Saturday mornings mean long runs for me. Even longer now because I'm only 3 weeks from my first Ultra of the fall. I did a 20-miler last week, I've got a 20-miler next week and today was the in between "easy" week, which meant 14 miles.
The past few years, if I wanted to cover more than 10 or 12 miles, just about the only convenient place to do it was the Chicago Lakefront on the Bike Path that runs about 18 miles one-way next to the city. It's really the only place in the city limits (that I know of) to cover long distance without the obstacle of a traffic light intersection several times each mile. (Even on the bike path, there are street crossings where you have to wait for cars, but they are minimal.) There are long stretches of gray dirt track to run on, there are dozens of water fountains to reload the bottle (at least in the warm months), and there are lots of other runners out there with you to try to hook onto and pace with.
However, it's also, often, a crowded, tangled, sprawl of people running, biking, roller bladeing, pushing baby strollers, or just walking haphazardly across the path. Occasionally in the summer, long sections of the path get closed down to traffic while the lakefront hosts some massive public event. (Such was the case today, as Red Bull put on its Flugtag at North Avenue, and the Air & Water Show is always a pointless weekend to try and run long.) There are also lots of badly sun-exposed miles on the path and in the summer heat it can be brutal.
Earlier this year, however, I stumbled on a new alternative to the lakefront. While driving back and forth to my freelance job out in the northwest suburbs, I kept noticing a little running path sneaking out of the woods near the highway. Finally, I decided to take a nearby exit to find out where it went. It turns out it's a fully paved bike path that runs 13 miles end to end along the north branch of the Chicago River. It is, appropriately, called the North Branch Trail System.
The whole thing is inside Cook County Forest Preserves, making it a gorgeous woodland trail. 90% of it is totally tree-shaded. It can still get hot on summer mornings, but at least there’s plenty of cover from the sun. Also, there isn’t a tenth the number of people out on the NBTS as there are on the lakefront on the weekends. (In fact, most of the usage comes from bike traffic.) The southern end of the trail is still 10 miles from my apartment, so I do have to drive over there, whereas I can just bike a mile down to the lakefront whenever I want, but this isn’t a huge hassle.
The only big downside – and it is kind of big: except for one manual pumping spigot near the 5 mile mark, there are no water fountains on the course. It’s a tickly little problem to overcome, because on any run over 12 miles, I’m going to need to refill my bottle, for sure, at some point. The self pumping spout actually comes at a useful point, but on hot days or really long runs, it isn’t enough. I’ve been fortunate that the one training group that uses the trail, I-Runs, has been planting big coolers of water and Gatorade in one or two spots on the trail on Saturday mornings. I’ve been able to nip a few refills from those coolers. (I’m going to have to make a little donation to I-Runs or something before the end of the year!) A friend I’ve run with once or twice is going to join me next weekend for the 20-miler and we’re planning to drive around to a couple of spots north on the course and plant some water bottles. Hopefully that will work out, but it’s kind of a pain.
Both locations have their up sides and down sides, but the truth is, I really prefer the tree covered seclusion of the NBTS. It seems like the lesser of two evils. But that water problem will still have me going back to the lakefront ped-o-highway for a long trek now and then.
If you're itching for a new place to bike or run around the city, check out the North Branch Trail. It might be one of the best kept secrets in Chicago. You can see a map of the top and bottom halves of the NBTS here.