In the Chicagoland area alone, there are dozens of clubs available for endurance athletes to join where they can meet people with similar interests, be held accountable for their training, and maybe event do charity or volunteer work. While all of these qualities are very cherished, athletes looking to take their training to the next level should consider joining an elite club.
Elite clubs offer more personalized and expert coaching, smaller teams with planned workouts, race schedules and discounts, and training education.
“Our racing team’s mission is to provide local athletes the access and resources normally reserved for professional athletes,” says John Moloznik, Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Fleet Feet.
In addition to the Fleet Feet Racing Team, Chicago has two other elite clubs that offer similar opportunities for athletes: DWRunning and Second City Track Club [SCTC]. While all three have different dynamics and regimens, they all share the love of the sport, and value teamwork in order to see success.
Taking Those First Steps
When an athlete decides they want to seek out a more rigorous training plan through an elite club, they have to start by reaching out to the head coach. Each team has their own set of qualifications and characteristics they look for in a potential new member, but passion is a non-negotiable quality.
“We don’t really go by times,” Michael Lucchesi, head coach and founder of SCTC says. “We do have a certain range, but we focus more on if it’s a good fit. If [Eliud] Kipchoge called us up and wanted to join, we wouldn’t have anybody who could run his pace, so it wouldn’t work.”
Instead, Lucchesi focuses more on culture and character; he really tries to avoid recruiting people based on talent, and cares more about what the team thinks of their energy. After the potential addition comes to a practice, they all meet and make a decision together.
SCTC started in 2013 as the New Balance team, where Lucchesi wanted to create an option for people to run competitively post-college without going professional. Seven years and a new sponsor (Nike) later, the team has grown in both size and talent. In fact, in 2016, six members qualified for the Olympic Trials.
DWRunning started similarly; Dan Walters, founder and current head coach, noticed a gap in teams that offered both structure and camaraderie, and wanted to fill it. The team started in 2014 with just 10 people, and has grown to nearly 100 now, with three coaches, and a handful of them shooting for the marathon trials as well.
Even with large numbers, Walters does have a limit on accepting members, and DWRunning currently has a waitlist. However, he still encourages interested athletes to reach out to him via their website.
While Fleet Feet also has a Club Team of approximately 400 active members, the sponsored team is limited to about 25 athletes, as they often run Olympic Qualifying events, and compete both locally and internationally. Because of this, head coach Lionel Montenegro is a little more strict on times to join. For example, men have to be close to a 15:40 5k, 1:12 half marathon or 2:30 marathon; for women, the times are 17:40, 1:24, and 2:59, respectively.
“Usually by January/February I have an idea who is going to be on the team for races, and then if I get inquires after, I tell them they can still train with us. The more the merrier, but we don’t have enough resources available for races,” Montenegro says.
Training Takes Time
Before inquiring about joining one of these elite clubs, athletes need to recognize that it’s going to be a bigger commitment than a biweekly Saturday run that many more relaxed clubs offer.
“The mentality we have is a division III program competing against division I.” Lucchesi explains. “The teams we compete against dedicate their whole lives to running, where they get naps and massages, but our athletes have careers and families to balance … so our training has to be spot on.”
In terms of the actual workouts, they tend to be tailored to each specific athlete. Lucchesi and Walters agree that everyone is different, so they need customized workouts.
“We are hyper-specific,” Walters explains. “Everyone does different workouts everyday depending on strengths and weaknesses, schedules, and resources. We meet at Montrose track every Wednesday, but everyone does their own work out there.”
On Saturdays, runners group up more for longer, hilly runs and workout together, he adds.
“Our hard days are very hard, but very specific to the race they’re training for.” Lucchesi says. “Chirine [Njeim] will run 130 miles in a week, and has gone injury-free … Alyssa [Schneider] is more prone to injuries so does more cross training. They both just ran 2:39 at the Chicago Marathon.”
Even for teams that train more independently, members are expected and trusted to put the miles and time in on their own.
“A lot of elite athletes are more independent, so it’s hard to get schedules to work,” Montenegro says. “There’s a lot going on in life. Most of our goals are around the Olympic Trials in the marathon, but we all have different methods and timelines of when we plan to get there.”
Montenegro does host weekly workouts on Wednesdays, but also respects his athletes’ space and time, and makes sure they know he is a resource for them. He also encourages they get external support if they feel it’s necessary.
Team Racing: Alone and Together
When it comes to racing, however, Montenegro and his team are very cohesive; as a city-based team, they make sure to do as many Chicago-area races each year as they can.
“We want to make sure we show up to the CARA events, and RAM Racing too because they are competitive and it’s a great, convenient opportunity to get more of us to a single event,” he says. “We had the CARA individual champions last year, and we really are proud of that.”
For DWRunning, Walters takes it year-by-year; for the 2019 season, they are targeting Grandma’s Marathon in June in Minnesota, and the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in November.
“We try and pick three to six races each year to do together as a team,” he says. “But I found that when I start to require races, people back out, and it takes a little fun out of the sport.”
Lucchesi agrees with the importance of flexibility when building a race schedule. He explains how they don’t race a lot because he stresses a balanced lifestyle, and there isn’t a minimum, but most tend to do five to seven races a year.
“I meet with each of them individually, and we’ll lay out what they want to accomplish this year. Most of the time, we won’t have athletes race solo, as we have a very tight-knit team who enjoys racing together,” he adds.
And of course you can count on seeing all of these teams competing at the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle and Bank of America Chicago Marathon each year. In fact, all three teams placed in the Elite Team competition for the 2019 Shamrock Shuffle: SCTC came in first for males and second for females, and Fleet Feet and DWRunning came in fourth and fifth for females, respectively.
Trusting and Enjoying the Process
Aside from the individualistic attention to training and the great resources for races, joining an elite team proves to be a very beneficial experience. While all three coaches have shared their unique beliefs in being successful in the sport, they all agree that the best part of being on the team is camaraderie and synergy.
“When I first moved to the city in 2012, I trained by myself. I started running with Fleet Feet in 2013, and not only did I get faster, but I made connections,” Montenegro says. “Some of talent comes from ability, some of it is investment into recovery and training, but more than anything, it comes from learning from each other.”
Finding that balance and energy can be tough, but once it’s there, it’s unbeatable, Lucchesi says. “We’ve let go of athletes in the past who were high-level athletes, but they were too into themselves and that doesn’t fly with us. It’s all about the team culture.”
Aside from the bonds made and the social aspect that comes with joining a club, Walters says that it’s nice to take the stress of planning out of training.
“Being at a place where you can trust what’s going on, and trust the coaches and knowing they’re there for you, people stop worrying and can trust and enjoy the process,” he explains. “The high energy that comes with group training, it’s a feeling people get addicted to.”