I have to admit that I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Shamrock Shuffle.
Chicago weather in March has always been hit or miss, and it was definitely an issue this year, but even when weather is good, the race organizers still struggle to handle the 23,000+ runners who sign up for it, the course is an odd distance, and up until this year, there wasn’t even a finisher’s medal. So why have I still signed up for this race almost every year for the past nine years? One word: friends.
You see, for all of its quirks and annoyances, the Shamrock Shuffle represents something that runners all over the Chicago area have been looking forward to for months: the official start of racing season. It’s a celebration for everyone who’s grown tired of wearing long sleeves and pants to stay warm on their runs, for everyone who’s tired of running on a treadmill when the roads are too snowy and icy to run outside, for everyone who’s had enough drippy noses and windburned faces and is ready to finally enjoy the warm weather again…. And most of all, it’s a chance finally to go running again with friends who you haven’t seen in months.
After the Shamrock Shuffle and all the way up until the Chicago Marathon in October, you won’t have any problem finding races to do around the city almost every weekend. Yeah, there are some races before the Shuffle too, but they’re mostly smaller races that only attract a few hundred hardcore runners who don’t mind trekking through snow and ice and bitterly cold temperatures. Standing at the start line of the Shamrock Shuffle gives you the feeling of someone opening the floodgates and allowing thousands of runners to start pouring into Grant Park from miles around. It’s a beautiful thing. Here’s a list of some of the other good and bad things about this race:
Good: Shamrock Shuffle Race Expo
Considering that the Shamrock Shuffle is such a short distance, the expo is surprisingly cool. It used to be held at Navy Pier but it was at McCormick Place this year (which I liked a little bit better since it wasn’t as crowded). There are about 50 different vendors, great giveaways and good info about upcoming races around the city.
Good: Seeing Your Running Friends Again
This is the number one reason to do the Shamrock Shuffle. People who haven’t seen each other all winter come out for this race so you can run together again and go grab a beer or two afterwards. Every year I end up running into at least five or six friends at this race.
Good: Start / Finish Line
The race starts and ends in Grant Park, which is a perfect location (it’s also where the Chicago Marathon starts and finishes). It’s beautiful and gives runners a nice view of the skyline. There’s also plenty of room for runners to meet up and stretch out before the race, and it’s a great spot for everyone to get together for the party afterwards. The only downside is that it’s still too early in the year for Buckingham Fountain to be turned on.
Bad: Wave Start
In general, wave starts in races are not a bad thing. They keep the course from getting too crowded during the first mile and ensure that the runners who start together are going to run at close to the same pace. When it comes to the Shamrock Shuffle though, the waves are so far apart that some of the runners in the last few corrals end up having to stand around for an hour or more before they finally get to cross the start line. There are three waves, and each wave is divided up into five corrals that get released about three minutes apart…. but the waves themselves are released a half hour apart. So to put things in perspective, I was in the last corral of the first wave this year, and when I crossed the finish line they were only just letting the runners in the last corral of the third wave start the race. I had a couple friends who were only a few corrals behind me, but because that put them in the next wave, they didn’t cross the finish line until almost an hour after I did (and its not like this is a long race or anything – it’s an 8K).
Good: Traffic Control and Parking
This is directly related to the wave start so I figured I’d list it next to show both sides of the coin. There’s actually a reason why there’s so much of a delay between the waves and it hasn’t always been that way. Up until a few years ago, Shamrock Shuffle runners would just line up in their corrals at the start of the race and each corral would get let go about a minute or so apart until everyone was on the course. This meant that the people in the last few corrals didn’t have to wait nearly as long to start running as they do today, but it also meant that all 20,000+ runners had to arrive before 8 am to get to their corrals in time which created massive traffic backups and overcrowded parking garages that simply couldn’t handle that many cars trying to get in and park at the same time. Before the wave start was put in place, I remember arriving almost two hours before the race and still sitting in traffic for 45 minutes when I got close to Grant Park. Now that runners in the second and third waves know that they have some extra time before they have to be at the start line, they tend to take their time getting there, which makes dealing with traffic and finding a parking space a lot more tolerable. So while the wave start isn’t ideal, I do understand why it was put in place – there are a lot of people who do the Shamrock Shuffle and this solution was essentially the lesser of two evils when it came to start line management.
Bad: Nonsensical Rules for People Who Want to Switch Corrals
I honestly can not come up with anything even remotely resembling a logical explanation for this one. In every other race that I’ve ever done before, the rules for switching corrals were straightforward: You can move down, but not up. Period. So if I’m in Corral B and I have a friend in Corral C that I want to run with, I can move down to Corral C if I want to but my friend can’t move up to Corral B. This makes perfect sense – when people want to run together, it’s always going to be the slower runner who dictates the pace, so by making the faster of the two runners move to the lower corral, you enforce this and help to keep things consistent at the start line. In the Shamrock Shuffle though, if two runners from different corrals want to run together, they don’t just start in the lower of the two corrals; instead they have to drop back to the next wave. So for example, if I’m in Corral B and I want to run with my friend in Corral C…. then even though both of those corrals are in Wave 1, instead of me simply going to Corral C, we would both have to go to Corral E, which is the first corral in Wave 2. So now instead of one person moving back to a lower corral and running at the same pace as the other people in that corral there are two people who have to move back to a corral that’s way lower than the one either of them were planning in starting in, and since they’ll both be running at a faster pace than anyone else in the corral (aside from all the other runners who got bumped all the way back for committing the terrible crime of wanting to run with their friends), this policy ultimately turns the start line into a big clusterfuck where people who run at different paces all start the race at the same time and have to weave in and out of each other, which defeats the purpose of having waves and corrals in the first place.
Good: The Course
I think it’s funny that the race organizers always make a point of saying that the Shamrock Shuffle is the world’s largest 8K. Yeah it attracts over 23,000 people every year, so I’m sure that it is, but honestly, how many other 8Ks are there? That’s like using pine cones to brew beer and then giving it to a few of your friends and telling them that you have the most popular pinecone flavored beer. That’s only because nobody else cares enough to brew something like that…. The distance doesn’t really bother me though – I just think it’s funny. The course itself is great. It goes down State Street, passes by the Chicago Theater, Macy’s, the Board of Trade, the Willis Tower and a few other well known Chicago buildings and monuments, and it also starts and finishes in Grant Park. Chicago is the best city in the world and this course showcases a lot of the things that are great about it.
Good: Post-Race Party
Great music and free beer. I don’t think there’s any more that needs to be said about this one.
Bad: Finisher’s Medals
2015 was the first year that the Shamrock Shuffle had finisher’s medals, which is great except for the fact that, this year’s medal was just a gray bottle opener with a Shamrock Shuffle logo on it. A few years ago the race organizers gave away shamrock shaped bottle openers at the race expo and another year they gave away bottle opener key chains. Both of those things were cooler looking than this year’s medals. So even though I can use my medal to open beer bottles, which is admittedly pretty cool, it’s still one of the lamest looking medals in my collection.
Good and Bad: Weather
Like I said earlier, Chicago weather is extremely unpredictable, especially in March. There isn’t anything that the race organizers can do about this so I’m not going to complain about it. In fact, the race organizers already did do something about it when they pushed the race back by a week from the first weekend after St. Patrick’s Day starting in 2006 because its original time was still too early in the month and people would almost always end up running in the snow. They can’t really push it back any further than they already have and still call it the Shamrock Shuffle, so the weather is what it is and if you’re planning on running this race, make sure you know ahead of time that you might end up running in a variety of different conditions. The end of March is usually pretty comfortable (mid 40’s to mid 50’s), but in the years that I’ve done this race, there have been times when it’s been almost 70 degrees out and other times when it was freezing. 2015 was one of the rougher years with temperatures in the high 20’s at the start line, 40mph headwinds, and sleet and freezing rain about an hour or so after the start of the race (the rain didn’t start until after I finished but the people in the later corrals who didn’t get to start running for an hour had it a lot worse). If you live in Chicago you should pretty much know what the weather in March is like though.
I think that if the Shamrock Shuffle was held at any other time of year, it wouldn’t attract nearly as many people as it does. It’s crowded, it’s quirky, and the way things are handled at the start line can be annoying, but if I add everything up, I definitely have more good things than bad things to say about it. It also falls during a perfect time of year when all of the runners around the city are chomping at the bit to get out and start racing again, so when it starts to get close to race day, the drive to do it is just too strong to stay home. So will I do the Shamrock Shuffle again next year? I’m sure I will….