The Old Plank Road Trail is where I learned to become a runner. I trained for my first half marathon and my first marathon there, as well as a number of other races. I've seen some beautiful plants and animals during my runs on the trail and I've also met a lot of great people. I also got attacked by an angry goose while I was running there a few years ago but that's another story.
I ran on the Old Plank Road Trail almost every day for about three years when I lived in Park Forest. After I moved to Peotone, my runs on the trail tapered off. The trail is only about a 15 minute drive from my house, but it's still easier to not drive anywhere and just go for a run on the back roads out here. But when I saw that the village of Frankfort was going to be hosting its first half marathon on the Old Plank Road Trail, I couldn't resist signing up for it. Running there was like doing a race with an old friend who I hadn't seen in years.
A lot of people who live in the far south Chicago suburbs are familiar with the Old Plank Road Trail. It covers a 22 mile stretch from Chicago Heights to Joliet and passes through the towns of Park Forest, Matteson, Richton Park, Frankfort, Mokena, and New Lenox along the way. People who live in these towns like to run or ride their bikes on the scenic paved trail, but not everyone is familiar with the history behind how it got built in the first place.
The Old Plank Road Trail has existed one form or another for hundreds of years. It was originally a trading and transportation corridor for Native Americans, missionaries, traders, trappers, and explorers. Around the mid 1800's, it became an emigration route for European settlers looking for land to settle on. The state of Illinois originally intended to build an actual plank road on the route where the Old Plank Road Trail is now, which would make it easier for people to move goods from the Illinois and Michigan Canal to Indiana. For various reasons, the road was never built, but in 1855, the state allowed the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad to use the land instead. The railroad had trains that would bring passengers and cargo from Joliet to East Gary Indiana, where passengers could take connecting trains to Detroit or Cincinnati. A number of towns in the south suburbs, including Frankfort, were specifically incorporated to serve the railroad.
The railroad did well for over 100 years, but began to have financial problems in the 1950's after automobiles started to increase in popularity. Ownership of the railroad changed several times throughout the 1950's and 60's and the route was abandoned in 1976. The Will County Forest Preserve District then spent the better part of the next 20 years fighting for the rights to obtain the abandoned route. The trail was finally purchased in 1992 and by 1997, its reconstruction into a running and bike trail was complete.
There are still remnants of the old railroad along the trail, which makes it pretty cool to run on. Even better though is the natural beauty that surrounds the trail. You see, there's a federal law that says that the railroads are entitled to all of the land for 50 feet on either side of a set of tracks that they own and they're the only ones allowed to build anything on that land. The law is in place for safety reasons and makes a lot of sense (we don't want trains derailing and smashing into peoples' houses). The thing is though... in most cases, the railroad companies never do anything with the land that they own on the sides of their tracks. They might cut back the tree branches and bushes to keep the tracks themselves clear, but for the most part, the majority of the land is just left as-is. This means that a good portion of the railroad tracks in the US are surrounded by hundred-plus year old trees and other rare plants that are grew there completely naturally. There are also a number of rare animals who call these areas home. So if you go for a run or a bike ride on trails that were converted from train tracks, like the Old Plank Road Trail, there's a pretty good chance you'll see wildlife that you won't be able to see so easily anywhere else.
OK, so I've gone on long enough about the trail itself - let's talk about the race.
2015 was the first year for the Frankfort Half Marathon, and for a local race in the south suburbs of Chicago, it attracted a respectable number of runners. There were over 500 people who signed up for the race, which was put on by a local running store called Running Excels and sponsored by Auerilio's Pizza. The nice thing about the race being only 15 minutes away from my house is that while I was running it, I ran into a lot of friends who I didn't even realize had signed up.
The race was on the last Saturday of April (the 25th), with packet pickup at Running Excels in downtown Frankfort on the Thursday and Friday before the race. Packet pickup went pretty smoothly and I thought that the race t-shirts and race logo were really well designed. There was also plenty of parking around downtown Frankfort on race morning and the start line was pretty well organized. Runners were divided up into 4-5 small corrals, which started about 30 seconds apart.
The course is an out-and-back that starts in front of the Grainery in downtown Frankfort and heads West towards Hickory Creek Nature Preserve in Mokena. Runners then head North to Hickory Creek and continue to follow the trail through the entire preserve. At around mile 6.5, the turnaround point is in the parking lot at the opposite end of Hickory Creek. At this point, runners turn head back through Hickory Creek to the Plank Road Trail, and then East towards downtown Frankfort. The finish line is in front of the Grainery near where the start line was.
The entire course is on paved trails. There are a couple spots where the runners have to cross streets, but the race had plenty of police support to make sure that the traffic was controlled. One thing to note here though - since there are some major roads that had to be blocked off for the race, the course starts at 7am and has a three hour time limit to make sure that police can remove the barriers and get traffic flowing normally again by 10. So if you sign up for this race, make sure you're aware of the time limit.
This is a really scenic course. The Old Plank Road Trail is a lot of fun to run on already, and the course also includes Arrowhead Bridge, which crosses over US Route 45, along with some other bridges that cross over US Route 30 and some of the streams in the nature preserve. The entire course goes through wooded areas with streams and ponds.
I did overhear some runners talking about being surprised by how hilly the course was. And the part of the course that goes through Hickory Creek Nature Preserve is a little bit hilly, but I honestly didn't think it was that bad. The fact that I had just run a half marathon in Zion Canyon, Utah a month earlier may have made this one seem a little flatter than it was though. So I'll just say that if you sign up for this race, be prepared for a lot of hills from about mile 4 through 10 and since the rest of the Chicago area is known for being pretty flat, you should probably find some hills to run on while you're training. The Old Plank Road Trail itself is pretty flat, so the first few miles and last few miles of the course are pretty fast.
One of the things I was curious about leading up to race day was how crowded the trail was going to be. The Old Plank Road trail is not as wide as a regular road. It's only maybe 12 feet across, which can be a pretty tight fit for hundreds of runners trying to weave in and out of each other to find a comfortable pace. And just like the Lakefront Trail in downtown Chicago, the race organizers can't shut down the entire trail for the race. If someone who lives along the trail wants to go for a walk during race morning, there's technically nothing stopping them (although the weather on race day helped to prevent that from happening this year). Plus the out-and-back course guarantees that by the midway point of the race, there will be runners passing each other in opposite directions on the trail. This ended up not being as big of an issue as I thought it would be though. The wave start helped a lot. Most races that only have a few hundred runners just let everyone start together but using corrals for this one was good thinking on the part of the race organizers. Things felt a little bit cramped for maybe the first half mile or so (which isn't any different from other races), but by the end of the first mile, everyone had separated out pretty nicely and I felt like I had plenty of room from that point forward.
The only thing left to comment on when it comes to the 2015 race is the weather on race day. Weather in the Chicago area is always hit or miss at the end of April so the race organizers really can't be faulted for this. Conditions are usually pretty good for running this time of year (mid 50's, sunny, etc.), but I've also seen days that were in the high 70's and humid, and days that were in the low 30's and snowy. There's really no way to tell what kind of weather you're going to get with any degree of accuracy until a day or two before the actual event. In 2015, it rained. And not just a mild drizzle - I'm talking torrential downpours for most of the morning. And the temperature was in the mid 40's, which might not have been so bad if we weren't all soaking wet. Honestly though, I enjoyed this race a lot and the rain really didn't bother me at all. In fact, it was kinda fun to run in.
I didn't notice how cold and wet I was until after I crossed the finish line and stopped running. There were some post race activities and awards, etc., that I would have loved to have been able to stick around for, but like most other runners, after suddenly becoming aware of the fact that I was freezing, all I really wanted to do was change into some dry clothes and get home so I could warm up. If the weather is better next year, I'll hang out a little longer after the race though. The race medals are really nice. Especially for a race of this size - they have the Old Plank Road Trail Entrance on them along with an outline of the Frankfort Grainery and they're nice and sturdy.
It's really nice to see a race like this in the south suburbs of Chicago. There are plenty of good races in the Chicago Suburbs but they always seem to be in the North or West suburbs which can be a hassle for someone who lives on the south side. Frankfort is a beautiful town that's a perfect location for a local half marathon like this one. I loved the course and had a great time despite the weather. I'm hoping that this race will continue to grow in the future.