Hidden Gem Half Marathon runners reflect on Flossmoor race

The short section of Flossmoor Road between Village Hall and Infant Jesus of Prague Church would normally be fairly quiet before 7:45 a.m. on a Saturday, but this past weekend it was buzzing with 620 runners warming up and waiting for their countdown.
 
The runners gathered for the Hidden Gem Half Marathon and quickly set off on the 13.1-mile course through Flossmoor’s various neighborhoods, past its schools and sculptures and in view of local spectators and cheerleaders of all kinds.
 
The fastest male runner, Alan Peterson of Chicago, completed the course in 1 hour, 4 minutes and 16 seconds, while the fastest female runner, Alyssa Schneider of Bartlett, had a time of 1 hour, 15 minutes and 35 seconds.
 
Prize winners:
Male 
  1. First place: Alan Peterson, Chicago, 1:04:16 ($1,000 prize).
  2. Second place: Colin Milkow, Naperville, 1:04:54 ($500 prize).
  3. Third place: John Dewitt, West Allis, Wisconsin, 1:05:53 ($250 prize).
Female 
  1. First place: Alyssa Schneider, Bartlett, 1:15:35 ($1,000 prize).
  2. Second Place: Jane Bareikis, Crestwood, 1:15:48 ($500 prize).
  3. Third Place: Chirne NJeiny, Chicago, 1:16:08 ($250 prize).
 
By noon all runners had crossed the finish line on Sterling Avenue and continued past the library into downtown, where the annual Flossmoor Fest was taking place.  
 
Runners could pick up print-outs of their times under the pop-up brewery tent where a grapefruit Kolsch brewed by Flossmoor Station in honor of the event was being served. 

The race was officially timed by Big River Race Management, and the course was certified by the Chicago Area Runners Association.
 
Betsy Cutrara, one of the race directors, said when the idea for the Hidden Gem first started to take off, the goal was to register at least 300 runners.
 
“We thought optimistically we could get 500,” she said. “We far exceeded our goal.”
 
In the end, runners registered from 16 different states, including 77 from Flossmoor, 67 from Homewood, about 150 from Chicago and more than 260 from Illinois suburbs. One runner even travelled from Germany, she said. 

Additionally, more than 325 people served as volunteers.
 
Cutrara said the race would not have been possible without the volunteers, the team of organizers who coordinated planning and marketing, and the vast amount of support demonstrated from the community.
 
“It started as a seed and it just grew into this beautiful plant,” she said. “It wasn’t just one or two of us, it was a whole group. It was just amazing how all the right things happened for (the race) to happen.”
 
The youngest runner was 16-year-old Flossmoor resident Kate Nelson, who took home a first-place award in her age category.
 
Nelson had the fastest time for women under 20 years old: 2 hours, 2 minutes and 22 seconds.
 
“I was really tired (toward the end),” Nelson said. “I felt like my legs couldn’t move, but I pushed through. I kept telling myself I was almost there, so I couldn’t stop.” 
 
Nelson is homeschooled and said she has been running in the community for about two years.
 
“Running helps relieve stress,” she said. “It can put you in a good mood.” 
 
Nelson said she wanted to run the Hidden Gem to challenge herself, and she didn’t let being the youngest person on the course intimidate her.
 
“I didn’t have a goal in mind,” she said. “I just wanted to see what I could do.”
 
The race was also a way for the determined young violinist to stay well rounded. Nelson said she is more focused on her future in music than athletics, but she will consider running a full marathon when she is older.

Other Flossmoor residents who won in their age categories included Tamerra Buckhanan, second place for women 70 and older; Robert Hela, first place for men 60 to 69 years old; and Deborah Burnet, first place for women 60 to 69 years old.
 
Priscilla Cordero, a member of the Homewood-Flossmoor Community Running Club, said about 25 club members trained together before participating in the Hidden Gem. They wore matching T-shirts and met for photos before taking off at their own paces, she said.
 
“I have to say (the race) exceeded our expectations, not just because it was in our hometown, but I just thought it was very well organized, well planned, well executed,” Cordero said.
 
Cordero said everything from the volunteers to mile markers helped make the race a good experience.
 
“The spectators were so encouraging,” she said. “I can’t count how many high-fives I got.”
 
Cordero said the Hidden Gem motivated a lot of running club members to get more involved; the group meets for runs in the community three times per week and includes people of all skill levels. 
 
Alyssa Schneider of Bartlett, the first woman to cross the finish line, said she decided to run the Hidden Gem because of its location and timing; it was close enough to home to get in a “hard-effort” run before competing in the Chicago Marathon in October.
 
Schneider has competed twice in the Chicago Marathon and once in a marathon in Japan. She said the running community brings people together from around the world. 
 
“I think the more people you have to be running with, the better the atmosphere,” she said. “Whenever you can get a lot of people together, people are just going to flock to it.”
 
She said the Hidden Gem was nice because it was a flat course, and the volunteers and spectators provided welcome encouragement.
 
“I was definitely excited to be toward the front,” Schneider said. “I just kind of told myself to stay strong and keep my form because I was definitely tired.”
 
Jane Bareikis of Crestwood also ran the Hidden Gem to train for the Chicago Marathon. Bareikis had the second fastest time of all female runners.
 
“With half marathons, I think you need to get speed, but when it comes to marathons you need to have speed plus mileage too,” she said. “You really need to build up.”
 
Bareikis said she came to the Hidden Gem with the mindset that she wanted to win.
 
“You know when the competition is high, when you win, you’ve got to win with a good time,” she said. “All the ladies there were very good.”
 
John Dewitt of West Allis, Wisconsin, who finished in third place for all male runners, said he ran the Hidden Gem for the competition and to train for the Toronto Marathon.
 
“There were a lot of turns out there, but it was a scenic course,” he said. “I just enjoyed the opportunity to go out and race against some good, quality competition.”
 
Dewitt added that it was fun to be part of an up-and-coming race.
 
“It was cool to go out there and grind a little bit and see what happens,” he said.
 
Nathan Wu of Seattle said he was planning a trip to visit friends in Chicago, searched online for runs in the area and thought the Hidden Gem sounded like fun.
 
Wu said he started running to get into better shape, and before Saturday he had only participated in 5K runs.
 
“It’s definitely like a mental battle in the second half, especially in the last portion when you kind of see the finish line,” he said. “It’s like you’ve really got to push yourself to the max.”
 
What stood out to him about the course was how pleasant the village and its residents were, he said.
 
“I really enjoyed the people cheering on every corner,” Wu said. “That was really encouraging. It really gave me a boost when I was getting really tired.”
 
Joe Kuchta, one of the race organizers, said the next step for the Hidden Gem will be to get to work on a better race for next year based on the runners' feedback. He added that coordinating with Flossmoor Fest was a perk that hopefully will continue.
 
“From the very beginning, we never said we were going to do this one time,” he said. “The goal was to do it right the first time and go from there.”

Photos by Mary Compton/H-F Chronicle.
 

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