The Chicago area running community is one of the strongest in the country. It’s not an exaggeration to say that just about any weekend of the year you’ve got a choice of different running races to put your fitness level to the test. But you’ll find that almost all of them have the same thing in common—they’re run on the road.
Trail runs are around, you just have to look a little harder, and drive a little further, to find them. That said, it’s certainly worth the effort to do so.
If you’d like to do something a little bit different this summer, get off the roads and try one of these five trail races that just may make you a convert to trail running.
1. Big Foot Trail Run
This event held in June is organized by RAM Racing is held the same weekend as the Big Foot Triathlon in Lake Geneva, WI. The 5K course (run it twice for a 10K) is entirely within the Big Foot Beach State Park just to the east of actual Lake Geneva (as opposed to the town).
You’ll be running on mostly grass and trail in the well-kept state park. It’s a race that’s welcoming to beginning trail runners—and you won’t get the big hills and technical terrain of some other trail runs in Wisconsin.
Lake Geneva is only about two hours from Chicago, and has been a popular weekend retreat for more than a century. There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs to choose from, as well as other activities on and around the lake to fill up your weekend. All runners will receive a custom technical T-shirt, and the race benefits Children’s Oncology Services.
2. Rugged River Four-Mile Trail Race
The Rugged River Four-Mile Trail Race is held each July in the Lowden State Park, about two hours west of downtown Chicago in Oregon, IL. It is the successor to the Rugged River 5K, which had been held for the previous five years. So by procrastinating, you get to run a little bit longer. Of course, there will be no complaints since you’ll be running through the beautiful state park that runs adjacent to the Rock River. The park is probably best known as home to the Black Hawk statue , but its natural beauty makes it one of the better hiking and trail running destinations in Illinois within a relatively easy drive from Chicago.
The challenging course starts outside the dining hall of Northern Illinois University’s Lorado Taft Field Campus and covers both the western and eastern sides of the park before returning to finish at the hall. If you’re used to a trail running on Chicago’s Lakefront Path, this will be a nice taste of narrow trails, big trees, singletrack, and more of wilderness feel than most other options in the area.
It’s a small race (capped at 200 runners) and you’ll certainly enjoy the post-run breakfast buffet (with cinnamon rolls).
3. Waterfall Glen Xtreme 10
When you think of trail running in the Chicago area, the Waterfall Glen Xtreme 10 is what pops to mind. This July event features an off-road run in a big loop around the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in west suburban Lemont. While it may offer certain extremes (often the heat, and for those used to running on flat city streets, the hills), the course is run on the crushed limestone path in the forest preserve. Trail running shoes are optional. But that’s not to say you don’t get a great off-road experience. The unique forest preserve encircles Argonne National Lab and offers a wide variety in topography—including forests, prairie, and bluff savanna.
It’s one of the bigger trail races you’ll find in the area with 1,000 participants, and it’s on the Chicago Area Runners Association racing circuit, which brings out some of the faster runners in the area. Runners receive T-shirts, finisher’s medals, and a post-race party complete with food, beer, and music.
4. Nearly Sane Trail Half Marathon
Runners will all get a gender-specific tech T-shirt, a customized race bib with your name or nickname (if you register early) and a 13.1 car sticker. Plus everyone gets free Chicago hot dogs at the finish with your beer—and there are even vegan options for those so inclined. The course is relatively flat and fast for a trail run, so road runners need not be intimidated.
5. The North Face Endurance Challenge
The North Face Endurance Challenge has a bit of everything that a trail runner could want. Held at the Kettle Moraine State Forest in southern Wisconsin in September, the race is as close to a western-style trail run that you’re going to get within a few hours of Chicago. You can choose to go big with 50-mile, 50k, or 26-mile distances on Saturday, or try to tackle the half marathon, 10k, or 5k on Sunday.
You’ll certainly get a lot of the area’s best ultrarunners taking to the course looking for fast times (the fact that the course is entirely “runnable,” according to race organizers, let’s you know how tough some ultra courses are).
For those looking for a taste of ultrarunning, or trail running for that matter, the North Face Endurance Challenge is a great way to get started. It’s extremely well organized and offers plenty of support on the course. You’ll also enjoy running through the pinewoods, prairies, and hardwood forests that make Kettle Moraine such a beautiful destination. Perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the right word, as you’ll certainly work going up and down the glacial-carved hills. But it will be an experience to remember.