Talk to runners who've come here from other cities and you'll likely hear that Chicago area races generally are better organized, and the whole road race scene is superior to most other parts of the country. Practically every weekend, it seems, you can choose among several good races. We also have effective structures for individual age group competition and among running clubs.
This proliferation of well-run events and the organized regional competition didn't just happen by accident. The Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) was founded in 1978 by a small group of runners who had gripes about early Chicago Marathons which, they felt, were set up without sufficient regard for the runners themselves. From this humble beginning, CARA has grown into the nation's third-largest runners' organization, maintaining its role as the "runner's advocate for safe, quality running conditions in races and on area running paths."
Over the years, on the CARA Race Circuit and in CARA Registered races, CARA endorsement has fostered higher quality running events. The Circuit, consisting of about 20 of the region's best races (including The Race That's Good for Life in Oak Park), is the basis for team and individual age-group competition during each running season. Competing in these races, runners' results are tabulated against others in the same 5-year age groups. Same for club competition, where a club's combined results are scored against other Chicago-area running clubs for annual bragging rights (and I'm proud to note that the Oak Park Runners Club has often been among the top three).
A list of CARA race standards should be adhered to by race organizers to earn endorsement as a Registered Race or a Circuit Race. These events are charged a fee for this recognition, but if the standards aren't followed, the races can be dropped from the recommended lists. Only about one in three races qualifies for recognition as a CARA Registered or Circuit event. But judging from the comments of people who move here from other cities, this "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" seems to have rubbed off on other local races, as well, enhancing the quality of many events which are not endorsed by CARA.
But certainly not every race lives up to these standards. Last spring's notorious Lakefront Marathon which was fully a mile too long was NOT a CARA-endorsed event.
CARA also produces training programs for everyone from beginning runners to marathoners. It's highly respected Marathon Training Program was developed by Brian Piper, a member of the Oak Park Runners Club. And it has an impressive success record, with practically everyone who has completed the training, successfully finishing the Chicago Marathon. At the shorter end of the distance spectrum are training programs for beginning runners, as well as programs to get runners prepared for 5K, 8K, 10K and half-marathon races.
But if a runner already belongs to a local club why join CARA? Because a CARA membership helps insure continuation of better overall race standards and continuation of the annual circuit competition. Members also get discounts on CARA training programs and at many running-related stores (including The Competitive Foot here in Oak Park). There's also a weekly e-newsletter and mailed copies of Chicago Athlete which include CARA's Chicago Runner section.
I realize this sounds sort of like a commercial, but many members of the Oak Park Runners Club belong to both organizations as a way of participating in the local club and supporting the high-quality running scene for the whole region. We've all enjoyed the benefits, members or not.