With ultra running becoming an “it” sport, the calendar steadily fills with new races, and even the established events draw ever-bigger fields.
“Trail running as a whole is slowly growing in numbers,” says Rich Skocaj, race director of the Potawatomi Trails Runs in Pekin, which have been around in one form or another since 1999. “That’s been reflected in the number of entrants we’ve had.”
In 2015, ultra runners have several races throughout the region from which to choose. The variety is impressive, both in terms of the terrain and the events themselves.
Here’s a guide to this year’s ultra races:
Potawatomi Trails Runs
APRIL 10-12 | potawatomitrailruns.com
Originally called the McNaughton Park Trail Runs (due to its location in McNaughton Park in Pekin), this event was christened with its current name in 2011. The Potawatomi Trails Runs traditionally have featured 50-, 100- and 150-mile races. This year, however, the organizers will stretch the bounds of the imagination—and the endurance of runners—by adding a 200-miler.
“We only brought that one out because people asked for it,” Skocaj says. “There are people out there who are just looking for more punishment. They want to see exactly how far they can push themselves, and 150 miles apparently wasn’t enough for them.”
The trail itself, a 10-mile loop, is defined by its hills, with runners traversing 1,600 total feet of elevation change. “People think of central Illinois as farmland, but it’s been described that they’ve taken all the hills from Illinois and put them here in McNaughton Park,” says Skocaj.
Included in the weekend is a 30-mile “fun run,” which begins at 8 p.m. on the second day.
“For the 100- and 150-milers, it gets kind of quiet on the second night because the 50-milers are all done,” Skocaj says. “So a few years ago, we decided to start this race on Saturday night to put more bodies on the course and keep the 100- and 150-milers company.”
Earth Day 50K
APRIL 18 | muddrunner.com
The Earth Day 50K, which debuted in 2012 and takes place at Veteran Acres in Crystal Lake, is mostly about inaugurating spring.
“It’s nice after a hard winter,” says race director Michele Hartwig. “The trees are starting to bloom, and it’s just a refreshing race.”
Both novice and experienced ultra runners will be able to make the most of this single-track course, which Hartwig calls “gentle,” with some rocks and roots but mostly forgiving dirt.
This is also an event with a social conscience—hence its name.
“We work hard on promoting Earth Day with this race,” Hartwig says. “We try to keep the race as green as possible. We’re requiring everyone to carry their own water bottles so that we don’t have throwaway glasses. Every year we try to come up with new ideas so that we have less landfill at the end of the race.”
Christmas in July
JULY 17-18 | christmasinjuly24hour.com
Who says ultras can’t be a hoot? This will be the second year for the Christmas-themed event. The one-mile course, located at Lisle Community Park in Lisle, is adorned with all manner of Christmas decorations.
The ultra portions of the event consist of six-, 12- and 24-hour runs. Adding to the uniqueness, the races all start at night under the lights. “It’s very festive,” says race director Ed Kelly.
AUG 22 | shtrs.org
You won’t find many, if any, ultras like this one. Race director Kirsten Pieper started it last year as something of a novelty.
“It’s approximately a 4.25-mile loop,” she says of the course at Evergreen Lake in Hudson. “Contestants have one hour to run that loop. If you finish the loop in 45 minutes, you have a 15-minute break; if you finish it in 59 minutes, you have a one-minute break; if you finish it in one hour and one minute, you’re eliminated.”
The 12-hour run is catching on quickly. Says Pieper, “I think it’s going to be very popular.”
Evergreen Lake Ultras
SEPT 13 | shtrs.org
Want to go back to the basics? Then this is race, held at Evergreen Lake in Hudson and entering its fifth year, is the one for you.
“We really are a grassroots organization,” race director Pieper says of the event’s organizing group, the Shady Hollow Trail Runners. “We try to keep a small-town feeling while putting on a quality event.”
The Evergreen Lake Ultras consist of 51- and 34-mile races as well as a 17-miler. The course is a 17-mile loop that features a little bit of everything, highlighted by a view of Evergreen Lake all the way around.
“The trails incorporate everything from open grass to wooded single tracks,” Pieper says. “We go through pine groves and open fields with golden rods that are waist-high. It incorporates everything central Illinois has to offer.”
Farmdale Trail Runs
OCT 10 | farmdaletrailrun.com
The Farmdale Trail Runs will celebrate their 10th anniversary this year. Taking place on an 800-acre tract of land in East Peoria, the event’s ultras include 30-, 50- and, for the first time, 100-milers. Says race director Jack Cook of the addition of a 100-mile race, “Basically, we got enough requests for it. It will be part of our 10 year anniversary. We’re not sure if it will be a one-shot deal.”
Cook calls the course a “good mix of runnable trails and technical terrain,” with six challenging hills. “It’s an intermediate-type course, but there’s also enough of a challenge for experienced runners,” he adds.
In the past, organizers have tweaked the course slightly each year, but they’re keeping it the same in 2015. “It’s a good thing to do because more people want to be able to compare their times from previous years,” Cook says.
DPR Trail Races
OCT 17 | desplainesrivertrailraces.com
Entering their sixth year, the DPR Trail Races continue to grow in popularity. Kelly, the race director, says that last year’s edition attracted runners from 27 states and three countries.
The event also features a half marathon and marathon in addition to an ultra 50 miler. The races take place along the Des Plaines River Trail in Lake County, a course known for producing robust times.
“The trail itself is flat, fast and favorable,” Kelly says. “It’s crushed limestone. We have a lot of first-time ultra runners, and we also get a lot of PRs set.”
The course is enhanced by its scenic appeal. “It’s really beautiful,” Kelly says. “It’s held at a time of year when the leaves are turning.”
There’s a new entry this year on the ultra calendar: the Hennepin Hundred.
Slated for Sept. 12 and 13, the Hennepin Hundred is the brainchild of Michele Hartwig, a trail racing veteran who also is the organizer of the Earth Day 50K in Crystal Lake.
“One of the things I do is I’m a park district commissioner for the Crystal Lake Park District,” she says. “We went to a conference in downtown Chicago, and one of the conference sessions was about making trails count. I left the session and I was totally inspired.”
Hartwig applied that inspiration to the Hennepin Canal Trail, a 103-mile tract that stretches from Sterling to Colona. She was taken by the both the area’s beauty and history.
“It’s really a historical part of Illinois,” she says. “The canal started being built in the 1800s to connect the rivers together for the barges. When it was a working canal, it had a trail that ran alongside it for the horses and donkeys to pull the barges. After the canal went out of business, the trail became basically a huge state park.”
And, she figured, the perfect location for an ultra race. The Hennepin Hundred, which also will feature a 100-mile relay and a 50-miler, is somewhat unique in that it is a point-to-point race, meaning it’s not a loop that runners traverse a series of times. “We think that makes it more exciting,” she says. “You’re seeing something new the entire way.”
Those sights will include a race-long view of the canal, as well as wildlife such as bald eagles. Mostly, though, Hartwig is looking forward to the competitive excitement the trail will provide.
“The course is flat and fast,” she says. “We think a world record can be set at the 100-mile or 50-mile distance. We’ve reached out to some people who we think are capable of doing that [setting a record], and we’re hopeful we can entice them to come.”
For more information about the Hennepin Hundred, go to muddrunner.com.