With the reopening last fall of the south entrance bridge at Allerton Park near Monticello, Dean Hixson saw an opportunity.
The park is Hixson’s favorite place to run, and when the bridge was reopened after 11 years, the Monticello resident thought he’d get together a group of friends and do a run that encompassed the trails on both sides of the Sangamon River.
Then he mapped out a half marathon course and started thinking bigger.
“There’s been a great race on the north side of the park for a long time,” Hixson said, referring to the Allerton Trail Run in late October, organized by Second Wind Running Club. “But you’ve not been able to ... connect the two (trails).”
The races will start on the road and cross the reopened bridge before veering onto the Schroth Trail on the south side of the Sangamon River. The route will include some scenic overlooks of the Sangamon River and the Lost Garden at the south end of the park.
Runners will return to the road and cross the bridge again. The 10K runners will finish in the Fu Dog Garden; half marathoners will run trails along the Sangamon River, up steps leading to the Death of the Last Centaur sculpture and past the Sun Singer. They also will finish in the Fu Dog Garden.
“So many of the features I love about running in the park are included in this race,” Hixson said. “It’s some of the prettiest sections of the park within the first 3 miles. There are a number of breathtaking views. There is high river overlook on the south side, and you’re running right along the river on the north side. We’ve got deep woods and wide open meadows. We’ve got ‘eureka’ moments of statues in the middle of nowhere.”
The races will be accessible to all kinds of runners, Hixson said, with most of the course being relatively flat. The first 0.7-mile part of the road will eliminate congestion before the runners get to the trail.
“This fits the park so well. We have the area and the trails,” said Derek Peterson, Allerton’s associate director of park operations. “I think it’s great. It’s a really unique location.”
Peterson said fitness and outdoor activities are an “untapped resource” for Allerton, and “there’s potential for more of it to occur.”
He said the race at Allerton is an opportunity to introduce more people to the park and bring out more visitors, as the Allerton Trail Run in the fall has done, and to educate the public about the ecosystem there and the need to protect it.
“(Participants) are going to be running every trail out here, experiencing bottomlands and uplands. April is a great time out here, with the wildflowers,” he said.
Peterson and Hixson have also discussed making some of the buildings at the park available in the future to runners who want to stay overnight there. Tent camping near the park will be available for runners this year.
“They’ve been really welcoming, and that’s the only reason it’s really possible,” Hixson said of park officials. “We have the makings of a really good partnership.”
At the same time, Hixson knew of a local family with a child being treated for leukemia. The family made a trip to Disney World last year, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Hixson realized the amount of money he might raise from a race could pay for such a trip for another family.
He made the race a fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Illinois, and race proceeds will go to that organization.
Hixson talked with Ben Newell, who is race director for the fall Allerton Trail Run, and Mike Lindemann, one of the co-directors of the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.
Hixson picked the first weekend in April after talking with Lindemann. Hixson said the race, three weeks before the Illinois Marathon, could serve as a training run for marathon participants.
He also didn’t want to compete with the fall run at Allerton.
“I’m a big fan of the fall trail run,” Hixson said. “I’ve gone out of my way to make this not feel like that, because I want people to participate in both.”
Because the new race is in the spring and uses trails on the south side of the park, in addition to the ones run for the fall Allerton Trail Run, Newell said he didn’t think the new race would take away from the fall race.
“The more people we can get to run at Allerton with another race, I think, will help the fall race, as once people see how beautiful the park is for a running venue, the more they’ll want to come back. I hope he can draw some new runners to the park,” Newell said.
More than 170 runners from nine states were entered as of last week, Hixson said. He’s looking for additional sponsors now.
He’s planning entertainment along the race course and a pasta feed at the Allerton Music Barn the night before the race, in conjunction with a barn dance that will kick off an Allerton Park concert series.
He’s also worked with Newell and the race director for Monticello’s Kirby Derby to establish a “Triple Crown.” Runners who participate in one of the Allerton Trails races in April, the Kirby Derby in May and the Allerton Trail Run in October will get a special award.
If you run
The Allerton Trails Half Marathon & 10K is April 6. For more information, visit the race website at http://www.allertontrailshalfmarathon.com/  or the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AllertonBridgeHash .
Photo: Dean Hixson, left, the race director for the upcoming Allerton Trails Half Marathon & 10K Race, discusses the layout of the event at the park near Monticello with Allerton officials Matt Smith and Derek Peteson and runner Mike Heiniger. Photo by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette