GENEVA – Mike Bianchina and Andrew Nelson traversed the same Geneva streets and track on which they trained and competed as former Vikings.
Meaghan Ciochon and Kaitlin Frei, recent graduates of a less colloquial kind, experienced the terrain and atmosphere of the Fox River Trail Runners Summer Sunset 5K for the first time.
However runners heard about the finish line they eventually crossed Wednesday, they all had motives for getting there. Moments after taking the overall title in 15:32, the 19-year-old Bianchina called the night "a little rust-buster" as he prepares for his sophomore cross country and track seasons at Bradley.
In one way or another, didn't that phrase apply to each of the approximately 500 athletes who participated in the 5K and preceding youth mile, junior jog and toddler trot?
"I did this race going into my sophomore year of high school and I remember it was really hard. It was like, 'Oh, this is awful,' " Bianchina said. "Now that I've trained more in college, I've grown to like it a lot more and am taking it more seriously. Doing all the right stuff and eating well and all that stuff that really helps that no one really knows about."
Nelson, 23, certainly can attest. After completing his collegiate running career at Syracuse last year, he returned home and has been studying with a chiropractor and nutritionist while serving as a Vikings assistant coach.
Twenty-eight seconds off Bianchina's pace, he told the winner, "Way to be, brother," after finishing second and bolted for the other side of the Burgess Field track. There, several familiar faces – including Vikings girls track coach and cross country assistant Peter Raak – were harnessing their final kicks. The course weaved through the Gray Street neighborhood around Burgess before the final 300 meters unfolded on the track.
Raak finished seventh in 17:42, 44 seconds ahead of a male counterpart whose very registration tactic illustrated the upbeat spirit of the night. A 44-year-old Geneva man listed as Yoda Jedimaster took 13th in 18:36.
"Star Wars" enthusiasts surely would applaud, if only after reporting that Yoda really hails from Dagobah and died around age 900.
The top two female finishers, Ciochon, 22, and Frei, 18, came from slightly closer than a galaxy far, far away. Ciochon (18:44), who graduated from Judson University in May, lives in her native Elgin and heard about the race through a friend who works at Geneva Running Outfitters.
Frei (18:47), a recent New Trier graduate from Winnetka, credited Google for informing her of the race. A cross country and track recruit at Notre Dame, she felt urgency to follow her coach's request to compete in a summer 5K before coming to South Bend.
Frei took to the Internet, and the Summer Sunset suited her.
"Very nice course," she said. "This was fun."
Ciochon ultimately agreed, although she was at first uncertain of the route when she arrived about 90 minutes before the race's 7:15 p.m. start time. Luckily, she had pacers to help her along, as well as her husband.
Tim Ciochon doubled as his wife's cross country coach for her final season at Judson. They were married about 18 months ago, before he was appointed to the position. They met as Judson athletes.
On Wednesday, the pair ran close by before Tim Ciochon – 10th overall in 18:30 – pulled away in the final stretch at his wife's behest.
"I just told him to go," Meaghan Ciochon said. "He had a little more left than I did."
The youth mile also proved to be a family affair, with the 11-and-over division producing the closest calls. Champion Jaden Ahern of Geneva finished in 6:50, edging brothers Ethan Hipp (6:53) and Lucas Hipp (7:07), also of Geneva.
Lucas Hipp acknowledged times are "usually pretty competitive" between he and his older brother, respective sixth- and seventh-graders at Geneva Middle School North.
Bianchina and Nelson are a few more years apart, but still enjoy sporadic workout runs together. While the Summer Sunset included chip timing, music and the witticism of race announcer Todd Busteed, most elements of Wednesday night still felt recreational.
"Andrew's a great guy. I love racing with him, and I love training with him," Bianchina said. "He's always a good training partner to have."