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Chicago Versus Cleveland for Runners

Baseball's World Series is underway, and we examine which of the two cities competing, Chicago or Cleveland, is the better city for runners.

Major League Baseball’s World Series is underway, with much being made of the fact that both teams are hoping to break epic streaks without winning baseball’s biggest title. If the Cleveland Indians prevail it will be their first World Series win since 1948, while the Chicago Cubs haven’t been called the best team in baseball since 1908.

To put that in running terms, consider that American marathoners have won three Olympic gold medals (Johnny Hayes in 1908, Frank Shorter in 1972 and Joan Benoit in 1984) since the Cubbies last won a World Series. When the Tribe took the 1948 title, the New York Road Runners club was still 10 years from forming and the first Chicago Marathon would not be held for more than three decades. Heck, several waves of the running boom have happened since Hall of Fame players Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were in their prime. (Boudreau, who was the AL MVP of the 1948 season when the Indians last won it all, was a native of Chicago’s south suburbs and a long-time Cubs broadcaster.)

A lot of dirty water has flowed through the Cuyahoga and Chicago Rivers (and maybe some sour grapes too) since Cubs or Indians fans could call their teams baseball champions. But which city is tops for runners? Competitor contributing editor Mark Eller and editor-in-chief Brian Metzler make a case for cities where they each have ties.

Cleveland Running Rocks

I’ve never lived in Cleveland, but my grandfather was a fire department chief there, my father grew up watching the Indians play and my cousin Pat ran track at Westlake HS. I know that Chicago has more runners, an internationally known marathon and a waterfront running path, but I feel confident in saying that Cleveland’s running scene surpasses it.

If that claim seems outrageous, consider that one of Cleveland’s most prized assets is the “Emerald Necklace,” the intertwined system of Cleveland Metroparks properties that feature hundreds of miles of well-maintained footpaths, bridal trails and other runner-friendly options. Cuyahoga Valley National Park lies just south of the city and offers gorgeous trails, along with options for more technical surfaces running on singletrack trails.

The vibe of the Cleveland running scene is low key, but not low performance. Plenty of top-level runners have emerged there, as evidenced by this account from the locally produced Salty Runner blog. “Esther Atkins was perhaps the biggest running star Case Western Reserve University ever produced,” Salty writes. “Heidi Greenwood lived and trained for a few years here while her husband did his residency at the Cleveland Clinic. Nicole Camp is from a small town outside of Cleveland and moved closer to the city after college to train and work for a few years before joining Hudson Elite in Colorado, even qualifying for her first Olympic Trials at the 2011 Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon.”

Speaking of the city’s biggest race, while the Cleveland Marathon isn’t as well known as Chicago’s signature event, it’s 40-year history makes it one of the 50 oldest marathons in the country. The field of 30,000 is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s one of the friendliest, best-organized events you’ll ever run. Cleveland also has scads of great running stores and running clubs, including the Cleveland Elite Development squad. Better yet, all of these advantages are delivered with Clevelanders’ characteristic friendly attitudes and charm.

RELATED: 54 Spring Races to Sign Up for (Includes the Cleveland Marathon) 

Chicago is My Kind of Town

Chicago (and its outlying suburbs) is one of the best places to run anywhere in the world.

OK, I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, have gone to hundreds of Cubs games at Wrigley Field (including Game 1 of this year’s NLDS) and ran high school track in the area (often against the national powerhouse York HS in Elmhurst). While my dreams of becoming the next Jim Spivey (a three-time Olympian who went to Fenton HS in Bensenville, Ill.) never panned out in college, I did run a couple of meets that the Chicago Track Club (UCTC) put on and I have logged many long runs along the city lakefront, on the Illinois Prairie Path, Waterfall Glen trail system near Darien and the amazing forest preserve parks throughout Cook and DuPage counties.

The Chicago area has produced dozens of great top-tier runners, including Evan Jager (a Jacobs HS grad who won the silver medal in the 3,000m steeplechase at the Rio Olympics), Greg Foster (a three-time world champion hurdler and Proviso East HS grad), Rick Wohlhuter (a St. Charles, Ill. native and University of Chicago Track Club member who won the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist in the 880m run) and Jenny Spangler (a longtime Gurnee, Ill., resident who won the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and had a great career as a masters runner). Plus, three Chicago-area running shops are often among the 50 Best Running Stores in America (Fleet Feet Chicago, Dick Pond Athletics and the Naperville Running Company, the latter of which is a two-time winner of the Running Store of the Year award.)

But what makes the Chicago area a great place for running is the enormous running community and the great places—and races!—to run. The Chicago Marathon, which celebrates its 40th year in 2017, is one of the six World Marathon Majors and perennially an amazing spectacle of local citizens running fast times, raising money for charity and/or just finishing. For Cubs fans, the Chicago Cubs Race to Wrigley 5K (late April) has become an annual rite of passage in the spring as it starts and finishes just a few blocks from Wrigley Field and actually passes through a portion of the stadium. The Soldier Field 10 Mile (late May), Shamrock Shuffle 8K (early April) and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon, 10K and 5K (mid-July).

Like Cleveland, the weather can be harsh (hot and muggy in the summer and freeze-your-face-off cold in the winter) but the people are friendly and a post-run beer is never hard to find. There’s a lot to do in the Chicago area, but running is part of the fabric of life for quite a few people.

RELATED: 5 Great Places to Run in Chicago