A half marathon in January? In Chicago? Outdoors? Are you crazy? That’s the type of reaction we received from so many when Amanda and I told them we signed up for our first winter half marathon in Chicago. Were we crazy? Probably! We ran a half marathon in late March a few years back along Chicago’s lakefront. It was frigid with crazy winds and sleet pelting our faces off of Lake Michigan. We vowed never to run so early in the year again. However, some friends convinced us this one was worth signing up. It was very affordable and the swag looked great.
Little did Kimberley Stedman know what the future would bring when back in 2009 she and a few friends planned a winter half marathon leaving from her home near Lake Michigan. The plan was for a dozen or so friends to run but the power of social media took over. Before they knew it there were 100 participants. Too many for her house, they moved it to a running store where in January 2010 the first unofficial F^3 Lake Half Marathon took place. What does F^3 mean, you ask? F***ing Freezing Frozen which of course had to be shortened for obvious reasons.
The event was such a success that by 2011 Kimberley created a company and of course named it F^3 Events LLC. In January 2012 the 1st official F^3 Lake Half Marathon took place. Holding a race in what is historically the coldest month of the year is risky business. Although the 2013 & 2014 F^3 runs were very successful the winters were quite ugly. Starting in 2015, Kimberley and her team decided to utilize Soldier Field as a venue for runners to gather before and after the race. This would prove to be a difference maker.
Amanda and I headed up a winter half marathon training site this year in our area for CARA (Chicago Area Runners Association) with the training geared toward this particular race. We had a good sized group doing long runs each week outside to get them prepared for whatever mother nature was going to deliver to us on race day. We trained in rain, sleet, snow, ice, and bitter cold. We got our workouts in and were prepared. Amanda, always obsessed with the weather, began checking the forecasts 2 weeks out before the race. The outlook was promising. A small amount of snow came down in the days leading up to the race. It was enough to make everyone nervous about slick spots along the course.
On race day the weather was perfect, for January. The temperature was 27 degrees with slight winds. Cooler weather allows for Kimberley to get away with a later start time of 10:00 a.m. The F^3 website gave terrific instructions regarding directions and parking. We arrived at the indoor parking garage which with very little wait to get in. Parking was easy and even more convenient was the quick walk through a doorway leading to the United Club which was the pre and post race gathering spot.
Gear check, race sponsors, ample seating, rest rooms(no porties!!!), foam rollers, stretch areas, and plenty of space to warm up were the awesome amenities available to us at this indoor venue. Runners gathered inside, 2500 in total….an event sell out again. I said to a running mate, “Wait…so we don’t have to step outside into the cold until we all leave together for the start line?” That’s right, she said. Amanda and I were already loving this experience as we waited on the rest of our CARA training group to arrive.
As we all departed the warm indoors and made our way to the start the talk went back to strategy. Who’s racing and who’s just treating as a run? My plan was to see if he course was safe and if my legs cooperate I’d go after my PR of 1:47:40. Amanda planned to treat it as a training run and not over do it. She and I along with our running mate Charlie lined up between the 8-9 minute per mile corals. After our National Anthem played the adrenaline was flowing and before long we are off and running.
We circled around Soldier Field then headed south on the path along Lake Michigan. The mostly flat out-and-back course was treated, clear of ice and had very little congestion which is not always the case on this path. With calm winds, the conditions were ideal for a PR attempt. My legs felt heavy for the first few miles but loosened up soon after. Just after mile 4 I decided I’m going for it.
The beauty of this run lies in the scenic winter view on the northbound return toward the finish. Just after mile 8 one can admire the amazing Chicago skyline resting beyond a frozen Lake Michigan. It literally brought me some welcome chills. I couldn’t help but thinking I wish I had a steady enough hand to take a picture of this most amazing view. Then I remembered my mission. Will it slow me down if I pull out the iPhone to take a quick pic? Will I regret if I don’t snap a shot? I chose to keep going convincing myself every second will matter. Luckily, a friend did catch the shot and was kind enough to share with us.
The water stations(8 in total) were plenty and well manned with encouraging volunteers. The crowd cheering us on along the run was much larger than I anticipated given the temperature. I hit the finish mat in 1:47:16 which gave me a 24 second PR thanks to a strong kick over the last 2 miles. Amanda and Charlie crossed together at 1:49:40. She was very pleased, considering it was a training run for her. All of our CARA Running Mates started crossing the finish, a couple more with PRs. We were proud to see them all come through.
We devoured our post race bagels, bananas and hot chocolate before heading back to the heated indoor United Club to regroup and change. To be able to change indoors immediately after a cold weather run is a big deal. A couple of the sponsors were there giving a post race massage to those who wanted one. Foam rollers and sticks were available for recovery aids as well.
The F^3 Half is also becoming famous for their after party. We headed over to Reggie’s, a south side establishment for the post race party. Complimentary shuttles were running continuously back and forth between Reggie’s and Soldier Field. Runners were able to cash in their free beer ticket and partake in a buffet lunch. We enjoyed our beer but couldn’t stay long to take in the whole experience. This multi level bar/restaurant has a concert venue, record store and heated rooftop which many of the runners enjoyed. A good time was had by all.
In a post race statement Kimberley said “I am my toughest critic and I’m very happy with how this year went. I’m so thankful for my amazing staff – it was our best year.” Throughout the year she spends countless hours outside of her full-time corporate job to coordinate this event. She’s put together a team that has grown this event from what was supposed to be a dozen runners in year 1 to 2500 today. When asked about the future and growth plans Kimberley said “I do this for the love of it-no plans to make it huge – I want to ensure the course doesn’t get crazy crowded and diminish the runner experience.” I like that mentality!!! There are many running events around that have gotten too big for their own good. F^3 isn’t one of them.
When Kimberley mentioned that she just started running with CARA in 2008 and the F^3 idea came about a year later I was shocked. However, when you talk to her, the passion for what she is doing is more than obvious. That’s why it’s no surprise she and her team have this event running like it’s been around for 20 years. If you’re looking for a very well-organized winter race on a nice course, with scenic views, awesome swag, great people, and a post run beer(or 6), give the F^3 a run. It’s already one of our favorites. I know we’ll be back next year!!!
For more information visit the F^3 Website
Check out their other exciting event The Waterfall Glen Xtreme 10 Miler