A report back from Chicago's favorite slapdash charity fun-run
03/07/2012 10:00 PM
A brief patch of sunlight split through the clouds and interrupted what would be an otherwise grey and chilly Saturday afternoon as Drew Kelly and his team surveyed their meticulously styled shopping cart.
Kelly and his fellow mushers — a clan of cart-pullers made up to resemble characters from the cult comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — stood about halfway through a slow-moving line of contestants waiting to enter the makeshift athlete’s village located in a parking lot at the corner of Wolcott and Hubbard.
The day would mark Kelly’s second time competing in the Chiditarod, and the lessons from last year’s event would not be lost, he said.
“We literally took two big pieces of cardboard and stuck it on there, and it was basically completely torn off by the end of the race,” said Kelly, who evoked the spirit of Burgundy, down to the maroon sports blazer.
This time, their vehicle — an old T.J. Maxx model recovered from an alley — was outfitted with wood panels on each side and crafted to resemble a van.
“It’s the Team 4 Action News van!” a teammate remarked.
Behind them, a group of grown men in hot dog costumes drank beer and hooted at anyone who cared to hoot back. Further down the line, a band of villains from 90s action movies stretched their legs and high-fived some passing pirates.
“How do cowboys keep these stupid hats from falling off?” a windblown ranger cried.
The crowd spilled out on the street around the corner, where a marching band paraded and mushers cultivated a warm buzz to aide them in the race ahead.
“There’s another Jamaican bobsled team?” another competitor exclaimed.
So goes the Chiditarod, which marked its seventh year Saturday as the city’s premiere race for the common, costumed Chicagoan. Part fun run, part fundraiser and all clownery, the competition features teams of five pulling tricked-out shopping carts along the sidewalks and side streets of the West Loop and West Town, checking in at bars en route to the finish line and turning the heads of everyone who thought they were having a normal, street theatre-less weekend.
Among the few entry requirements for the race, competitors are obligated to bring at least 49 lbs of food for donation, which can be dropped off at the starting line, picked up along the way, or presented at the finish line — as long as the goods make it to the Greater Chicago Food Depository at one point or another.
Last year, Chiditarod organizers raised $18,000 in registration fees, the proceeds of which went to the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation. This year’s fundraising recipient is the urban agriculture advocacy group Growing Power.
Along the way, competitors are encouraged to participate in some “good-natured” poor sportsmanship that should stop short of cutting an opposing team’s cart in half (honestly, it says that in rules).
“There’s always a little bit of shenanigans, that’s inherent to the competition,” said Brian Lauvray, a volunteer for the event.
Lauvray held court over the checkpoint area at the Fifty/50 bar at 2047 W. Division St. in Wicker Park, one of the first stops for many of the teams.
The theme for Lauvray’s stop was “bar mitzvah.” Entrants who ran in for a timestamp were encouraged to compete in a dance competition to earn extra points.
Judges also openly encourage bribes at this stage in the game.
Competitors in Saturday’s race ran between seven checkpoints, stretching as far as Nick’s Beer Garden, 1516 N. Milwaukee Ave., and ending at the Bottom Lounge at 1375 W. Lake St.
“If we make it to the third bar, we’ve done well,” said one racer, who manned a cart containing a pot of slow-cooked barbecued pork, intended for use as judge bait.
This year, about twenty bike marshals followed along with the racers to ensure that all play was fair, as well as to keep contestants from getting arrested.
“The main one is telling people to hide their alcohol,” said marshal Andy Crow.
Crow, who has worked the event for three years, said he has seen enough bad Chiditarod strategy to give him a winning edge, though he has yet to enter.
“I know the mechanics of the race, I could run it, competitively,” he said. “I would probably get a few athletic people … and the other thing is to not get too [drunk].”
Anchorman Drew Kelly said he has at least two rules of thumb when hitting the streets as a Chiditarod competitor.
“Bring beer to the starting line, and make a cart that is strong enough to stand up to any type of weather,” he said.
“And don’t try to win,” his teammate added, pressing the fake mustache back onto his face.
Photos by J. GEIL/Photo Editor