It’s easy for Ed Zylka to recall his first day as the new executive director at the Chicago Area Runner’s Association last fall. “Two days after the Chicago Marathon,” he said. “So I’ll always remember that.”
The 55-year-old Lake Forest resident replaced Wendy Jaehn, who left as executive director last August. After a busy winter, Zylka is excited as the Chicago running season moves into full swing—CARA’s own Lakefront 10 is coming up next week, the CARA circuit has begun, and marathon training season is on the horizon. Zylka sat down with RootsRated to talk about his plans for the organization, his running background, and why Chicago continues to be one of the strongest running communities in the country.
You didn’t follow the traditional road to a non-profit, did you?
I spent around 30 years in the tech and venture capital world, developing products, raising money, mergers, and acquisitions. I had a start-up that I sold. I did a little bit of everything in that space. So I guess the big question is how do you end up going from tech investment to a nonprofit that serves the running community?
I’ve been a runner my whole life. I ran to keep in shape, I got into marathons, and then I moved to Chicago after an acquisition of a company I was working for. I joined the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Running Club, and just kept running and running. I was on the board of that running club, then on the board of a nonprofit that works in the adaptive sports space (the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association), and I put on a race, the Twilight Run, which will be around for eight years this year.
So you can sort of see my path. I heard about the CARA job, and I thought this would be fun, combining my strengths of management and running together.
CARA is probably best known for its marathon training groups. Will that continue to be a focus?
About half of what we do is training. Last year we had 60 charity partners that used us for their training programs. So that’s pretty significant to us. Here are two of our favorite statistics. Between members and training participants, we serve more than 10,000 people a year in the Chicagoland area. We’re the third largest running organization in the country, behind only the New York Road Runners, which owns the New York City Marathon, and the Atlanta Track Club, which owns the Peachtree Road Race. We don’t have a marathon, so I think we’re doing pretty well in membership.
What plans do you have for CARA in its advocacy role?
Unfortunately I can’t tell you too much yet, as we haven’t gone public with our plans, but this summer we’re looking to sponsor some kind of all-comers events. They’ll either be free or have a small fee that will end up giving back to a charity or advocacy. One idea we have is for Lakefront trail improvements in the city. CARA provides the only year-round source of hydration on the Lakefront trail.
We conventionally refer to it as the trough, since it looks like a horse trough. What we’d like to do is to rebuild that area with a more suitable and accessible hydration system so that we can move beyond the trough and create a drinking fountain and CARA plaza that would be a seating area around there. That would be a big way for us to give back. But we’re always looking for ways to make running better in Chicago.
What would you like to see CARA improve upon in the short term?
One area we can improve upon is with even deeper relationships with the running clubs in the area. We do some things with them today, and our website is a repository for the area running community. I like to refer to us as Switzerland. It doesn’t matter who you are, we can work with you to put you on our website. If you’re new to town and want to find a club, you can find it there. I’d like to do even more with the running clubs. We do have the CARA Runner’s Choice Race Circuit, that’s 18 races that take place in Cook, Lake, and DuPage Counties, and I’d like to see more running clubs compete in that as well.
You mentioned the CARA Circuit. Any plans to try and increase its visibility?
That’s a big one. One of the first things I looked at when I looked across the organization and all the assets we have. I saw that training was in good shape. I looked at Road Scholars and it’s an excellent youth program. But I was underwhelmed by the marketing and positioning of the circuit races within Chicago.
I sat in a CARA race committee meeting, which is an all-volunteer committee, and I was blown away by the intensity and the passion of the people around the table. And I thought, this is a great competition, not enough people know about it.
So we branded it, and we re-launched it. We brought some new partners in, so there’s a new logo this year, a really cool info-graphic poster. It’s literally a circuit. That poster has gone out to every race director on the circuit and every running store with an affiliation with us as the poster. We’re trying to get the word out what a great program we have.
The other really big thing we did is launched a marathon incentive program that we put together with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Basically, by running circuit races, members can become eligible for a guaranteed entry into the 2016 Chicago Marathon. And the really nice thing about that is you can get your guarantee by the end of this year, so you can beat the lottery by almost four months. Not only can you qualify through the 18 circuit races, but there’s a participation component in there as well, and those are open to any certified races. There will be almost 100 races you can use to become eligible for a guaranteed entry.
CARA’s own race, The Live Grit Lakefront 10, will close at 2,000 runners this year. It’s a good sign for running in Chicago that races continue to be closing earlier and earlier.
And there are so many good races these days. When you look at the race numbers, you look at Shamrock, you look at the marathon, especially with the lottery now, I think the signs are there (that running will continue to grow). One thing I’ve seen in this role is the segmentation you get with runners. You have a mature running population, the millennials, and then the people who are just getting started. And it’s been incredible the number of people who are running for the first time. That’s still a big segment of what we’re doing now.
I think a great phenomenon that’s also growing is Boston qualifiers. People aren’t satisfied anymore with running a couple or three marathons. They all want to get to the next level now, which is a BQ. We now have a Boston performance-training program. It’s a spring program that targets speedier runners, most of whom are training for Boston. Just talking to people there. It was amazing, people used to have a marathon on their bucket list. Now they’re looking for a BQ.
How about yourself, are you still running competitively?
I had the good fortune to have Jenny Spangler as my coach. I do her track workouts and some long-distance workouts as well, in addition to the club runs I do. I’m sort of getting faster as I get older, which is nice. Last year I ran Boston, so I was in pretty good shape at this point. Just ran a half marathon in Naples, Fla., and I just ran the Cary Half Marathon. I tell people around here, I’m retired from marathoning, and I’ll focus on shorter distances. I’ve never run the circuit before, but I’m interested in picking out my seven races this year.
For someone who’s new to running, what can you tell them about CARA, and why they should get involved with it.
The first thing that people sometimes forget is that we are a non-profit. So we’re not in this to make money—we’re in it to support the Chicago area running community, city, and suburbs. We are a repository for running information, whether you’ve never run before and just begin to walk run and shoot for a 5K, we can help you either with resources or point you in the direction of where to get training for that. We’ve been around since 1978 and doing training for 25 years, so it’s high-quality training.
The other component is advocacy. We provide information and work on trail improvements, hydration, work with the city, and forest preserves in the suburbs. We’re membership-driven, and that membership fee, some goes to operations, but most gets put back into the running community, to help the community.
Find out more about CARA’s training programs and charity initiatives here.