Updated 11:05 a.m.
A 40-minute train ride from his home in Fairmount wasn’t enough to keep Kevin Brandon from joining a track club so he could practice with other long-distance runners — but it wasn’t exactly his favorite use of time.
Like others who excelled at distance running in college, Brandon didn’t want to give it up after he graduated. He’d brought his University of Hartford degree to work as a business analyst in Philadelphia, but when he looked around his new city for people to train with and a club to compete for, he couldn’t find one.
So he joined a group in Bryn Mawr, and spent an extra hour and a half commuting each day — until he discovered the Philadelphia Runners Track Club.
“It was a very loosely run club [but] a lot of the guys involved had high aspirations for it,” Brandon told Billy Penn about the PRTC, which was semi-dormant when he happened on its Facebook page in 2014. “I started saying that we could really build this — and we should find some women who are in the area too, so we could help build the team.”
Five years later, thanks to Brandon’s leadership and members’ dedication, the club counts 85 athletes among its ranks, six of whom have qualified for the 2020 Olympic trials.
Philly went without an elite post-collegiate distance track club for most of the 20th century. Plenty of other East Coast places had them — Boston, New York, and even New Jersey — but not Philadelphia.
The PRTC first came into existence in 2000, started by a trio of La Salle University graduates. It comprised a small group of men who were pretty successful — five of them qualified for the Olympic trials in 2008 — and the club had Puma and Philadelphia Runner as sponsors.
But after that high point in 2008, the core group moved on and the club faded away — until Brandon helped pick up the mantle and reinvigorated it.
The current team practices on Tuesday nights at Penn’s Franklin Field and meets for long runs on Sundays at Lloyd Hall. The athletes also must find time to run on their own, squeezing the practice in between their regular work and life schedules.
“I see work as a part of my training,” said PRTC member Colin Leak, an olympic trials marathon qualifier whose day job is manager of Philadelphia Runner’s Glen Mills retail store. “There’s nothing like working ten hours and then having to go run; you’re mentally drained and it kind of prepares you kind of for what a marathon is like.”
Kaitlin Frei, 23, who also qualified for the olympic trials with PRTC, is a first-year veterinary school student and competitive horseback rider, but somehow still finds a way to fit in her runs.
“There have been many periods of time where I’ve done my morning runs at 4:30 a.m. and my second runs at 10 or 11 p.m,” Frei said, “simply because those are the only times left in the day that aren’t taken up by work/school.”
PRTC has been able to recruit elite athletes like Frei and Leak, but it’s also open to others who are willing to put in the work.
The cost to join is $100, from which $30 goes USA Track and Field. And members get uniforms and shoes via sponsor Diadora — an italian shoe company that has its North American headquarters in Philly.
“It was a really big deal when they signed on,” Brandon said. “Nobody does this full-time, but we can cover the cost of participating in the sport, so you don’t have to buy shoes for yourself or anything like that.”
Brandon now 28, has recently taken a step back from running after multiple injuries. He currently acts as the team’s manager, and is president of the board of directors.
As he looks at the club’s runners from a different perspective, he’s wowed by their dedication. “You have people who go on an 8-mile run and bring their pager with them,” he said, “just in case they get called back to the unit they’re working. Or people will show up on Sunday morning after a 16-hour shift.”
It all counts when the team heads to the national circuit and makes a good showing. In the end, Brandon said, “people are proud to run and represent the city.”