Maybe it’s the obesity epidemic that has so many people worried about their waistlines. Or maybe it’s the ongoing recession that has people looking for low-cost extracurriculars. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that Americans are more interested than ever in getting fit.
Last year was the first in which the number of marathon finishers topped a half-million, according to Running USA, and more than 1.4 million people finished half-marathons the same year. The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, which keeps track of athletic event participation nationwide, reports that 1.2 million people competed in triathlons in 2009, up 50 percent from 798,000 in 2007.
The trend is evident in Springfield and the surrounding area as well. Just look in any of the local trails and larger parks, and you’ll see numerous runners and cyclists working up a sweat in the summer sun. And so it makes sense that Springfield is becoming a destination for summer athletic races. From May through September, walkers, runners, cyclists and swimmers can find a variety of training groups and races to both entertain and challenge.
Running requires only a pair of shoes, so it’s no wonder that the sport has become so popular in Springfield. The Springfield Road Runners Club, formed in 1980, has more than 1,100 members, hosts several friendly training groups and promotes several races in and around Springfield during the summer months. Check out Abe’s Army, the training group dedicated to preparing runners for the Abe’s Amble 10k run. The 6.2-mile run on Aug. 21 is a major part of the Illinois State Fair, with almost 1,000 finishers in 2010. There’s also the State Fair Parade Run, a 2-mile race on the first day of the State Fair.
But if running isn’t your thing, perhaps cycling piques your interest. Tom Clark, president of the Springfield Bicycle Club, says his organization is several hundred members strong and growing, with an ever-expanding schedule of leisure rides and training sessions that lead up to their annual main event, the Capital City Century. New this year is the Great Cycling Challenge, a series of five Sunday rides that take cyclists through the countryside and nearby towns, ending with the Century on Sept. 11. About 800 people participated in last year’s Century, which offers routes from 10 to 100 miles, as well as great food and atmosphere.
“It’s a great social activity,” Clark says. “You get to meet so many great people. And, cycling is great for promoting health and wellness. The whole idea is to be healthy and fit and maybe live a little bit longer.”
Looking to combine running and cycling? The Capital City Biathlon, held on May 28, features a 3.1-mile run and 15-mile ride. Race director Bill Winberg says the race originally started in the 1980s by the airport, but it died out until being resurrected about five years ago. About 220 people participated last year, Winberg says, and the race should appeal to both hardcore athletes and “people who haven’t done anything in the past.” Race day registration is available, and volunteers are welcome. The race is also a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity of Sangamon County.
If you’ve already got the running and cycling down, why not throw in some swimming? Triathlons consist of swimming, biking and running, which Steve O’Connor, race director for Tri Harder Promotions of Petersburg, says is “like being a kid again.”
O’Connor says triathlon is the fastest growing sport in the United States and the world, especially among women and 30- to 39-year-olds. If you’re looking for a triathlon this summer, check out Springfield’s own Stoneman Sprint Triathlon and Iron Abe Olympic Triathlon on July 30 at Lake Springfield. The Stoneman is a 500-yard swim, 12-mile ride and 3.1-mile run, while Iron Abe is a .9-mile swim, 24.8 mile ride and 6.2-mile run. O’Connor says new sponsors like Pease’s Candy, Pao Bistro and Brickhouse Grill & Pub will add some great local flavor and atmosphere to this year’s races, while having local fire and rescue teams and medical residents from SIU School of Medicine on standby makes these the safest races around.
Tri Harder is also responsible for the Abraham Lincoln Triathlon Series, a set of triathlon races held in Petersburg during April and August. O’Connor says the races draw athletes from Chicago to Carbondale and seven other states. First-timers may want to opt for the Stovepipe Sprint Tri, which consists of a 500-meter swim, 13-mile ride and 3.1-mile run. For a bigger challenge, try the Railsplitter Intermediate Tri – a 1-mile swim, 36-mile ride and 7-mile run. Both are held on Aug. 13.
“We make sure everybody who comes across the finish line feels the way the first guy did,” O’Connor says. “And you don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment to have fun. Just get off the couch and ‘tri’ it.”