Everyone who's anyone knows the Chicago Marathon is my favorite race in the world. As someone who was born near the city center, this city holds a deep and emotional hold on me. While I'm no longer a full time resident, the city's siren never calls me away for long.
My fascination with the race began a year before I had first run it, in 2011 (I haven't missed a year since), where mile 5 was at the front door of our apartment and mile 9 was at the back. We were trapped by a sea of 45,000 runners quietly shuffling along in their New Balance, Adidas, Saucony and other brands of shoes. I thought, "Hey, I could totally do that!"
Now, I'm not an expert (in fact, most bloggers aren't), but being so close to the race and participating as much as I have, I feel I've earned the right to share some enriching experiences with you. So, I hope the experience I share may help you feel more comfortable about running this amazing race.
Honestly, the Chicago Marathon feels a bit like an undercard race. Usually, it's the B team of elites who make the trip which is really sad as it's a flat and fast race. Best you pack your PR, because it's going to get shattered on this course.
Before you arrive, you should know that October is a fickle time for weather. I've started this marathon when it's 30 degrees only to finish in the high 70's. Other years have seen the race start in the high 60's only to drop down to the 50's. Make sure to pay close attention to the weather about a week out as it would most likely be the most accurate (Chicago weather doesn't change on the hour like other places).
Before you even book your flight, think about where you want to fly into. We almost always choose Midway Airport on the city's southwest side. This airport primarily services Southwest Airlines, but I believe some other carriers make some stops there. From there, it's a quick hop on the El's Orange Line to the loop. We find it's so much easier than trying to navigate the mess that is O'Hare International. That place is just plain awful.
Where to Stay
A lot of runners will opt to stay near the Start Line or by the expo. Here's a couple of things to remember: The expo is held in McCormick Place, just a few miles south of the city center. While it's close to the expo, it isn't really close to anything else and traffic can be a bit of nightmare. Really, it's just too far for us to be effective for a complete weekend.
Staying near the Start/Finish is a great idea. After all, you can roll out of bed and hit the course. However, keep in mind there really isn't much over there as well. There are some amazing restaurants, but most are high end. Plus, the Loop tends to clam up at night, save for the tourists walking around trying to find some food.
We like to stay in River North. It's just over the Chicago River and a better bang for your buck. There's more restaurant variety and nightlife, which makes eating (and drinking) a little easier. Yes, it's a little bit more of a walk to the race (about 15 minutes), but a worthy trade off in my opinion.
Now that you're settled in, let's go pick up our bibs at the expo. As mentioned above the expo is held in McCormick Place, which is one of the largest convention centers in the USA - It's so big I've raced a 5k in there. No kidding. From the Loop, the walk there isn't terrible, about 45 minutes, but we usually cab or Uber it. Some hotels will offer shuttles, so check with your hotel upon check in.
The first thing you'll notice when entering the convention center is the city is very excited you're here. Welcome banners litter the hall from floor to ceiling and the atmosphere is electric, pumping your blood with inspiration. As you enter the expo, bib pickup is the first thing you'll see and it takes all of three minutes to get your ticket to the big race. Just make sure you have your bib card pre-mailed to you about two weeks prior to the weekend. No worries if you don't have it, it will just take an extra minute of your time.
The whole expo takes us about three hours, but I like to linger and talk with people. You could probably do it in two hours, or 10 minutes if you just want your bib.
Once you've received the goods, it's time to take a stroll along the various running goodies scattered about. The first things you notice will be the Bank of America and Nike floor spaces, as presenting sponsors they have the biggest and best real estate. Bank of America's booth is pretty subdued, focusing on philanthropy and less about checking accounts. Whereas, Nike is the gaudy monstrosity it always is. Every inch of the space is crammed with official gear while a DJ spins music.
Not a Nike person? Don't worry, all the other shoe greats are in attendance, many with their own "Chicago" shirt designed to commemorate the weekend. I like to check them out before making any decisions. As it's the end of the year, you may not see any new launches of products, but still most booths are pretty neat.
The rest of the expo is similar to expos you may have seen at large races with product vendors, race organizers and charities. Make sure to stop and say hi to the great folks at Team PAWS, my charity of choice.
Things to do Before the Race
So, now you've got your bib and swag. What to do next? You, my friends, are in luck as Chicago boasts some of the greatest cultural attractions in the world. Like sports? Like food? Like shopping? Like museums? Like getting mugged? Well, Chicago has it all. Let's just be careful about that last one. Remember, you have a race to run, so be smart about what you do. We tend to do things on Thursday and Friday, leaving Saturday for lounging time. If you choose to do something like museum, don't try to see it all. It may just ruin your chances of a good race on Sunday.
- Portillo's - This, my friends, is the Shangri-La of meats and a must see when coming to Chicago. You'll notice is broken into two sections; All things beef and some other line I've never paid attention to when visiting. Actually, the other line is salads, but I think it's just there to weed out the lightweights.
You must get a Chicago Dog when at Portillo's. How much do I love them? We had them sent to our wedding as appetizers. In Florida. That's how much.
All you need to do is walk up to the counter, order a Chicago Dog (Vienna Beef, poppy seed bun, mustard, neon green relish, chopped onions, tomato slices, celery salt, a pickle spear and peppers) or two, and an Italian Beef (with peppers) and a chocolate shake. Then, sit back and let the food take you on a time journey back through the ancestry of cooked meats. No need to ask for directions, just follow the salivating crowds.
- The Pasta Bowl - I know you've got a hankering to try some of that famous deep-dish pizza Chicago has put on the map. Okay, let me clue you in on a little secret, Chicagoans don't really eat deep-dish pizza. I mean, we do. But, it's usually when someone not from Chicago is visiting us. Want a real Chicago Italian experience? Hit the Pasta Bowl on Clark and Fullerton and just lose your belt.
The Pasta Bowl is another must have for me when back home. We used to make it a weekly occurrence when living in the city, so to me it's just like sitting at my dinner table. While it may take on the look of greasy spoon, the delectable treasures beholden within it are the tastes of kings. Might I suggest the Rosemary Gorgonzola Gnocchi?
- Museums - Chicago boasts some of the greatest museums in the world and it really depends on your taste. The Shedd Aquarium is a delightful assortment of all things ocean, with a dolphin show to boot. The Field Museum is the grandaddy of them all and a "must view" if you want to see Sue, the famous T-Rex.
We're partial to the Museum of Science & Industry just south of the city, the last standing building of the 1893 Colombian Exposition. I'm a transportation buff, so its great to see all the trains, a full scale Boeing 727 and even a captured German U-Boat. This place is huge, so be realistic when visiting, as it could take a few days to get through it all. Oh, and ever wanted to go down in a coal mine? The Museum of Science & Industry has that too.
- Lincoln Park Zoo - Animals your thing? Check out the Lincoln Park Zoo aptly named for being in Lincoln Park. This free zoo was introduced in 1898, making it one of the oldest zoos in the world. While over there, check out R.J. Grunt's restaurant (in my old building) that swears they invented the salad bar.
- Lincoln Park also houses the Chicago History Museum, which is a great repository for historical artifacts fron the city. It even has the true story of the Great Chicago Fire, exonerating Mrs. O'Leary's cow, the scape...ugh...cow for starting the fire.
- Architecture Tour - Sitting more your style? Check out the Architecture Tour that is presented via riding an open-air boat down the Chicago River as an architecture expert drops some knowledge on the city's skyscraper. By the way, did you know the skyscraper was invented in Chicago? So, suck it, New York.
- Magnificent Mile - Or, Mag Mile as other tourists call it. Locals call it, "Michigan Ave" or "The place to stay away from on the weekends". It is ground zero for tourists and the Mag Mile does not dissapoint, as everything and anything is available there; from the Gap to Cartier. There's also a restaurant called the Grand Luxe Cafe, which is nothing more than a high end Cheesecake Factory. Buyer be warned. Michigan Ave also has the Hancock Building - the coolest skyscraper in my opinion - that offers a restaurant and bar, but really the experience is the view.
- Willis Tower - Want to look like a tourist? Call it Willis Tower. Seriously, go on. Do it. Call it the Sears Tower like the rest of the world. The views up there are pretty hard to beat, but be careful, crowds can develop fast and you can spend your whole day in line. Look to see how you can book a time online to visit.
Me? I tend to catch a quick three-miler on the lakefront path or a shakeout run with one of the local shoe stores, before lounging around and planning my race strategy. Last year, I ran with steeplechase champion, Emma Coburn through Lincoln Park. That was an awesome experience.
That night will be dinner with friends and usually ends up with me watching them enjoy themselves.
Now, let's talk about what you came here for, the big day. You're prepared, excited and are in dire need of burning off the six Chicago Dogs you ate - hey, no one's judging you - so what do you need to know?
First, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to get through security. Over the past few years, it's gotten more thorough and you don't want to miss your corral closing time. Chicago is very strict on corrals and if you miss your time, they send you to the back of the race. That's right, the very back.
Also, make sure to look at your bib color. The areas are set up by bib color, so understand how you can get into the race area as some entrances are accessible only with the correctly colored bib. This also goes for gear check.
Lastly, being there early helps with getting yourself ready for your 26.2 mile journey, translation: pee time. For some reason, the race never seems to have enough toilets and the lines get long, so getting there earlier pays off in spades.
Let's talk about where you are going. The course is laid out in order to maximize your experience with all Chicago has to offer, but it's also set up to get the most congested areas clear as soon as possible so they can open up traffic. So, be prepared to see a lot of the city at the onset & then more neighborhoods throughout the race.
What's important to know about this race is because it starts in the city, most if not all GPS devices are rendered useless by mile 1. I guarantee you will need to do some sort of math tables to ensure you know where you are and not where your GPS says you are.
The Northside is Calling
The beginning of the race takes you right through the city and some of the largest crowds you'll see. It's a very intense and inspiring moment, meaning it's easy to get caught up in the hoopla and blow your race strategy. Enjoy the experience, but please, please, please stay vigilant to your training so that your race isn't shot in the first few miles.
The course will take you a little south, but that's just to set you up for Lasalle Street at mile 2.5, (or mile 8 as your Garmin will probably mistakenly tell you). Why I like to call out LaSalle Street is that it's one of the first long and straight stretches of the race. Here, I like to do a check-in with my body, evaluate my race strategy and do the much needed math tables to ensure I'm ready to settle in for the road ahead of me.
Exiting LaSalle brings runners to Lincoln Park, my favorite stretch of the course. Mainly, because that was my home for such a long time. At mile 5 is usually where I meet my wife, tossing her my arm warmers while she toss me a GU gel. The course then runs past the zoo and goes as far north as Addison, then turning back towards the city. This part of the course - Lakeview and Boystown - is really a sight to be seen, with thousands and thousands of colorful patrons cheering you on.
Mile 9 is the other "pit area" where my wife stocks me up with GU gels for the rest of the race since it's tough to see her anywhere else. If you can, I highly recommend having a pit crew staffed somewhere mid-race to help you keep stock of things.
Continuing south, make sure to catch the burnt orange leaves as they fall from the trees in front of the brick row houses, it really is a beautiful sight. Lastly, you're back in the city, traversing bridges and then off to start the second half of the race at a hard right turn onto Adams Street.
Go West, Young Man
This section of the course begins to take you west of the city, but not before enjoying a last glimpse of spectators and the ever-impressive Charity Block Party, with each charity's volunteers screaming louder than the last. The course will also take you out to the United Center, home of my beloved Chicago Blackhawks and then back east.
While the course may look a little sparse (for any other race this would still equal a huge gallery), the best part are the families who come with food, lots and lots of food. You name it, they've got it: pretzels, candy, orange slices and even beer. Yes, it's all here and a welcome sight when things start to get tough.
All Compasses Point South
Well, southeast actually, as the course begins to reign you back into the city, while taking you farther from it. This starts miles 19-21 and tends to be the toughest for me. Mile 21 is especially tough as it's really no more than an access point to get runners back towards the east side of the city.
Luckily, the solitude of mile 21 is quickly eclipsed by the excitement of Chinatown, however it precedes the toughest part of the race as you find yourself adjacent to the expressway and in no man's land. The miles here are long, so you really have to dig in and keep your eye on the prize.
Crossing over the Dan Ryan Expressway, the course will take you just a tad more south and onto 35th Street, where if you are a White Sox fan (Go Cubs!), you can get catch a glimpse off U.S. Cellular Field at the southernmost point of the race. A quick turn puts you on Michigan Avenue.
Michigan Avenue and Mt. Roosevelt
"Wait!" you exclaim, "I know Michigan Avenue! I just bought a pair of chinos at the Michigan Ave Banana Republic just yesterday." Well, here's where the marathon takes a sadistic turn, you will have to run nearly an entire 5k on this road before turning onto Roosevelt. Yes, it's quite the kick in the jublees. Luckily, there are spectators, albeit only a handful. Do everyone a favor and high five them as you pass by. They'll feel good and it will reenergize you for the long stretch.
It's important to know how long this goes, as the buildings in front of you will give the illusion that you're nearly finished. Not until you start to see the crowds gather in numbers and it feels a little more city-ish (you'll know what I mean), do you start your final push to greatness.
Of course, they don't make it easy as your last battle comes against the dreaded Mt. Roosevelt. Well, it's not a mountain per se, more of a highway overpass, but given you're just 800m from the finish line this will look like K2 is giving Mt. Everest a piggyback ride. What to do is listen to the crowd, it will be enormous and the metaphorical lifeline to get you over the mountain.
From there, it's a tear-inducing 800m jaunt through the finish line. Grab your medal, picture and complimentary beer, find a spot in the shade and take in your victory like the goddamn Norse Viking god you are.
Enjoy the spoils of your victory, but a few things to keep in mind. Gear check lines get mad crazy depending on when you finish, so get your stuff as soon as you can. Families can't meet you there, but there is a big post race party not too far away that has a runner reunion area. If you run for charity or bank with Bank of America, there will be VIP areas for you to celebrate.
That night, we tend to hit Rockit Bar & Grill on Hubbard to celebrate and share stories of our adventures.
I hope this little view into the city and race I love so much has helped you get a sense of what t expect. Of course, every experience is different, so I hope you have a positive one. As I mentioned before, this is my favorite race I wouldn't trade it for any other race in the world.
Runners can have their New York and Boston; I'll take my marathon with Vienna Beef and neon-green relish. But, no ketchup.