Street Smart Chicago

Race Review: Pumpkins in the Park 5K (October 25, 2014)

Lincoln Park, Running No Comments »
Runners nearing the finish line at the Pumpkins in the Park 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman

Runners nearing the finish line at the Pumpkins in the Park 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown:  If ever a race was designed for family-friendliness, the Pumpkins in the Park 5K—with its early afternoon timing, costume contest, trick-or-treating and various distances for young runners—is it. Kicking off at the southwest end of Lincoln Park at 4pm on Saturday, roughly 1,400 runners made their way around the South Field House and the various softball fields before heading north on the west side of the Rowing Lagoon. I’ve been in costume-themed races before but Saturday’s race was awash in them: Batmans (Batmen?), bananas, Gumbis and many more made up a surprising percentage of the participants. Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: Strike Out ALS 5K (July 15, 2014)

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Runners finishing strong at the Strike Out ALS 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman

Runners finishing strong at the Strike Out ALS 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown:  What a difference a year makes. Last summer the temperature during the Strike Out ALS 5K hovered in the high nineties with nary a cloud to be seen. Last night, runners experienced comfortable fall weather with temperatures in the low sixties and some light rain. And any runner will tell you that the latter is much preferred.

And organizers are lucky the weather was so forgiving as they switched up the course for this fifth annual event to include more time outside; rather than ending the race at home plate after a journey through the bowels of U.S. Cellular Field, the new course spent a bit more time in the parking lot and worked in a full loop around the warning track, cutting out the lengthy tour of the stadium’s tunnel system.

Timed to coincide with the All-Star Game, the post-race party includes a viewing of the game on multiple screens with beer and baseball food for purchase. It’s a race with a moving mission—many of the participants have a direct connection to ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and are there more for the fundraising than the running—but organizers manage to target both audiences. And it never hurts to have a course that lets the average Joe (or Josephine) experience a baseball field from the perspective of a professional player. Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: Burgers & Beer 5K (July 14, 2014)

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Runners enjoy the post-race party/Photo: Zach Freeman

Runners enjoy the post-race party/Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown:  When a race initially launches, it’s sometimes up in the air as to whether it will survive or not. But with a title that name-checks both burgers AND beer, there was never really a question of whether this 5K (started in 2012) would succeed. It also didn’t hurt that it was started as a logical extension (and expansion) of Universal Sole’s popular monthly fun runs of the same name. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Burgers & Beer 5K has grown fast enough to migrate slowly south—from Montrose Harbor to Lakeshore East to Soldier Field—in only three years.

Last night’s third annual race, starting and finishing on Waldron Drive just southeast of Soldier Field, followed a new out-and-back course along the Lakefront Trail while the pre- and post-race parties took place amidst a flurry of vendor booths on the sidewalk around the stadium. Goose Island still provides the beer but this year the burgers were switched from Fizz Bar to Billy Goat Tavern (perhaps a rechristening to Borgers & Beer is now called for?).

Race organizers haven’t quite figured out how to speed up the burger assembly line (it can be slow business adding pickles, onions, ketchup and mustard to a post-race burger) and depending on your finishing time there was a sizable wait for a burger, but the beer line was short and sweet, with IDs being checked before the race to limit the amount of post-race time runners spent without beer in their belly. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Chinatown 5K (July 12, 2014)

-Neighborhood/Suburb, Chinatown, Running No Comments »
Photo: Zach Freeman

Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown: “The show will go on!” the race director’s voice booms excitedly from the speakers as groups of runners huddle together under various overhangs and race tents, delaying their inevitable exposure to the pouring rain. It’s just before 8am on Saturday morning and it has been raining steadily for hours with no signs of letting up. And still, almost seven-hundred runners are gathered in Chinatown Square to tackle the Chinatown 5K. Briefly, the rain does lighten just before the official start, but then it comes back full force within a few minutes, making for a very wet street race.

But despite the weather—or, perhaps, because of it—a jovial atmosphere permeates the entire race, with more starting-line chatter and looks of excitement than I’ve seen at any race outside of an obstacle run (where the joviality is almost more important than the run itself). “Maybe we don’t even need to put water in the cups!” remarks the race director, describing the water stations along the course. She’s not far from the truth. I’m completely soaked within seconds of checking my gear (along with my precious umbrella) and approaching the starting line. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Energizer Night Race for a Brighter World (June 7, 2014)

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Basecamp for Energizer Night Race for a Brighter World/Photo: Zach Freeman

Basecamp for Energizer Night Race for a Brighter World/Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown: Despite this race’s title (and a gigantic inflatable pink bunny situated near the stage at basecamp), there was a distinct lack of staid corporate vibes at last night’s Energizer Night Race for a Brighter World. As participants gathered near the stage in Dusable Harbor—many sporting pink bunny ears and the Energizer headlamp included in the race packet—the race announcer quipped that some unsuspecting walker on the Lakefront Trail would see 900 pink rabbits running toward them and be reminded of their last trip on LSD. “Whoa,” the DJ jokingly admonished. “This is a family race!” “Right,” the announcer joked back. “I’m talking about their last trip on Lake Shore Drive!”

There was also a lack of jockeying for position near the starting line, despite nearly a thousand runners queuing up for this 5K for “families and young adults.” Night races are known for being a little less competitive than morning races but without pace groups things can still sometimes get pushy; this one sported a remarkably jovial group of runners and walkers.

The race kicked off around 8:10pm, once the sun had set but before darkness had fully settled in. Combined with the bunny ears, the headlamps provided a cool visual but didn’t necessarily illuminate the path in the dusky light—but waiting for it to get darker would have been an unnecessary delay. Finishing back in Dusable Harbor to the thumps of the DJ (which eventually gave way to a live band), runners gathered to dance, drink (beer was for sale at $5 a cup) and enjoy the view of a bunch of runners who just kept going and going and… Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: The Original 5K (May 31, 2014)

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Runners cross the finish line at The Original 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman

Runners cross the finish line at The Original 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown: Sharing memories of his first 5K—where his father put out a cigarette at the starting line before someone yelled “Go!” to get the race started—Fleet Feet owner Dave Zimmer enthusiastically thanked the roughly 1000 runners gathered at the starting line for the inaugural Original 5K. Intended to take runners “back to the 70s when American distance runners stood atop the podiums of the world’s most famous races” the Original 5K sported a solid 70s theme, with a low entry fee, volunteers shouting out course times from stopwatches along the course and a pair of Wigwam tube socks replacing a race shirt in the official packet. In short, a relative back-to-basics running experience along the lakefront.

I say “relative” because the race was still chip-timed (“do you really want to wait a couple of weeks to receive your results in the mail?” the race’s website asks), most runners sported new-fangled running gear and the post-race party included Clif bar samples. But the complimentary post-race beer kept it old-school: Miller High Life.

“I think this running thing might just catch on,” race announcer Dave Kappas frequently quipped throughout the morning. Indeed it might. If the Original 5K proved anything Saturday morning—aside from the fact that Chicagoans love a good themed race—it’s that a race, stripped of all its fanciness, is a group of people meeting in one place and running together for a good time. Whether they’re wearing tube socks and headbands or Garmins and iPhones. “Is this the best running city in America or what?” Zimmer declared rhetorically at the starting line, to resounding cheers from the runners. There’s a pretty good chance it is. Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: Tough Mudder Chicago (May 10, 2014)

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Finishers of Tough Mudder Chicago/Photo: Zach Freeman

Finishers of Tough Mudder Chicago/Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown: Right off the bat it must be said: for anyone in even slightly above-average shape, the Tough Mudder—a (roughly) ten-mile muddy romp of an obstacle course that takes place in cities across the world—should really be called the Fun Mudder. This new designation is in no way  meant to diminish the challenge of the event (billing it as “probably the toughest event on the planet” is certainly overselling the difficulty, but  it ain’t easy either); it is instead meant to highlight the surprising amount of unbridled joy and camaraderie you can feel while tromping through mud and getting a solid workout at the same time.

After experiencing Tough Mudder Chicago (which was actually in Richmond, Illinois) it’s clear that the phrase “Tough Mudder” doesn’t just refer to the course itself, although that’s obviously a big part of it. Instead, the title refers to the whole immersive experience of the event, from following their prescribed training regiments to riding a shuttle bus to the event to hitting a knee at the starting line while an announcer spends twenty minutes pumping you up for the race ahead to downing that first complimentary beer after crossing the finish line. The whole thing is undeniably an all-out great time.

Yes, there are various challenges along the way, though most of them sound more intimidating than they really are. Among others, the “Arctic Enema” submerses participants in ice water, “Pitfall” sends you wading through a murky wetland with sudden drop-offs and “Berlin Walls” involves scaling tall, wooden structures. But while many of the obstacles may be more entertaining than trying (“Mud Mile” involves slithering up and over a series of mud mounds), there’s a mythologizing effect that sets in after you complete the Mudder and get your finisher’s shirt. Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: Universal Sole Four Mile Classic (May 8, 2014)

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Runners finish the Universal Sole Four Mile Challenge/Photo: Zach Freeman

Runners finish the Universal Sole Four Mile Challenge/Photo: Zach Freeman

RECOMMENDED RACE

Breakdown: Before the Universal Sole Four Mile Classic could even get started Thursday evening, a particularly strong gust of wind grabbed one of the covered tents from the basecamp, picked it up and tossed it over the starting line and directly into Dusable Harbor. After gazing into the water for a few seconds, race announcer (and Universal Sole owner) Joel Feinberg remarked into the mic, “Well, that tent’s a goner.”

Starting and finishing under a giant Red Bull arch in Dusable —home of the tent-swallowing waters—the northerly wind was an obstacle on the out half of this out-and-back open course along the Lakefront Trail, but it was a motivator on the way back, pushing runners to the finish line. The relatively compact basecamp consisted of a gear check, a timing-chip pickup booth and a massage tent (Muscle Milk and Red Bull were passing out free samples). But lest runners think this was the entirety of the race package, a large-scale post-race party took place inside the Lakeshore Sport & Fitness mega-gym with pizza, casserole, beer and other goodies.

Like some other Universal Sole races—the Burgers and Beer 5K comes to mind—the Four Mile Classic has the aura of a low-key race put together by runners for runners, low on frills but heavy on having a good run and celebrating afterwards. This race is still relatively small and finding its footing along the lakefront but it won’t be long before more runners catch on. Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: 5K March to College (May 8, 2014)

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Students cross the finish line at the 5K March to College/Photo: Zach Freeman

Students cross the finish line at the 5K March to College/Photo: Zach Freeman

Breakdown: Some races are all about the course. Some are all about the post-race party. And some are all about the charity and its benefactors. The 5K March to College—put on by Companies That Care in order to help its students “dream about going to college and be able to get there”—falls into that final group, with a college and career fair starting at 2pm leading into the 5:30pm race start time and the vast majority of participants being the very students the race is meant to support.

Now in its third year, this race has seen steady growth since its inception in 2012. The crowded starting line this year spilled out around the starting area on Columbus just east of Upper Hutchinson Field and swarmed onto the course once the race was underway. Despite numerous reminders from the race announcer that walkers should move to the back of the pack, youthful exuberance and a lack of pace signs led to a slightly rocky start.

But the open course along the Lakefront—heading north by Museum Campus and turning around just before Dusable Harbor—provided plenty of space for runners (and walkers) to spread out and enjoy an evening trek along the lake. The finish line was exciting, particularly once younger runners started racing in, but the post-race refreshments (bananas, apples and stale bagels) left a little bit to be desired. Still, when you’re running a race that’s centered around the charity it was created to support, a stale bagel is a small price to pay for the positive vibes and the potential to inspire a student to go to college. Read the rest of this entry »

Race Review: Glo Run (May 3, 2014)

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RECOMMENDED RACE

The Glo Run Course/Photo: Zach Freeman

The Glo Run course/Photo: Zach Freeman

Breakdown: “Where the eff is the start line?!” the DJ-cum-race announcer confusedly queries the throngs of brightly clad race participants. No one seems to know. “Oh,” he says, gesturing broadly to his right, “To my left!” This is the way the Glo Run—a nationwide, multi-location, nighttime rave party 5K—gets started in Chicago on a Saturday night. As thousands of runners and walkers make their way to the crowded starting line at the south end of Grant Park, the DJ is wondering aloud, “Who’s got the craziest dance moves right now?” In short, this is much more rave than race.

Still, as much as the type-A runner within me wants to cynically dismiss this event as unorganized—especially after waiting over an hour for pre-race packet pickup the night before at Fleet Feet, there’s a party-like atmosphere that permeates every part of this race (at the starting line, beach balls start bouncing around above the crowd like we’re at a music festival), not least of all because the people I’m lined up with at the starting line are not really there to run; they’re just there to do something fun on a Saturday night.

Unlike the Firefly Run—a race with a similar concept that I ran last year—the Glo Run includes a number of glowing, pulsing, music-blasting set pieces to run through along the open course and also managed a slow-moving but serviceable gear check (volunteers were not having an easy time finding numbered bags in the dark). I could list the reasons why runners might not rush to sign up for this rather gimmicky lakefront run (no chip time, an extremely crowded course and starting chute, high entry fee), but I can hear the several-thousand strong crowd chanting along with Icona Pop at the massive post-race party: “I don’t care! I love it!” There’s something to be said for an unabashedly good time. Read the rest of this entry »