Sweepmarket carts sweep city

By HermineBloom

For Team Action-squad, constructing a 6-1/2-by-7-foot- atall stagecoach to sit atop its shopping cart seemed appropriate. Despite slush and unforgiving weather on March 5, the stagecoach made its way across the city’s West Side alongside costume-clad Chicagoans. Held annually for the past six years, the charity-driven, large-scale event, known as Chiditarod, is part shopping cart race, part pub crawl and part street theater, according to Chiditarod co-organizer Diane Back.

This year, Team Action-squad donned old Western garb, treated its stagecoach as a float and walked the entirety of the race. Having participated in the long-distance shopping cart race for the past six years, the squad decided to focus all of its attention on raising money for Chiditarod’s charity of choice in 2011 by implementing an online donation site first introduced in 2010.

Chiditarod is modeled after The Iditarod, a long-distance race in Alaska where five dogs pull sleds, which always takes place on the second weekend in March.

The Chicago version borrowed the idea from New York’s Iditarod, which began in 2003. Cities such as Portland, Ore; San Francisco; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Ann Arbor, Mich. hosted Iditarods before Chicago, though Los Angeles and Boston followed in the Windy City’s footsteps.

Aggressively raising money to directly benefit Chiditarod’s charity of choice, The Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation, 4345 W. Division St., was a new facet in in 2011.

Chicago’s Iditarod has grown exponentially and is one of the Iditarods around the country to boast a solid charitable mission. Those in Portland, Ore., and New York’s, for example, have more to do with the race and the costumes than anything else. Most notably, the event raised approximately $2,500 for Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation in 2010, whereas the event on March 5 raised nearly $20,000.

“This was the first year we’ve blown it out of the water,” Back said. “We didn’t just do a food drive, we also tacked on the opportunity for teams to do fundraising directly for the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation themselves.”

Traditionally, five members comprise each team, and the object of the event is to win any one of the many categories, such as “Best in Show,” “Best Sabotage” or “Best Finish” with innovative costumes, well-constructed carts, speed or all of the above. First and foremost, a team must collect 42 pounds of canned food to donate. As Chiditarod’s website suggests, teams can have friends meet them with cans along the way, or they can stuff the cans in their pockets. But they must finish the race with the minimum amount to qualify for awards. Four “dawgs” pull the cart with ropes and one person, the “musher,” runs behind the cart to steer. All crews begin the race at 1900 W. Hubbard St. and finish at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St., stopping at 11 bars along the way from noon – 5 p.m.

Though entirely sponsor free, grocery stores like Trader Joes and Whole Foods, and checkpoint bars such as Phyllis’ Music Inn, 1800 W. Division St., host food collections, promote the event and donate materials and prizes.

This year, 155 teams registered and 146 teams participated, compared to last year’s 113 participants and its first year at 25 participants. The organizers upped the ante last year, though, by introducing an online donation program called FirstGiving, which provided an opportunity for people to raise money independently online by sending a link to their family and friends. GiveForward.org replaced FirstGiving in 2011.

“[GiveForward.org] can be used for medical causes,” Back said. “But Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation has a tax deductable ID number, and by introducing the site, it became a team challenge to win the award of top fundraiser.”

Notably, a Steampunk-themed group named Team Derailers held a fundraiser at Full Moon Tavern, 1847 W. Roscoe St., on March 2 as a prelude to the race. It was the one team to do so in the history of Chicago’s event.

Approximately 60 people attended the silent auction of Chicago Style Crafters’ goods from Etsy.com. Team Derailers member and Etsy.com seller Melissa Rutherfoord organized the auction. During the day she works as a freelance scenic artist for Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., and Looking Glass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Her Chiditarod team comprises her Steppenwolf co-workers. Rutherfoord, 27, participated in Chiditarod for the past three years, but this is the first year her team won the top fundraiser award.

Team Action-squad earned many of the titles throughout the past six years, including top fundraiser in 2010 as a result of the donation website, she said. By establishing itself as a team everyone looked up to, it also inspired Team Derailers to heighten the sense of competition.

“Last year, [Action-squad] raised $1,400, and that was well above any other team,” Rutherfoord said. “Once they saw they had some competition this year, [they were] provoked to try to raise more [money]. I don’t think either of us would have raised as much money were it not for the competition.”

Team Derailers snagged the top fundraiser award with $5,024, and Team Action-squad placed second with $4,133. Both teams are considered “art carts,” or carts with elaborate construction because of Team Derailers’ steam engine and

Team Action-squad’s stagecoach. Not all teams put together their costumes months in advance. In fact, the majority of people who participate reuse Halloween costumes.

The ability to stop at however many checkpoint bars they like was a helpful new rule this year for art carts, Rutherfoord added. In the past, every team was required to visit at least five designated bars.

“When you’re an art cart you have a heavier, more ornate cart, and it’s a little hard to make it in time,” Rutherfoord said. “They wanted us to be at the finish line by 4:50 p.m., but we just walk the race. It can be hard on those sidewalks to try and get your cart around.”

Despite this accommodation, tying chains around carts or throwing marbles on the street are common forms of sabotage at Chiditarod, which is acceptable and rewarded at the final awards ceremony. Art carts are usually spared, however, because they clearly aim to make a statement rather than win the race, Back said.

Mark Vanderhoff, 32, of Team Action-squad, said his team welcomed competition in regard to fundraising.

“[Team Derailers] came out of nowhere, we really pushed each other and we were neck and neck throughout the whole thing,” said Vanderhoff, who works in sales and marketing for the National Public Radio and Public Broadcast Service networks. “There was some friendly smack talk, but it was all for charity. So we were happy someone else was in the ballpark.”

Having participated since the event’s birth, Vanderhoff attributes winning $4,133 to building a support system throughout six years.

“Our friends, family and co-workers have either seen our pictures, heard us talk about it or have come seen it first hand by now,” Vanderhoff said.

Not knowing what to expect the first year, he gathered his friends to participate. Vanderhoff said he and his friends threw costumes together and had no idea they’d participate year after year. Now, his team made a pact to not begin designing its cart until after New Year’s because “otherwise we’d torture ourselves all year-round,” as Vanderhoff put it.

The team’s stagecoach took two months to construct this year, but Team Action-squad prides itself on performing a skit at the bar, which usually takes place after the race is completed.

“That’s something we try to do well at, the skit portion,” Vanderhoff said.

One of his team members sang “The Gambler,” and Vanderhoff, who was dressed as a horse acting as the “musher,” played the banjo. Last year, many teams participated in karaoke.

Dan Gibbons, executive director at Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation, said two trucks worth of nonperishables were delivered to his office, and one more truck is expected. Though he can’t provide an exact figure for donated goods, he predicts they will have collected 20,000 pounds or 10 tons of food.

“It’s been a great way to get involved with community that’s visible to the public that’s ironic, humorous and fun,” Back said. “But it also does something really great.”