Entering Starved Rock State Park/Photo: Zach Freeman
Breakdown: Weather plays a big part in any race, but when that weather involves lightning, it can essentially define the race (as runners of the Illinois Marathon learned last month). And the storm that rolled in Saturday morning during the Starved Rock Country Marathon certainly did that. With a steady rain pouring and lightning striking, the event alert system was raised to black (Extreme) and the race was officially called off. The announcement was made at the aid station at mile 20.6, buses were sent out to collect runners and the race was over. Or was it?
Despite official announcements that the race was cancelled due to weather, many runners (this one included) kept running and experienced a waterlogged, post-storm course that was still heavily supported by volunteers and police officers alike. Buses did make the rounds but there was no forceful collection of runners—it was left to the discretion of the runner to decide what to do. Which made sense as the race wasn’t called until after the storm had already passed.
But aside from the race-defining storm, this still-new race (now in its second year) made a strong showing and a good case for growth and future registrations. Starting and finishing in downtown Ottawa, parking is easy, facilities are plentiful and locals are welcoming. The marathon is still small but the half marathon (which started fifteen minutes after the marathon) is much larger than the marathon. The views may not be as spectacular as advertised—the road through Starved Rock State Park is lovely, but greenery blocks most of the other scenery—but a small, country race is a welcome reprieve from big city marathons. As long as it doesn’t rain. (Zach Freeman) Read the rest of this entry »
Big Sur International Marathon course/Photo: Zach Freeman
Breakdown: There are a few big marathons that the average person on the street could list off at a moment’s notice. You know the ones I mean: New York, Chicago, Boston. World-class runs, to be sure. And then there are those marathons that the average person is probably not aware of, and may even be surprised to discover exist, but that have been mythologized in the world of the average runner to a revered status that those on the outside can hardly comprehend. The Big Sur International Marathon, that epic Californian canter from Big Sur to Carmel along the winding, wide-open Highway 1, falls squarely in the latter category.
Though it sells out just as quickly and leaves hopeful runners just as frantic for a place at the starting line, with a registration cap around a tenth the size of Chicago or New York, Big Sur, which just had its thirtieth running on Sunday, operates on an entirely different framework than these massive urban events. “Spectators are outnumbered by grazing cows and horses,” boasts the race program, and it certainly seems possible, given the complete closure of the only roadway spectators could gather on. Still, an assortment of musicians (including the iconic betuxed pianist at a grand piano near the halfway mark) provide plenty of on-course encouragement. Read the rest of this entry »
Runners eye finish line candy at the Santa Hustle 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman
Breakdown: Six years in and the Adrenaline Sports Management (ASM) Santa Hustle 5K is now officially in eight locations across the country. When I last ran this race two years ago, Chicago was the first and largest of the series, and while Chicago may still boast the largest turnout (with around 5,500 hustling Santas participating this year), the South Portland, Maine race kicked off last month and today’s starting time was shared with around 2,000 Milwaukee Santa Hustlers.
These days, there is no shortage of gimmicky races in the Chicago area, each providing varying degrees of cheesy fun. With cookies and milk on the course and at the finish line (along with candy and, yes, even water), a mascot-like Rudolph on hand for photos and a Santa hat and beard provided for dressing up on race day, the Santa Hustle easily succeeds in the “healthy holiday fun” category but, crucially, it also manages to provide a well-supported starting line, course and basecamp for runners who enjoy race legitimacy with their fun runs.
Best of all, the weather (almost) cooperated, with temperatures in the mid-thirties allowing for plenty of warmth while wearing the kitschy-comfy red Santa Hustle sweatshirt. This year several other Santa Hustles included a half-marathon option. Here’s hoping Chicago expands to include a longer distance in the future—ASM is ready to coordinate it. As the saying goes, “If you build it, the Santas will hustle it.” Read the rest of this entry »
Runners nearing the finish line at the Pumpkins in the Park 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman
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, Gumbys and many more made up a surprising percentage of the participants. Read the rest of this entry »
Runners finishing strong at the Strike Out ALS 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman
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 »
Runners enjoy the post-race party/Photo: Zach Freeman
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 »
Photo: Zach Freeman
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 »
Basecamp for Energizer Night Race for a Brighter World/Photo: Zach Freeman
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 »
Runners cross the finish line at The Original 5K/Photo: Zach Freeman
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 »
Finishers of Tough Mudder Chicago/Photo: Zach Freeman
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 »