The Half Marathon course starts in front of the entrance to the Sands Casino and heads past the old steel mill site before crossing the Lehigh River and heading towards downtown Bethlehem. From there, runners head down the city’s main business district and through a number of different residential neighborhoods where they get to see fall colors on trees in front of Victorian style houses. The second half of the course goes through the site of the original Bethlehem settlement from the 1700’s, passes by Moravian College and then heads back across the river and finishes inside of the old Bethlehem Steel site. Anyone who does this race gets to complete a half marathon and get a live history lesson at the same time.
The half marathon course is mildly challenging. There are a lot of rolling hills with inclines of various grades, along with a long steady incline that covers most of mile 8. If I had written this post a year ago, I probably would have said that the hills were brutal, but compared to some of the other places I’ve run this year and given the fact that this was the first time in over six months that I’ve done a race at sea level where the heat index wasn’t over 100 degrees F, I have to say that I didn’t mind the hills at all and actually found the course to be really enjoyable.
The race medal design has historic roots as well. It’s in the shape of the Moravian Star that’s stood on top of Bethlehem’s South Mountain since the 1930’s and helped to earn the city its “Christmas City” nickname. 5K, 10K, and Half Marathon runners all get medals, so anyone who attends the entire event can go home with three medals at the end of the weekend. I was a little surprised that people who did all three races (called the hat trick) didn’t get a bonus medal, but nobody really seemed to be too upset about it.
Good Food and Fun Times
Like I mentioned earlier, the reason I went to the Runner’s World Half fest had more to do with my friend’s birthday than the actual race itself. I already crossed Pennsylvania off of my 50 states list when I did Rock n Roll Philadelphia last year so I had no goals in mind for the weekend whatsoever other than taking a trip to meet up with people and have fun.
From the pre-race pasta dinner at The Brick in downtown Bethlehem to the post-race brunch at the casino buffet (which came with free mimosas) to an awesome Cajun-style shrimp dinner at The Bayou later that evening, it didn’t take long to see that there are plenty of places to go for good food and drinks in Bethlehem. That doesn’t even count the homemade chili my AirBnB hosts shared with me after the race. Better than the food though was the fact that every time I went out to eat, I got to hang out with a lot of new running friends who were also in town to celebrate Mark’s birthday. If you guys are reading this, you know who you are and you all rock.
One of the best parts of the entire trip was after dinner Sunday evening when a handful of us went out to sing Karaoke. Apparently it’s not easy to find Karaoke bars in Bethlehem. The only place we could find was a bar on the West side of the city called Diamonz Nite Club. Diamonz meets pretty much every definition of a dive bar. It smells like smoke, has a few ratty old game tables, graffiti covered bathrooms, and the jukebox ate someone’s credit card. Spending a few hours there brought back memories of the old biker bar I used to hang out at on the south side of Chicago where they had to replace the plate glass window on the front of the building with glass blocks after too many people had gotten thrown through it. The drinks were nice and strong though and there’s always fun to be found in the most unexpected places.
The Karaoke DJ arrived at 10:00 pm and Mark and a few of our other friends went to pick out their songs. There was only a small handful of people in the bar and besides one other lady, the people in our group were the only ones singing. So for close to four hours straight we got to pick almost every song and had different combinations of people getting up and singing songs by everyone from The Doors to The Spice Girls. I’m not a huge Karaoke singer (mainly because I suck) but they did get me out on the floor for a couple songs including a re-worded (and quite raunchy) adult version of Summer Lovin’. We all stayed until the bar closed at 2:00 am and then we said our goodbyes and headed out. I had an early flight the next morning and I was afraid that if I laid down I would oversleep, so I stayed up all night and just went straight to the airport and tried to sleep on the plane. I was exhausted the next day but it was totally worth it.
Overall, Bethlehem is a really nice city and the Runners World Festival is a really well put together event. I’d love to go back again when I have more time and hit up some of the seminars and other races. What really made this trip stand out though was all of the new friends I made. And when I think about the races I’ve done so far in 2015, even though I ran through two national parks, alongside the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and through portions of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Colorado, this half marathon in a small steel town is going to end up standing out more than any of the others because I ran it in such great company.