This summer, I trained for the Chicago Marathon with the Chicago Area Runners Association, aka CARA.

Because I ran the marathon on behalf of the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program, I was able to sign up for the CARA summer marathon training program for free. (I could have also signed up with Chicago Endurance Sports [CES] instead, but they did not have any south suburban locations.) I ran at the CARA training site in Oak Forest – this group is also known locally as the Yankee Runners, because they train in Yankee Woods. I’ve actually met many of them at the Monday night group runs at Running For Kicks. The Yankee Runners also do a free (non-CARA) winter marathon training program (just group long runs) in preparation for the Illinois Marathon.

What was included in my summer marathon training:

  • CARA Summer Marathon Training tech shirt and some other swag (I think a Clif Shot and pack of Clif Shot Bloks and other typical race swag)
  • CARA Summer Marathon Training booklet, with suggested training plans and other training advice
  • Access to the CARA indoor area before and after the Chicago Marathon. (I did not utilize this because I had access to the ACS tent, but I believe the CARA area included private gear check and bathrooms, and a place to stay warm before the race. I think this was also open to all CARA members.)
  • Weekly group long runs on Saturday mornings following Hal Higdon’s beginner, intermediate and advanced marathon plans. The long runs included:
    • Pace leaders
    • Gatorade and water stations every 2-3 miles
    • Snacks post-run, usually watermelon, pretzels, peanut butter, M&Ms, cookies, etc
    • Post-run massages on-site for $1/minute after some of the long runs
    • Access to lots of other veteran marathoners for advice
    • Motivation from the site leader and other runners
  • Supported run during our second-to-last longest run (the usual Gatorade/Water stations had additional snacks like pretzels, oranges, Swedish fish, GU, etc)
  • Free registration for the Newton Ready-to-Run 20 miler (I did not do this because I had a wedding the night before, so I did my 20 miler with my running club, but I  still got the shirt because I gave my bib to a friend and he picked it up for me)
  • Social events – we had one on-site post-run breakfast early in the summer, and I think there was a dinner on a weekday evening later in the summer [I did not attend] and there is a post-marathon banquet [but I will be out of town]
  • A Super Clinic the Saturday before our first group run (I did not attend because I ran the Sunburst Half Marathon that day)
  • One-year subscription to Running Times magazine
  • Weekly emails with advice and other updates

Cost: $75-210. (Depending on if you are a CARA member and have ever done a training program with them before.)

What was a part of summer marathon training but open to anyone:

I do not know if all CARA training sites are like what I listed above, or if this is just how the Oak Forest group operates. Also, I could have bounced around and run at a different CARA site each weekend if I wanted to. (All participants at all the sites received a reflective shoe tag to identify them as part of the program.)

The rest of our training runs were not part of the training program. We only met on Saturdays (and Wednesdays if you could make it to the track workouts). Although many of these runners did run on Mondays at Running For Kicks, but those are free group runs open to anyone.

Overall, I think the training program is good for runners who like running with other people or need the support of other runners, but don’t already belong to an organized running club. The CARA program divides up runners by pace, so it’s also good if you like to run at a consistent pace every week.

The water stations along the way (I brought my hand held and would refill) and the food afterward were extremely beneficial. But, this could be replicated if your running club is organized enough to assign people to drop water along a pre-planned route, and someone (or just you) brings snacks for afterward. Or, if you run solo, you can just plan your run to loop back home a few times, and get your fill of water/snacks there. But that requires a lot of pre-planning, so it was nice that someone else took care of it.

Also, I always appreciate the camaraderie of runners, and the willingness of veteran runners to share their advice. My club has a lot of “newer” runners, and not a lot of veteran runners (people who have been running for 5-10 years or more). I did find that the CARA group did have a lot of veteran runners (and not just the pace leaders). And it was a boost to see “normal” looking people who were training for their 5th or 10th marathon or whatever. If they can do it (and keep coming back), I can finish a marathon, too.

So, to sum up, I think a CARA training program might be good for you if:

  • You don’t like running alone and don’t already belong to a club (or, no one else in your club is training for a marathon and therefore doing super-long runs)
  • You want supported long runs and don’t have an organized group or other runners with which to plan for water drops, post-run snacks, etc
  • You like running with pace groups
  • You’re a newbie and looking for the advice/support of veteran runners

I’m not sure if I would do another CARA training program because I already belong to a running club. I will, however, continue to renew my CARA membership ($44/year) for the race discounts, other local discounts, events, subscription to Runners’ World, and occasional race-day perks.

Have you ever trained with CARA or another training program? What did you think of it?

(Nobody asked me to write this review, I just wrote it to help contribute to the local running community.)

Breakfast after a CARA run