Runnersville: How did one Midwest town become a hub of running success?

Dec 16, 2014

By Elle Metz

On a chilly morning last November in a sprawling Chicago suburb, the sun has barely crested the horizon when runners in bright clothing descend on the downtown from seemingly every direction.

There are former cross-country participants who grew up here, local running group cronies, moms, dads, and North Central College alumni. They have come to run a marathon. The race will begin at the college then weave through neighborhoods and forest preserves – through a town that, sometime in the last 50 years, became a running hamlet.

“It’s one of the biggest secrets that Naperville has,” says area high school coach Paul Vandersteen. The town has “one of the top ten running communities in the country.” North Central College is a Division III running powerhouse with 25 national titles. Area high schools repeatedly win cross-country state championships. Naperville’s running store was named best in the nation. Today’s first-ever Edward Hospital Naperville Marathon sold out in less than 24 hours. And on a typical morning, the town’s roads and trails are cluttered with runners.

Eugene, Ore., is the birthplace of Nike. Boulder, Col., – with its tough terrain and beautiful scenery – has been an elite running destination since the 1970s. Unlike these running meccas though, Naperville – a flat, sprawling suburb – has little to distinguish itself from hundreds of other small cities. Yet something, or someone, here is churning out fleet-footed runners and casual joggers alike. As Naperville Marathon race director Dave Sheble says, in this town, “it seems like everywhere you go, everywhere you turn, there’s people running.”

A Midwest hamlet

Located 30 miles west of Chicago, Naperville’s picturesque houses and lush trees give it a too-good-to-be-true vibe. The downtown boasts charming historical buildings, a flower-lined river walk and as Russell Crowe observed after staying in Naperville while shooting a film nearby, “more ice cream stores per square mile than I think any other place.” In the last 24 years, the population has grown from just over 87,000 to almost 144,000 as the city gobbled up its surrounding farmland. The county still maintains 80 miles of trails though.

The North Central College Marathon (left) and the 1973 cross-country team. Photos courtesy of North Central College.

"It's one of the biggest secrets that Naperville has." -Paul Vandersteen

Prominent members of the running community offer simple explanations for its success. “Well it has what you need in order to be a running town,” says high school cross-country coach Dan Iverson. “It has relatively safe streets…it has enough people that sustain that.”

Naperville son turned professional runner Chris Derrick cites the “nice trail system.” It’s true that you can’t have a great running town without the right topographic and demographic elements, but what sets Naperville apart from the hundreds of beautiful, wealthy and healthy suburbs with dedicated weekend warriors? That’s when they start to talk about the cast of characters who anchor and inspire the town’s running community.

Running comes to town

It's serendipitous!” exclaims North Central College men’s cross-country and track coach Al Carius as I enter his office one weekday morning. The walls are covered with framed All-American certificates, vintage photographs, and plaques. The evidence of 48 years of success.

Fate would have it that my high school track coach, Chuck Hoff, is visiting Carius today too. Hoff is one of Carius’s former runners and now teaches elementary school art in Naperville. Of course, I have heard of Carius and his many victories but have never met the man.

Carius (center) in his early days of coaching at North Central Photo courtesy of North Central College.

The North Central College Marathon trophy. Photo courtesy of Elle Metz.

He is medium height and wiry with intense blue eyes and silver hair that sticks up jauntily from his head. At 71, he remains constantly in motion – from his desk to a chair across the room, and up to point to a picture on the wall. He exudes an unsinkable delight – with his fellow coaches, his athletes, and with his lot in life as the patriarch of a running dynasty.

Carius came to Naperville in 1966 to coach at North Central and remembers that, “it seemed like a farm community and a small town to me.” A place that reminded him of his small hometown of Morton, Ill. Between Morton and Naperville, Carius attended and ran cross-country at the University of Illinois. He jokes that he dreamt of playing basketball though. In 1960, Naperville’s population was just under 13,000 and Carius’s athletes ran workouts on farmland and trails that are now major neighborhoods. The year after Carius arrived, North Central decided to host its own marathon – the first Naperville Marathon – and held one every year from 1967 to 1975.

Around the same time, running was growing in popularity across the country. Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight started Nike in Eugene, Ore. in 1960 and the fledgling company really got going in the 70s. That same decade, Bowerman’s star runner Steve Prefontaine was putting up the performances that would make him famous and inspire runners for decades to come. American Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972. What would become U.S.A. Track and Field – the sport’s preeminent organization – began operating in 1979. The running boom had arrived and North Central just beat the trend with its marathon.

The North Central College Marathon's course map. Photo courtesy of North Central College.

A North Central runner in 1973, wearing the famous striped singlet. Photo courtesy of North Central College.

In his office, Carius shows me the race’s golden winged-foot trophy. It’s a bit dilapidated and the foot breaks in half and detaches into his hand. The marathon was also informal but this didn’t affect its popularity, and the race grew to 200 participants. Eventually, it got too big for North Central to handle and the college discontinued the race.

"No matter where I go, people know North Central College." -Hal Carlson

The Winged Foot Club – a big supporter of the marathon – adds another piece to the puzzle of Naperville’s running success. The group formed around the same time as the marathon and was a way for North Central alums to keep running after they graduated. Members would meet every morning at the college, sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m. Over the years, the club has included everyone from Olympic-trial qualifiers in the marathon to casual joggers.

Today the group is known as the North Central College Track Club. It meets to run every day of the year, regardless of holidays or weather. Monday through Friday, members convene at North Central at 5:30 a.m.; on weekends and holidays, they sleep in an hour or so longer. “It’s a really informal club,” says president Hal Carlson, “but I would say there are 50 hardcore members and then another 50 that might jump in occasionally.”

Informal or not, a 40 plus-year-old club that meets every day is rare, and members take great pride in their history. For years, club runners have worn red-and-white striped singlets whenever they ran road races. These flashes of candy cane show up in Chicago Marathon crowds and local 5ks. The jerseys mimic North Central’s uniforms. “I wear mine religiously. Anytime I race, I wear my singlet,” Carlson, who didn’t attend the school, says. “The recognition you get – no matter where I go, people know North Central College.”

A running dynasty

The 1998 Division III national champion cross-country team. Photo courtesy of North Central College.

Al Carius.

Naperville's strong running culture blossomed as the town grew. And North Central’s success flourished over the years too. In total, the Cardinals have produced 26 Division III national titles in cross-country, indoor and outdoor track. In the past five years alone, North Central runners won four cross-country national championships. Plus the program has produced 109 All-Americans in cross-country and seven individual national champions. The overwhelming majority of Carius’s current team comes from Illinois, many from near Naperville.

Carius is partial to coaching clichés. He maintains that winning isn’t most important. But nearly everyone I speak to about Carius endorses his philosophy. And it’s possible that his priorities are how the program escaped burnout. He wants his runners to love running and to compete for that very reason. More than anything, he wants running to teach his young men “life lessons that are going to help them,” he says. “Not to be necessarily better runners – they’ll run faster times – but to become better people.”

The leaders Carius produces are his real legacy; they perpetuate his love of running. His alumni frequently go on to become teachers and coaches. I was coached by three of them. “When you go through our program, you can see you can make a difference,” says North Central assistant men’s cross-country coach Chris Wheaton.

At last count, more than 100 of Carius’s protégés were coaching running across the country. Nearly 20 alums are doing so at Naperville’s junior highs, high schools and at North Central. Could the college be the spring from which runners – or more specifically, a passion for running – flows? The top of the chain is Al Carius,” Carlson says. “You just look at what it has spawned throughout the whole Naperville community…it’s just these little roots that go out all over the place, and there’s a lot of people that don’t even understand where this all started.”

"Your best is good enough"

One prominent example of Carius’ influence works just across town. At Naperville North High School, Dan Iverson, 42, holds track practice for his female distance runners. He is tall, about 6 foot 3, with an open face and bright blue eyes that can easily spot the difference between talent and a strong work ethic. He prefers the latter.

Since becoming the girl’s cross-country coach 20 years ago (I ran for him during my time at Naperville North), Iverson’s teams have won five state championships, including one this year. They’ve taken second or third place eight times. Three of his squads have qualified for and competed at Nike Cross Nationals, a national championship meet for high school runners held in Portland, Ore.

If you’re looking for the secret to his success, you might cite his training program – running five to seven days a week, specific stretching, dynamic movement drills, hip exercises, a squat routine, strength training and of course speed work. One of Iverson’s cross-country workouts, which he borrowed from Carius, has earned particular notoriety among his athletes. Blackwell, named for the forest preserve where it is run, includes four to six miles of speed work and repeats on one enormous hill – high enough that on a clear day you can see the Chicago skyline from the top.

Dan Iverson.

As Carius notes though, “the concepts of training are absolute.” Every coach worth his weight in protein bars knows the basics. What really sets Iverson’s teams apart is something I witness before practice starts. The girls gather in a classroom for a team meeting and Iverson launches into a speech on the improvisational comedy concept “yes and.” The idea is that improv actors can never say no during a scene, instead they must add to the sketch.

“You’re going to be in situations tomorrow where somebody passes you in the late stages of a race and you can say no,” Iverson says. “The challenge for you is to say ‘yes and’…I am going to step it up and try to stay with you and then I’m going to try and make a move of my own.” Iverson’s voice slows, his speech settles into a rhythm and he paces around the room. This is his element. “I watched what he did with the girls,” says Midge Good who volunteer coached with Iverson. It’s not just about running.” He understands “that there’s a life purpose behind this.”

Iverson credits his general coaching philosophy to Carius but put his own stamp on it. “One’s best ultimately will be the determinant of whether or not you’ve been successful and that’s something that all the kids have to recognize,” he says. “And we have to throughout life too. We don’t always get everything we want extrinsically but we always can get better at what we do.”

Growing Young Runners

North’s men’s cross-country team is no slouch either, consistently placing in the top 10 at the state championship meet. The town has four other public high schools. While all have active running programs, North’s girls have the best record, followed by Neuqua Valley High School, where Paul Vandersteen, 51, has been the men’s cross-country coach since the school opened 17 years ago. In that time, his runners have won two state championships and placed third twice.

The finish of Neuqua's Twilight meet. Photo courtesy of Lisa Traut.

Running usually can’t compete with the likes of football, soccer and baseball for children’s attention. It tends to collect the awkward skinny kids and cross-country and track programs often don’t even start until junior high. Not in Naperville though. It’s important to have a running program that focuses on “younger kids and giving them an outlet,” Vandersteen says.

Every summer, he holds a track and cross-country camp for 500 students ranging from third to twelfth grade. Naperville’s budding athletes get a jump-start on their running counterparts in other towns. Plus running just seems cooler here. Thanks in part to Vandersteen’s Twilight Meet. With the help of Nike and Naperville Running Company, Neuqua hosts this annual nighttime cross-country race for area high schools. Nike supplies the lights for the course and a DJ to liven the occasion. “It’s amazing,” Vandersteen says. “It is a huge highlight for the Naperville kids.”

Over 1,000 runners and fans attended the event last year. Of course Vandersteen is no stranger to large numbers. His huge teams regularly include 150 young men and he works to split his time among them. “I look at my 150th guy the same way I do my number one,” Vandersteen says.

He hasn’t wanted for talent though. Vandersteen coached one of Naperville’s best-ever running exports, Chris Derrick, who graduated from Neuqua in 2008 then ran at Stanford and now races professionally. He is sponsored by Nike and lives and trains in Portland, Ore. Derrick narrowly missed making the Olympic team in 2012, but the following year, he won the U.S. Cross-country Championships and placed 10th at the World Championships. Whatever it is about Naperville that produces great runners, Derrick got served an extra helping.

Running Store of the Year

If you walk into Naperville Running Company and immediately turn right, you’ll see an entire wall covered in a giant picture of Derrick racing for the U.S. in Moscow in 2013. This is more than a local store’s pride. Derrick used to work here. While he and I were in high school, we manned the register. My mom still works here a few hours a week.

Kris Hartner, 47, opened Naperville Running Company in 2000, fulfilling a childhood dream. He has a slim runner’s build, light coloring and a face that rarely betrays what he’s feeling. The Running Company lives in a large chunk of retail space in the middle of downtown Naperville. One wall displays row after row of colorful running shoes. Vintage running trinkets line the upper shelves – framed jerseys, autographed posters, and old photographs.

On Saturday morning, three new employees listen closely to General Manager Midge Good as she lectures on foot mechanics and shoe fitting. When the store opens half an hour later, workers will scurry about with shoeboxes. They will instruct customers to test potential footwear on a miniature rubber track or on a treadmill so they can analyze the customer’s foot strike.

In addition to expert advice, Naperville Running offers group runs. Its marathon-training program meets for five months leading up to the Chicago and Naperville Marathons and has 200 members. The store also offers twice-weekly night runs that are open to anyone. Like the North Central Track Club, these groups provide ample opportunity for local runners, no matter their talent level, to run consistently.

The Running Company is a continuous source of enthusiasm in the town’s community, Derrick says. In 2009 and again in 2013, Competitor Magazine and Running Insight named Naperville Running Company the Running Store of the Year. “Our staff is what makes the difference here,” Hartner says. He opened a second store in south Naperville this past February. While he wanted to better serve his customers in that area, Hartner says he also wanted to give some of the leaders on his staff a chance to grow and build a career.

Sold Out

When the city decided to host a marathon in 2013, Naperville Running Company stepped up as one of the race’s biggest sponsors. In its first year, registration for the Edward Hospital Naperville Marathon sold out in 14 hours. This is “very unusual,” says race director Dave Sheble. It’s “partly because it was small and partly because it involved Naperville.”

Just over 3,200 people ran the Naperville Marathon and Half Marathon; 1,260 were Naperville residents. On, a site where runners can rate races, the Naperville Marathon’s course received four out of five stars while the race’s organization earned a perfect five out of five.

“Partly because it was small and partly because it involved Naperville.” -Dave Sheble

This year, more than 5,000 people ran. And the race organizers re-worked the route to accommodate the growing crowd. The winning times were no slouch either. The male champion, Yonni Mascote, finished in 2:33:53 while the female winner, Marisa Hird, finished in 2:50:57. Both Mascote and Hird work at Naperville Running Company.

The poster of Derrick. Photos courtesy of Elle Metz.

Back in Carius’s office at North Central College, one of his current runners has time to kill before practice and chooses to spend it with his coach. He, Carius and Chuck Hoff reminisce about the program’s history – the victories, the crazy stunts and the marathon.

No one in Naperville can fully answer why running remains so popular here. They’re all fairly certain where it started though. North Central’s “history of all the championships. And it's one guy. I mean it’s one guy that just cared so much about these kids,” Good says. “Starting with the college, I think it just kind of infiltrates into the community.”

Something about that community – the early-morning running groups, the cross-country practices, the road races – transcends exercise and championships. It’s the friendliness in Carius’s office and the earnestness in people’s eyes. “It has to be more than just the running,” Hoff says. “There’s a little bit of magic.”

Elle Metz is a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a freelance writer. She was born and raised in Naperville and is an avid runner.