The Allerton Trail Run is an annual tradition for many of the 500 or so runners it attracts from throughout central Illinois.
It’s a great setting: The trail goes through the woods, along the banks of the Sangamon River, past some of the statuary and gardens of Allerton Park, to finish in the meadow with a post-race brunch.
Merlin Anderson of Normal ran the first Allerton run because he liked trail runs and thought it would be a good one. He has kept coming back, every year.
“It’s just the right distance, the course is beautiful and it has just the right amount of hills and challenge, and great food at the end,” he said, adding there are always other runners he knows. That and the brunch give the race a party atmosphere.
Anderson is one of three runners — along with Louie Tieman and Larry Grant — who have run every Allerton Trail Run. They’ll be recognized at the race this year.
Anderson ran Allerton even the year he did the Chicago Marathon the previous weekend. It was a cold, rainy day at Allerton, and his muscles were still stiff from the marathon.
“I always made it a priority. Stiff muscles or not, I’m going to do Allerton,” he said.
Tieman used to live just a few miles from the race. He now lives in Tennessee but still returns to run Allerton every fall because he enjoys the course and the runners.
Race directors say the setting in Allerton Park near Monticello is the main reason for the race’s popularity.
“It’s hard to beat a more beautiful park, with all the statues and gardens we run through,” race director Ben Newell said.
“The setting is everything,” agreed Pat Mills, who was race director for several years in the late 1990s. “It’s the perfect time of year.
“The post-race food is larger than you’d get at races of this size. We usually come through with providing a pretty quality event.”
Mills said as race director he tried to make the race more environmentally friendly by doing away with the plastic “goodie bags” stuffed with race brochures, sponsor information or other paper items.
Newell, in his third year as race director, is trying to put a renewed emphasis on having a “green” race — as well as cutting costs — by forgoing the race bags, going to online registration only, and asking participants to bring their own water bottles and bib pins and to carpool to the race if possible.
Also, Newell said, “I’ve been trying to improve the relations with Allerton Park.”
A portion of the race proceeds is donated to the park.
Chris Hermann, who was development director for the park before retiring last year, helped put the money given to the park from the running club to some use that would both improve the park and enhance the trail run.
The money has been used to put in a railing at a river overlook to make it safer and to make improvements on a portion of the trail to prevent erosion.
In addition, the race increases the awareness of the park, said Brenda Abbott, the manager of the Allerton retreat center.
“Anytime we can get that number of people out here to experience the park, we certainly encourage that, as we try to build awareness in the area about what Allerton is and what a resource it is,” Abbott said. “With more people we can reach through events like the trail run, we treasure the relationship.”
While the race has a long history, there have been changes.
“I respected the tradition of the race. I wanted to retain as much of it as I could,” Mills said. “It was a great event, and I didn’t want to change much, because so much of it was right.”
One change that occurred during his tenure, at the suggestion of park officials, was in the direction of the course. Runners used to start on the road and head in the direction of the Sun Singer statue before veering into the woods and onto a trail. They finished in the Fu Dog Garden.
Now it starts in a grassy area near the mansion, heads through the Fu Dog Garden, then follows the trail along the Sangamon River. Runners circle the Sun Singer statue, then head back onto the trail and past the Death of the Last Centaur statue.
“In many ways, it was a nice change,” Mills said of the new route. “It was great to see people popping out of the woods in the Fu Dog Garden and finishing there.”
But it is more spectator-friendly now, he said, with supporters able to watch the runners circle the meadow to the finish line.
The race has traditionally been followed by a post-race brunch of mostly homemade items. Newell said he wants the race to be a relatively low-cost family event, where families can run or walk together and enjoy the brunch and costume awards. A few years ago, the race organizers encouraged participants to dress in costume, as the race falls near Halloween.
“It’s such a longstanding race. There’s history there,” Newell said. “There are a lot of people who have run it for many years. It’s kind of an annual event they look forward to.”
The 5.7-mile Allerton Trail Run will be on Sunday, Oct. 28. For more information or to register for the race, go to www.secondwindrunningclub.org/races/allerton .
Photo: Runners approach the end of the Allerton Trail Run in 2002. Photo by Holly Hart/The News-Gazette.