Latest reviews by Tom

(2015)
"Kick off the racing season in Chicago"
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Expo Quality
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Race Management

I have to admit that I've always had mixed feelings about the Shamrock Shuffle.

Chicago weather in March has always been hit or miss, and it was definitely an issue this year, but even when weather is good, the race organizers still struggle to handle the 23,000+ runners who sign up for it, the course is an odd distance, and up until this year, there wasn't even a finisher's medal. So why have I still signed up for this race almost every year for the past nine years? One word: friends.

You see, for all of its quirks and annoyances, the Shamrock Shuffle represents something that runners all over the Chicago area have been looking forward to for months: the official start of racing season. It's a celebration for everyone who's grown tired of wearing long sleeves and pants to stay warm on their runs, for everyone who's tired of running on a treadmill when the roads are too snowy and icy to run outside, for everyone who's had enough drippy noses and windburned faces and is ready to finally enjoy the warm weather again.... And most of all, it's a chance finally to go running again with friends who you haven't seen in months.

After the Shamrock Shuffle and all the way up until the Chicago Marathon in October, you won't have any problem finding races to do around the city almost every weekend. Yeah, there are some races before the Shuffle too, but they're mostly smaller races that only attract a few hundred hardcore runners who don't mind trekking through snow and ice and bitterly cold temperatures. Standing at the start line of the Shamrock Shuffle gives you the feeling of someone opening the floodgates and allowing thousands of runners to start pouring into Grant Park from miles around. It's a beautiful thing. Here's a list of some of the other good and bad things about this race:

Good: Shamrock Shuffle Race Expo

Considering that the Shamrock Shuffle is such a short distance, the expo is surprisingly cool. It used to be held at Navy Pier but it was at McCormick Place this year (which I liked a little bit better since it wasn't as crowded). There are about 50 different vendors, great giveaways and good info about upcoming races around the city.

Good: Seeing Your Running Friends Again

This is the number one reason to do the Shamrock Shuffle. People who haven't seen each other all winter come out for this race so you can run together again and go grab a beer or two afterwards. Every year I end up running into at least five or six friends at this race.

Good: Start / Finish Line

The race starts and ends in Grant Park, which is a perfect location (it's also where the Chicago Marathon starts and finishes). It's beautiful and gives runners a nice view of the skyline. There's also plenty of room for runners to meet up and stretch out before the race, and it's a great spot for everyone to get together for the party afterwards. The only downside is that it's still too early in the year for Buckingham Fountain to be turned on.

Bad: Wave Start

In general, wave starts in races are not a bad thing. They keep the course from getting too crowded during the first mile and ensure that the runners who start together are going to run at close to the same pace. When it comes to the Shamrock Shuffle though, the waves are so far apart that some of the runners in the last few corrals end up having to stand around for an hour or more before they finally get to cross the start line. There are three waves, and each wave is divided up into five corrals that get released about three minutes apart.... but the waves themselves are released a half hour apart. So to put things in perspective, I was in the last corral of the first wave this year, and when I crossed the finish line they were only just letting the runners in the last corral of the third wave start the race. I had a couple friends who were only a few corrals behind me, but because that put them in the next wave, they didn't cross the finish line until almost an hour after I did (and its not like this is a long race or anything - it's an 8K).

Good: Traffic Control and Parking

This is directly related to the wave start so I figured I'd list it next to show both sides of the coin. There's actually a reason why there's so much of a delay between the waves and it hasn't always been that way. Up until a few years ago, Shamrock Shuffle runners would just line up in their corrals at the start of the race and each corral would get let go about a minute or so apart until everyone was on the course. This meant that the people in the last few corrals didn't have to wait nearly as long to start running as they do today, but it also meant that all 20,000+ runners had to arrive before 8 am to get to their corrals in time which created massive traffic backups and overcrowded parking garages that simply couldn't handle that many cars trying to get in and park at the same time. Before the wave start was put in place, I remember arriving almost two hours before the race and still sitting in traffic for 45 minutes when I got close to Grant Park. Now that runners in the second and third waves know that they have some extra time before they have to be at the start line, they tend to take their time getting there, which makes dealing with traffic and finding a parking space a lot more tolerable. So while the wave start isn't ideal, I do understand why it was put in place - there are a lot of people who do the Shamrock Shuffle and this solution was essentially the lesser of two evils when it came to start line management.

Bad: Nonsensical Rules for People Who Want to Switch Corrals

I honestly can not come up with anything even remotely resembling a logical explanation for this one. In every other race that I've ever done before, the rules for switching corrals were straightforward: You can move down, but not up. Period. So if I'm in Corral B and I have a friend in Corral C that I want to run with, I can move down to Corral C if I want to but my friend can't move up to Corral B. This makes perfect sense - when people want to run together, it's always going to be the slower runner who dictates the pace, so by making the faster of the two runners move to the lower corral, you enforce this and help to keep things consistent at the start line. In the Shamrock Shuffle though, if two runners from different corrals want to run together, they don't just start in the lower of the two corrals; instead they have to drop back to the next wave. So for example, if I'm in Corral B and I want to run with my friend in Corral C.... then even though both of those corrals are in Wave 1, instead of me simply going to Corral C, we would both have to go to Corral E, which is the first corral in Wave 2. So now instead of one person moving back to a lower corral and running at the same pace as the other people in that corral there are two people who have to move back to a corral that's way lower than the one either of them were planning in starting in, and since they'll both be running at a faster pace than anyone else in the corral (aside from all the other runners who got bumped all the way back for committing the terrible crime of wanting to run with their friends), this policy ultimately turns the start line into a big clusterfuck where people who run at different paces all start the race at the same time and have to weave in and out of each other, which defeats the purpose of having waves and corrals in the first place.

Good: The Course

I think it's funny that the race organizers always make a point of saying that the Shamrock Shuffle is the world's largest 8K. Yeah it attracts over 23,000 people every year, so I'm sure that it is, but honestly, how many other 8Ks are there? That's like using pine cones to brew beer and then giving it to a few of your friends and telling them that you have the most popular pinecone flavored beer. That's only because nobody else cares enough to brew something like that.... The distance doesn't really bother me though - I just think it's funny. The course itself is great. It goes down State Street, passes by the Chicago Theater, Macy's, the Board of Trade, the Willis Tower and a few other well known Chicago buildings and monuments, and it also starts and finishes in Grant Park. Chicago is the best city in the world and this course showcases a lot of the things that are great about it.

Good: Post-Race Party

Great music and free beer. I don't think there's any more that needs to be said about this one.

Bad: Finisher's Medals

2015 was the first year that the Shamrock Shuffle had finisher's medals, which is great except for the fact that, this year's medal was just a gray bottle opener with a Shamrock Shuffle logo on it. A few years ago the race organizers gave away shamrock shaped bottle openers at the race expo and another year they gave away bottle opener key chains. Both of those things were cooler looking than this year's medals. So even though I can use my medal to open beer bottles, which is admittedly pretty cool, it's still one of the lamest looking medals in my collection.

Good and Bad: Weather

Like I said earlier, Chicago weather is extremely unpredictable, especially in March. There isn't anything that the race organizers can do about this so I'm not going to complain about it. In fact, the race organizers already did do something about it when they pushed the race back by a week from the first weekend after St. Patrick's Day starting in 2006 because its original time was still too early in the month and people would almost always end up running in the snow. They can't really push it back any further than they already have and still call it the Shamrock Shuffle, so the weather is what it is and if you're planning on running this race, make sure you know ahead of time that you might end up running in a variety of different conditions. The end of March is usually pretty comfortable (mid 40's to mid 50's), but in the years that I've done this race, there have been times when it's been almost 70 degrees out and other times when it was freezing. 2015 was one of the rougher years with temperatures in the high 20's at the start line, 40mph headwinds, and sleet and freezing rain about an hour or so after the start of the race (the rain didn't start until after I finished but the people in the later corrals who didn't get to start running for an hour had it a lot worse). If you live in Chicago you should pretty much know what the weather in March is like though.

I think that if the Shamrock Shuffle was held at any other time of year, it wouldn't attract nearly as many people as it does. It's crowded, it's quirky, and the way things are handled at the start line can be annoying, but if I add everything up, I definitely have more good things than bad things to say about it. It also falls during a perfect time of year when all of the runners around the city are chomping at the bit to get out and start racing again, so when it starts to get close to race day, the drive to do it is just too strong to stay home. So will I do the Shamrock Shuffle again next year? I'm sure I will....

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(2015)
"Amazing"
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T-Shirts/SWAG
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Race Management

My legs were shaking, my heart felt like it was about to pound out of my chest and I felt myself start to grip the chain that I was holding onto even harder than I already had been. When you're standing on the edge of an open cliff and the drop is over 1000 feet, the worst thing you can do is look down. But for some reason I felt compelled to and that was almost the end of my Angels Landing experience at Zion National Park in Utah....

Before I finish that story though, let's turn the clock back a little bit and talk about why I would even think about standing on the edge of a cliff that was that high up in the first place.

About six months ago, I decided that I wanted to run a race in Utah as part of my 50 states goal. I originally looked at the Salt Lake City Marathon, which also looks like a nice race, but a friend suggested that I check out the Zion Canyon Half Marathon, which is about a month earlier. I had never heard of this race, but when I saw that it featured a point-to-point course literally goes right through the middle of Zion Canyon, I couldn't resist. I signed up for the race as soon as registration opened and by the time I was ready to make the trip I had been looking forward to it for what felt like forever. And for a good reason too: with the possible exceptions of Anchorage, Alaska and Sedona, Arizona, the Zion Canyon Half was probably the most scenic race I've ever done.

For anyone that's not familiar with Zion, it's the oldest national park in Utah. Zion National Park is smaller than a lot of the other national parks (about 229 square feet total) and a little more remote, but it also boasts some of the most amazing scenery that you'll find anywhere in the United States. The most well known feature of Zion National Park is Zion Canyon, which was carved by the Virgin River in a similar process to the way the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon. Zion National Park also includes Kolob Canyon as well as a number of mountains, buttes, mesas, monoliths, rivers, slot canyons, and natural arches. The Great Basin, Mojave Desert and Colorado Plateau all converge in Zion National Park, which creates a number of different types of environments that can be found at various points throughout the park (desert, riparian, woodland, and coniferous forest being the most widespread). The park is also home to over 400 different animal species.

The Zion Canyon Half Marathon is a relatively new race. It was the first race ever run in a series created by an organization called Vacation Races. Since the initial Zion Canyon Half Marathon in 2013, the Vacation Races organizers have added seven additional races in places like Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains. If the others are anything like Zion, these are probably some of the prettiest races that anyone will ever do.

Zion National Park is in a remote location in the southwest corner of Utah. The closest city with an airport is St. George, which is about 40 minutes away, but the St. George Airport is a smaller regional airport, so if you want to fly into it your flight options will most likely be pretty limited (and expensive). So if you don't live in the area and you're planning on flying, your best bet will be to fly into either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and drive the rest of the way. The drive from Vegas is about an hour shorter than the drive from Salt Lake City, but it's still roughly 3 hours so regardless of where you're coming from, be prepared for a road trip. Despite being long, the drive is fairly straightforward though: I-15 to Route 9 East and then you can follow Route 9 right through the middle of the park.

The closest town to Zion National Park is Springdale, UT (this is also where the finish line of the race is). There are a few suggested hotels on the race website, but if you look around, you can find others in Springdale that might be a little less expensive. Springdale is a small town that mainly caters to tourists who visit the park, so while you're there, you'll find a lot of hotels, restaurants and shops selling gems, artwork, and other Zion Canyon themed merchandise.

Another option is to stay in Mount Carmel Junction, which is on the opposite side of the state park from Springdale. Mount Carmel Junction is a lot smaller (only a handful of hotels and maybe one or two restaurants) so on the surface, it might not be as desirable of a location to stay in but it does have a few advantages. First, there's less traffic at the park entrance. If you're driving into the park from the Springdale side, don't be surprised to see backups of up to a half mile or so long at the park entrance, particularly on Saturday afternoon. Coming in from the Mount Carmel side, you probably won't be behind more than one or two cars. Hotels in Mount Carmel are also a lot cheaper and the drive to Mount Carmel is extremely scenic as it takes you through the entire National Park and also includes a trip through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which is a 1.1 mile long tunnel that goes through the wall of the east canyon and is the biggest tunnel of its type in the United States.

If you're looking for places to eat, the Zion Canyon Brewpub in Springdale has really good burgers along with an excellent variety of locally brewed beers. The Switchback Grille is the place to go for fish or steak, and Wildcat Willies has a nice Southwestern atmosphere. If you decide to stay in Mount Carmel, stop by the Thunderbird Lodge for a slice of delicious tasting "Ho-Made" Pie. A lot of the sponsor restaurants give discounts to runners after the race so make sure to bring your bib and your medal when you're ready to go grab your post race meal.

The Zion Half has a cap of about 2000 runners, but in 2015, it attracted runners from 48 states and four different countries. So even though it's a relatively new race, the word is definitely starting to get out about it and I wouldn't be surprised if future races start to sell out quickly. The original race in 2013 attracted 500 runners so in just two years it's quadrupled in size.

Runners had a choice of either picking up their packets at the Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theater, which is a movie theater in Springdale just outside of the entrance to the park, or at the start line on race morning (this is one of the few half marathons I've done that offers race day packet pickup). In addition to a bib and a t-shirt, runners also get a Hydrapouch for their water.

One of the things that's unique about the Zion Canyon Half (and all of the other Vacation Races events as well) is that it's a cup free race. What this means is that there are no paper cups available at water tables, and the reason for it makes a lot of sense: with the race being in the vicinity of a national park, having runners sip water and then toss their cups on the ground is even less desirable than it is in other races and the race organizers felt that even if they were to provide extra garbage cans and get an excellent cleanup crew, there's still a chance that some cups would make their way into the park or the surrounding areas, which would damage the environment. So rather than cups, runners have a choice of either bringing their own water bottles or being issued a free hydrapouch at packet pickup. Then the water tables all have coolers where runners can fill up their bottles or pouches. This was the first race I ran that used this system and I have to say that I didn't mind it at all and I definitely wouldn't mind seeing more races switching to something similar.

For anyone who isn't familiar with a hydrapouch, basically it's a soft collapsible plastic cup that runners carry along with them and fill with water when they need it. The race organizers also did demos to show runners how to use them. Hydrapouches have a plastic clip on them so that they can be clipped to your shorts, but after the first couple miles of the race, I thought it was easier to just carry mine in my hand. They're simple to use though and only take a couple seconds to fill - my water stops really didn't take any longer than they do at any other races, and after the race, you can keep your hydrapouch for other races or training runs. I really didn't mind using mine at all.

In another environmentally friendly move, the race organizers also don't provide gear check bags at packet pickup. So that means that if you have any gear that you want to check, you'll need to either bring your own bag or purchase a recyclable one at the expo. Honestly, I think this is another good idea. I have tons of gear check bags sitting around in my closet from old races. Every now and then I'll throw them away, only to have them pile right back up. I definitely don't need any more of them.

One of the biggest things to think about before the race is where you're going to park. With the course being point-to-point, there are are a couple options: The easiest one is probably to park at the start line and take a shuttle back after you finish. There's plenty of parking at the start line and the shuttles run every 15 minutes after about 10:15am. The downside to this is that while there's plenty of parking, Route 9 is the only road you can take to get to the start line and traffic starts to back up pretty early. So if this is your plan, make sure you get there before 6:00am so that you'll have plenty of time to park and walk over to the start corral by 7:00.

The other option is to park at the finish line and take a shuttle to the start (or if you're staying at a hotel that's near the finish line, you can just walk to the shuttle and not have to drive at all). This is more convenient because your car will be waiting for you when you finish the race, but there really aren't a lot of places to park near the finish line and there are also limited spots available on the shuttle. So if this is what you're planning on doing, you'll have to make a reservation in advance. Regardless of how you get there though, the start line is nice and festive with a warming tent that has music and raffles for runners. The raffles start at 5:30am and are totally worth arriving early for because giveaways include things like free race entries and GPS watches.

The course doesn't go through the national park itself, but it does go through the part of Zion Canyon that leads up to the park entrance. The start line is in the town of Virgin and passes through Coalpits Wash, which is the lowest point in Zion Canyon and then through Rockville and finishes in Springdale. The entire course goes along Route 9 and it's an open course. There's really no way to close it because Route 9 is the only way to access the towns from the outside but the lanes that are designated for runners are blocked off and clearly marked and with the race being held fairly early on a Saturday morning, there's really not very much traffic to worry about anyway.

If you look at the elevation chart for the course, it looks like you're going to be running uphill the entire time, but it really didn't feel that way. Other than a really big hill between mile 6 and 7, the rest of the inclines are barely noticeable and there are actually a lot of declines during the first half of the race. The total elevation gain for the course is only about 400 feet. The one thing that is noticeable though is the altitude. At higher altitudes, the amount of oxygen in the air is lower so you have to breathe harder to get the same amount of oxygen into your blood. Zion Canyon is roughly 4,000 feet above sea level so if you're like me and you're used to running at lower altitudes, make sure to go for a warm up run or two ahead of time to let your lungs adjust. There were also some pretty strong headwinds at various points during the course, and the temperature is pretty cold out at the beginning of the race. It does get warmer after the sun comes up but I was still happy that I wore a long sleeve running shirt for this one. Another option that the race organizers give to runners is to wear a sweatshirt for the first three miles and then take it off and drop it by the three mile marker. Volunteers will pick it up for you and have it waiting at the finish line (although you'll have to search for it yourself among all of the others that they picked up).

All that being said though, this course is really not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it really isn't bad at all. To put things in perspective, even with the inclines, the high elevation and the headwinds, I still finished with my fastest half marathon time in almost five years. I'm sure that the amazing scenery along the course and being able to watch the sunrise over the canyon helped to motivate me but it really does say a lot about the course not being as tough as it looks on paper.

The race finishes at the Zion Canyon Giant Screen Theater and there are plenty of drinks and snacks available for runners. The medals are amazing looking. They're in the shape of the national park logo and have the race name and date on them along with a picture from Zion Canyon. They're also BIG - I had seen pictures of the medals before the race, but for some reason they looked a lot smaller in the pictures than they actually are. In reality, this is probably one of the biggest race medals I have in my collection.

OK, so now back to my cliff story. If you're going to travel to Zion Canyon for this race, you also need to make sure to check out the National Park itself. It's $25 per car to get into the park and passes are good for 7 days, so unless you're going with a large group of people that take up multiple cars, chances are that you'll only have to pay $25 to get in and out of the park as many times as you want over the course of the weekend. The park has campgrounds, a museum, a lodge and tons of places to drive, bike, run, walk, and hike and no matter what it is that you're into, you're guaranteed to have an awesome time and see some amazing things.

The people at Vacation Races also have a couple challenges available to anyone who does the half. After the race, you can hike to the top of Observation Point, check out a combination of the Kolob Canyons, the Riverside Walk and the Canyon Overlook, or do the big one, which is the Angels Landing Hike. Submitting a picture of yourself doing any of these things will get you a discount on a future race entry, your picture on their website, and bragging rights.

Angels Landing is by far the toughest of these challenges. Observation Point is the longest, and the other challenge requires you to do three different things, but what makes Angels Landing tough is that even though it's only a 5 1/2 mile round trip hike, the first 2 1/2 miles gain over 1500 feet in elevation and for the last half mile, you have to hold onto chains because you're essentially hiking next to an open cliff. Sound crazy? Yeah maybe it is a little bit.... but you can't beat the views from the top. It took me about three hours total to go up and back down, and besides being so high up, the winds at the top were a bit unnerving as well. Overall though, this was a lot of fun to do. (And I obviously made it back alive or I wouldn't be writing this haha).

I really can't say enough about the whole experience of visiting Zion Canyon and doing this race. The area was even more beautiful than I expected it to be and the race was so much fun that I could have easily run another 13.1 miles and I still would have felt great when I finished. This is definitely one of most scenic races that I've ever done and honestly it's probably one of the most scenic races anywhere in the United States. My suggestion to anyone that's considering this race is to ignore the hills and altitude and just go and enjoy it. You won't regret the experience.

If you're interested in reading more about this race, check out my blog entry at http://www.runsandplaces.com/2015/03/race-recap-zion-canyon-half-marathon/

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(2015)
"Breathtaking Views, Great Cause!"
Overall
T-Shirts/SWAG
Aid Stations
Course Scenery
Expo Quality
Elevation Difficulty
Parking/Access
Race Management

I always get some interesting replies to my social media posts when I mention that I'm planning on doing a stair climb. Aside from good luck wishes, there are questions about how hard stair climbs are are or how long they take to finish and comments that say things like "wow, that's crazy - I could never do something like that!" What really makes this interesting though is that the majority of these comments come from other runners. The reason this is so surprising to me is because truthfully, any experienced runner can probably do a stair climb. Climbing stairs works different muscles in your legs compared to running (which gives it the added benefit of making stair climbs a perfect cross training activity), but as far as overall effort goes, doing a 100 floor stair climb is roughly equivalent to running a 5K. So if you're a runner and you're on the fence about doing one of these, my advice would be to go for it - you'll love it!

Hustle up the Hancock is a climb to the top of the John Hancock Center in downtown Chicago. The Hancock Center is not the tallest building in Chicago but it's observatory on the 94th floor is one of the best ways to see the city from above. Climbers have a choice of climbing the full 94 floors or doing a 52 floor half climb but both climbs finish in the observatory (or 360 Chicago as it's now called) which offers amazing views of the Chicago skyline and the lakefront.

2015 was my fifth year in a row doing Hustle Up the Hancock. I'm not usually a big fan of doing the same races over and over again, but I have some personal reasons for doing this one every year. All proceeds from the climb go to the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, which is a not for profit organization whose mission is to promote healthy lungs and fight lung disease through advocacy and education. This is a cause that's really important to me because my mom passed away from a combination of COPD and Congestive Heart Failure in 2004. She spent the last year of her life on oxygen and had to make several trips to the emergency room because she had so much difficulty breathing. So I have a special place in my heart for any organization that supports lung health or lung disease research and I'm hopeful that in the future there will be new treatments available to help people with conditions like my mom's live longer and fuller lives.

Hustle up the Hancock has a lot in common with a regular road race, but there are also some key differences. Runners start in waves just like any big marathon or half marathon, but for safety reasons (can't have thousands of people in a stairwell at the same time), the waves are a lot more spread out than a road race and it takes most of the day to get everyone across the start line. No need to worry about getting there early and standing around for hours though - every race bib has an approximate start time and you only need to show up about in time for your scheduled start. The full climb only takes about 20 minutes, so there also shouldn't be any worries about starting later in the day either. Add in some extra time to get back downstairs after the climb and maybe hang out at the after party for a little bit, and you should probably plan on being there for about 2 1/2 hours.

The approximate start times are 15 minutes apart. Start times are assigned randomly, but climbers can also register as a team if there's a group of people who want to start at the same time and do the climb together. Everyone in the lower level of the Hancock building and takes an escalator up to the first floor about 10-15 minutes before their start time (or people doing the half climb take an elevator up to the 42nd floor and start from there). Race officials at the start lines let climbers go one at a time about 15 seconds apart. There are mats at the start and finish lines and the climb is chip timed the same way most road races are.

Once you're in the stairwell, the climb itself is pretty straightforward - run up a flight of about 10 stairs, get to a landing, turn and run up the next flight of stairs, etc... all the way to the top of the building. There's enough space on the landings for climbers to stop and take a break if they start to feel tired or feel winded. There are also motivational posters hanging on the walls in the stairwells and some of the floors have volunteers standing in the landings cheering on the climbers and handing out water bottles.

Climbers will occasionally pass each other in the stairwell but because of the way the start times are staggered, chances are that you'll never be on the same floor with more than one or two other climbers at the same time and there's always plenty of room in the stairwell. After crossing the finish line, climbers get water, bananas and medals and are treated to stunning views of Chicago that make the climb totally worth doing by themselves.

The medals are always really nice. They're high quality and have a design that features the Hancock Building on them along with the RHAMC logo and the name of the event. Interestingly enough, a lot of other stair climbs around Chicago don't have finishers medals at all, so it's nice to get one for Hustle up the Hancock. If I had to change one thing about this event though, it would be to give different medals to the full and half climbers (or maybe the same medal with different colors, etc...). Right now everyone gets the same medal regardless of whether they did the full or the half climb.

Here are a few tips for anyone that's never done a stair climb before but is interested in giving this one (or any other stair climb) a try:

The biggest issue I've ever had during a climb had nothing to do with my legs or knees getting sore or feeling tired or winded or anything like that. My biggest issue was starting to feel a bit dizzy from going in so many circles on my way up. If you think about the way a stairwell is laid out, you go up a set of stairs and then turn and go up the next set in the opposite direction, then turn again, etc.... If you do this fast and keep doing it repeatedly and also hug the corners really tightly, then by the time you get about halfway into the climb, you're going to start to feel like you've spent the last 10 minutes spinning around really fast. This is totally normal and doesn't last very long. I also noticed that moving to the right side of the stairs and slowing down for a floor or two helps to get rid of this sensation.

The climb itself only takes about 20 minutes but depending on when your start time is, getting back down can take close to 45 minutes because the lines for the elevators wrap all the way around the top of the building. The Hancock Building has the fastest elevators in the world but there are a finite number of them and each elevator can only carry so many people at once. Standing in line for this long is really not as bad as it sounds though because the line forms along the windows, so you'll get close up views from all four sides of the building and plenty of great photo opportunities while you're waiting.

If you're planning on driving to Hustle up the Hancock, you can park in the official Hancock Center garage... but you'll probably have to wait in line to get to the garage and then wait in line again to get out of it after you get in your car. I've had a lot more luck parking in the Water Tower Place garage across the street and the prices are roughly the same.

Even though it's cold outside, the stairwell is warm, and you'll warm up quickly once you get moving, so plan on wearing a pair of shorts and a short sleeve shirt for the climb. There's a gear check at the Hilton around the corner (where the after party is) and a coat check at the bottom floor of the Hancock building. I've never used the gear check but the lines for the coat check always seem to be ridiculously long so I usually just leave everything in my car and hang onto my keys during the climb. The downside to doing this is that since the climb is in February, if you take this advice and also take my advice about parking in the garage across the street, then since Hustle up the Hancock is usually in the middle of February, you'll most likely find yourself having to cross the street outside in bitterly cold temperatures with nothing on besides what you're planning on wearing for the climb. The convenience of not having to wait in three different lines is well worth it though.

After climbers make their way back downstairs, there's an after party across the street inside the Hilton. Climbers are more than welcome to hang out with their friends and family in the observatory after they finish too (if you want to do this, there are opportunities to buy guest passes in advance so keep an eye on the official emails that get sent out about the climb). If you have some extra time beyond that though, the after party is definitely worth checking out. You can get your official finishing time there and there's also music, free samples, food, beer and advertisements for other races in the area. It's kind of like a race expo that's just held after the event instead of before it.

I was happy to run into a few friends that I wasn't expecting to see at Hustle up the Hancock this year (I also got to see Senator Mark Kirk who did the climb this year too). Stair climbs are a lot of fun and offer breathtaking views at the finish line. This particular one is also for a great cause that's near and dear to me, so I'm hoping that as time goes on, more and more runners will decide to give Hustle up the Hancock a try. Like I said, you won't be disappointed!

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(2015)
"Fun race for a great cause!"
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The Mardi Gras Chaser 10K is a race to support Back on My Feet Chicago, which is an organization that uses running to create self-sufficiency in the lives of those experiencing homelessness. It's a really good idea actually: train people to run and before long, they'll start to build confidence as they apply the same disciplined approach that they used to become runners to other areas of their lives and see great results. The long term goal is an overall lifestyle transformation for each participant that results in employment and independent living opportunities. Back on My Feet started in Philadelphia in 2007 and since then it's expanded to 11 chapters nationwide and has also received a great deal of media coverage and accolades since 46% of the people who have participated in the program so far have gone on to find employment and housing (a very high percentage for programs like this).

I learned about Back on My Feet and the Mardi Gras Chaser 10K through BibRave. Being a BibRave Pro, I was given the opportunity to get a free entry into this race and after checking out the overall theme, I decided to jump on it since it looked like a lot of fun. I also did a little bit of research on Back on My Feet and really like what they were doing as an organization so I was glad that I got the opportunity to do this race and do what I can to help get the word out.

The Mardi Gras Chaser is held the weekend after Mardi Gras each year in Montrose Harbor on Chicago's North Side and for obvious reasons, it has a Mardi Gras theme. New Orleans style Jazz music plays at the start line and race volunteers wear Mardi Gras themed outfits with various combinations of masks, feathers, and beads. A lot of runners dress up for the race as well and every runner gets a couple handfuls of beads when they cross the finish line, along with one large set that has a fleur de lis hanging from it.

Runners who sign up for the Mardi Gras Chaser have a choice of doing either a 5K or a 10K. This is not a huge race as far as the number of participants go. It has somewhere between about 500 and 1000 runners total, which is pretty standard for races of these distances that are held in Chicago in the winter.

The race features an out and back course that starts at Monroe Harbor and heads south on the Lakefront Trail for just over three miles before turning around and heading back. The 5K course is the same as the 10K course with a turnaround just past the 1.5 mile point. There are a few small hills on the course but nothing more than about a 1% grade - it's mostly flat and even with all of the snow we've gotten over the last several weeks, the trail was perfectly clear. There are two water tables along the course, but since it's an out and back course, that actually gives runners four opportunities to get water (one at around mile 1 / mile 5 and the other just past mile 2 / just before mile 4). The number of volunteers at the water tables and at other spots along the course seemed to be just right for a race of this size.

A couple other quick notes: the Lakefront Trail in Chicago is always open to the public (it's required to be kept open by law so there's nothing the race organizers can do about it - any other race that's held anywhere along the Lakefront Trail has the same issue). Since the Mardi Gras Chaser is held during the middle of February, this really isn't a problem since the trail isn't very crowded during this time of year, but if you decide to do this race, don't be surprised if you see some other runners, walkers, bikers, etc. using the trail at the same time. Also, the race starts at 10am, which is a little later than a lot of other races. I'm not really sure what the reason is for the late start, but given the time of year that the race is held, I think it's a good idea because it gives the temperature a couple extra hours to warm up. I've done other races that started at 8am during winter in Chicago and my feet always ended up being so frozen by the time I finished running that I could barely feel them. It was also nice to be able to sleep in a little bit on race morning.

As far as bling goes, every runner gets a ton of beads at the finish line, along with a ton of food. Runners pick up their goodie bags in advance at Fleet Feet Sports in Old Town. The bags contain a couple Mardi Gras masks, some coupons for local shops and restaurants and also a fleece neck warmer instead of a t-shirt. Given the time of year, this is perfect. Temperatures were in the low 30's on race day so I didn't need to wear it during the race, but I'll definitely be getting good use out of it during future races and training runs.

Overall, I thought that the Mardi Gras Chaser was a great race. It was well organized, a lot of fun, and the Lakefront Trail is always scenic to run on. Back on My Feet also seems like a great organization so I wish them all the best for 2015 and I hope to run this race again next year!

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(2014)
"Best 5K in Chicago"
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There are a lot of races in Chicago. Aside from the obvious ones, there are races of varying distances, themes and terrains at different spots in and around the loop, along the lakefront, and in the individual neighborhoods throughout the city almost every week. Throw in the suburbs and you could probably do a race in the Chicago area every weekend for the next three years without ever doing the same one twice....

Personally, I like to run in a variety of different locations and see new things whenever I do a race, so I try not to sign up for the same races over and over again. I've noticed that even when I really like a race, the course still tends to get old after doing it a few times. There are some exceptions to this of course - if running a race will help raise money for a cause that I really care about, I'll sign up for it repeatedly no matter how many times I've done it in the past and I also make exceptions for races that friends ask me to run with them - I don't care how many times I've done a race, if you need me to run with you for motivation or even if you just want to meet up and grab a beer afterwards, just ask and as long as I don't have anything else going on, I'll be happy to be there.

Then there's one race that really doesn't fall into any of these categories. Carrera de los Muertos (aka Race of the Dead) is a 5K in Pilsen (which is a neighborhood on Chicago's Lower West Side) that's held on the closest Saturday to Dia de los Muertos every year (so usually the first weekend in November). This race raises money for UNO Charter Schools, which is a great cause... but also not one that I have any kind of personal ties to. I also have some friends who have been running it for the last year or two, which is cool, but I would still run this one whether I knew anyone there or not..... because it's Just. That. Awesome.

As you may have surmised from the name, Race of the Dead is a Day of the Dead themed race. A lot of people who run it or come to watch dress up in Day of the Dead themed outfits and paint their faces with skeleton makeup. The race shirts always have awesome designs too. There's an altar near the start and finish lines for people to remember their loved ones and day of the dead themed merchandise and decorations everywhere. The prizes for age group winners are painted skulls, and the post race party includes traditional folklorico dancing and authentic Mexican food from the local restaurants in Pilsen.

The course itself is pretty straightforward - it starts on 16th Street across the street from Bartolome De Las Casas Charter School and heads East. There are some beautiful murals all the way down 16th Street that make the first mile really scenic. Then runners head North for a few blocks and then East again through University Village before eventually heading South and then West on 18th Street through the heart of Pilsen where most of the restaurants and bakeries are. There's just one aid station at around the halfway point, which is pretty common for 5Ks. The course is nice and flat, and being the first weekend in November, the weather is usually nice and cool, so if you're looking for an opportunity to get a 5K PR, this is a good race to do it. There's also a lot of crowd support for a 5K, which is pretty cool, but it's really the post race festivities that make it such an amazing experience.

There are only a couple minor things I would like to see changed with this race. I think this was originally intended to just be a local neighborhood 5K and the race organizers didn't realize how popular it would get. 2014 was the eighth year for it and I've been running it for the last four, during which time I've watched it get bigger and bigger as more people have continued to find out about it. At this point, it's gone way beyond just being a local neighborhood event, so the race organizers need to realize this and make a few tweaks:

1. No more race day packet pickup. During the days leading up to the race, there are a few options for places around Chicago where runners can go to pick up their race numbers and shirts.... but since you can also pick them up on Race Day, a lot of people (me included) wait till the morning of the race to get theirs. This results in super long lines at the packet pickup tables so unless you're prepared to get there an hour and a half before the race, you'll need to be ready to stand in line for a while. This year someone told me there were still people waiting to get their numbers almost 20 minutes after the race had already started. So my suggestion for this one is pretty simple - stop offering race day packet pickup. I'm sure the owners of the local running stores where people can go to pick up their packets ahead of time would appreciate the extra foot traffic and potential business as well.

2. Finisher's Medals. The skulls are awesome and one day I hope to finish in the top three in my age group so I can get one, but as the race continues to grow in popularity, it just makes sense to offer finisher's medals for all of the runners too. There are so many cool options for Day of the Dead themed medals and giving them to runners would probably make the race even more popular than it already is.

For the most part though, I'd be willing to guess that those suggestions would be common to almost any race that's growing as quickly as this one. Even for its size, the course never really felt like it was too crowded and running it was a pleasure as always. Even though this is just a 5K, the overall atmosphere of this race rivals some of the marathons I've done and I'm looking forward to doing it again next year!

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