Chicago Athlete on the Road: Starved Rock Country

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On Mother’s Day weekend, my family and I traveled to Ottawa, Illinois for the Starved Rock Marathon. This annual event is held each year on the second Saturday in May and allows runners to tackle the hills of the state park. It is a difficult event, but one that is worth the experience.

Ottawa, Illinois, is just over an hour away from Chicago and an extremely easy drive. You feel like you are in a completely different state, even though you have just traveled a short way. After you leave the suburbs, you enter into stared rock country, which is lined with cornfields and rural development.

We arrived on Friday and went straight to packet pickup, which is held in the Knights of Columbus building in downtown Ottawa. This is a good chance to drive through the area and see all of the charming restaurants and shops that make up the community.

After grabbing my packet, we headed to Utica, Illinois, which is just outside of the state park. This small community has a block of breweries and restaurants for visitors to enjoy.

There is also a museum and a few historical sites to visit. Our favorite was an ice cream shop called something and Bruce and Ollies. Themed after the owners’ dogs, pups are welcomed and encouraged. This family-owned gem is nestled inside The Bickerman Building and serves a delightful array of offerings, including Capannari’s ice cream, Starved Rock coffee blends, August Hill wine, craft beers, and more.

We then went to dinner at the Court Street Pub, which had an inside-outside feel with large windows in the front that open, and an abundant menu of options. We were all hungry and I needed a basic, familiar meal since the marathon was the next morning.

Following dinner, we checked into my absolute favorite place to stay in Ottawa, The Fairfield Inn & Suites. The hotel is just 8 minutes from the downtown area and shares a parking lot with a Starbucks and Culver’s. It’s one minute from the local Walmart and right off the highway. Beyond the location being ideal, the hotel is warm and inviting, and a true home away from home.

The rooms are large and plush with comfy mattresses and clean, spacious bathrooms. Plus, free breakfast is included with all stays. The breakfast is both hot and cold and has a wide variety of options for guests. As a traveling, active family, it is both cost and time efficient to have a breakfast at the hotel that is included in the price of the stay. It’s also important for my family that we have healthy options to support the many activities that are planned through the weekend.

After a quick unpack, we cuddled in for the night and I slept like a rock, before my alarm woke me up to run the rock!

I walked over to Starbucks and grabbed a coffee before driving the 8 minutes to downtown Ottawa, where the start line for the marathon and 5K is. The half marathon runners get bussed into Starved Rock State Park and run back into downtown Ottawa. If you are a half marathon fan, this is one not to be missed. You get the experience of the state park and can enjoy the hills before your legs are too fatigued.

The marathon and 5K runners began right at 7 AM and ran through downtown Ottawa and the residential areas surrounding it. We then made our way to the state park. We began seeing the half marathon runners trekking back in the opposite direction of us right around mile eight of our journey into the state park. Miles one through six were relatively flat, but then the elevation began. We had hills throughout the state park and the areas surrounding the state park, which were quite intense at times. One particular hill was nearly one mile long. Going up.

Miles six through twenty were pretty stacked with elevation changes. It was a grueling battle with my legs and the sun, which was relentless. There seemed to be not one single cloud in the sky. Despite the tough conditions, the course was beautiful.

We ran through the state park, out of the park along a country road and then back into the state park where we wove through several rock formations that the park is known for. Then at mile 20 after we have exited the park, we made our way back into downtown Ottawa.

Miles 20 through 24 were on a cloudless, country Road. It’s flat, but it was pretty tough given the heated conditions, and miles I had just packed on. I think this was the toughest part of the race for me. Once we got to mile 24, we were back in the downtown area and the end felt near.

We finished by crossing a bridge and circling back to the finish line in downtown Ottawa. The finish line was stocked with post-race goodies and hydration for runners to enjoy.

It was a tough run, but worth every step. The scenery was beautiful and the race logistics were dialed in. The small event is easy for runners to park and walk right up to the start line. The course is incredibly well marked, and all runners received a T-shirt and cotton bag, as well as a medal at the finish.

After I finished my 26.2, I headed back to the hotel for a well needed shower and clothing change. We then went to The Lone Buffalo where all runners received a free 26.2 brew, which the brewery makes each year for the races.

We hit some of the downtown shops and particularly liked Déjà Vu and Prairie Fox Books.

After exploring the downtown area, we went back to the hotel to take a dip in the pool. There’s nothing like a relaxing swim, following a hard workout. The water literally massages your muscles and the cooling temperatures feel good on swollen joints and feet. The pool and pool area at the Fairfield Inn is clean and well maintained. (This is rare nowadays and truly appreciated!). Thank you to the hotel for providing clean, dry towels in the pool area and a spotless pool floor.

I also went into the workout room to use the foam roller and mats to stretch. Having a fitness area in a hotel is so important post-race to adequately stretch before traveling home. This workout room had two treadmills and a load of equipment for weightlifting and stretching.

After the refresh, we headed to the state park to do some hiking. We accidentally parked in an area that required us to climb 180 stairs to get to the walking path. We began by walking down the stairs. That was the easy part. The kids skipped rocks and we explored the paths that make up this incredible treasure that we have so close to Chicago. The state park is truly magnificent. After our exploration, we tackled the stairs and made our way back to our car.

Prom was happening for the area schools and it was sweet to see all of the high schoolers dressed to the nines taking pictures in and around the park. We grabbed a quick dinner and fell asleep shortly after our heads hit the pillows.

I would highly recommend this as an end to your spring marathon season. The Starved Rock Marathon  is small and charming. It’s well run and offers a challenging, yet rewarding experience. You feel as though you have left and entered a whole new world. The Fairfield Inn and suites in Ottawa is truly a home away from home, with, clean, spacious rooms. The free breakfast is an incredible perk, with lots of healthy options. The pool and workout room are essential for runners post-race to help relax.

Schedule this run-cation for May, 2025 and join me at The Fairfield Inn for an incredible race weekend!

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Mandi has been running for over 25 years and has participated in the Chicago, Detroit, and Boston Marathons. Mandi regularly competes in regional events and enjoys being a part of several running groups including CARA and the Badgerland Striders. She is a co-host on the Ten Junk Miles podcast and looks forward to hosting the Chicago Athlete Podcast. An RRCA certified coach and Les Mills certified instructor, Mandi is also a coach with Chicago Athlete Coaching. Mandi is a local government attorney by weekday and race warrior by weekend.

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