Urban 'sled' race draws a costumed crowd

Hundreds of hardy Chicagoans will dust off their racing shoes and helmets tomorrow for an urban odyssey that pits them against sneaky competitors, uncooperative weather and ... shopping cart malfunctions.

It's the third annual Chiditarod, a race modeled after Alaska's famed dogsled race. In the local version, competitors mush their way through city streets harnessed to shopping carts, nipping from flasks and collecting food for charity.

Zany costumes, 'watering' stops at taverns, and officially sanctioned sabotage are all part of the mix.

"We are going to be drinking-we do enjoy drinking," says Ben Lasser, who will be dressed up for the race in a cardboard robot costume complete with dryer duct arms. "The problem is that the Z-bot costume makes it a little difficult to drink, so I've been trying to figure out a way to do that. However, we really want to finish the race so that will probably entail being able to stand and walk by the end."

Aside from theater troupes dressed up in robot gear, racing themes of years past have included Supermarket Superheroes (think Mr. Clean and the Morton Salt Girl), the Buck Funnies, a team dressed up in bunny costumes, and the Nuns on the Run.

Organizers say turnout last year doubled from the Chiditarod premiere in 2005, and this year the number of teams registered is ahead of last year's pace.

Mark Ersfeld, one of the Chiditarod organizers, says sabotage is a big part of the race.

"We really want to encourage chicanery, we want to encourage hijinks, and impart obligatory fun," he says.

A prize is awarded to a team with the best sabotage. Last year's sabotage winners, Corporate Dalliance, 'cheated' their way to the finish by handing out fake maps to other teams and taping cart wheels with duct tape.

Eggs were banned from the Chiditarod since issues from other cities' urban Iditarods proved enough of a problem.

Sabotage aside, Ersfeld says, the food drive is an important aspect of the race. Each team of five must cross the finish line with 25 pounds of food in the cart, which goes to charity.

"I'm pretty sure we're the first urban Iditarod to incorporate that aspect of it," he says. "It kind of changes it from a glorified pub crawl into something that is pretty cool. But we're also still a glorified pub crawl."

Several teams plan to use the race as a way to promote their theater companies.

Ben Lasser's team, Hobo Junction-Gifts for Jesus, plan on promoting their comedy theater troupe by throwing dynamite sticks with info about their upcoming show into other teams' carts.

"We're basically going to be as shameless as possible and come up with as many different ways that we can hand people stuff with our information on it," Lasser said. "We want to be remembered as the people that had a lot of fun and have a show coming up, basically."

Race registration stays open until 12 hours before the race, which begins at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow. You must be 21 years old to race. The entry fee is $5. All proceeds benefit Burners Without Borders and Onward Neighborhood House.