Followers of this space may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while — my last post was a reconstruction of Days 262-263 back in December, and we’re well into the 300s now — and this comes mostly from a dearth of what I consider to be “interesting” things happening in my running life during the winter months. Specifically, I wasn’t racing, and I didn’t really want to write about my tedious recovery from a knee injury any more than you would have wanted to read about it. If I wasn’t interested by my running progress, how could I write about it?
If Chiditarod is anything, though, it is I-N-T-E-R-E-S-T-I-N-G.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to adequately express my man-crush on the charity race/event Chiditarod; in fact, this post has been delayed by upwards of two weeks simply because I wasn’t even sure how to begin. Chiditarod is insane, goofy, fascinating, baffling, and above all, genuinely endearing. It brings a community together, it confuses the hell out of random neighborhood bystanders, and it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had while not-really-racing. Without much further preamble, let’s get into it, shall we?
“Dress Up. Cause Chaos. DO GOOD.” — Chiditarod 2013
In one sentence, Chiditarod is equal parts food drive / bar crawl / footrace / costume party, which in practice may be even more eclectic that it sounds. The event is a team competition, which works like this: each team is comprised of 5 “sled dogs” (people) that are in charge of mushing 1 “sled” (a decorated shopping cart) along a set barcrawl route, making stops at 5 bars along the route to socialize and compete in events to win prizes or other race incentives. Each team pays a nominal registration fee to participate ($45-$65 for a team of 5, depending on how early you register), and each team is required to bring a MINIMUM of 55 lbs. of food to donate at the beginning of the race. Lastly, a majority of members from each team must spend a minimum of 25 minutes inside each bar along the route, though that amount of time can be reduced if you win bar games or successfully bribe one of the easily-bribeable volunteer judges.
The name “Chiditarod” itself is a play on the famous Alaskan sled dog race Iditarod, although the Chicago version is considerably less grueling. At its core, this is a charitable event — each year, Chiditarod raises well over 10,000 lbs. of food to donate to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The 2013 running of Chiditarod raised a whopping total of 16,953 lbs. of food, leading the organizers to cheekily refer to the event as “probably the world’s largest mobile food drive.”
And then, in addition to competition and philanthropy, there are the carts and costumes. There’s no rule saying that your team MUST decorate your shopping cart and wear costumes, but if you’re not dressing up, then you’re doing Chiditarod wrong.
The shopping cart is really the hub around which your team of dogs revolves, and as such, you want to make sure that your cart is looking fresh to death. Some teams, like the group pictured above with the epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea theme, spent months designing their carts & costumes in the lead-up to Chiditarod, and some of the creativity on display was spectacular. For an idea on how seriously some people took their carts, here are pictures from some of my favorite teams, and this is by no means a comprehensive list:
One last word about team carts — participants are actually encouraged to (gently) sabotage other teams to gain an advantage! Everyone enjoys good competition, and as long as the sabotage is lighthearted and good-natured, then it adds an extra layer of zaniness to the event. To make sure everyone had the same expectations, though, the Chiditarod organizers laid out an extensive set of sabotage guidelines to ensure a level playing field. Just about anything non-destructive is fair game at Chiditarod, so it would be important throughout the day for teams to always have at least one person guarding their cart at all times.
Now, in comparison to some of those carts above, our cart wasn’t elaborate by any stretch — I ran Chiditarod with a group of co-workers, and for the longest time we couldn’t decide on a theme. We decided on a Pacman theme about 4 days prior to the race, and we did the best we could with the limited time that we had. I volunteered to be in charge of my own costume as well as our cart design (BAD IDEA), while my co-worker Stephanie took the lead on making the other costumes. Our cart may not have been the most professional-looking belle at the ball, but dammit, I was proud of how it came together in the end:
BEFORE THE MADNESS — THE YARD
On the morning of Chiditarod, I hailed a van cab at 10:45, and our driver then went on the serpentine journey of picking up my co-workers Stephanie, Carly, Steve, and Kathleen from their respective apartment buildings in Lincoln Park area. I had constructed a 3-D Pacman costume and my attempt at a replica Pacman arcade machine out of a bunch of cardboard, all of which I had thrown in the back of the van, and I would still need to lash the “arcade” onto a shopping cart as soon as we found a grocery store that would let us use one of their carts for the day. We had the cab drop us off a Dominick’s grocery, where we then bought our 55+ lbs. of food and convinced a manager to disable the magnetic wheel lock so that we could take the cart with us. Just down the block was the entrance to the Chiditarod Yard, where all the teams were instructed to gather before the race:
We’d picked up a case of beer for the race when we bought our groceries at Dominick’s, and we downed 1 or 2 (or 3) Coors Lights in The Yard before the “race” started. Steph made a bunch of Jell-o shots for the day, since Pacman LOVES cherries, and those were a big hit with the teams around us. After a longer-than-expected wait (not that anyone was complaining), the start time was upon us, and we were off!
BAR #1 — FIVE STAR
We “sprinted” out of the gates, and we raced through a surprisingly adrenaline-fueled initial 1/4-mile stretch. Crowds lined both sides of the course and the street was awash with Care Bears, curlers, lumberjacks, bobsledders, rocks stars, Dukes of Hazzard, movie characters, and more. The initial rush wore off right around the point where the teams split up to go on their respective barcrawl routes, and our team slowed to a comfortable walking pace as we made our way to our first bar, Five Star.
At Five Star, we sent three dawgs into the bar (Steve, Carly, and Kathleen), while Steph and I stayed outside to guard the cart and chat with some of the other teams. We struck a cautious truce with a shifty-looking group of Mexican wrestlers, promising not to mess with their cart if they agreed not to sabotage ours. Would you trust these guys?
It actually didn’t take long for the pack to settle on its first sabotage victim — all five Care Bears from one team naively went into the bar at the same time, and the surrounding pack set upon their cart with glee:
One team secured their cart to a nearby fence, another team wrapped duct-tape around their wheels, and yet another team just started loading snow into their cart. Steph and I hung back, content to drink our beers in the parking lot and hand out Jell-o shots to build camaraderie amongst our fellow mushers. After around 30 minutes had passed, we were rejoined by Steve, Kathleen, and Carly, and we set our sights on the next bar.
BAR #2 — BOUNDARY
There would be no more running after Five Star, which I was okay with, given the relatively rickety condition of our cart. I was reasonably happy with how the cart turned out, given the fact that I had no idea what I was doing when I was painting/constructing it, but there was no getting around the fact that my cardboard arcade machine was precariously attached to our cart using only a handful of semi-strategically placed zip-ties. Hell, I’d only started lashing our cardboard to the cart when we got into line to check in at The Yard, and I don’t know if we ever really stopped taping parts of the arcade back together. As such, I cringed a bit every time our cart rolled over a hard bump in the sidewalk, but Ol’ Carty managed to stay together for the duration of the race.
We made it to Boundary in one piece, and after taking the following group picture, it was time for Stephanie and I to get out of the cold weather and get into a stiff drink.
Steve came into the bar, too, and I had my first experience of trying to take off my Pacman costume so that I could go to the bathroom — it wasn’t pretty, but I figured out a system. The staff at Boundary were understandably (and correctly) impressed with our costumes and overall badassery, so we did have to stop to pose for a few hurried cell phone pictures before I could hit the bathroom, but everything turned out okay.
The bar game inside Boundary was Twister, and the prize would be 5 precious minutes deducted from the time that your team was obligated to spend inside the bar. Wearing my giant Pacman suit, I lasted about 3 turns before I had to bow out. Steph was slightly more successful, but the game ended with neither of us gaining the spoils of victory.
Finally, it was time to leave the bar. Outside of Boundary, we would regrettably have our first encounter with the team of ICP Juggalos. I feel that this following picture accurately encapsulates what this group of man-children was all about:
For the uninformed, the term “Juggalo” refers to fans of the terrible “hip hop” group Insane Clown Posse. Juggalos consider themselves to be a fucked-up kind of big, weird family of sorts, but they’re basically just the worst people in the world. In that picture shown above, you might notice a 2-liter bottle of soda laying on top of their groceries. And apparently while I was inside Boundary, the ICP Juggalos sprayed that soda all over everyone’s carts and costumes. Nice guys, right?
When we exited Boundary and rejoined Kathleen and Carly, I noticed some liquid dripping down the side of our cart. After I asked the girls about it, they told me that we’d been sprayed by the ICP Juggalos, who were maybe 15 feet away from where we were standing. I shuffled over there (I’m still wearing a Pacman costume, mind you), and had the following conversation with the d-bag that I pegged for the alpha of the group:
- Me: “Hey, the girls told me that you sprayed soda all over our cart. You didn’t *really* do that, did you?”
- Juggalo: “Yeah, we did that. Why, ARE YOU MAD BRO??!”
- Me: “I’m not mad, I’m just confused. That’s not how sabotage works here — why would you do that?”
- Juggalo: “Because we’re making fun of juggalo behavior! We’re doing it ironically! Ha ha!”
- Me: “No, that’s not being ironic. You guys are just being dicks.”
- Juggalo: “Whatever, Pacman! Ha ha!”
At that point, I just walked away; this was technically a CHARITY EVENT, after all, and I didn’t want to make a scene. It was only when a troop of girl scouts thanked me for at least saying something that I realized our team wasn’t the only victim — the Juggalos had sprayed at least a half-dozen carts at that bar alone.
That kernel of new information made me upset, but I’m glad that the confrontation didn’t go any further than it did. There are some people that you just can’t get through to, and I just wanted to go to the next bar with my team.
Fortunately, it wouldn’t be long until the ICP Juggalos got their comeuppance.
BAR #3 — CLUBFOOT
After another short trek, we arrived at Clubfoot. This time, the 3 girls went inside, while Steve and I
guarded the cart passed out Jell-o shots to absolutely anyone within touching distance. This bit of chivalry garnered us a lot of good-will with the other teams, and Steve and I spent the next 30 minutes taking 5-minute shifts where one person would guard the cart, and the other guy would go have drinks with one of the other teams of sled dogs. My favorite cart was the Birthday Cake — it looked enormous enough from the outside, but the real treat lay within. I don’t know how they rigged this up, but when I ducked my head inside one of the curtains, there were at least 5 people fist-bumping and drinking, while strobe lights flashed overhead and techno blared from a quality car stereo system.
And then, something beautiful happened. When it was my turn to guard the cart, one of Los Chubby Elotes snuck up behind me and asked me to provide cover while he sabotaged the Juggalo cart, which was unfortunately parked next to ours. Apparently, everyone hated these guys, and Los Chubby Elotes took it upon themselves to administer justice on behalf of the pack.
I was somewhat surprised to see that only one Juggalo was guarding the cart, and I agreed to help block that guy’s view. What happened next was a wonderful example of distraction and misdirection: while the Elote closest to me was skulking behind the Juggalo cart, waiting for his moment, another Elote cheerfully approached the Juggalo cart-watcher from the front under the pretense of friendship and goodwill. The cheery Elote asked the Juggalo if he wanted a shot; when that Juggalo predictably responded, “Hell yes, I want a shot!!”, then it was game on. While the lone Juggalo was distracted by the “free” alcohol, the sneaky Elote locked the Juggalo cart to a bike rack with a U-lock:
Chaining carts to a fixed object with a U-lock is a BIG violation of Sabotage Protocol, since that usually means that Chiditarod Management is called to the scene to help unchain the cart, but the ICP Juggalos were such epic douchebags that nobody batted an eye. It was only after a long 15 minute wait that the Juggalos’ cart was freed, when someone dressed like giant banana stepped forward with a bolt-cutter (!) to assist, a move which was roundly booed by the watching pack.
After what felt like an hour (and very well may have been an hour), our girls returned from inside of Clubfoot, and we made our way to the next bar.
BAR #4 — ROOTS PIZZA
Roots Pizza is more of a legitimate pizzeria than a bar, but it was an ideal 4th stop on the event route. They have a long bar that serves beer, they have food, they own a huge space with lots of square footage, and they were cool with a bunch of costumed drunks invading their home for an indefinite period of time…really, what more could you ask for? The $1 pizza slices provided much-needed nourishment for both my body and soul, and I immediately caught my second wind.
The Chiditarod volunteers at this bar stop decided to go with a Canadian theme for their bar game, and I was quickly sucked into a game of Canadian Apology. In this game, players from different teams were brought together and given a Canadian scenario in which one party wronged another, and the winner would be the person that was judged to have given the most sincere apology for the alleged offense. I was pitted against a member of the Cone Thugs ‘N Harmony team, who were real cool guys (see below) — they would later give me a Rumchata sundae outside the bar. Anyway, in our given scenario, one of us had just eaten the last doughnut at Tim Horton’s; my fake apology was deemed to be the most sincere, and I walked away with a souvenir Canadian flag and 5 minutes deducted from the time we were obligated to spend inside Roots.
It was at this point that our other co-worker Barton made it to Chiditarod, and our Ghostpack grew to 5, for a total of 6 team members. With Roots Pizza crossed off of our list, it was time to head to the final bar.
BAR #5 — COBRA LOUNGE
This was the last bar, and the most forgettable for me — we were all
a little pretty tipsy, and I had barely parked our cart in the sad, boggy parking lot when I looked around to see that all of my team members had cleverly left me to go inside the bar. I couldn’t blame them; the temperature had dipped to the 30s, and I absolutely would have done the same thing if I were in their shoes….I just happened to be the last poor bastard who was touching the cart last, and so I settled in to guard our cart for the final 25-ish minutes.
After 30 minutes had passed, I realized that the ghosts on my team were probably too drunk to keep track of time, and so I took a risk and abandoned our cart to go drag them out of the bar. Sure enough, we had made it past our time minimum, and I was the first one to notice. We rushed back out to the lot to reclaim our cart, which had not been touched, and we headed for the after-party.
AFTER-PARTY — BOTTOM LOUNGE
After putting in our time at the Cobra Lounge, all that was left was to turn in our final time sheet at the Bottom Lounge, which was the site of the post-race after-party. I took one look inside the reasonably-crowded bar before taking off my giant Pacman costume one last time, which I then disposed of in a nearby dumpster. I didn’t really care if nobody inside the bar knew which team I came from, I just wanted to finally be able to walk through a bar without bumping into everything.
I stayed at the after-party for about an hour before I had to leave to attend a birthday party. I was sad to find out later that I had apparently missed an awards ceremony, but I took solace in the fact that I’d put in a very good shift that day.
DO THIS RACE. If you live near Chicago and have even a marginal sense of adventure about you, this is one of the most fun ways you could spend a random Saturday in early March. Keep in mind that you won’t be doing much actual running, but this has just everything that you could wish for in an outdoors event: charity, exercise, drinking, sabotage, camaraderie, outrageous amounts of creativity, and a sense of community.
If you’re looking to do something “different” on a Saturday, then what are you waiting for? MUSH!!