If you are a runner in the Chicagoland area, add “CARA member” to your running resume.
Many know the Chicago Area Runners Association for its marathon-training program. While that continues to be one of its largest and most successful programs, CARA is much more than that. CARA’s modest staff of seven – yes, only seven employees – does a lot behind the scenes that most are unaware of.
Here at Chicago Athlete, we recognized that many might be uninformed, and we want to make sure the “largest running club in Chicago” gets the credit it deserves.
The organization originally started in 1977 as an advocacy group, protesting to move the Chicago Marathon from September at 10 a.m. to a morning start in October. Now, nearly 30 years later, CARA aims to reach all runners, paying members and nonmembers, in the Chicagoland area, and help them succeed.
“CARA is a community,” Johnpaul Higgins, director of membership and community development, says. “All of our members, the people we serve who are not members, and the people we touch who don’t know about us are still CARA.”
Basically, CARA is split up into four pillars: membership, training, racing and advocacy. Each pillar has a different goal, but fits under its mission to give back to the running community of Chicago.
Currently, CARA has about 8,000 members, but that number tends to fluctuate throughout the year, Higgins explains. “It is my job to create the best possible member experience,” he says. “There are lots of perks and benefits to being a member.”
One of the most enticing incentives for becoming a CARA member are the heavy discounts on training programs, events and even races. Because CARA focuses heavily on community development, Higgins has assisted in forming partnerships with 55 companies; these partnerships, both local and national, consist of mutual promotions, and ultimately allow CARA to give discounts to its members.
For those who compete in multiple races each year, joining CARA is a no-brainer in Higgins’ eyes: “just by participating in a handful of races per year, you make back the money you spent on the membership.”
CARA also has a Marathon Incentive Program, which allows members to secure their entry into the Chicago Marathon before the lottery even opens. Members also have more opportunities to volunteer at races, and receive an annual subscription to Runners World magazine, which they can renew each year. Finally, members have access to a 24-hour Injury Hotline and NovaCare physical therapists.
As far as membership fees, there are different tiers; for a one-year individual membership, it costs $44, and can be renewed the following year for $35. CARA also offers family memberships, along with youth and senior memberships for $25. However, Higgins says he is currently working with CARA’s membership committee to restructure the system and make it clearer.
Although membership fees do help with paying the staff and covering events, executive director Ed Zylka says, a portion does go back into the community by supporting CARA and its runners.
“We are member-based … and we are mission-based,” Zlyka says. “Everything we do here that generates revenue, like membership, the proceeds go back into CARA, and that’s significant.”
To become a member of CARA, simply log on to its website, cararuns.org, and click “membership” at the top.
While CARA is definitely Chicago’s largest training program, it is also in the running for one of the largest training programs in the country, according to the di- rector of events and road race service Greg Hipp.
“New York’s [training program] isn’t as large as us, and neither is Atlanta’s, and those are the two running clubs bigger than us, so we can only make that assumption,” Hipp says.
Each year, CARA trains about 2,000 to 3,000 people. Understandably, the summer training program is the most popular, but there are also winter marathon and half marathon-training programs that typically attract 100 to 200 people. CARA is also recognized for training about 10 percent of the runners in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, according to Zylka.
CARA has nine training sites this year, including one in Libertyville, one in Schaumburg, one in Oak Forest, and six scattered around Chicago. These training groups typically meet on Saturdays, where the group leaders of that site run that day’s workout for the members.
As of early June, CARA hired a new director of training, Leah Bohr, who comes from DePaul University where she worked as a coach for the Division I Cross Country and Track teams.
Coming into CARA in the peak of the running season, Bohr plans to observe and reassess for next year’s train- ing; she wants to work closely with the group leaders, as they are the ones who are with the members constantly and know what they need and want.
“We have so many programs at CARA, so I’m just going to play as much of a role in them as I can,” Bohr says.
One idea Bohr has is to implement a beginners program; currently, CARA has ‘Go Runs, which are free, timed 1 Mile and 5K runs around the Chicagoland area. While these are meant to build the CARA community in other areas, Bohr sees this as a good introduction to the training programs as well.
Overall, Bohr plans to be the “head coach,” and the group leaders will be her assistants; she wants to be a big resource and share her extensive training experience with those who need it.
“I would like people to think that when they become a member of CARA they are getting more than just a per- son to run with and a simple training schedule, you can get that anywhere,” Bohr says. “I want them to know they are paying to be a part of a community that cares about them, and that has a lot of resources for them.”
For all the time and effort put into training, CARA is also heavily involved with the racing environment. Not only does it run and sponsor several events each season, but CARA also has other programs to help runners in every phase of racing.
Throughout the year, CARA hosts between 70 and 80 racing-related programs, Hipp says, who is in charge of coordinating these events.
CARA hosts the Lakefront 10 Miler and 5K every March to help runners kick off their racing seasons. After that, members can participate in its ‘Go Runs, clinics, and other series to help them prepare for races they may be competing in. The CARA Runners’ Choice Circuit pro- gram is another popular option for members, where they compete in specific races, chosen by CARA, to work on personal goals and continue experiencing the running community; the circuit program was designed to pro- mote participation in local races.
“We do a lot of informal consulting with race directors who call and ask questions about running a race,” Hipp explains. “A lot of them are first timers, and they ask things like how much Gatorade to put at each station … we will answer the phone and talk with anybody who needs help with their races.”
When it comes to hosting an event, Hipp says it’s a lot of work, but it all pays off for the members; for races, he serves as the race director, and encourages CARA members to volunteer as well. Similar structures run for other events, including the awards banquets, circuits and clinics.
“We’re just working to build a better business model for a nonprofit, that allows us to do more for the running community,” Hipp adds. ”Everything that comes in goes back out, which I think is the most fulfilling part of working for CARA, rather than being a race director for a for-profit race.”
From its roots, CARA endorsed advocacy, when that group of people wanted to change the start time of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Today, CARA continues that message through its nonprofit model.
“People tend to look at CARA and see the size of our organization, and automatically think we are for-profit, but we’re not,” Zylka says. “I’m not saying we want to break even every year, but if that was the case and we are fulfilling our mission then that would be a good goal.”
Over the years, CARA has increased the number of local races, got more women involved in the sport, designated a running path along the lakefront and provided the only source of year-round hydration on that trail, its website states. They also have worked with more than 100 nonprofits, by training charity runners and raising money for other causes.
When Zylka first started his role as executive director, his main goal was to promote running through advocacy, so he started the ‘Go Runs. He worked with the Chicago Park District and the mayor with the hopes of bringing running to neighborhoods that don’t typically prioritize health and fitness. Zylka would love to see this program grow into the suburbs in the next year as well.
Another advocacy program CARA runs is its Road Scholars Program. This summer running program takes high school students from economically underserved neighborhoods, and helps them train for the Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon. A majority of the students in this program are female, and 53 percent are Hispanic and 46 percent are African American.
“We recruit mentors and pacers from all walks of life for this program,” Zylka says. “They build a relationship with the students over the summer, and provide structure and mentoring in a sense to help shape the kids’ life for the future.”
This is CARA’s most expensive program, costing roughly $100,000 a year, but every penny is worth it to Zylka. In addition to paying for the kids transportation and race registrations, all their racing gear is paid for.
Aside from these programs, CARA promotes advocacy by certifying over 100 races each year through their Best Practices Guidelines, to ensure runners’ safety. They also maintain various paths throughout the state, and advocate for “green races.”
Even though Hipp admits that working in the running industry doesn’t allot much time for actually being a runner, all four directors have ar ich running background. Hipp started running track in fifth grade; Zylka has been running since high school; Higgins is a group leader for CARA and Bohr, a runner herself, has been training runners for eight years. These four, along with all other CARA volunteers and members, bring their individual experience to share with their neighbors in the CARA community.
“If you race, there’s programming and benefits for you. And it’s not just the fastest guys either – it is about relationships and camaraderie as much as it is about kicking people’s butts,” Hipp says. “We are not a traditional running club, we probably never could be, but there are still ways to be involved.”
Hipp suggests that in addition to becoming a CARA member, runners should all be a part of their own local running club, as “one doesn’t work well without the other.”
“[CARA is] a nice vehicle for people to not only compete but also feel a community within itself,” Zylka says. “I think people do it more for the camaraderie, to see everybody and participate in friendly competition.”