Second City Track Club are putting in work in Chicago
There’s a quote out there, if memory serves, about champions being made in the dark. I don’t know exactly how it goes, or exactly who said it, but the point is that they’re referring to more of a metaphorical darkness: a champion is made when doing things for themselves, not for others. Or maybe: champions put in the work that others don’t see. But at 5:30 AM every Wednesday, a mix of Olympians, former NCAA All-Americans, OTQ and OTQ-hopefuls gather at the Montrose Lakefront Track in the northside of Chicago to workout in the actual, physical darkness.
If you happen to stumble across the Montrose Track one early morning, you’ll be happy to know that this mix of athletes is the Second City Track Club, not some gathering of a manic cult. SCTC is a growing group of sub-elite runners--all possessing the personal bests to live and train in more ideal climes--who have opted to hone their craft in the Windy City.
Despite the darkness--and over the course of the next few months, an inevitable combination of rain, snow, ice and wind--these 5:30 AM workouts have become routine for the members of SCTC. If not to become champions, then at least mostly out of necessity.
Jack Keelan, a former Stanford All-American, and newcomer to Second City describes it best. “It’s a group of driven, independent individuals who have a lot of other stuff going on in their life, but who also work very hard at running.” The “other stuff” is a combination of school and full time work; stuff that requires workouts to be done with enough wiggle room to get to the office or their seat in the classroom, on time.
A quick sampling of SCTC shows an impressive combination of individuals, even with running accolades removed:
Cami Blackman is an EMT, currently studying for the MCAT. Oscar Medina is an airplane technician, routinely putting in 60-hour work weeks (“I worked 15 hours the other day and then went for my run,” he told me). Dan Kremske is a medical coder, actively applying for placement in Physician Assistant degree programs.
“It’s a blue collar mentality,” said Dan. “We share that with the people of Chicago.”
The group is comprised of an even split of Chicago-area natives and transplants. Everyone has their own story of how they ended up in the area. Throughout the interview process it became clear that no one was there by accident; the common thread among them is the mutual love of the city. It’s a love that was, at least in part, shaped by running.
For Second City member Chirine Njeim, the move to Chicago in 2010 was meant to be the start of what she called “a normal life.” A Lebanon native, Chirine spent most of her teens and 20s as a competitive alpine skier, representing Lebanon in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Winter Olympics. After 2010, she relocated to Chicago to be with her now-husband. “I got there and noticed a lot of people running, so I started doing the same thing,” she said. “And I saw that I could actually really get to know the city through running.” The first time she ran any sort of race was the 2010 Shamrock Shuffle, where she finished the 8k in 37:34. Two years later she made her marathon debut at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, clocking 3:07:00. Fast forward to 2016 and Chirine, who moved to Chicago to, in her words, “fold the page” on her athletics career, qualified for her 4th Lebanese Olympic team after running 2:44:14 at the Houston Marathon.
Chirine’s story of Olympic dreams achieved is a bit of an outlier for the group. That’s not to say that aspirations among the members aren’t incredibly high--far from it. Down the line, the SCTC members I talked to all spoke about short term and big picture goals. Goals that included OTQs and big PRs.
For Kremske, who returned to Chicago after a four year training stint in Eugene, it was a bit of a surprise. When he left his hometown for the more welcoming training environment of Eugene, SCTC hadn’t yet been created and the vibrant running scene that he sees there now hadn’t taken hold. That’s changed.
“This group can still allow me to train at just as high of a level as I would in Eugene or Flagstaff,” Dan said. “It’s that group dynamic of motivated individuals and training partners--it’s something that exists here just as much as it does in other places that may be more well known for running.”
Things atop most people’s “Chicago is a bad place to train” list, are what many SCTC members find strength in. It’s like the old mailman mantra: neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night. You get the idea.
“It’s why I think we have an upperhand, you know?” said Oscar Medina, a 2:23 guy who’s looking for his OTQ on Sunday. “We’ve ran through it all.” On a good day, running through it all means finishing your workout before the sun comes up. But bad days are common in Chicago, and anyone who runs regularly in the midwest has a story about it.
“In college we weren’t allowed to run outside if the windchill was below zero degrees,” said Cami Blackman, a Massachusetts native and owner of 2:48 marathon PR. “But one morning we ran when it was literally -11 degrees. It never really occurred to me that you could run outside when it was that cold.”
But they do it. And it takes some goading from me for them to even talk about it. It’s routine. It’s no skin off their nose. I get the feeling that some of them might even prefer it. SCTC sees themselves as representatives of the ideals of Chicago--they might be training at a higher level than most, but Keelan pointed out to me that when they’re running in sub-zero degree temps, they’re not the only ones out there. The hobby joggers and Joe Schmoe’s of Chicago are out there rubbing elbows with them as well.
Chicago might be best known for deep dish pizza, Michael Jordan, or the Bears. But if you ever need a reminder of what the people of the city are all about, you need not look any further than Montrose Track at 5:30 AM every Wednesday, or the bike path along Lake Michigan on a quiet Sunday morning. Or at the front of the pack this Sunday, bounding down Michigan Avenue, where the members of Second City Track Club will be reaping whatever it is you sow on those freezing, pitch black mornings.