BLOOMINGTON — It is a Friday evening of high summer warmth on Illinois Wesleyan University’s all-weather track.
Competitors, spectators and officials are everywhere.
Folks with exercise bags, kid carriers and coolers mill about on the fringes of the stadium.
The parking lots at nearby Shirk Athletic Center are packed. Latecomers have to park on the street, a block away.
“I’d say there are 120 million people here,” estimates Craig R. Charles, of Normal, with a full-toothed smile.
Suddenly, the public address announcer announces — “OK, they’re off!” — and out on the track gallops a horde of runners out of the chutes.
Arms swing. Legs pump. Faces grimace, just like any other track event, with one exception:
These are 3-year-olds.
Next will be a phalanx of bobbing 4-year-olds.
And then the 5s … And 6s …
Yes, this is “Kids Run For Fun.”
At 6 o’clock on Friday eves of summer, as backyard cookouts are commencing out on the east side and happy hours are taking place at spirits dispensers downtown, a burgeoning throng — families, grandparents, friends, running enthusiasts, volunteers — gathers at IWU. Hosted by the Bloomington-Normal Lake Run Club, the weekly event draws up to 700 children.
Times aren’t important, especially for the toddlers.
That could take a calendar rather than a stopwatch.
No one really cares who wins.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Carl Lewis or Jerry Lewis.
Before the evening’s start, runners get an official race number to pin on their chests, and after each race, each gets a “Fun Runner” ribbon.
“They’re delicious!” jokes Sherry Hill, a longtime runner whose teething grandson, 11-month-old Mason Schweizer, just “ran” in the toddlers’ race (hey, three weeks ago, he wasn’t even walking!) and appears to enjoy gnawing at his ribbon as much as the run.
It costs just $1 a week for kids ages just past none through 12 years to do the run.
At the end of each race day are accolades and back pats, not to mention cookies and Kool-Aid.
“It’s to get families together and kids out there onto the track,” says Nancy Beaty, a Lake Club official in charge of the event. “It’s to help them learn at a young age that exercising and running can be really fun.”
At the younger levels, like the 2s, running with the kids, naturally, are their parents, most of whom are in shorts, T-shirts and tennies.
A few, though, are conspicuously not.
Looking just out of the office, Rich Marvel, a Bloomington lawyer, is in a long-sleeved white shirt, nice slacks and dress shoes, as he “runs” with his 3-year-old.
Shirley Patterson, a shop employee at Eastland Mall, is in a skirt as she encourages her daughter.
Some of the parents — like Lyndsey and Josh Koestner, of Bloomington, and parents of 19-month-old twins Carolyn and McKenzie — run with their toddling girls, between steering them to stay on the track and occasionally picking them up to fend off a quick cry.
Observes the twins’ wisened granddad, Dave Birky, over on the sidelines with 5-year-old granddaughter Chloe, up three races later: “It can at times be difficult trying to figure out who’s getting the most exercise here.”
The fun run began 17 years ago, on a whim and a lark.
“Peoria had one,” says Herb Cheek, among those who launched the one at IWU, “so we thought, ‘why not Bloomington, too’?”
The first night, says Meg Anderson, another founder along with husband, Merlin, they hoped for 40 kids.
One hundred thirty-five showed.
Since then, the fun run has been done every summer.
In a fast, frenzied world, the speed of the event also is a draw.
“They come, they run a lap, they leave,” says Beaty.
“We’ve got it down to a science,” adds Meg Anderson. “We get everything done, start to finish, in just a little over an hour. By 7, everyone’s gone.”
“It’s probably just the fun and fact I like the (Lake Run) club so much that I do this,” explains Bill Hahm, another volunteer whose job is to talk up the races and spray down all the competitors, with a bottle, as they stand at the starting line.
If there is an appeal beyond the health aspects, the fun, the camaraderie and the entertainment value, it’s the way the run helps kids wind down.
“Oh, this runs off all their energy,” chuckles Jason Dazy, looking out upon the field of competitors with his wife, Rebecca.
Julie Dawson, another parent nearby, agrees.
So does Alyson Metzdorff.
So do Kelly and T.J. Harms, who have all three of their kidlings here.
As the evening winds down and the throng heads toward the parking lots, a few of the devoted competitors remain.
“I just like running,” offers Zach, a 5-year-old, guzzling a Kool-Aid. “I was running like crazy out there.”
“Yuh, me, too,” enthusiastically adds Thad, a friend. “Well, except I didn’t finish.”
And so it goes in the big-league world of 5-year-old sprinters.