The unique running association, which hosts no major events, is going strong after four decades, thanks to the efforts of its members and volunteers
To grasp the unique power of the Chicago Area Runners Association, check out these numbers:
- 40 years in existence
- 700 dates of programs annually
- 9,500 volunteer spots filled by members
- 40,000 hours of time contributed
- 0 major mass scale running events hosted
If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. But if you’ve ever known the unique sense of community that a grassroots running group can engender, you’re on the right track to understanding what CARA is all about.
“Our members come to us for a consistent connection to programs, events, and resources. They also support us because our mission is not just to grow CARA. It is to support the entire running community, says Executive Director Greg Hipp.
This year the Chicago non-profit is celebrating its 40th year by telling its story. A fun running industry fact: behind the New York Road Runners and the Atlanta Track Club, CARA is the third largest running club in the country.
“After 40 years we need to tell recognize how CARA came to be, what has been accomplished, remember our ups and downs, and insure we set a path for where we are headed next,” says Hipp. “We have a lot to celebrate, but remembering our history is an opportunity for staff and newer members to learn from our past, so we make the right decisions for CARA’s future.”
Read on for insight into how CARA does what it does and what keeps the non-profit thriving after four decades:
RUSA: CARA celebrates a milestone anniversary this year - 40 years of running in Chicago. Looking back, what factors have kept this non-profit vital and (quite literally) running strong?
Greg: I credit our member leaders. We host over 700 dates of programs and events per year. From typical training runs, to social events, clinics, and races. In addition we do advocacy work locally to support the running community in a variety of ways. With a staff of only five full-time we could not be successful without the support of our members. Our members fill over 9,500 volunteer roles per year, and give us over 40,000 hours of service. Their service has given us stability through the years. While staffs have changed, many of our member leaders have been with us since the start. Our strongest years are when we have empowered our members.
RUSA: You're the third largest local running organization in the country, but you don't put on a major race. How does that work? What can other running clubs - especially ones that might be struggling with declining participation numbers these days - learn from you?
Greg: CARA is unique in the landscape of large-scale running organizations. We do not own or manage a mass scale race like our closest comparators. Our connection to the running community is not through a small handful of large events that become the catalyst to membership. Our members come to us for a consistent connection to programs, events, and resources. They also support us because our mission is not just to grow CARA. It is to support the entire running community.
Runners are looking for a unique experience. Ours is a regular connection to a community of like-minded people. There is no event, amenity, or amount of swag that can overpower the value of community. You cannot find that in a single one-off event.
One of our strengths is also that we do not seek to compete with local clubs. We are not looking for exclusivity from our members. We do not want to be the last man standing; we want to see everyone succeed who has a genuine interest in supporting the running community. We will work with anyone who shares that interest.
At CARA, we say membership is about what you get, and what you give. That is a tough message with those initially only looking for a transactional experience. But we believe in our mission, and ask runners, and the running industry to think big picture and long term for the best interest of the running community.
RUSA: How did CARA start and how will you celebrate your organization's 40th birthday?
CARA started with a group of runners in 1978 who saw something in local running they did not like, and they came together to fix it. That collective group became the foundation for what is now CARA. From that first cause, our mission has always been about serving Chicagoland’s runners, more than simply serving our own interest. Our leaders through the years have made an incredible impact on Chicagoland running. There is a lot that we now may take for granted in local running that would not be what it is without some of our incredible member leaders and staff.
In addition to celebrating our history, we have begun a strategic planning process with our board of directors. CARA president Chris Hennessy and vice-president Kerl LaJuene are leading our board to accomplish this plan. Now is the perfect time to step back and evaluate our mission, where we have been successful, where we are falling short, and where our focus needs to be for the next chapter of CARA. It is important that we evolve and stay ahead of the needs of local running. The outcome of this project is going to give us a powerful tool to better serve our mission.
RUSA: How are your training programs structured? Do you have any best practice tips for training programs that runners love and return to year after year
Greg: CARA training programs are unique, both in their structure and size. We have 13 groups at locations across the city and suburbs. Most meet within local parks and forest preserves where we can safely run with groups of our size. Nearly 3,000 runners train with us throughout the year. Of that approximately 2,000 are focusing on the Bank of America Chicago Marathon during our Summer Marathon Training Program.
CARA training aims to provide a fully supported training experience for novice and advanced runners alike. The programs started decades ago from the vision of then member leaders like Hal Higdon and Brian Piper. They helped develop the first training schedules that are still the basis for how our runners train today.
The overall program is lead by our Director of Training Leah Bohr. With her are member leaders known as site coordinators and group leaders. Site coordinators are the key point of contact and managers of each location. Group leaders lead pace groups through each run. We have pace groups from 7:30 to 12:00 run/walk groups on 30-second intervals. These leaders are key to providing the support and experience runners are looking for. And most importantly, they are key to building the tight knit communities that we are most well known for.
All runs are hydration supported. We operate as many as 40 hydration stations weekly across Chicagoland during our summer program and in total give out about 20,000 cups of water and Gatorade Endurance each weekend. We serve both our groups, and the public at most stations as a running community service. Stations are managed by both paid hourly workers and volunteers. With the size of our groups on the Lakefront, we cannot simply drop coolers at locations for runners to self serve like a typical club group run might. And using water fountains is not an option either. If we did self-serve, our typical pace groups in the city would have to stop for 10-12 minutes for everyone to get a turn. So we operate stations almost like typical race aid stations for our training runs so a mass of runners can grab a cup and keep going.
We also offer clinics, an injury hotline, online training tools, training shirts and some other general amenities. Our summer program has an event called the Orangetheory Fitness Ready to Run 20 Miler where over 2,500 runners come together to do their last long run point-to-point on the Chicago Lakefront. It operates just like a race, only without timing. It gives the runners all the support they need to reach their training milestone, and is a great dress rehearsal for race day. We also celebrate the start of the taper afterwards with beer, food and music.
On race day at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon we provide our members a VIP Experience that includes an indoor space, private restrooms there, and at the start corrals, private gear check, physical therapy, beer, food, music, giveaways, pictures and medal engraving.
Our training programs provide a high level of support to get runners to the finish line. But greater than any of the amenities, they create unique communities of runners, and make the training experience enjoyable. When runners enjoy their training experience, they are more likely to turn a bucket list item like the marathon, into a lifestyle change. We recognize that retention is more than anything about the relationships and experiences we create with our members.
RUSA: Partnerships make your organization stronger. What insights can you share into how CARA partners with charity fundraising programs?
Greg: We partner with nearly 50 charities to support their run based fundraising efforts. Whether a team has one runner, or 200, we will work with them. We provide subsidized access to our training programs for charity runners. This access helps charity runners get to the finish line and their fundraising goals. We also help our charity partners get connected with local runners. Over 800 CARA members ran for charity during last year’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
To us, running is more than sport. It truly changes lives, both physically and mentally. We are building a community of runners who believe in giving back. We all know running changes us, but it can also be used to make an impact on others. Charity running is certainly one of those ways to make our miles more meaningful.