Labor Day Weekend is coming up, which means end of the summer, barbecues, back to school, etc… and for me, Labor Day also happens to be the 11th anniversary of the first race I ever ran – the Park Forest Scenic 5K. This is the race that started everything for me and it was what initially inspired me to run over 100 other races all around the world (and counting), so I thought I’d share a few memories about it.
The Park Forest Scenic 10 used to be a well known race in the south suburbs of Chicago that was just as old as the Chicago Marathon…. but it wasn’t a Marathon or even a Half Marathon and the course didn’t go through a major city or include any well known landmarks – runners had a choice of doing either a 10 Mile or 5K run that went through some of the neighborhoods in Park Forest (the town where the race was held) and part of the Sauk Trail Woods forest preserve. So in general terms, it was almost like any local fun run that you can find in the suburbs of any other city. But this race was different. It was an extremely popular race that was viewed as a classic must run and it attracted elite runners from all over the world – partially because the Village of Park Forest itself has a lot of history associated with it (it was one of the first planned communities in the US, won the All America City award twice, is listed in several books about post World War II history, and even has its own display in The Smithsonian), but also because the race itself was extremely well managed. In fact, running this race for the first time set the bar so high for me that very few of the other local races that I’ve run over the years have been able to measure up to it.
Any runners who lived on the South Side of Chicago or in the South Suburbs knew about the Scenic 10 and running it every year was like having a reunion with all of your runner friends. The first time I ran the 5K, I was working at a large tech company that was also in the Chicago Suburbs, and a lot of my co-workers at the time were also runners. I remember having conversations with them each year during the week or so leading up to the race about who was going and where everyone would meet up by the start or finish line and I also had a bunch of neighbors and other friends who lived in the area that I knew I would see there as well.
Besides the locals from Park Forest and the surrounding suburbs, people came from other states and even other countries to run in the Scenic 10, including a number of Olympic Athletes and Elite Marathoners who also competed in some of the largest marathons in the world. The race also had several large sponsors who set up tents near the start corrals and finish lines and runners had beer and food tickets attached to their race bibs and electronic timing chips on their shoes, which made the entire event feel more like a big marathon as opposed to a local neighborhood race.
Almost everyone who lived anywhere near the course that wasn’t running or volunteering came out to watch the runners from the streets or their front yards because even if they weren’t in the race themselves, chances are pretty good that they knew someone who was. There were points along the course that had almost as much crowd support as some of the marathons and half marathons I’ve done. And on top of all that, when I did the race the first time in 2003, the 5K was also one of the only races of that distance that was giving finisher’s medals to all of the participants.
My motivation for doing my first 5K was pretty simple – why not? At the time, I was running about 3 miles 2-3 times per week and I was living in Park Forest so the start and finish lines were walking distance from my house, and I figured I’d sign up. I really didn’t have any idea of what to expect…. but between the crowd support, the finisher’s medal, and the chance to run with some of the best runners in the world in my own home town, it truly was an amazing experience that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I couldn’t wait to do another one.
My other favorite memory about the Scenic 10 is that it was also my daughter Sara’s first race when she was three years old. Besides the 10 Mile and 5K runs, there were also a set of kids races with distances ranging anywhere from 50 yards to 1/2 mile based on age groups. The kids races were held a little later in the day to give the parents a chance to finish their own races in time to go and cheer their kids on. Sara and I stretched together and then walked over to the start line where she turned to me and said “I’m gonna run faster than all these other kids Daddy”. I ran with her and held her hand, but I got the feeling that I didn’t need to since as soon as the horn blew to start the race she took off and started weaving in and out of all the other kids and ended up being one of the top finishers.
Over the next few years after that first race, I did the 5K again and I also did the 10 mile run twice as well. Sadly, in 2007, the original race directors decided to retire and the Scenic 10 was taken over by village officials who changed the name, changed the course, reduced the 10 mile run to five miles, got rid of the 5K completely and stopped inviting elite runners. It was never the same again, and after a few years of declining interest among participants, it was stopped altogether in 2010. I’ve never been a big fan of traditions, but this is one that I really would have liked to have seen carried on.
Regardless, though, the Park Forest Scenic 10 / 5K will always hold a special place in my heart. When I first signed up, I thought that a 5K would be the holy grail of running for me. I hadn’t really thought about doing any other races and the thought of ever running further than 3.1 miles certainly never crossed my mind…. but by the time I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t wait to do more races… and longer distances… in new places that I had never been to before… and so began my running and racing journey which would ultimately take me all over the world, introduce me to new people, change the way I looked at life, running, working out, and setting goals for myself, and just generally changed my life altogether.