NEAR WEST SIDE — Ghostbusters, cross-dressers, and deep-sea divers were just a few of the characters that could be seen racing through the streets on the Near West Side Saturday afternoon.
All were vying to win the "Chiditarod," a race featuring shopping carts aimed at stomping out hunger in Chicago. The Chiditarod — named after the 1,000-plus mile dog sled race in Alaska — is a food-drive fundraiser as well as a way to get Chicagoans out of the winter funk, said Chiditarod founder Devin Breen.
"I started this because Chicago needed something in the middle of the winter to snap itself out of the cold and stagnation," Breen said. "The only barrier to entry here is just to be willing to put yourself out there to do something creative and badass."
Breen said the event draws all types of people. The Chiditarod, now in its eighth year, has grown from about 20 teams to well over 100 teams, organizers said.
Teams of five park their shopping carts to make pitstops at area bars, where they can participate in competitions before moving on; awards go to the teams with the fastest times and the best costumes, and teams that raised the most money.
Saturday afternoon, Jeff Dzyacky stood by his shopping cart, which he transformed into a full-service diner, passing out food to whomever was interested.
"This is the philanthropic thing I do," Dzyacky said. "I probably wouldn't do it without this event, and I also wouldn't have a creative outlet."
Dzyacky said he takes pride in the elaborate floats his team creates, even if it takes months to do so.
"Sometimes I think, 'Oh God, I have real responsibility,'" Dzyacky said, who works for a marketing company. "I can't be building a diner in my garage!"
Dzyacky's team, the Action Squad, has participated in the Chiditarod since in began in 2006. He said newcomers have be to wary of other teams sabotaging their carts, something he said his team doesn't do.
"You know why? It's that do unto others thing. We've found if we don't mess with anyone they don't mess with us," Dzyacky said.
But Adam Shelly, who was participating in his fifth Chiditarod, disagreed.
"It's a good philosophy, but it's not true," Shelly said. "You'll get sabotaged regardless. You just have to keep your eyes open."
Shelly said his team learned that the hard way.
"The first year, we had no idea what we were doing. We got sabotaged to the point of embarrassment, but it was fun," Shelly said.
Sabotaging can include anything from installing makeshift Denver boots on a team's shopping cart to misdirecting teams to a bar that is not on the schedule.
And although the race can get rowdy, Breen said the event does tangible good in the Chicago area. Breen said the event hits "hunger on both ends."
Breen said there's an "immediate impact" with the event's food drive. Chiditarod teams up with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to donate to food banks, Breen said. But there's also fundraising that will go to a number of vetted Chicagoland nonprofits. Breen said this year is the first year funds will be distributed through the Chiditarod's own nonprofit organization.
"There's been at least $15,000 raised this year by our teams, and all that money is going to go right back out into the ... community," Breen said.
Breen said the money will be donated to smaller organization who do things like build community gardens or promote hunger education.
"It's a lot of money," Breen said, adding he's happy to see how the event has grown. "This all started as a shopping cart race."