Monday, June 27, 2016

2016 Run for the Zoo 5k Recap

The Run for the Zoo was one of the races last year that I had decided I didn't need to run again. Then, they offered a really good discount and waived sign up fees at another race earlier this year, and I totally got suckered into registering. 

Note to self - discounts don't mean you have to buy things. Learn to say, "No."

So...yeah...I signed up for the race again. With the race falling one week after the Soldier Field 10 Mile and one week before the Madison to Chicago Ragnar Relay, I at least had the presence of mind to choose the 5k instead of the 10k.

The zebra didn't care what race I ran. He was too busy thinking deep thoughts.
This year, packet pick up was held outside the zoo for several days leading up to the race instead of at the New Balance store (the store is, quite frankly, too small to host a race packet pick up). Packet pick up was also available the morning of the race for anyone who couldn't make it on any of the earlier days. I headed over to the zoo before work one day, arriving right around the opening of packet pick up for the day. 

The packet pick up tent was easy enough to identify, but, even though there were only two other people in line, I had to stand around for quite a while before getting my packet. Apparently, the woman who arrived just before me had some sort of problem with either her bib number or shirt, and it took all four volunteers working the 5k pick up to help her sort it out. The 10k volunteers weren't busy, but they made it quite clear that they were only able to help folks running the 10k and continued to sit and watch the turmoil unfold in next to them as the 5k pick up came to halt with every volunteer trying to help the same person. There was another volunteer behind the counter not doing anything, but they said that they couldn't help me because they were assigned to shirts. 

It was a bit surreal and one of the longest waits I've ever experienced at packet pick up for a race, as I watched four volunteers help one person and a handful of other volunteers do nothing to help the only other person in line (that would be me). Once I finally had my packet, I had to hail a cab in order to make it to work.

This year's shirt - I like the animal foot prints and wish they had been more incorporated into the design.
Long story short, packet pick up was a mess. Perhaps my mistake was showing up so early on the first day of pick up and they just hadn't found their groove, yet? I hope they found a way to make things a bit more streamlined. It wasn't the best first impression, and I found myself starting to worry a little about what race day had in store.

Last year's race was a bit of a mess. Packet pick up and gear check were ridiculous, there was little to no support on the course, and it just generally felt unorganized and rushed. I was a little worried that I was in for the same experience this year. 

Race morning dawned to beautiful weather. It was warm but wasn't expected to get too hot, and there was a nice breeze blowing. It looked to be a good day for a race!

A gorgeous day in Chicago!
I made sure to arrive early, after last year's long lines for bathrooms and gear check. I made a quick tour of the site, noting gear check, the start line, finish line, and all the post race goodies (hello, beer area). They had indoor bathrooms available at the big cat house, which was opened early for the race, as well as port-o-potties stations around the starting area. This was a nice change from last year, and I never had to wait in line for a bathroom either before or after the race.

Lincoln Park Zoo's west gate.
As soon as I entered the big cat house, I was struck by all sorts of conflicting emotions. I have serious misgivings about zoos and putting animals on display for the amusement of us humans. Don't get me wrong, I go to the zoo and enjoy seeing the animals. Many zoos do a lot of amazing conservation work and provide valuable educational resources. 

This doesn't change the fact that it is incredibly depressing seeing a majestic animal in a tiny cage.

This is one of the problems I have with the Lincoln Park Zoo. It is a historic zoo. But with that historic status comes a lot of out dated, tiny, and sad exhibit halls. I know that the zoo keepers genuinely care about and even love the animals that they are tasked with caring for, and they are doing the best that they can with the space they have, but I can't help but wonder if perhaps your zoo shouldn't have big cats or other large animals if you can't provide them with adequate space. 

Seriously, this guy was depressing. He was pacing and just seemed so sad. The enclosures in the big cat house are just too small for the animals that they house.
Sorry. I'll step off my soap box. I just spent the whole day reminding myself about the conservation work that the zoo does in an effort to justify its existence.

Back to the race. After my pit stop, I headed over to gear check, which was right by the start line. Thankfully, they seemed to have gotten the message that gear check needed some work, as this year gear check was larger, better staffed, and much more organized. Bags were labeled with each runners' bib number and hung up in rows that were assigned by number and distance (5k or 10k). There was none of last year's throwing bags on the ground in a big pile.

After dropping off my bag, I found myself with a little extra time on my hands. I walked around, made one more pit stop, and stretched. Finally, it was time to start lining up. The 5k timed run would be starting first at 7:45am, then the 10k would follow at 8:30am.

They planned a wave start and would release runners every couple of minutes based on estimated pace and had pace markers along the road so that runners could seed themselves, as corrals were not assigned. Even with the wave start, I began to prepare myself for a lot of weaving, which always happens when corrals are self seeded. The 5k had two options, timed or untimed (those who opted for the "fun run/walk" saved a little money as they didn't have timing chips, while those of us running the timed race did). Those who opted not to run for time were repeatedly encouraged to start at the back of the pack, as were those running with strollers, as the path was quite narrow in places. Finally, there were multiple announcements that anyone planning to walk the 5k needed to start in the very last corral.

There were the usual pre race announcements, the national anthem, and one final plea for walker to move to the last 5k corral and then the race official began. After my numerous problems experience running in the past month (numb feet, painful calves, various stomach issues) I had left my watch at home and planned to run by feel, so I lined up at the front of the 10 minute per mile corral, as that would be a nice and easy pace for me for the distance, even if I once again experienced the pain that I had recently come to associate with running.

It took a long time for my corral to get close enough to see the start line.
As soon as I was across the start line, the game of weaving began. As expected, too many runners either didn't know their pace or just didn't care about lining up correctly and too many walkers just didn't want to wait to start and decided to line up in the first couple of corrals instead of the last. I've grown accustomed to a lot of weaving for the first bit of every self seeded race, but on this day I encountered big groups of walkers throughout the race, and the weaving just never stopped until the final half mile or so.

Mile one seemed to fly by, as we headed through the zoo and out to the harbor. The path through the zoo was pretty narrow in places, making it difficult to pass slower runners and walkers, and the path was also a bit slick, so it was exactly a bit of relief when we switched over to the dirt path. Yes, there were some puddles to dodge and the path was a bit uneven, but I wasn't as concerned about slipping and fallen as I ran.

There was one aid station on the 5k course right around the half way point. Much like last year, it was understaffed and the volunteers tasked with pouring water were doing their best to pour as quickly as possible to keep up with demand.

As we moved over beside the zoo (only the first and last part of the race are inside the zoo), the field spread out a little and there was slightly less weaving, though there were still random pockets of walkers and a handful of unlucky souls who were out for their own run, walk, or bike ride and didn't know that a race was going to be taking over that part of the lake front.

I was feeling pretty good as we passed the mile 2 marker and knew that I would have no trouble maintaining my pace and finishing strong. My feet started to tingle a bit, but they weren't numb, yet.

As we headed back into the zoo, I saw a few runners who were running in costumes. Their outfits were, of course, animal themed, which was a lot of fun. There were also signs along the side of the path on our way back into the zoo with various animal facts. I don't know if these signs were for the race or if they are always there, but it was a nice touch, either way.

Once back in the zoo, we were in the home stretch. I made sure to increase my pace a bit, as I still had plenty of energy left. There were monkeys swinging around like crazy as we ran by their area and towards the finish. Once I saw the finish line, I gave one final burst of speed.

The finish line was right by the lion enclosure, and, sure enough, the king himself was there watching the finishers.

He was unimpressed with our efforts.
At the finish line they had water, Gatorade, apples, bananas, granola bars, and bags of popcorn. Some items, such as the water and Gatorade, had folks handing them out, while other items, such as the fruit, were just piled on tables for the taking. I grabbed one of everything.

Snacks! The Jalapeno Skinny Pop is pretty delicious.
The best thing offered at the finish? Popsicles! It had warmed up a bit during the race, and I was thrilled to see that just after the finishers' chute ended were people handing out popsicles to all of the runners.

Seriously, all warm weather races should find a way to have popsicles at the finish line.

I demand more popsicles at summer races! Refreshing and delicious!
I enjoyed my cold treat, drank some water, stretched, and then made my way to gear check. Luckily, the line wasn't very long, and I quickly had my bag and was able to throw on my jacket, stash my finish line snacks, and hit the bathrooms.

My plans to see some of the animals were thwarted by two things: 1.) most exhibits didn't open until 10am and 2.) chunks of the main zoo path were still closed because the 10k had only recently begun. I figured that I might as well make the best of it and grabbed my beer (Goose Island 312 = delicious) and pizza (cold and a very very small slice, but still tasty) and went in search of a shady area to sit and rest and eat. I found the perfect spot over by the wolves. It was quiet and shaded, so I was able to eat in peace.

I was feeling pretty good about my effort, especially after finishing my beer.
Once I was sated, I headed over to watch the kids race, known as "The Safari Stampede". Instead of a regular race, the kids had an obstacle course to go through. The kids were corralled by age, and they were allowed to be accompanied by one parent or guardian on the course.

Watching the youngest groups go through the obstacles was pretty much the best thing ever.

I kind of wanted to try my hand at the kids' obstacle course, but I figured that would be weird so decided against it.
Once the 10k was over and the path and various exhibits were opened, I walked around the zoo for a while thinking about the race.

I really appreciated that I saw improvements after last year's race - gear check was much easier and more efficient, and there were more bathroom options and therefore shorter lines for the bathroom. They also seemed to have a better sound system, as it was easier to hear announcements this year. The beer, post race treats, and shirt are all nice, and it is great seeing that they are working to make improvements. I appreciated getting a survey about the race emailed to me the next day, as they claim that they want to continue trying to improve.

Despite the improvements, the race still feels very unorganized and understaffed. I left with the same feeling I had last year - the race meant well but it had just grown too big and too popular for its own good and organizers just didn't know how to handle it. I'm not really sure what the next step is.

One big change that I think would help considerably would be to have the 10k start before the 5k. It would help out everyone - runners, walkers, and volunteers - because it would help alleviate some of the congestion on the course.

The great apes house opened at 10am, which is apparently feeding time...so I guess this was brunch?
Once results were posted, I found out that I finished in 29:09, which gave me an average pace of 9:23. Not my best 5k time, but far from my worst, so I'm pretty happy with it.

I don't think I will run the race again, though. My conflicted feelings about zoos in general and the odd sense of disorganization that I always get from this race just create a strange storm within my brain that has me weighing the pros and cons and feeling confused.

I'd rather find the races that are genuinely fun and cause me to be excited about the thought running the race again than continue running a race every year that ends up feeling like a chore.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, this is good info. We didn't get to it this year, 'cause like you say, it was only a week after Soldier Field and summer training was starting already too, but I had thought of just going for the kids to do the obstacle course. Summer weekends just fill up and then go by so fast!

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