Shopping cart debauchery

By Megan Ferringer

Alaska’s own Iditarod is about to see an urbanized transformation-huskies will be replaced by men donning red caps and powder blue suits for team Zissou, sleighs exchanged for rickety shopping carts and the rugged, snowy terrain swapped with Wicker Park’s bustling sidewalks.

This is Chicago’s annual Chiditarod, and on March 7, the debauchery and mayhem will return for its fourth consecutive year.

With participating teams ranging from the stars of Top Gun to Abe Lincoln and his secret service crew, it’s clear the heavy fur coats and desolate terrain have been taken out of the Iditarod and exchanged with Chicago’s own quirky flair, while adding their own humanitarian twist to the Alaskan event-making it one part shopping cart race and one part canned food drive.

“The Chiditarod is a wild experience,” said Devin Breen, co-founder of the Chiditarod. “Pedestrians are having some lunch or walking down the sidewalk on a dreary Saturday afternoon and all of a sudden they see these crazy teams run by with shopping carts. It’s just like, ‘Oh hey, there goes the Jamaican bobsled team or five Waldos.'”

Borrowing from an idea that started out in San Francisco and later traveled to New York City, Breen and co-founder Jake Reimer decided it was time to include Chicago in the rapidly evolving event.

After first being introduced in 2006, the Chiditarod started out small-20 teams of five brought out their shopping carts for the race. But Breen said within the past few years, the popularity has grown with 80 teams last year, and on March 7, he’s anticipating more than 100 teams.

“People who are stuck inside all month look forward to the Chiditarod,” Breen said. “It’s become a very contagious experience. It’s like a release of all this pent up energy and creative urges and a marking of spring, pretty much. The whole thing is just very colorful.”

The event itself is marked by three main goals: finish first in the four-mile race, win first place for the most creative costume and cross the finish line with the highest number of canned food-all of which is achieved with four Wicker Park bar pit-stops on the way for a bit of alcoholic “refueling,” though the route is kept a surprise until the morning of the race.

A typical Chiditarod run has four “dogs” who are pulling with ropes and a “musher” who stands behind the cart and pushes it the four-mile distance, being limited to only the sidewalks of Wicker Park and Bucktown as they contend with the rest of the city going for an afternoon stroll.

All the while, each team is required to pull a weight of 25 pounds in donated canned food, which is later donated to the Chicago Anti-Hunger Association, Breen said. Last year, Chiditarod collected more than 3.5 metric tons of food.

But teams like Action-Squad, who have been participating in the event since its kickoff, put all their effort into having the wildest costumes. To them, it’s all about the show, and last year, they won first place for the most creative theme.

presidential limousine, and I dressed as Abraham Lincoln while everyone else dressed up as secret service agents,” said Mark Vanderhoff, a member of the Action-Squad. “Walking around like Abe in Chicago is like being Santa Claus. Everybody just goes, ‘Oh my gosh, Abe’s here. Let me buy you a drink.’ We were proud of”It’s a very creative group of people that show up for the event. Two years ago we made the cart into a that one-it’s all about bragging rights in the end.”

For both Action-Squad and Breen, watching the increasing popularity of the Chiditarod is something they didn’t expect four years ago. For Vanderhoff, it’s still amusing to see the event go from something where they were running around like lunatics, wondering if arrests were going to be made, to a yearly event.

Now, more and more people are hearing about it, drawing in hundreds of spectators, volunteers and participants.

Still, it’s their philanthropic twist and overall creativity that keeps what they’re doing so inspiring.

“Who else runs a charity food-drive disguised as a shopping cart race? There’s nothing else like it. It’s my favorite time of the year,” said Ryan Engbloom, another member of Action-Squad. “It’s the people involved that makes the event so unique.And knowing that so much food is getting collected in the end makes the whole thing much more satisfying. “

Chiditarod will begin at 12:30 p.m. on March 7, and the shopping cart races will kick off on the corner of Wolcott and Hubbard streets.