Latest reviews by Tom
What could be more fun than doing a five mile race along the lakefront in Chicago? How about hopping on a mechanical bull after you cross the finish line?
I almost didn't sign up for Cinco De Miler this year. I had done the race three times already and it seemed to be getting progressively bigger and better throughout the first couple years but in 2014 it took a turn for the worse. The 2013 race had finisher's medals, an awesome post race party that was catered with great Mexican food (burritos, nachos, tamales, etc...). The 2014 race had no finisher's medal and the only thing runners got after they crossed the finish line was a churro.
That's not to say that Cinco De Miler race isn't popular. It's been growing every year and even with the poor organization in 2014, the 2015 race attracted several thousand runners. Cinco De Miler is run by RAM Racing, which organizes a number of other races around Chicago throughout the year (Bucktown 5K, North Shore Turkey Trot, etc.). RAM is probably best known for the Hot Chocolate races that it runs in various cities throughout the year.
I'm not sure what happened after the 2014 race. Either people complained or the race organizers realized that they had done a bad job with the event on their own because the race came back strong in 2015:
- The course was still on the lakefront path (which goes alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago), but the start and finish lines were moved from Montrose Harbor to Soldier Field to accommodate more runners and bigger finish line festivities.
- The race organizers not only brought back the finisher's medals but gave them one of the most unique designs I've seen (a 3D sombrero with a bottle opener on the bottom).
- Free tamales, nachos, beer and horchatas are available at the finish line.
- There's a mariachi band that plays alongside the course and also at the start and finish lines.
- There's a play area for kids and another one for adults (complete with a mechanical bull)
- There's plenty of parking (another benefit of moving the race to Soldier Field)
The only downside to the new Cinco De Miler course is that it's pretty similar to a lot of other race courses in Chicago. It's an out-and-back course that starts in between Soldier Field and the McCormick Place Lakeside Center. The first quarter mile or so is inside of the big tunnel at McCormick Place so be ready to adjust your eyes for the dark and have your GPS cut out for a couple minutes. From there it continues South down Lakeshore Drive for a couple miles, turns around at the halfway point and heads back North towards the finish line.
If you've done the Soldier Field 10, Chicago Quarter Marathon, Hot Chocolate, Rock n Roll Chicago, Terrapin 5K, or any of the variety of other races whose courses run (or partially run) on the lakefront path south of Soldier Field, you'll know what to expect with this one. The distances may be a little different and each race has its own features that make it unique, but the overall gist is the same. That being said though, I definitely applaud the folks at RAM for making the decision to move the start and finish lines to Soldier Field. Cinco De Miler attracts a lot of runners and the bigger venue makes the event feel less cramped and a lot more organized.
It rained all night before race morning but the rain held off during the actual race itself. I ended up being happy that I signed up for the event. I got to spend time with some friends at the start and finish lines and ride a mechanical bull, so how could I not recommend a race like this? If the 2016 race is organized the same way, I'll definitely be there. And if you live in the Chicago area, you should too.
It's been a while since I finished second in my age group and 13th overall in a race. Admittedly, I had a bit of a hometown advantage in the Peotone Devil Dash 5K since the start line of the race was only about five minutes away from my house and most of the course was on roads that I run on almost every day. I usually travel for my races, so being able to do one that was this convenient was a nice change.
If you don't live in the south suburbs of Chicago, you may not have ever heard of Peotone. If you drive south on I-57 through Will County, the Peotone exit is the last one you'll pass before entering Kankakee County. This makes its location the furthest south a town can be and still technically be called a Chicago Suburb. If you live in downtown Chicago or in the North or West Suburbs, Peotone might sound vaguely familiar since it's mainly known for being the potential site of a third Chicago airport if one ever gets built. Otherwise, it's a small mostly rural town with a population of about 3000 that's about 40 minutes south of downtown Chicago.
My family and I moved to Peotone from Park Forest a few years ago so our daughter Sara could get a good education. Living there has been kind of a balancing act since I work downtown, but I've come to enjoy running on back country roads while also being able to drive downtown in less than an hour if I want to run in the city instead.
The Peotone Devil Dash is a joint fundraiser for the Peotone School District Band and P.E. Departments. The race is named after the Peotone High School sports team's nickname, which is the Blue Devils. My daughter Sara just started playing the flute, so being able to raise money for the band is important to me.
In 2015, the Devil Dash celebrated its fifth year and as far as the course is concerned, I think that this is finally the year that the race organizers got things right. I did the inaugural race in 2010 and while the course was called a "5K", it was really only about 2.7 miles long. The race organizers made some adjustments the following year but ended up making the course too long (almost 3 1/2 miles). There have been a few more adjustments since then and in 2015, the race organizers were able to find a good route through the town that was exactly 3.1 miles long. They also got the course certified by the USATF.
Packet pickup for the Devil Dash starts at 7:30am on race morning. The race itself starts at 8:00. This doesn't seem like very long, but with the number of runners who do this race, a half hour is more than enough time for everyone to get their packets. I didn't get there until five minutes before the start of the race and still had no problem getting to the start line in time after picking mine up. The packets come with a technical running shirt and some standard 5K goody bag type stuff (coupons for local businesses, chap-stick, a plastic cup with the race name on it, etc...).
The 5K course starts and ends at Peotone High School. At the start line, some Peotone High School Band Members play the National Anthem and then runners are off. The course passes by Peotone Junior High, Peotone Elementary School, and the Connor Shaw Building, which is a school district administration center and also houses the Peotone Preschool. Since proceeds go to programs in the school district, race organizers made sure that runners would pass as many schools as possible during the race. The course also goes through some residential areas and through part of the historic downtown Peotone area. There are a few spots along the course where people gather to cheer for the runners and there's a water table at roughly the halfway point. Of all the different course iterations I've seen for this race, this one was definitely the best.
There's also a one mile walk available for people who want to support the school programs but don't want to do the 5K. That course follows the same route as the 5K course for about the first half mile before turning back and doing a smaller loop back towards the high school.
After the race, there are snacks and bottled water for runners back at the high school and an awards ceremony that starts at 9:00. Medals are handed out to the top male and top female 5K finisher from each age group. The nice thing about the race being local is that some of the winners were friends and neighbors of mine.
Now that all of the improvements have been made to the course, one thing that I'd like to see for next year's Devil Dash is more advertising. About an hour before the start of this year's race, there were some pretty severe thunderstorms that rolled through Peotone, and I have a feeling that there were some people who registered for the race that ended up staying home (their loss since the rain let up by the start of the race and then held off for the rest of the morning). But even with that, I would have liked to have seen a bigger turnout.
I didn't know when this year's race was until Sara happened to mention it a few days before race day. In 2014 I missed the race completely because I never saw it advertised anywhere. I only knew that there was a race that year because I happened to go for a run on race morning and I saw a bunch of other people running with race numbers on. I wouldn't mind seeing an email sign-up list on the race website so that I can get reminders about future events or a flyer sent home with all the students at the Peotone Schools advertising the race. The more participants the race can attract, the more money will be raised, so better advertising works well for everyone.
Overall though, the Peotone Devil Dash was a lot of fun and the course has improved a lot over the last few years. I like the direction that the race is going in and with a little bit more advertising it definitely has the potential to become a really nice local race in the south suburbs. I'll be looking forward to seeing what 2016 brings.
I'm probably biased since I grew up in Chicago, but whenever I think about Delaware, colonial towns and historic buildings and monuments are pretty much the only things that come to mind. Delaware was the first state, after all, so what else would be there?
Now, don't get me wrong - this isn't a bad thing at all. I'm a history geek, so when I signed up for the Coastal Delaware Running Festival last fall, the thought of running through a colonial town was pretty cool. I was just a bit shocked when I got there because I wasn't expecting to find miles of beautiful beaches, national parks, and wildlife refuges. And yes, I'm fully aware that the name of the race has the word "Coastal" right in it. I just couldn't get the images of the original 13 colonies from my high school history books out of my head. I was pleasantly surprised though.
Named after Admiral George Dewey who fought in the Spanish-American War, Dewey Beach has appeared on various maps of Delaware for over 150 years. It wasn't officially incorporated until 1981 though. The town sits on a small strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Rehoboth Bay. And when I say small, I really mean it. The entire town is about one mile long and two blocks wide and has a population of 341. Part time residents and tourists make up the majority of the economy though and it's not uncommon for crowds of up to 30,000 people to visit the city during summer weekends.
The Coastal Delaware Running Festival was recently named Delaware's number 1 marathon by TripAdvisor due to its scenic location and flat, fast course. I can definitely see why - I really enjoyed this race. Besides the half marathon course, there are also marathon and 9K courses, all of which start and end in Dewey Beach. The marathon and half marathon courses also go through parts of the towns of Rehoboth Beach and Lewes.
Race Expo / Organization
The Coastal Delaware Running Festival is not a very big race. The entire event attracts about 1400 Runners total (just over 300 for the marathon and 9K and just under 800 for the half). So the expo is fairly small but it's a comparable size to the number of runners: there are maybe four or five vendors, along with packet pickup and an information booth where you show your ID and get a wristband for beer at the finish line festival the next day.
There's actually a benefit to the race and the expo being as small as they are. After spending a little bit of time in Dewey Beach, I got the feeling that the race was sized perfectly. Not only is the town itself small, but it's next to impossible to find parking in Dewey Beach when the crowds get really large. You might be able to find a decent open spot alongside the road here or there but most of the best parking spots are privately owned and the town is pretty strict about towing cars who don't have the proper parking permits. So when it comes to the expo, making sure that runners are able to get in and out quickly to make sure that there's a steady stream of open parking spots was probably pretty high on the priority list for the race organizers.
On race morning, there are a few options for parking. The first is to park at the finish line and take a shuttle to the start. This option is a lot more convenient after the race, but since the finish line is in town, unless you get there early (at least an hour and a half before the race), you might have trouble finding a spot. The other option is to park at the start line and take a shuttle bus to the finish line after the race. There's plenty of parking available at the start line but of course the downside to this is that when you finish the race, you'll have to take a bus to get back to your car. So your best bet is not to drive on race day at all. Stay at one of the hotels in Dewey Beach and take your time walking over to the shuttle stop in front of the Hyatt on race morning.
The parking situation is the only challenging part of the weekend, and I would say that this isn't the race organizers' fault. Parking is always going to be challenging when that many people converge on a town that small. Other than that, the race organizers did a great job with the resources they had available. The course is laid out nicely, mile markers are clearly visible there are plenty of water tables, port-a-potties, and the start and finish lines are easy find and navigate around.
The marathon, half marathon and 9K courses all start in the same place. The start line is in a state park on Tower Road off of coastal drive. It's a scenic area with a nice view of the ocean.
The races start a half hour apart and the half marathon was divided into two corrals. Essentially anyone who could finish the race in 2 hours or less was in corral 1 and anyone that would take longer was in corral 2. The courses all head north on Route 1 through the town of Dewey Beach, past Silver Lake. Around Mile 2 1/2, the 9K course splits off and does a smaller loop back towards the finish line, while the marathon and half marathon courses head East towards the Rehoboth Boardwalk.
Mile 3-4 are on the boardwalk and this was one of my favorite parts of the course. The boardwalk is similar to other coastal city boardwalks: a long stretch of wooden planks with shops and restaurants on one side and the ocean on the other. Running on it felt great though. With the race being so early in the morning and also so early in the season, none of the shops were open yet. So there were some people gathered alongside the boardwalk to watch the runners, but mostly we ran alongside the ocean and listened to the waves crashing against the shore the entire time. It was really peaceful. I could run all day in an area like that.
After the boardwalk, both courses continue north towards Gordons Pond, which is where the turnaround point is for the half marathon. The marathon course continues North through Cape Henlopen State Park and down the Junction and Breakwater Trail before meeting back up with the half marathon course around mile 21 (which is mile 8 for the half). This part of the course goes through some quiet residential areas before heading south down the boardwalk again. It then heads back around the North side of Silver Lake, and towards the finish line in Rehoboth Bay. At around mile 23 / 10, the marathon and half marathon courses meet back up with the 9K course and all three courses finish in the same place.
This is one of the flattest courses I've done in a long time. It's easily just as flat as Chicago or Philadelphia, with the added benefit of part of the course going alongside the ocean. The small crowd and beach environment also help to keep the atmosphere laid back so if you're a beginning runner and you're looking for a good place to do your first marathon or half marathon, you should take a close look at this one. The marathon course is also a Boston Qualifier, and with it being so flat, if you're looking for a BQ or a PR, there's a good chance you'll get one here.
There's also good crowd support at the Coastal Delaware Running Fest. Crowds line the streets to cheer runners on during for the first mile, last mile, and also along the boardwalk. There are also some pretty good sized crowds alongside the parts of the courses that go through residential areas.
Post Race / Bling
After the race, there's a big beach party with lots of beer (each runner gets three beer tickets on their race bib). There's also a buffet at the Lighthouse Cove, live music, and an award ceremony.
The medals have the race name and date along with some coastal scenes (lighthouses, boats, waves, etc...). Besides the medals, runners also get a Beach Towel and a Blue Short Sleeve Technical Shirt. Also the first 1000 runners to sign up got a cotton training shirt in the mail a few months before the race.
Getting To Dewey Beach
If you don't live in the area and you're planning on flying in, here are a couple things to make sure of:
You know in advance that you're going to need to rent a car.
You give yourself time to get to the expo. The expo is open until 9pm, so the chances of missing it are pretty slim, but it takes a couple hours to get to Dewey Beach from the closest airport so a later flight would be ill-advised.
In order to get to Dewey Beach, you have to fly into Philadelphia, take I-95 South to Route 1 and then spend a little over an hour and a half driving across Delaware. Now, if you've read any of my other posts, you'll know that one of my travel tips is that sometimes you can find a nearby city with cheaper flights and then just suck it up and drive for an hour instead of flying directly in to the city where the race is. That's not an option in this case. There simply is no other major airport closer to Dewey Beach. There are a couple small general aviation airports in Delaware but they're for propeller planes. Your only other option is to fly into Baltimore but the drive from Baltimore is even longer than the drive from Philadelphia. So regardless of whether or not you're flying, plan on at least a partial road trip to get to this race.
As far as where to stay, it's definitely cheaper to stay in Bethany Beach or one of the other neighboring towns, but if you do that, you'll have plan on getting up early on race day because of the parking situation. The hotels in Dewey Beach are more expensive, but you'll also be able to leave your car in the parking lot on race day and just walk everywhere you need to go. The host hotel is the Hyatt Place. It's right next to the finish line and the race expo and it's also where the shuttle stop to get to the start line is, so it's definitely the most convenient option (although it's also the most expensive).
If you do want to look for a less expensive option though, check out the Holiday Inn Express in Bethany Beach. I stayed there and I was pretty happy with the hotel. Getting up early to make sure I could find a parking spot on race morning wasn't bad either.
Things to Do
If you're looking for something to do on race weekend, the most obvious choice is to hang out at the beach. The water is still a little cold in early May so you probably won't be able to swim, but you can definitely relax with a drink and enjoy the atmosphere. You can also go fishing or visit any of the number of state parks and wildlife refuges in the area.
The towns of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach also have some natural history museums that you can check out. If you want to head out a little early, you can take a tour of the Dover Air Force Base or see the first State Capitol building and a few other historical sights on your way back to Philadelphia.
For places to eat, I have two suggestions:
1. Stop by Mickey's in Bethany Beach and have a crab quesadilla or some lobster (you'll always find the best seafood in towns like this).
2. If you want a burger and a beer after the race, Scully's Oceanside Cafe in Dewey Beach has excellent Bison or Angus Burgers.
The Coastal Delaware Running Festival is a great race that's held during a great time of year. I've heard that the beaches in Delaware get extremely crowded from June through August but in May, the crowds aren't as big yet. This gives runners more opportunities to explore Dewey Beach. The weather was perfect too. The sun came out towards the end of the race and the temperatures started t warm up a bit but it never got hotter than the mid 60's on race day. The course is also flat and fast and the entire event has a laid back "beach party" atmosphere. Not only was this a great running experience, but it allowed me to see another side of Delaware that I never even knew existed.
Before I get started with this review, I want to make sure that everyone who reads it knows what race I'm going to be talking about.
- The Zions Bank Ogden Marathon is a well known race that's held each May in Ogden, Utah.
- The Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic is a slightly lesser known race that's held each May in Wheeling, West Virginia.
These two races have similar names and they're held a week apart, but they're not related to each other. The race that I'm reviewing here is the one in Wheeling.
The Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic is used to be a 20K run. The race organizers recently made a few changes to the course though, including making it long enough to be a half marathon. The overall event is held during the Friday and Saturday of Labor Day Weekend. In addition to the Half Marathon and a 5K, which are held on Saturday morning, the event also includes a kid's run and a one mile run on Friday evening.
The one mile run is known as the fastest mile in America. It starts at the top of Wheeling Hill, which is one of the steepest hills in Wheeling. The entire course is downhill and the course record is 3:39.
On Saturday morning, the half marathon starts at 8:00 am for runners. Walkers are allowed to start a half hour earlier. The 5K starts at 8:15.
All of the courses start and finish near Main Street in downtown Wheeling. The first 2 miles of the half marathon course are through town and then the rest of the course kind of does a big loop around the Wheeling city limits.
This is an extremely challenging course. I knew it would be hilly because of Wheeling's location in the Ohio River Valley and proximity to the Appalachian mountains, but it ended up being even tougher than I expected. Sedona, AZ, San Francisco, Anchorage, AK, and Little Rock, AR are some of the hillier courses that I've done and those courses have nothing on this one.
The first 3 miles that go through downtown Wheeling are actually pretty flat. This is deceiving. In the beginning of the race, I was thinking that maybe this wouldn't be as bad as I thought it would. And there were some nice looking mountains off in the distance, which made the course nice and scenic.
Somewhere around the beginning of mile 2, I overheard a couple runners behind me talking about how they needed to slow down to save up their energy for "the hill". One of the guys said that he was probably just going to walk "the hill" this year. I've done plenty of other races with big hills so I really didn't think much about it and kept on moving forward. Rock n Roll DC, the Outer Banks Marathon and the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon all have challenging hills in the middle of their courses. However, the key difference between those races and this one is that the inclines for their big hills are only about a quarter of a mile long and the rest of the courses are relatively flat. So you suffer for a couple minutes on the hill and then you get over it and coast through the rest of the course. For some reason, I was picturing that being the case here.
I was wrong.
The course changes direction a couple times during the second mile and when I got to mile 3, I was staring straight at "the hill" and realized exactly what it was that I was going to be climbing. The scenic mountains I had been admiring during the first couple miles no longer looked so scenic when I realized that I was now running on one of them. This part of the course is known to locals as 29th street. And while locals may refer to 29th street as a "hill", anyone from Chicago or any other "flat" area would call it a mountain.
The climb up the 29th street "hill" is not short. The incline technically starts just before mile 2 but it doesn't really get noticeably steep until mile 3. During the two mile stretch between mile 3 and mile 5, the course elevation goes from about 650 to 1250 feet above sea level. After half a mile, people all around me were stopping to walk or stand for a few minutes so they could catch their breaths before pushing on. Somewhere around mile 4 the course appeared to level off a little bit. Really though, this was just because the grade had gotten a little less steep than it had been for the previous mile. I was still definitely running uphill at this point. It wasn't long after that when I heard someone behind me say to his running partner: "Okay, we're almost at the steep part".
Almost at the steep part!?
They weren't wrong. The last half mile of "the hill" is particularly grueling and has one of the steepest inclines of the entire course. I don't think this would have been bad on its own but after running uphill for a mile and a half already, my quads and calf muscles felt like they were on fire. When I finally made it to the top, there was a lady in front of me who pulled out her cell phone to call a friend and let them know that she had just "crushed 29th street without walking at all".
Given the number of runners who walked that part of the course, running all the way to the top of the 29th street is a pretty big accomplishment. There were crowds of people from the town of Bethlehem, which sits on top of the hill, congratulating runners who made it. There was also a DJ, a water table and some porta-potties for anyone who had to stop for a few minutes and take a break.
The problem with running on huge inclines like this is that you eventually have to go back down. And contrary to popular belief, down is not necessarily better than up. Sure it's easier on your lungs but if you run downhill too fast, your knees, hips, and ankles will take a pretty severe pounding. This was absolutely the case from miles 5 through 7 when I ran downhill at a blazing fast speed. A lot of people walked this part of the course as well, and while I knew that I would probably suffer for this later, I just kinda leaned back and let the hill carry me.
After Mile 7, the course flattens out for about a mile. Then from mile 8 through the finish, there's a series of rolling hills. These hills aren't nearly as steep as the 29th street hill, but they're not to be taken lightly either. In fact if any other course had hills like this, I would say that they were the toughest part of the course.
At mile 9 a spectator was cheering for the runners and telling them that the worst part was over. This was "kind of" true because we had made it past the big hill, but it implied that the rest of the course would be flat and easy. It wasn't.
Around mile 10 there's a steep hill that's about a quarter of a mile long. I really didn't think that this hill was that bad though. In fact it was probably the easiest hill on the course. About halfway up the incline, I overheard two other runners talking about how this one was okay but the next one was going to be rough.
As a side note, I don't think I've ever done a race where I've overheard that many people talking about the hills in my life.
Those people weren't kidding though. Mile 11 to 12 probably the second toughest hill on the course. The elevation is lower and the incline is not as long as 29th street, but the grade is almost the same. Also at this point, I had spent the last 11 miles running on hill after hill after hill, and my legs felt like they were shot. The only good things about this hill are that the incline is only about a half mile long and when you make it to the top, there's only another half mile to go. The last half mile of the course is a blazing fast knee-pounding downhill stretch that goes through downtown Wheeling. The race finishes in the same place where it started.
Here were some of the positives and negatives of this race:
The course was scenic. Hills aside, Wheeling sits between the Ohio River and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains so throughout most of the course, you're either looking at mountains or water.
I'm going to say that the course being so tough is actually a good thing. It's definitely not a good course for beginners (unless you happen to live in the area and are used to running on hills like that), but if you're an experienced runner it is a good way to challenge yourself. You also get bragging rights if you can make it to the top of the big hill/mountain/whatever it is without walking. In fact, I'd love to see the race organizers capitalize on this even more by getting the word out and letting the larger running community know that if they're up for a tough challenge, they should give this race a look.
Something else I noticed was that the hills seemed to make the race go by faster. I was so focused on making it to the top of the big hill without walking that I didn't even think about how far I had been running. After that, the downhill portion went by super fast and I was surprised to see that I was already almost at mile 7 when I got to the bottom. The rest of the course was similar - I never really concerned with what mile I was on as much as making it over the next hill. When you aren't thinking about distance, you tend to go a lot further without realizing it.
The weather was perfect. The temperature warmed up a little bit by the end of the race but for the most part, it was in the mid to upper 50's all morning. This is pretty standard for Wheeling during this time of year. Another temperature related benefit is that the majority of this course is tree-lined so even when it does start to warm up, you still get to run in the shade.
Crowd support was awesome. Besides the DJ and Crowds at the top of the 29th street hill, there were a ton of people lining almost the entire second half course to support the runners. I think this is the most crowd support I've ever seen for a race this size. Runners are also really supportive of one another too. People cheered for each other on the hills and struck up general conversations at other times just to say hi. I've never had more conversations with other runners during a race. The race volunteers, police officers directing traffic, and all of the other people involved with the race were really friendly too.
There were water tables every half mile during the second half of the race. There weren't as many in the first half but I felt like I never ran more than a couple minutes without passing one after I got to the other side of the 29th street hills. The water tables had water, ice and Gatorade, and volunteers handed out the ice in separate cups. Runners could either mix it with their water or Gatorade or just suck on the ice cubes.
There's no Race Expo. There's just a table where you pick up your race number, t-shirt, and a plastic bag with some flyers advertising local businesses. I don't really care about this one that much because I can kind of take or leave a lot of race expos. I know a lot of other runners who like them though so if your idea of a good running event is one where you get to go check out the latest gear and see what other races are in the area, you might be disappointed with this one. I'll balance it out by saying that on the plus side, I think this is the only half marathon I've ever done that offered race day packet pickup and even race day registration for people who weren't able to make it to town ahead of time.
The pink race t-shirt. Now don't get me wrong, I totally understand that the race raises money for breast cancer research but there are other ways to show that. A a white shirt with a pink ribbon on it would have shown just as much support.
The problem here is a basic marketing issue: most guys will never wear a pink shirt. I have this quirk about running shirts - call it superstition or whatever you want, but I never wear a race t-shirt until after I've actually finished the race. I feel like I haven't earned the right to wear it until after I've crossed the finish line. That means that you'll never see me wearing the official race shirt on race day even if it's a really nice technical shirt. If that is the case though, then what I usually do is wear it to the next race that I go to. And since I travel to so many different places for races, my shirts are from a variety of different locations. At almost every race I do, someone asks me about my shirt from the previous one. Then I can tell them how much I enjoyed that race and where it was and how nice the location was, etc... And although I don't necessarily intend for this to happen, conversations like that help to spread the word about different races and get runners interested in signing up for them in the future. In this case though, when I do the Grand Teton Half Marathon in Wyoming next month, I'm not going to be wearing my pink Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon shirt. And because of that, nobody is ever going to ask me about that race or what it's like to run in West Virginia. Sadly, that shirt is just going to sit at the bottom of bin with my other running shirts. Eventually I'll clean out my closet and donate it to a charity without having ever worn it.
A lot of the mile markers on the course were either missing or were not easily seen. I saw the mile marker for mile 1 but missed the ones for miles 2 and 3. I knew that I had been running for a long time at that point but had no idea how far into the course I was until I finally saw the marker for mile 4 on the incline of the big hill. Even the mile markers that are visible are hard to see. They're simply street signs that are no bigger than a No Parking sign. I have a feeling that some of the ones that I thought were "missing" really weren't missing at all - I just never saw them.
The race medal is literally the worst race medal I have ever received for any race I've ever done in my life. That includes everything from big city marathons with 50,000+ runners to neighborhood 5Ks with a few hundred. It looks like the race organizers ordered the cheapest stock race medals they could find and put a sticker on them that says "I finished the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic". There's another sticker on the back that has the name of one of the sponsors. The stickers on my medal weren't even put on straight. The medal is smaller around than a half dollar and it's so light that it feels like I could easily bend it in half with my bare hands. I didn't even bother to put it around my neck after I crossed the finish line because I didn't want wear it.
Even though this was my first trip to Wheeling, I always felt a bit of a connection to the city since my mom was born there. Overall, Wheeling is a nice little city with a lot of interesting history and amazing architecture. 2016 will be the 40th year for the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic, so obviously the race organizers are doing a good job of attracting local runners and keeping it going year after year. I think that the race has the potential to be a lot more than it currently is though. I also think it has the potential to bring money in from outside of the local community, which will help with some of the restoration efforts I described above. The framework is all in place: a challenging but scenic course, tons of crowd support, a rich history, friendly volunteers, and good organization. The race only needs a few small tweaks and it can be a world-class event. I'll be interested in seeing what direction it takes over the next few years.
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.