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Run Review: Cheers to New Year’s 5K Does Not Live Up to Potential

The first annual Cheers to New Year’s 5K in Itasca failed to live up to its potential due to the combined forces of weather and inadequate planning, and showed how a great idea can succumb to forces both inside and outside the staff’s control. The event was supposed to be a New Year’s Day 5K through an industrial park and around Salt Creek Marsh Forest Preserve, followed by a beer at nearby Church Street Brewing Company. Instead, it was a one-miler followed by a beer or two, provided you were willing to wait in line for them.

The 5K itself was a great idea, and drew a mix of serious runners who enjoy the occasional craft beer, serious beer drinkers who enjoy the occasional fun run, and those hoping to get a head start on New Year’s resolutions. In fact, everyone’s New Year’s resolutions were printed on the back of race t-shirts. The industrial park location, while not scenic, was certainly convenient. Church Street is not far from the merger of I-355 and I-290, making it easy to get to from just about anywhere on a low-traffic New Year’s morning. Nearby business being closed also provided ample parking for racegoers.

Runners knew when they signed up that weather could be an issue (this is January in Chicago, after all). Participants received an email the night before: “Looked great tonight, but we are anticipating an icy course in the morning. Please note that you run at your own risk. Our course marshal will provide an update of conditions before the race.” About 20 minutes before the race, the course marshal announced that the forest preserve portion of the route was “an ice rink,” and we would do three one-mile laps up and down Industrial Drive instead. Then, as we were getting lined up at the starting line, we were informed that the race would now be one mile (one loop up and down Industrial Drive). Based on reactions at the finish line, I wasn’t the only confused runner who thought they were just reiterating that the 5K would involve 3 one-mile loops. A minority of runners even kept running to make sure they got a full 5K in, albeit an unofficially timed one.

Runners on Industrial Drive. Credit: Casey Spreen

To the crew’s credit, runners got to choose whether they wanted a medal for a 5K turned one-miler, or to simply take an extra beer ticket. Plus, safety comes first, and nobody needs to get hurt trying to be a hero while running on icy terrain. But the whole thing felt like the race staff waited until the last minute to make an executive decision. They could have set an internal deadline of 8:30 or 9 a.m. (the race started at 10 a.m.) to decide on the updated course. Doing so would have allowed them to send out a text or email alert before many of the runners even left home, letting participants decide on whether it was worth their time to make the trek to Itasca in light of course changes.

Of course, many participants merely viewed running as an excuse to start the New Year with a beer or two, and Church Street provided over a dozen to choose from. I went with the Pancho Vienna, a Vienna lager that I found to be sweeter than Sam Adams Boston Lager, but with more hop character than a Mexican lager like Dos Equis Amber. I enjoyed it, and might have had another one, until I saw the line I’d have to stand in to get a second.

I was one of the earlier finishers in the one-miler and made my way straight to the brewery, so I had no trouble getting my first beer. By the time I finished it, however, the line was at least 100 people long and did not appear to be moving quickly. I even overheard one frustrated runner return to his table and say that the cashier couldn’t break a twenty when he wanted to buy an extra beer for a non-participant. Runners paid $38.41 for two experiences: a 5K and hanging out at a local brewery. The long wait time for beer suggests that the event lacked an effective plan for how to transition from the former to the latter. Emails sent out to participants ahead of time bragged that the event broke 300 participants. Given that they knew how many people would be attending, the wait times were a puzzling issue. Church Street is worth your checking out if you’re up near Itasca, and I’d generally recommend a holiday 5K for those runners out there. Here’s hoping that the second annual Cheers to New Year’s 5K better integrates them.

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