Latest reviews by Tom

(2014)
"Run like Rocky"
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This is the first of two separate reviews I'm going to be writing about the 2014 Rock n Roll Philadelphia Running Festival Weekend, which is something new that Competitor Group started this year - Running Festival Weekends consist of a shorter race on Saturday (usually a 5K but not always), followed by a longer race on Sunday (either a Half Marathon or a Full / Half Marathon Combo) and participants can do either one or both of them. I did both, but since they were two separate races, I wanted to write about them separately. So I'll start with the 5K -

I have to say that this was one of the most enjoyable 5Ks I've done this year... and at first, I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy the trip to Philadelphia at all because getting to my hotel to drop everything off and then heading to the expo was a miserable experience. I'll add a disclaimer here though to say that this had absolutely nothing to do with the race or the race organizers and everything to do with the traffic in Philadelphia and the fact that it took me close to two hours to drive a total of about 20 miles. Seriously, if anyone on the Philadelphia City Council ever reads this - you guys need to do something about the timing of your traffic signals. I get it it was rush hour on a Friday evening when I got in, but cars that stay within a couple miles of the speed limit shouldn't have to get stopped by a red light every half mile. You know your city has a problem with traffic when someone from Chicago tells you it's bad. But that being said, that was really the only bad experience that I had throughout the entire trip. Everything else was amazing:

The race expo was at the Philadelphia Convention center and it was typical for Competitor Group - well organized with some official merchandise in one section and a variety of different vendors, sponsors and guest speakers in another (if you've done a Rock n Roll series race before, you pretty much know the drill). Technically you can do race day packet pickup for the 5K, but there is no race day packet pickup for the half marathon, so if you're doing that one, you have to go to the expo either way, and if you're doing both races, then as long as you have the time, it's easier to just go on Friday night and pick up both packets. The other added benefit of going on Friday is that the expo is a lot less busy than it is on Saturday. With the traffic though, just make sure you give yourself enough time to get there before it closes at 7pm.

The 5K and the half marathon both start and finish in Eakins Oval, which is right across the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I'll get to the reason why I liked this in a minute, but before that, I want to also mention that if you haven't heard of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, aside from being a world class art museum, it's also known for being where the steps are that Sylvester Stallone ran up during Rocky. In fact the steps are actually called the Rocky Steps and there's a bronze Rocky statue at the base of them. So if you want... you can run up the steps yourself either before or after the race. I did them before the race as a warm up and was kinda glad that I did since the steps were packed with other runners after the race. Regardless of whether you want to run up the steps or not though (there are 72 of them altogether in case you were wondering), you should still at least walk up to the top of them and check out the Philadelphia skyline - the view is breathtaking.

So onto the race itself - the course is fairly straightforward. It's an out and back course that has runners start off to the side of the art museum, head northwest for a little over a mile and a half along the Schuylkill River and then turn around and head back south and finish in front of the art museum. It's nice and flat and fast - there's a really steep downhill drop right at the beginning of the course (which means that there's also a steep hill right at the end since you're essentially running back the same way you came) but it's really not that bad - it's steep but also less than 1/10th of a mile long so it's over quickly and fairly painless. Afterwards, there's a big post race party in Eakins Oval.

One of the biggest benefits of doing the 5K the day before the half marathon (other than the fact that you get an extra medal for doing both races) was the fact that both races start and end in roughly the same place, so the second half of the 5K on Saturday follows the exact same route that the last mile and a half of the half marathon follows on Sunday. I'll add more details about this when I write about the half marathon but as a quick overview - the turnaround point for the 5K is right around mile 11 1/2 for the half marathon... which is when a lot of people are starting to look for that little extra bit of motivation to help push them to the finish line. I don't know if the race organizers specifically planned it this way or not, but I liked knowing exactly what to expect for the rest of the half marathon when I got to that point. I knew that right after I ran under the overpass that I saw coming up, I would see the 12 mile marker, and then I knew that the path I was running on would curve a little bit, head around the side of the art museum, up the short but really steep hill (which I knew was coming so I could prepare myself for it) and then across the finish line. I didn't have to play any mental games to remind myself that the finish line was coming up soon even if I couldn't see it because I knew exactly where the finish line was since I had run in that same spot a little over 24 hours ago.

Aside from that, the weather was perfect for running, the finisher's medal was awesome looking, and by the time I finished the race, I had all but forgotten about how annoyed I was with the traffic around Philly the night before. With the course being so flat, I also know a couple other runners who set PRs. I would say that for anyone that's planning on being in Philadelphia around the end of September, even if you aren't interested in the half marathon, you should still sign up for this 5K if you're looking for a race to do while you're in town - it was a great experience.

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(2014)
"Flat, Fast Race on the South Side"
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I signed up for the Chicago Half Marathon about six weeks or so before the race.... and then about two seconds after I finished registering, I realized that I had already signed up for Storm the Stadium, which was the day before. 6000 step stair climb on Saturday and then a half marathon on Sunday? Bring it....

Despite the crazy weekend schedule, I ended up being really happy that I signed up for this race. It wasn't the first time I've done it (I did it last year and also all the way back in 2006 when it was still called the Banco Popular Chicago Half Marathon), so I pretty much already knew what to expect: The course starts near the Museum of Science and Industry on the far south side of Chicago, where runners do a small 5K loop through the Hyde Park area before heading out onto Lake Shore Drive and running north until about mile 8 (with awesome views of the Chicago skyline, I might add) and then across an overpass and back south towards the finish line which is also close to the museum. The course really hasn't changed much over the years (I think the first one I did went through the neighborhoods a little more and spent a little less time on Lake Shore Drive but it was a long time ago and I honestly don't remember and either way it was still pretty close to what it is now).... I really like this race a lot though and other than a few minor tweaks, I hope it never changes.

Here are some of my favorite things about the Chicago Half Marathon:

It attracts a decent sized crowd but it's still not huge. There were somewhere between 7000 and 8000 people who ran either the marathon or the 5K that was also offered this year. So it has a big enough group of runners to be a good sized race, but it's not so crowded that runners feel boxed in and claustrophobic for the first couple miles like in some of the other big races around the city.

It's a different route than most of the other Chicago races. There are a lot of really well known races in Chicago that start around Grant Park and head through the loop or south on Lake Shore Drive, etc... and a lot of others that are up in the Montrose Harbor area... and these are all great races. I do a lot of them every year as well... but it's also nice to do a Chicago race with a course that's completely separate from the others. The northernmost point of this course, which is the turnaround on the 31st street bridge at Mile 8, is still further south than the southernmost point of most other races and running it gives people a different view of the city and exposes them to new areas that they might not get to see otherwise.

It's on the south side. This is kind of along the same lines as my last point, and I also have a feeling that this is what keeps this race from getting too crowded. If anyone who lives on the north side of the city or in the North Suburbs writes a review of this race, my guess is that they'll talk about how inconvenient the location is and what a pain it is to get to.... and I can totally see that point of view. I grew up on the south side though and I currently live in the south suburbs so I love being able to drive to the start line in under 30 minutes... and the view of the Skyline that runners see when heading north on Lake Shore Drive is the view that I grew to love when I was younger.

The time of year is perfect. The race is always in September right after the temperatures finally start to cool off and on this year in particular, the weather couldn't have been more beautiful. The temperature was in the high 50's at the start of the race and only warmed up to the low 70's. It was sunny and there were times when but not humid.

The course is nice and flat and fast. Even after doing Storm the Stadium the day before, between the flat course and the mild temperatures, I was still able to cruise through the first 10 miles of this race without even noticing that my legs were sore. I've written before that the toughest races usually make for the best memories later, but it's also nice to have an easier one every once in a while and considering what my last few races were like (Anchorage Alaska - super hilly with driving wind and rain, Rock n Roll Chicago, which was milder than most years but still really humid, and Rock n Roll Virginia Beach, Which was 90 degrees with 100% humidity), I really needed one like this.

For the size and location of this race, there's a lot more crowd support than you would expect. This is surprising considering that the majority of the course is on Lake Shore Drive, but there are a pretty decent number of people who come out to watch this race and cheer on the runners. There are a couple dead spots here and there but the biggest crowds are exactly where they're needed - from about mile 10.5 through the end of the race, when runners are feeling the most tired and worn out, the street is lined with spectators reminding them that they're in the home stretch.
Lastly, I have special memories of this race. I don't know if this will necessarily convince anyone to sign up for it, but it does underscore my last couple points about the course being nice and flat with generally mild weather: When I did this race in 2006, it was the first time I broke 2 hours in a half marathon..... and I'll always remember my finishing time because it was exactly 1:59:59 lol. If you're looking for a half marathon PR, this is definitely a good course to shoot for it.

So all that being said, there are a few things I would change about this race if I could (most of these are pretty minor):

The expo itself isn't bad, but I would move it to a different location. It's always at Navy Pier where parking is expensive and there's always so much other stuff going on at Navy Pier that it can be hard to fight your way through the crowds, etc.... McCormick Place Lakeside Center would be a better location - closer to the location of the actual race itself with better parking and fewer crowds....

It's always hard to find good parking on race morning.... If you get there super early, you can park in the garages at the Museum of Science and Industry and there are a few school lots in the area that you can pay to park in.... otherwise you have to park on the streets in the surrounding neighborhoods. This year I ended up parking near the University of Chicago and walking about a mile to get to the start line. The problem really isn't parking itself as much as the area not really being designed to handle a lot of traffic in general, so a lot of the streets near the start line start to back up an hour or so before the race leaving people scrambling to find a spot to park once they're finally able to get close. I don't think there's much that can be done about this, but I do think that the shuttle bus stops can be laid out a little bit better. There are a couple downtown shuttles, but it also probably wouldn't be a bad idea to take advantage of the US Cellular Field Parking Lots since they're so close by and offer shuttle service from there.

Like I said though, those things are minor. The race itself is excellent and even if the expo and parking situations didn't change, I would still do it again and recommend it to other people.

Over the last couple years, the race organizers have started building a series that includes this race along with the Chicago Spring Half Marathon and Chicago 13.1 Marathon and extra medals and awards for people who do different combinations of them. The Chicago Half will definitely be on my list again next year and I might have to look at some of the other races in the series as well.

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(2014)
"Great Concept but could have been organized better."
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Besides running marathons and half marathons, I like to look for different kinds of workouts and races to do from time to time to mix things up a little bit and challenge myself in different ways. So when a friend told me about Storm the Stadium, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to give it a shot.

Storm the Stadium is a stair climb... but it's a little different from the stair climbs that are held inside of skyscrapers in big cities (like Hustle up the Hancock, etc...). Instead of going up to the top of a building, climbers go up and down all of the stairs in the stands of a sports stadium. This year it was 6000 steps inside of US Cellular Field in Chicago and in previous years it was held at Soldier Field.

Here's roughly how everything works:

Everyone who signs up for the climb gets an exact start time that goes all the way down to the second (mine was 8:26:45am). Climbers get to the stadium a little bit before their designated start time and line up in a single file line and start the climb 15 seconds apart (this is for safety reasons since you can't have too many people on the stairs at the same time).

I'm not sure if it was the same at Soldier Field, but for this particular one, the climb started at one end of the upper deck... climbers went up a set of stairs then down the same set (there's a railing that runs down the middle to separate the climbers who are going up from the ones who are going down), and then out into the concourse, back in through the doors to the next section and then up and down the next set of stairs, etc.... all the way around the entire stadium. Then when a climber finishes the last staircase in the upper deck, they run down the ramp to the lower deck and do the same thing in reverse and the finish line is right below the start line.

I really love the concept of this and once everyone actually got going, it was an awesome race. The weather was perfect and even though my thighs and calf muscles were burning from all the stairs, looking out onto the stadium and watching all of the other climbers was an awesome sight. Plus because of the way everything was laid out with climbers covering the upper deck first, followed by the lower deck, things worked out pretty nicely because the staircases in the lower deck aren't as steep, which means that the toughest part of the race was all covered in the first half and everyone's legs got a little bit of a rest in the second half. It took me a little over 45 minutes to finish.

All in all it was a great time. There are a few things I would like to see changed with this race as far as the overall organization goes though:

First, the start times were emailed out the day before the race. The problem with this is that a lot of people have other plans for the day besides just doing the stair climb so while my start time was early enough that it didn't really make any difference, I felt sorry for the people who thought they were going to be starting at 8am, only to find out that they weren't actually starting until 10. Other stair climbs stagger their start times like this (they have to for safety reasons) but in most cases, the start times are sent out weeks in advance so that people who are doing the race have plenty of time to plan their day around it.
When I got there and checked in, they mentioned that things were running a few minutes behind.... but there was no other explanation of what the actual issue was. It turned out to be a problem with the timing equipment, which is fine - sometimes things happen that nobody has any control over... the problem was the lack of communication. People were standing around wondering when the race was going to start, and as time went on, more and more people started to show up for their scheduled start times and there was no word from anyone about when they would get to start climbing. Once the race organizers finally did start letting people up into the upper deck to line up, it was hard to hear the instructions about who was supposed to go where because there was a speaker blaring classic rock music that never got turned down and the people making the announcements didn't have microphones. A group of about 100 or so people was taken up to the upper deck and then everyone else was left to still wonder what was going on.
Spacing out the start times by 15 seconds is a great idea and makes a lot of sense in a race like this.... but the problem is that climbers were put in the order they were in based on when they showed up to pick up their race packets as opposed to being grouped based on their pace.... so within the first several flights of stairs, there was a lot of passing going on and people having to stop climbing and move off to the side so other climbers could get by them. This all worked itself out eventually like it does in any other race, but it could have been a lot more efficient if the climbers had been grouped according to skill level. (And as a side note, I know that this is not really easy to do in a race like this since it's fairly unique and most people don't have finishing times in equivalent races to use to determine their estimated finishing times, etc.... but at least asking someone for their pace per mile as a runner or some other similar metric would be a start).
Lastly, the course itself wasn't clearly marked. The way that I described it above (up a staircase and then back down the same staircase and then through the concourse to the next one) was generally how things worked, but there were some sections where climbers were supposed to cut across the bottom row of seats to get to the next section instead of going out into the concourse and there wasn't really a clear indication of when to do what. There were some climbers who accidentally skipped sections altogether and others who zig-zagged through the different sections, going up one set of stairs and down the next.... so not everyone who did the race actually covered all 6000 steps, and in most cases, it wasn't their own fault as much as that they simply didn't know where they were supposed to be going. This could have been fixed very easily - print out some pictures of arrows, laminate them, and tape them to the railings at the end of each aisle (or every other aisle, etc....). There was yellow caution tape that was put up in some places that gave climbers a pretty good indication of where they were not supposed to go but this really wasn't enough. It wouldn't have taken much longer to provide some additional direction for everyone.
There was no finisher's medal. I'm not going to say too much about this because I do a lot of races that don't have finisher's medals and it's fine. The only reason I'm mentioning it here is because Storm the Stadium claims to be one of the largest consecutive stair challenges in the United States.... and there are plenty of smaller ones who DO offer finishers medals. So if the race organizers really want to make a claim like that and use it to get people to register for their race, they should also provide the participants with something that shows they completed it besides just a t-shirt.
All that being said though, like I mentioned earlier, I really liked this race and I like the concept behind it too. It could definitely stand to be organized a bit better, but once it is, I really don't see any reason why it can't be expanded into a whole series that includes other stadiums as well. I'm not sure why it was moved from Soldier Field to US. Cellular Field but if things can be worked out with the stadium owners themselves, it could really be held at both places at some point... and even at other stadiums too (i.e. Wrigley and the Cell in the spring to kick off baseball season, Soldier Field in the fall to kick off football season, and a winter one that's indoors at the United Center).... and if things go well, it can eventually be expanded to other cities - the nice thing about a climb like this is that you don't need a major skyscraper to do it. Any stadium for any sport could work - it can be professional, college, high school, etc... So while I think there were some problems with this race organizationally, it's still pretty early on in its existence so I definitely would not give up on it completely and I'd recommend that other people give it a shot too. I'm looking forward to seeing how it evolves over the next few years.

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(2014)
"Hot, Humid, Fast, Flat, and Fun...."
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After traveling to Washington, DC, Oklahoma City, and Anchorage, Alaska for races this year, I decided that Virginia would be a good destination for my next one, and I found the perfect race for it - the Rock n Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon, which is another race in the Rock n Roll Marathon Series from Competitor Group. This was the thirteenth year for this race, which is held every Labor Day weekend and is known for it's nice scenic, flat, fast course but also for the nearly unbearable heat and humidity on race day. This race definitely lived up to all of those things....

Virginia Beach doesn't have its own airport so if you're planning on doing this race, your best bet is to fly into Norfolk, which is no biggie - it's only a 20 minute drive from the Norfolk Airport to the beach and for as many times as I drove back and forth throughout the weekend, I didn't run into any traffic once. As far as where to stay, you have a few choices - stay at a hotel in Virginia Beach along the oceanfront (more expensive, but walking distance from the beach and all of the race events) or stay in Norfolk (cheaper and only a 20 minute drive). I chose to stay in Norfolk, mainly to save on expenses. This had its pluses and minuses - on the plus side, like I said, you can save a lot of money on your hotel room and parking is surprisingly cheap - parking at the convention center for the race expo and Mile on the Sand Race on Saturday is free and there are lots less than a block away from the beach that are only $20 for an entire day. On race day, there's also free parking at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater with free shuttles to and from the start and finish line (although in a little bit, I'll get into why I wouldn't recommend this).

The race expo is at the Virginia Beach Convention Center and it's open on Friday and Saturday. For obvious reasons, Friday is the least busy of the two days and if you're planning on doing the Mile on the Sand Race on Saturday morning, it's the best time to go and get your race number. The expo was fairly typical for Rock n Roll races. It was laid out pretty nicely with race number / t-shirt /goodie bag pick up at the beginning, a section with official race merchandise, and then several rows of vendors with product samples or information about other upcoming races and also a guest speaker or two (This year it was Frank Shorter).

I wrote a separate review of the Mile on the Sand Remix Challenge that was held on Saturday morning so I won't say much more about that here other than to just mention that it was a lot of fun. If you haven't run on sand before (or even if you have) and you're planning on doing the Virginia Beach Half Marathon, make sure you sign up for the Mile on the Sand race as well. It's definitely a unique experience and you not only get a finisher's medal for doing it, but you also get an extra medal for doing both races.

The half marathon starts at the convention center at 7am on Sunday morning and the finish line is on the beach boardwalk. Everything around the start line was laid out pretty nicely as far as the locations of restrooms, gear check, corrals etc... The only real issue is parking - you can park at the convention center if you get there early enough, but there are about 15,000 people who sign up for the half marathon so parking there is limited since the race organizers need the space in the lots for the rest of the start line activities. The convention center is also about a mile and a half from the finish line, so if you park there you'll have a pretty long hike back to your car after the race. So unless you stayed at one of the hotels alongside the beach, your other options for parking are to either pay to park in one of the beach lots or park at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater for free and take a shuttle bus to the start and finish lines. I would strongly recommend just paying to park in one of the beach lots. Yeah it'll cost you 20 bucks, but the problem with parking at the amphitheater is that the normal route that the shuttle buses would take to the start and finish lines is blocked for the race, which forces the bus drivers to take alternate routes that ultimately turn a drive that should take less than 10 minutes into a half hour. So in the morning, you have to get up 45 minutes earlier than you normally would have to make sure you get to the amphitheater on time to park and catch the shuttle bus and then after the race, you have to sit on a smelly bus full of sweaty runners for a half hour to get back to your car (which in my case was made worse by the fact that after the race, my shuttle bus driver forgot what the alternate route was supposed to be and got lost, adding an extra 10 minutes onto what was already a bus ride from hell). So if you're not staying on the beach, take my advice and find a lot that's walking distance from the finish line and just fork over the money to park there and use the mile or so walk to the start line as your prerace warm up - you'll thank me for it.

The race itself was amazing though - like I said, it was extremely hot and humid (by 6:30am people were already starting to sweat just from standing around the start corrals).... but I have to give kudos to the race organizers for recognizing that the conditions were going to be rough and planning accordingly. There were plenty of water tables throughout the course, none of which were ever out of water or Gatorade, and there were also extra medical tents and buses at various spots along the course with air conditioning for any runners who needed to stop for a few minutes and go inside and cool off. There were also misting tents at various spots and some of the locals who have houses alongside the course and came out to watch the race set up their sprinklers for people to run through and handed out freeze pops as well. So to their credit, I really do think that the race organizers and volunteers did everything they could to make this race as comfortable as possible for the runners. The only thing I would have liked to see changed was that the start time could have been moved up by about a half hour. For as humid as it was, it was also overcast for most of the morning and the weather didn't start to become unbearable until the sun came out from behind the clouds a couple hours later when the majority of the runners only had a couple more miles to go.

Aside from the heat though, like I mentioned earlier, the course itself was great - other than a really steep incline at mile 3 1/2 and 11 1/2 (it was the same overpass that the course crosses over in both directions), the course was remarkably flat. For the first few miles, it heads from the convention center down to Atlantic Avenue and offers a some pretty nice views of the other side of the boardwalk. Mile 4 goes through some pretty nice neighborhoods with tree lined streets where runners get a lot of crowd support, miles 5, 6 and 7 go through some wooded areas (which is nice because the trees provide a lot of shade), and miles 8 and 9 are a little more open and then mile 10 through 12 go back through the same neighborhoods from earlier and back towards the beach. The last 3/4 mile or so is probably the most scenic part of the course because it goes straight up the boardwalk alongside the ocean.

To give you an idea of how flat and fast this course is, at about mile 6, I noticed that I had been running almost 2 minutes per mile faster than my average pace in the last several races I've done. Part of that was due to the fact that I've been doing a lot of extra speed work for the last couple months and I'm starting to see the results of it, which is great, but the fact that despite all of the heat and humidity, I didn't even notice how fast I was running until I checked my GPS and then had to make myself slow down because I knew the temperature was starting to climb pretty fast and I needed to save some energy for the end of the race really does go to show how fast the course itself is. If I were to this same course in the late fall when the temps were in the 50's, I would easily get a PR (but it would also be too cold to go swimming in the ocean afterwards so that would have taken some of the fun out of it).

The entertainment on the course was also really good. There were 14 different local bands playing a variety of different types of music and they were set up perfectly so that as soon as one band got to be out of earshot, you would start hearing the next one.

The finish line is right alongside the ocean next to the Virginia Beach Pier. There are tons of volunteers giving away food and drinks along with cooling fans and popsicles.... but the best part about finishing alongside the ocean was that after crossing the finish line, the best way to cool off was to just take a short walk across the beach and hop into the water. There was a post race concert alongside the beach and besides the race, there's also a big music fest in Virginia Beach the same weekend, so runners could go back to their hotels and get cleaned up and go back out and listen to more music for the rest of the evening if they wanted to. Like I said, despite the heat and humidity, the race organizers really put together an excellent event and I would definitely recommend this race to anyone.

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(2014)
"One of the best running experiences ever"
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The St. Jude Chicago to Peoria Run is held during the first weekend of August every year and it's not like a typical race.... in fact, it isn't really even a race at all. It's a 150 mile relay run that consists of about 200 runners divided up into 20 or so different teams who run from Chicago to Peoria, IL over a 36 hour period with the goal of raising as much money as possible for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. In order to do the run, each runner is required to raise at least $1250.00, so in that sense, the process of registering and the activities leading up to the run are fairly similar to getting a charity race entry for a marathon, but the experience of doing the actual run itself is completely different.

The course is divided up into a series of legs that are between about 3 and 6 miles long. Teams designate runners to cover each leg and with a couple exceptions, the legs are all run at roughly a 10 minute per mile pace. Like I mentioned earlier, this isn't really a race as much as a charity run and anyone who raises enough money for St. Jude can participate regardless of how fast they are. Also, with the route being so long, there's no way to shut down the roads to traffic, so the state police provide escort for the runners, which means that they can't spread themselves out too far.

Each team gets an RV where people who aren't running spend most of their time. At each transition point, the RVs drop off the runners that are going to be covering that leg and then drive ahead to the next transition point and wait for them to finish. Teams have different ways of determining which legs get covered by which runners - some teams assign their runners to each leg ahead of time while others let their runners decide on the fly and pick which legs they want to do during the run. It's the same with driving the RVs - some teams have designated drivers who drive for the entire course and others just pick a runner who isn't out running to drive each individual leg. Some interesting conversations tend to occur on the RVs while teams are waiting for runners to come back. After spending an entire weekend with a group of people and taking turns running, talking and eating together, by the end of the run, you feel like you have a second family.

The course starts at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, IL with an opening ceremony that includes some light hazing of first year runners, some announcements about the route and if runners can expect to encounter any construction along the way, team introductions, and a motivational speech to remind everyone why they're doing the run which leaves most people both in tears and pumped up about tackling whatever the next day and a half has to offer at the same time.

The first leg typically starts around 8:30am on Friday morning and the route heads southwest through Chicago's Suburbs, starting in Downers Grove and then passing through Lemont and New Lenox before leaving the Chicago area and heading through a series of smaller towns to the south with names like Wilmington, Gardner, Dwight and Minonk. By Friday afternoon, the majority of the scenery consists of corn and soybean fields.

Some of the legs are harder than others as far as length and hills are concerned and each transition point is unique as far as what there is to see and do while waiting for the runners to arrive. The transitions are usually fast with runners either staying out to run another leg or hopping back onto their RV while the next runners hop off to get back out and continue the run as quickly as possible. There are two notable exceptions to this. The first is in Braidwood, where the owners of the Polk-A-Dot Drive In provide dinner for all of the runners. This is fairly new - we used to park the RVs in a parking lot across the street from the Polk-A-Dot and until a few years ago, it was just another transition point. On one particular run though, the owners came out to ask what we were all doing there and once we explained what the run was for to them, they asked us to stop there the following year so they could give us some free food. And that's exactly what they've done every year since - there are hundreds of bags full of hamburgers and french fries along with bottles of water and other snacks for the runners to stop and eat. There's also a nice check presentation from the mayor of Braidwood to St. Jude made up of funds that the town has collected over the course of the year, and a lot of runners have family members who come out to meet them for dinner.

After Braidwood, the run continues throughout the night, and since it's always held during the first weekend of August, the night legs are typically a lot more comfortable than the ones that are held during the day. Not only that, but by the evening, the runners have gotten so far away from downtown Chicago that there's no more light pollution and the sky seems to be covered by a blanket of a million stars. Usually by this time, anyone who isn't running is attempting to get a couple hours of sleep here and there on the RV before waking up to head to the next transition point. The nighttime legs are a little bit longer which gives people a little longer to sleep... although sleeping in an RV with 8 - 10 other people can be a bit cramped.... it's during these times that some of the best bonding between teammates takes place.

On Saturday the run heads through Roanoke, Illinois, which is the only other time along the route where the run stops for longer than the amount of time it takes to switch runners, and there's a story behind this stop. Roanoke was the home of a former St. Jude patient named Amy Schwind. When Amy was being treated at St. Jude, one of the things she used to always tell her parents was that she looked forward to watching the runners every year, so the town decided to do something special for her. The run into Roanoke is only one mile long and it's not just a regular leg, it's more like a parade - all of the runners (except for the people driving the RVs) do this leg and in addition to police escort, the runners also get an escort from the Roanoke Fire Department. Amy got to ride in the fire truck the first time this was done and unfortunately she passed away before the next year's run but we still do this every year to honor her. A lot of local residents line the streets to cheer on the runners during this leg and runners bring bags of candy to throw out to any kids they see in the crowds. The leg stops at the park in Roanoke where the runners are able to rest for about an hour or so, shower, and use the public pool to cool off in if they want to. We're also treated to some excellent homemade food that's made by the residents of Roanoke for lunch, including sweet corn that one of the local farmers plants at exactly the right time so it will be ready in time for the weekend of the run.

After Roanoke, there are about 25 more miles to cover to get to Peoria. There are a few significant things about these legs that make them a little bit different from the rest of the run. One is that they tend to be a bit shorter since everyone has pretty sore legs by this point and another is that the fire trucks and ambulances who escorted the runners into Roanoke stay with the runners for the remainder of the run. The most notable thing about this part of the run though is that we also see teams of runners from other cities coming in as well. In addition to Chicago, there are runs from Memphis (the original run), St. Louis, Champaign, Moline, and several other cities throughout Illinois, Tennessee, and Missouri that all meet up at the Peoria Civic Center. As we start to approach Peoria, some of these other groups follow the same path, and as the runners pass each other, we cheer each other on.

The final leg of the run is similar to the leg that heads into Roanoke - it's a one mile leg that everyone who isn't driving an RV runs. This year it was extra special because it was dedicated to a St. Jude runner named Madison who passed away this past spring and whose father still does the run. We got special shirts that everyone just for this leg with her name on it and chanted Roll Tide (she had recently been accepted into University of Alabama) as we ran to the Peoria Civic Center, which is where the course ends.

The runners all get hotel rooms and spend Saturday night in Peoria before driving home on Sunday morning so after finishing the run, everyone heads to their hotel room to shower and get cleaned up before heading back down to the Civic Center to take pictures, enjoy a spaghetti dinner, and present a check to St. Jude for the amount we raised collectively as a group.

This year was a record breaking year for the St. Jude Chicago to Peoria Runners. We raised over $364,000.00 for St. Jude. With the exception of one year when I had a scheduling conflict, I've done this run every year since 2006 and for all of interesting places that I've traveled to for races and all of the race medals I've earned during that time, nothing beats this run. It's an amazing experience for a great cause and I'm looking forward to doing it every year until my legs finally give out and I'm not able to run anymore.

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