Whether it’s the flat prairieland or the on-the-go culture of Chicago, Illinois runners are making their mark in the race to the Summer Olympics.
With more than half of Illinois’ Olympic hopefuls and team representatives competing in a running sport, it appears the local landscape may be key for competitive runners.
“The lakefront is a huge, huge benefit to being a runner in Chicago," said Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) training program manager Megan Sullivan, "but also within 20 minutes to a half hour you can go into the wooded trails and have a totally different environment. So, the balance between those two is pretty amazing.”
Olympic track and field trials, which start June 21, feature over half a dozen Illinois athletes, including former Olympian Wallace Spearmon from Chicago, Dawn Harper from East St. Louis, Ill., and Dan Huling from Geneva.
Local devotees say they know why the Midwest has such a strong turnout.
"[Chicago] is the world's best city for running," said Dave Zimmer, owner of Chicago running store and training facility Fleet Feet Sports. "The Chicago Marathon is an ambassador to the world of running and is giving a showcase for people to come and run in a world class event. Running really just is a part of the culture and spirit of Chicago."
Sullivan said runners have found sanctuary in Illinois for years, but the sport's recent popularity has drawn a larger crowd.
The 2012 Bank of America Chicago Marathon sold out in a record six days, and since 2001, Illinois marathon runners have increased by more that 30 percent, plateauing at around 20,000 local participants.
Not all Chicago athletes are marathon runners. Sullivan said CARA boasts more than 8,600 athletes participating in training programs for races of all lengths and the number is rapidly growing.
Suburban clubs are seeing a spike in numbers too.
The Aurora Flyers, a track club that trains younger athletes in the western suburb, had 160 youth runners qualify for the Junior Olympics, an increase of over 30 percent in the last year, according to head coach Tom Boatright.
But Illinois athletes are no strangers to Olympic running sports thanks to Spearmon, who represented Team USA in track and field in 2008, and stamina running sports like basketball, which featured the Chicago Sky's Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings of Lincolnshire, Ill. and Sylvia Fowles of Naperville that same year.
The U.S. Women’s Soccer team recently announced their roster with Amy Lepeilbet of Crystal Lake, and Fowles, Catchings and Parker will again fight for gold with the Women’s Basketball team in London.
"I don't think elite runners are coming to the Midwest, I think they're being produced in the Midwest," said Zimmer.