Sometimes I break my own rules.
Earlier this year, I wrote two posts containing a list of money saving tips for runners who like to travel for races. Two of the tips that I listed in the first post were “Don’t do too many local races” and “Don’t do the same races more than once”. I believe in these two rules pretty strongly. Doing the same races again and again gets monotonous after a while, and paying to repeatedly do the same local races year after year is a waste of money that you could be using to run in a new place that you’ve never been to before.
However, Race of the Dead (also known as Carrera De Los Muertos) in Chicago’s Pilsen Neighborhood is one of the few local races that I’ll happily run year after year, rules be damned. I have a number of reasons for this:
- It’s a Day of the Dead themed race. If you’re not familiar with Day of the Dead, it’s a Mexican holiday celebrated at the beginning of November whose purpose is to remember friends and family members who have died, celebrate their lives, and help them on their spiritual journey through the afterlife. I’m not Mexican, but this holiday still holds a deep meaning for me. At the risk of making this post sound too depressing (I’m really not intending it to be and this is the last time I’ll mention this): both of my parents, all of my grandparents, and a number of my aunts, uncles, cousins and various other close friends and family members all died before I was 30 years old. I don’t consider myself to be very old, but if I think back the people who were most important and influential to me during my childhood, I can count the number who are still alive on one hand. I love the idea of having a holiday specifically to honor my friends and relatives who have passed on, and the fact that there’s also a race that I can do every year to help me think of them is even better.
- The course is unique. Aside from mile 19 and 20 of the Chicago Marathon, there’s no other race that goes through Pilsen, which is a neighborhood on Chicago’s Lower West Side. Pilsen is known for its beautiful murals, authentic Mexican Restaurants, Bakeries, and cathedrals. It’s a nice change from the typical Chicago 5Ks that either run along the lakefront path or through part of downtown.
- The Day of the Dead imagery throughout the course is beautiful. Runners and spectators dress in Day of the Dead themed outfits and paint their faces to resemble sugar skulls. There’s a traditional Mexican ceremony at the start line to kick off the race and there are mojigangas, sugar skulls and other Day of the Dead decorations throughout the course. The official race t-shirts are also wicked cool looking and people who are responsible for designing them seem to outdo themselves every year.
- The post race party is so good that it rivals post race events at some of the biggest marathons I’ve run. There’s Mexican food from the neighborhood restaurants, a stage featuring traditional Mexican singing and dancing and an awards ceremony where the overall race winners and age group winners receive hand painted skulls.
This year, I had an even better reason to sign up for Race of the Dead: it was my daughter Sara’s second 5K. Sara and I had done the Rock n Roll Chicago 5K together earlier this year and she said she wanted to do another one. We picked this one for a lot of the reasons I listed above.
During the weeks leading up to the race, Sara and I followed an even more intense training program than the one we followed for Rock n Roll Chicago. We introduced things like hill repeats, tempo runs and intervals and she not only loved doing them but mentioned that she actually preferred them to regular runs. And they paid off too. Sara had another awesome race and after we finished, she looked like she could have kept running if she wanted to.
There were a few things that were different about this year’s Race of the Dead compared to previous years and they all seemed to be good changes:
- The course now features a one mile stretch on 18th Street, which allows runners to see some of the murals that are painted on the sides of some of the Pilsen businesses that they didn’t get to see in previous course iterations.
- The post race party has been moved from the St. Adalbert’s Church parking lot to Addams / Medill Park, which is a much bigger area that gives the vendors and runners more room to spread out. Nothing against St. Adalbert’s – it’s a beautiful church. I just think the race was starting to outgrow the amount of space it had available and the park is a great alternative.
- Best of all, there are now finisher’s medals for all participants. 2015 was the first year for this. The medals have a nice Day of the Dead theme that matches the race T-Shirts and runners even got to choose what color neckband they wanted. This made me happy because it meant that Sara got to bring home a Race of the Dead medal to add to her collection. We weren’t expecting finisher’s medals since they had never been given out before so it was a nice surprise.
The only real downside to this year’s Race of the Dead was the chilly, rainy weather. The weather on race day for this one is always kind of hit or miss. This stems from the fact that Chicago weather in late October / early November is extremely difficult to predict. The days before and after the race were sunny and close to 70 degrees. Race day was cloudy, rainy, and the temperature was somewhere in the mid 50’s. There’s really nothing that can be done about this though. The whole point of the race is that it gets scheduled on the closest Saturday to the actual Day of the Dead holiday (which also happened to be Halloween this year). So the weather on race day is what it is – if the race were held any other day of the year, it wouldn’t be the same.
Once Sara and I started running, the rain felt kinda good anyway. It was a nice cool drizzle that kept us from getting too warm during the race. The winds picked up and the rain started to get heavier right around the time we crossed the finish line though, so unfortunately we decided not to stick around very long after the race or spend very much time at the post race party.
No worries though – we’ll be back again next year for sure. This is one race that makes breaking the rules totally worth it.