Chicago Athlete on the Road: Starved Rock State Park

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Just 20 miles outside of the Joliet city limits sits Ottawa, Illinois. As you leave the Chicago suburbs, it’s almost an instantaneous switch to farmland and nature. I could not believe how quickly the scenery changed from box stores and industry to rows of farmland.

This past weekend I headed south to run the Starved Rock Marathon. In its 9th year of existence, 8th year of running due to COVID, this charming race is a treat to the eyes and a challenge to the legs. If I had to summarize this race in one word, it would be hills. Hills, hills, and more hills. I found the course to be extremely challenging, with hills that were relentless.

Full marathon runners began the race in downtown Ottawa, outside of The Lone Buffalo, which was key sponsor of the race, treating all runners to a branded “Last Mile” beer, brewed just for the marathon! The streets were a buzz, as runners lined up at 7am to hit the streets. Full marathon and 5K runners started together and wove through the streets of downtown Ottawa. I enjoyed the residential areas we ran through, before making our way to the highway which would lead us to Starved Rock State Park.

The half marathon runners were bussed to begin their run at the state park. Around mile 9-10, we began to cross paths with the half marathoners who were making their way out of the park as we were entering. Speaking of miles 9-10, there was a monster of a hill leading into the state park that greeted us. My legs were still pretty fresh at this point of the race, but they were put to the test but this winding hill that seemed to never end. Many smaller hills up and down followed this as we ran into and through Starved Rock State Park. Miles 9-16 were beautiful, as we ran under a footbridge, around a rock wall, and under a thick tree covering. Runners stayed on the road, so there were no technical aspects of this race, only elevation challenges.

We exited the park and headed back out to the road around mile 17 to make the trek back to downtown Ottawa. On the way back out, we exited the park and ran down the monster of the hill. You’d think that a downhill jaunt would come as a welcome relief after the hills we had just run, but for me the downhill hit just as hard as the up. My fatigued muscles were challenged in a different way and the heels of my feet pounded a little too heavily against that hill. It was a real challenge to get back to the flat road which would take us back into town.

The unique course and beauty within the state park balanced out the challenge that we faced. The course was extremely well marked, with mile markers placed throughout. Aid stations were located every few miles, with helpful, friendly volunteers to cheer us on. There were not crowds along the route, but this allowed runners to really connect with nature. The racing field was also smaller so many times I found myself alone on the course, able to take it all in.

The finish line was also in downtown Ottawa and runners were greeted with water, gatorade, and bananas. Age group winners received branded pint glasses. All runners received a medal and t-shirt.

I found this race to be challenging, but worth every effort. Thankfully the weather stayed on the cool side with mid-60 degree temps throughout the morning, with the sun tucked behind clouds.

I brought my family on this run-cation and we stayed at the Fairfield Suites in Ottawa. This family-friendly, and dog-friendly, hotel is the perfect destination for Chicagoans traveling to the area. It’s easy to get to, parking is simple and abundant, and the rooms are spacious and clean. The hotel staff takes extra precautions to make sure that guests are safe and comfortable in their home away from home. The bathroom was impeccable and clean towels were stacked for their immediate usage post-marathon!

The bed linens were crips and the beds were firm to sleep on, making sure my muscles received rest and recovery. Most impressive was the brand new fitness center with 2 precor treadmills, an elliptical machine, and a stack of weights. There was even a foam roller, stretching ball, and mat that I made full use of post-race.

The swimming pool and hot tub were also clean and had just the right amount of chlorine. I want enough chlorine to be used in a pool to make sure it’s safe, but not to the point of making my eyes and nose burn. I took full advantage of the aquatic center to stretch out my aching muscles after facing the marathon hills. And, my kids enjoyed splashing around in the pool, which never seemed to be too crowded for fun.

The hotel offered a free breakfast daily, which included many healthy options such as oatmeal, yogurt, and fruit. They also had a coffee bar, which was available all day, which is so important for runner parents trying to re-boot after a run! After all, we had a full day of enjoying Ottawa ahead of us, post race!

We headed into the downtown area, which is delightful. Shops and restaurants lined the streets, which were packed full of runners and their families. We hit a used bookstore and an adorable t-shirt shop. Then we headed to The Lone Buffalo to take advantage of my free drink ticket and 20% off a meal coupon. This restaurant brews so many different kinds of beers and has an extremely large menu, complete with gluten free options.

After the refueling, we walked around the downtown area to see the historic monuments. The Lincoln Douglas statute, memorializing the debate which took place in Ottawa, was breathtaking and was surrounded by a wish fountain. There was also a park full of war memorials, including lists of all of the LaSalle veterans who have lost their lives.

Artists have painted murals along several of the downtown buildings, adding color and character to this already charming town. Many of the buildings have been historically maintained with brick walls and cobblestone walkways. It felt like a step back in time as we visited the LaSalle County Courthouse.

After enjoying the downtown area, we made the 10-minute drive to Starved Rock State Park and I was astounded with how crowded it was. Apparently, this national treasure is a hot spot for Saturday afternoons. We walked along the Illinois River and skipped stones along the water top.

I would highly encourage you to put the Starved Rock Marathon on your race schedule next May and make your hotel reservation now with the Fairfield Inn & Suites. Go get those hills and enjoy the small-town comfort that Ottawa offers to runners.

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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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