In the wintry chill of Chicago evenings, when most people lie snug beneath warm blankets, you will find Alvah White, 68, rounding the frozen Lake Michigan, running unperturbed against the cold wind. He thrives on running in the winter, and at his advanced age, he runs about 15 miles per week.
“There is nothing better than running in the snow,” White said. “A nice evening in the 20s with the fresh snow, everything is quiet. It’s an amazing feeling.”
White makes winter running sound like a walk in the park. In reality, it requires dogged persistence and determination. Of course, the greatest problem in winter running is simply leaving the comfort of your home. Then, there’s the battle with the elements around: you have to brave the uninvited iciness of the outside air.
Bogdan Petre, 23, a researcher at the Northwestern University, started winter running last year to prepare for a winter mountaineering trip. He found running in the winters “a lot more strenuous” than he imagined. “The exhaustion that I felt [after running] was significantly more than what I felt when I used to run in the summer or spring or fall,” he said.
Obviously, White is not an ordinary runner. White has been running for more than forty years. He has “run six marathons, numerous half marathons, and plenty of 8-, 10-, 12- and 14-mile runs,” he said.
“I came to Chicago in 1989, and I have been running in Chicago winters ever since.”
For runners like White, running becomes an integral part of their life. “Running is important for me because it allows me to feel good, it allows me to maintain my health and it allows me to eat almost anything I want,” he said.
The “isolation of a run” provides him with a mental space to think about and focus on things at the heart of his life, he said. “If I don’t run for a week or more, my wife is the first one to notice it. She tells me I get cranky.”
As the president of Evanston Running Club, White organizes social, recreational and competitive events around running. “There is a relaxing social element to running that makes it much more therapeutic,” White said. “And it allows me to meet some terrific people.”
Studies have suggested that running keeps you young, and White agrees. “My doctor has told me I have the body and health of a 48-year-old— I’ll take those 20 years to the bank, thank you very much,” he said.
Running in winters requires proper apparel and equipment, he acknowledged. But winter running is now much easier because of improvements in winter running gear, he said.
Winter running requires three layers, namely the base layer, the mid layer and the shell layer. The majority of modern base layers, undershirts and leggings, are made up of thinner and synthetic materials, which wick away the sweat from your body to keep you warm and dry. Base layers made of cotton are not good for winter running, because cotton retains moisture. Once it gets wet, it remains wet. The mid layer is made up of insulating material to keep you warm. And finally, the shell layer provides protection against wind, rain and snow.
“You can now go a lot deeper into the cold with a lot less layers of clothing,” he said. “And if you use things like L.L. Bean toe warmers and hand warmers, you can do really well.”
“There is no reason not to run unless it is terribly cold or particularly icy,” he said. “Just get out and have fun.”
When foodies don’t have the pleasure of summer weather, finding good winter cuisine is even more important to the palate. But the same way a frosty wind drives people indoors, Chicago’s premiere food experience, The Taste of Chicago, is suffering in warmer climates.
During the sultry summer days, restaurants from all ends of the city gather in Grant Park for a highly anticipated one-stop dining experience. “The Taste,” as it’s known to locals, epitomizes Chicago’s identity as the ultimate foodie destination. But this year will bring changes to the Taste due to consistently declining attendance, cutting the length in half in hopes of maintaining profitability.
In the last 10 years an average of 3.3 million visitors attended the Taste of Chicago food festival during its 10- or 11-day run each year. This year the Taste will be cut in half, running only five days from July 11 through July 15, according to a press statement by Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events last month.
One of the largest food galas in the world, the Taste showcases classic Chicago food favorites including deep-dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, Maxwell Street Polish Sausage, barbecued ribs, Eli’s Cheesecake and various ethnic cuisines. It also features performances from local and international musicians, along with visits from players from the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs.
“Taste in the last few years has had some financial difficulties in terms of covering its expenses,” said Cindy Gatziolis, spokeswoman for Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, in a phone interview.
Adding days to the festival adds expenses, and the department is committed to be fiscally responsible of taxpayers’ money, Gatziolis said. “Additionally, we are also seeing this new model as possibly opening up the restaurant participation because certain restaurants may feel 10 days was a tough act to do.”
A deficit of $635.7 million in the city’s budget has resulted in spending cuts for many public programs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel defended the move to cut five days from the Taste this year: “I have all the confidence that people will continue to enjoy it,” he said in a press conference last week.
The first Taste was held on July 4, 1980. The event was greatly successful drawing an estimated 250,000, surpassing its modest goal of 75,000 people. The festival drew record attendance of nearly 3.7 million in 1999.
In the past, Grant Park fireworks have been a regular part of the Taste activities, drawing nearly a million people to the festival, Gatziolis said. Mayor Emanuel shelved the fireworks program in 2010, resulting in a drawdown of crowds. In contrast to the 2009 attendance of 3.4 million, crowds of 2.7 million and 2.4 million came to the Taste in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
The whole idea of Taste is to market local Chicago restaurants and cuisines, Gatziolis said.
“Someone who never goes to south side might try mustard-fried catfish of a South-Side restaurant,” Gatziolis said.
Despite its shrinking attendance figures and fiscal difficulties, the Taste has become a unique feature of Chicago’s cultural life. It is a celebration of people that ignores social hierarchies and geographical boundaries, and seeks what is common to all people.
“I would be sad if they got rid of it,” said Amelia Mutso, a resident of Wrigleyville, who has attended the Taste for the past three years. “[The Taste] lets me try restaurants that are not from my neighborhood that I would never get a chance to try otherwise.”