A while back, I had a conversation with a runner friend who mentioned that he was getting tired of races becoming so gimmicky. I really don’t agree with that statement myself, but I can see where he was coming from with it –
When I started doing races about 11 years ago, there were some big Marathons and Half Marathons… but a lot of the runners I knew tended to sign up for local 5Ks and 10Ks where they would pay about 25 bucks to run through some neighborhoods with a bunch of other people, and then get a t-shirt and a beer at the end of the race. Proceeds typically went towards a local running club or charity. Nowadays, there are color runs, glow stick runs, dress up runs, music runs, foam runs…. you name it. I even did a race a couple years ago where everyone ran in their underwear. The atmosphere at a lot of pre and post race parties has become more carnival like in recent years too with headlining bands and a variety of different restaurants serving various types of food, gourmet chocolate, craft beers, wine, etc….
Personally, I think this is all great. Big races with different themes not only attract new people to the sport, but they also create opportunities for other related businesses by allowing them to participate as well and get exposure for their products or services to people who might genuinely be interested in them. Plus the newer, bigger races also tend to support charities and because of their size are able to raise more money for them.
That being said though, I get it that there are some people who would rather ignore all of that stuff and just go out and run…. and one of the other downsides to all the extra race day celebrations is price – registration for most 5Ks used to be about $20 or $25 but these days it’s not uncommon to see prices in the $50 range. Marathons and half marathons are even more expensive – I’ve seen registration costs ranging from $65 to over $200….. So even for someone who likes all of the race day festivities, I do have to admit that every now and then, paying a few bucks to run a local race with some friends without all the hoopla can still be a lot of fun. And honestly plenty of those races do still exist (do a search for 5Ks in your area on active.com and you’ll be surprised at how many you find) – they just don’t get mentioned as often as some of the bigger ones because they tend to have a more local focus and attract smaller crowds.
If you’re looking for such a race though, and you’re interested in doing something a little different from a traditional Road Race, I would suggest checking out the Tri the Du Duathlon that’s held during the last weekend of September every year about 45 minutes south of Chicago in Kankakee River State Park.
First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what a duathlon actually is since there seems to be a lot of confusion whenever I mention them, even among runners: imagine taking a triathlon (swim-bike-run) and replacing the swim leg with another run leg (so it’s run-bike-run). The second run leg makes all the difference – a duathlon is never just run-bike or bike-run… and it also shouldn’t be confused with a biathlon which is an Olympic sport that involves simultaneously skiing and skeet shooting (still not sure how that works exactly). Also just like triathlons, there are different types of duathlons with different distances for the legs. In the case of Tri the Du, the legs are: 5K run – 14 mile bike – 5K run.
Like I mentioned earlier, this is a stripped down local race sponsored by the Tri K Triathlon Club in Kankakee. Most of the participants are local to the south side of Chicago (or the south suburbs) and there are typically only around 100 – 200 participants total. There’s no race expo, no goody bag (although you do get a pretty nice t-shirt) and no finishers medal unless you’re one of the top three finishers in your age group (although truthfully with such a small number of participants, the odds of getting a medal actually are in your favor). What you do get though is the chance to run through part of Kankakee River State Park on wooded packed limestone trails (twice) and bike through several of the local country roads without constantly being surrounded by huge crowds of other athletes. The weather at the end of September is usually perfect for a race like this too.
There are two options for doing this race: you can either sign up as an individual and do the entire thing yourself or as a two person relay team with one person doing the two run legs and the other person doing the bike leg. The transition point is the same for everyone though – just like a triathlon, there are racks where athletes hang up their bikes and any other gear (helmets, bike shoes, etc…) so they can switch out their gear and hop on or off of their bikes really quickly between legs.
The 5K legs are both exactly the same route – they start in front of the transition area and head out and back on a wooded, packed limestone trail which runs alongside the Kankakee river and is mildly hilly (and even though it runs alongside the river, the trees are pretty thick so you won’t actually see the water but you will be provided with plenty of shade). Just past the 1 1/2 mile marker there’s a turnaround and a water table where runners can get a drink and head back towards the start / finish line / transition area. If you haven’t done a duathlon before, I’ll say that the second run leg is a killer on your quads and calf muscles. After running one leg and then biking for several miles, getting off of your bike and running again can be pretty rough so make sure to keep that in mind during your training so you can prepare yourself for it.
The bike leg is pretty flat for the most part. The only thing that makes the bike leg a bit of a challenge in this particular race is that since it’s on country roads, the only thing around you most of the time is corn and soybean fields which means that there’s nothing to block the wind…. so if it happens to be even a little bit windy on race day, you can find yourself battling through some pretty rough headwinds. This seems to be pretty hit or miss though. This was my third time doing this race and 2012 and 2014 were both fine. 2013, however, was pretty brutal.
With such a small number of participants (including a lot of people who know each other and belong to the same running or triathlon clubs), the group can be pretty competitive as far as finishing times go, but everyone is also really supportive of each other on the course, which makes for a pleasant experience. At the end of the race, there’s a small awards ceremony where medals and other prizes are handed out to the top finishers and all participants and their friends and family members get food and drinks (there are no food tickets – just a big tent that anyone can stop in and eat). The only downside is that there’s no beer at the finish line since alcohol isn’t allowed in the State Park.
So, again, there really is nothing fancy about this race but it’s still a lot of fun and for being such a small race, it’s surprisingly well organized too. You also can’t beat the price – I registered late and still only paid $40. I also mostly do road races so getting a race like this in every once in a while to mix things up a little bit is pretty nice too.
I don’t know that I would necessarily travel out of my way for this race. I happen to live about 25 minutes away from the State Park so it’s convenient. Most of the other participants live in the area as well (although I did hear that someone drove in from Minnesota to do it this year). If you do happen to live in the Chicago area, particularly in the south suburbs, and you’re looking to change up your routine a little bit by doing a different type of race which also happens to be pretty small and isn’t gimmicky, I would definitely suggest giving the Tri the Du Duathlon a look.