Team Race Review: March Madness Half Marathon 2021

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The March Madness Half Marathon in 2020 was the first race cancelled for many runners and our sneak peek into how COVID-19 was going to impact 2020 running. So, it is quite fitting that the 2021 version of this race was the first race back for a lot of us.

On March 14, 2021, the Hillstriders running group hosted their annual event. This spring running tradition brings together runners of all abilities, as we tackle a 13.1 mile course filled with hills. Registration for this race opens on New Years Eve morning of each year and generally fills up within a day or two. It’s a popular event and easy to see why.

The course begins at Cary Grove High School and winds through residential areas and back roads. The hills begin lightly and steadily increase throughout the event, ending with a hill that feels almost entirely upright.

This year, runners were reunited with this kick off to spring racing and there was a hopefulness surrounding the group that live events would begin to take place again. COVID-19 precautions included an outdoor, tented packet pick up, staggered starts based on finish time, and a mask requirement at the start/finish.

There were quite a few Chicago Athlete runners on the course and we wanted to showcase their reflections in this recap. So please enjoy reading reactions from our team.

Erika Ostrander

The March Madness Half Marathon is one of the most popular local races in the Chicagoland area. Every year, runners wait for registration to open up to sign up as quickly as possible. It fills up within minutes. This event was cancelled last year due to the pandemic, people who signed got a chance to have priority registration for this year’s event. This race has a relatively smaller field than other bigger races in the area which makes it more manageable. However, this half marathon is known for having challenging weather on a very technical and challenging course. I was hesitant to sign up because I fear it would be cancelled and I did not want to deal with the disappointment. 2020 brought so much collective grief for everyone, but I personally struggled with not only losing my main coping strategy but also my community social support. During the past year, I have felt very fragile physically, emotionally, and mentally. After debating the pros and cons, I decided to give it a go.

On March 14, I woke up at 4:30 am to get ready to attend my first in person race since the pandemic. My last half marathon was a year ago in Miami. I felt a little rusty, trying to remember what I needed and making sure I knew the safety protocols the race director had put in place. Unlike past years, it was a beautiful day for running. The air was cold, and it was windy, but the sun was out. Packet pick up was easy and quick, everyone was wearing their masks and following protocols. It was so well organized that I felt safe and ready to tackle this course for the third time.

My running friends from Chicago Athlete Magazine and I had the same start time, so we lined up at 7:45, I was a bit terrified but also very excited, As soon as I started running, I felt a rush of happiness and a sense of normalcy I had not experienced in months. This is a challenging course so I expected it would be a tough 13 miles, but the joy I felt while running made every hill a little less painful. I was very mindful of my surroundings and my internal dialogue. I kept thinking “I get to run again, I am back.” I felt stronger than ever, not my fastest run but a solid effort, speed is relative at the end of the day. The best part of the day was having the opportunity to run with old friends, and it reminded me why I love running so much, it’s the community and the friendships I have made along the way.

Nothing beats an early morning run with real humans in beautiful Cary with its relentless hills. I would not have it any other way. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this event. Thank you to the Hillstriders Running Club for a fun, safe and well-organized event.

Megan Sloan

The March Madness Half Marathon is an iconic season opener in the Chicagoland area. The possibility of Spring unknown weather conditions mixed with hills that resemble The Boston Marathon typically makes this race the most popular of the season. On Sunday March 14th, after a one-year gap in the race due to COVID-19, logistics looked slightly different, but the atmosphere might have been more electric than in years past. The racing field was practically cut in half if not more, and racers started in waves of 50 starting every 5 minutes. This is quite different from the typical mass start every year, but it certainly didn’t take away from the feel of the race. It might have thinned out the crowd, but you were never without someone in front of you to chase. Aid stations were set up in their same typical locations, however this time you had to serve yourself to avoid contact. It might have been messier for me (I’m not the best with water cups on the move as it is) but if it means I get to race again, I’ll gladly wear my water cup on my singlet every 2 and a half miles. Overall, the 2021 March Madness Half Marathon return to racing was just what this world needs right now. Normal is never going to look the same, so maybe this is our new normal? If that’s the case, I’m 100% OK with it and ready to race in 2021.

Jim Toledo

March Madness was my second opportunity to experience the joy of returning to running normalcy this year, and the first for me to feature an official start line with assigned wave times. This race in particular always draws a great mix of elite athletes and more casual runners, but it was hard to tell who was who by how excited everyone seemed just to be there. From a personal standpoint, I’ve put in a lot of work since racing this course in 2019 and had no idea what type of pace I was going to run. From the conversations I had, there seemed to be a lot of runners who were happy to finally test their legs after such a long absence. At the end of the day, all that mattered was that I got to race again safely with great friends, some of whom came from other states to compete. It also didn’t hurt that I beat my PR on this course by 20 minutes! I guess after the layoff and the build-up to the adrenaline pumping thrill of road racing even the Cary hills were appreciated!

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