Amanda Tichacek was afraid she would have to give up her beloved trail running after a move from Atlanta to the Chicago area. She was leaving behind a close-knit group of training partners, an active club and most importantly, access to mountains and forest trails that defined the sport for her. Chicago held many opportunities but the chance to break free of an urban setting to run didn’t seem to be one of them.
Prior to her migration to the Midwest, Tichacek visited Wisconsin and competed in the Glacial Trail 50K, a race organized by the Badgerland Striders in North Kettle Moraine State Forest.
“I loved everything about that event,” recalls Tichacek. “I did that and I thought, ‘OK, I guess if I move to Chicago, it won’t be such a bad thing.”
Tichacek is now a resident of the Skokie, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago) and has adapted to trail running while living in the mountain-free environs of the Midwest. It’s changed the way she’s trained for the ultra-endurance events she loves—but in some ways, the new environment has made her a better runner.
“It’s definitely made me faster,” she says. “During the week, I do all of my running on the Lakefront and the North Branch Trail, which are as flat as can be. I think it really gives my legs a break, running on a more stable surface. I’ll run on the more technical trails and hillier trails on the weekend. During the week I’m giving my ankles a break. It sounds crazy but it works.”
While growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Tichacek developed a love of the outdoors but had little interest in sports or endurance events. The wilderness for her was all about hiking and camping. She ran a little bit in graduate school for exercise, but hated it. In 2001, after struggling with her weight and self-confidence, she joined Weight Watchers. She used a run-walk program in addition to her restrictive diet and the program worked--she lost nearly 50 pounds in a year. But she still didn’t enjoy running.
“I’d run around the block, maybe run a mile or two, but I always hated it,” she says. “To me it was something I had to do and get it done to keep the weight off.”
In 2008, while looking into New Year’s Resolutions, she joined a discussion board at RunnersWorld.com. “I can’t remember how or when it happened, but suddenly running was fun,” she says. “Running was something I could share with other people in this vibrant online community. I met my boyfriend on RunnersWorld.com, [he was] also a relatively new runner, and he suggested we run the Myrtle Beach Half Marathon on Valentine’s Day 2009.”
She decided to go along with it, even though it seemed like an unmanageable distance at the time.
“It was a romantic thing for him to suggest it, so I agreed,” she says. “But at the time I’ve never run anything nearly that far. I can still remember finishing a seven-mile run when I was training for that and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I just ran that far.’”
But she finished the race and rewarded herself with a pair of trail running shoes. The running store suggested that if she wanted to try trail running, she should check out the local running club, the Georgia Ultrarunning & Trailrunning Society (GUTS), which was popular in Atlanta.
“I couldn’t believe that there were people actually doing 100 mile runs,” she says. “But the name of the club was ultra-running and trail running, so I thought at least I could give it a try to see if trail running worked for me.”
Over the next two years, her “addiction spiraled” as she became more and more involved with the trail running community in Georgia and ran her first ultra-marathon in 2011. She’s become even more involved in the sport since moving to the Chicago area, especially since discovering a strong ultra-running community here in the Midwest.
“It’s funny how much your life can change,” says Tichacek. “I used to be an overweight smoker who hated running. Now I love everything about running. It’s absolutely a huge part of my life.”
The 40-year-old Tichacek moved to the Chicago area for her boyfriend’s job. Yes, that same boyfriend that she met online in the Runner’s World forum. She’s an associate director of research at Emory University, overseeing three HIV and family planning research centers in Rwanda and Zambia. The job does occasionally take her to Africa, which will give her the opportunity to run a 50K ultra in Cape Town, South Africa in 2015.
But the majority of her training and racing is now in the Midwest—and she’s developed plenty of resources to make that work. “I’ve only been involved in the sport about four years and it’s grown so much in just that short time,” she says. “It isn’t hard to find other people who want to spend their weekends running on the trails with you.”
She’s involved with MUDD (the McHenry Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes) the New Leaf Ultra Runners and the Flatlanders Ultra Runners. “It’s really like one big club, this ultrarunning community,” she says. “Everyone’s at all of the races. It’s not like you’re competing against each other.”
She can easily find a group run every weekend on the Palos Trail System which, is the largest dirt trail network available in the Chicago area. Part of the Cook County Forest Preserve System, Palos offers more than 20 miles of singletrack and unpaved multiuse roads to train on. Plus there are lots of hills, a feature that is tough to find in the Chicago area.
For a shorter run, Tichacek heads to the Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Palatine, a much closer drive for those in the northern suburbs. There’s also the Des Plaines River Trail, which isn’t at all technical, but offers a lot of territory to put in some miles in on a soft surface.
For those getting started in trail running, Ticahcek suggests checking out Muddy Monk. Muddy Monk organizes a trail run each month, ranging in distance from 5K to a half marathon.
“We like to keep our events low-key, family friendly and just a lot of fun,” says Art Boulet, who started the Muddy Monk event series in 2012. “The trail community is very laid back. These aren’t high-pressure events. We have free beer and Chicago-style hotdogs at all our events.”
For Tichacek, who ran her first 100-mile trail race in June 2014, that doesn’t surprise her.“I think once you get out on the trail, it’s addictive,” she says. “I think once runners discover it, it’s hard to go back to pavement.”