Two years ago, a then technology and business buff took a chance by accepting the position of Executive Director at the Chicago Area Runners Association, and at the end of the month, his life will make another 180-degree change.
On Oct. 6, Ed Zylka sent out an email to all CARA members announcing he will be stepping down as director at the end of October. In the email, he explains that he and his wife decided to move to Vermont to be closer to their family and to experience a different lifestyle.
“I wasn’t an easy decision, and it didn’t come at a particular time … but it’s not often in life you get these opportunities to make a 180-degree change,” Zylka says. “We spend a lot of time in Vermont already with my oldest son, and it just seemed like if we were ever going to move geographically, it fits our lifestyle.”
Although he is excited to begin the next chapter of his life, Zylka definitely leaves CARA with a heavy heart. In the last two years, Zylka is proud of his work in the running community, the team he has built within CARA and the friendships he has made with members along the way.
When Zylka came to CARA, he was a runner, and recognized that the Chicago running scene needed more consistent options for all types of runners, that are low in cost. So, he implemented the ‘Go Run Program, which are organized, free, chip-timed one mile and 5K runs held in local parks throughout the summer and fall.
“The fact that there’s no cost to it and it’s available anybody in Chicago, we’re already seeing results where people have never run before and are now doing 5Ks,” Zylka says. “It’s all life changing and I find that pretty incredible … I hope to come back and see it expand even more into the suburbs and touch the lives of more people.”
As Executive Director, Zylka was in charge of putting together a staff that can handle being the face of the Chicago running community, and he feels he did just that. He hired two previous coaches into director positions, and between the others on staff, the team is a “great combination of work ethic, passion and running backgrounds that make a huge change in our community,” he says.
Since he announced his resignation, Zylka’s inbox has been flooded with sappy emails from members, and he realizes that the friendships he made over the years is what he will miss the most. In fact, he calls CARA his extended family of 10,000.
“I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the members, because I had a lot of time, and I’ve made a lot of friends,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re an organization that is people-based, and I’ve gotten baby pictures and letters from 80-year-old runners proving that.”
With a business background, Zylka also enjoyed creating different partnerships throughout the city, and will miss that as well. Over time, he has worked with the mayor’s office, Chicago Park District, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon office, NovaCare and so many more.
“Collectively, the people and the partners are what make CARA big,” Zylka adds.
Looking back, Zylka wants to thank not only the Chicago running community, but the smaller pieces as well; he says he wouldn’t have even pursued CARA if it weren’t for his involvement in the Lake Forest Lake Bluff running club, and knows how much of an influence all other running clubs have too. He also attributes CARA’s increased nonprofit involvement to the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports, where he began as charity runner a few years ago.
“At the heart of it, I am a club runner and a charity person, and they make a big part of our team, so they deserve a big thanks,” he says.
Finally, Zylka wants to encourage the community to continue to discover CARA, specifically the ‘Go Runs. He suggests runners bring their dogs, their moms, their neighbors and their strollers to help the already-incredible initiative grow.
Taking over Zylka’s position at the end of October will be Kevin Jermyn, who has 19 years of coaching experience, including 14 as head women’s cross country coach at Duke University. Despite only knowing each other for a week, Zylka is confident Jermyn will take over fluidly, and is actually disappointed he doesn’t get the chance to work with him.
“I almost regret leaving because we’ve worked so well together and get along,” Zylka says of Jermyn. “But certainly, he’s everything I hoped for and expected, and I’m so excited for the whole Chicago community. I’m so happy I can move on and leave it in good hands.”