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 Beth 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.