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!