A Definitive Chicago Marathon Course Guide
A little less than a month from today, I’ll be toeing the line for my 6th consecutive Chicago Marathon. Through injury, marriage, an international move, job gains and job losses, since 2010, this one race has anchored my life calendar. I don’t just love the Chicago Marathon – I’m obsessed with the Chicago Marathon.
Admittedly, there are some unique things that make this race special for me. I’m from Chicago, and while I’ve lived in Texas since age 13, I still consider it my hometown race. My Dad has also run every year since 2010, so though we live thousands of miles apart, it’s something to bond over and look forward to and complain about. (Especially those mid-August 20-milers. Brutal!)
Indeed, the MacLeods have many traditions built around this race. We always go to the expo on Friday (MUCH less crazy than Saturday), we always book a table at Francesca’s for our pre-race carb-loading, (if you haven’t booked an Italian restaurant by now, you will be eating at 4:30pm), and my step-mother always takes the lead on ordering some form of ridiculous, family-themed race paraphernalia. (We’ve been joined by cousins, aunts, and uncles and have had our mugs plastered on T-Shirts, pens, Post-It Notes, and, yes, mugs.)
But I think even without all the family history, I would STILL love this race. From the flat, fast course to the crowd support to the efficient logistics, Chicago has no equal in marathoning. If you go in prepared, I promise you will have an amazing experience. What follows is my personal advice.
Note: The official course map is here if you want to follow along.
As mentioned above, I strongly recommend going to the expo on Friday. You’ll halve the crowds you have to deal with, and the vendors working the booths won’t be exhausted and miserable yet. Also, there are a LOT of booths. And plenty of running celebrities, good shopping, etc. It’s Christmas for runners, so I recommend bringing some cash and giving yourself a solid two hours to explore at leisure.
And that’s a Friday crowd…
- After you get your number, head straight to the back of the hall for your shirt and giant gear bag. You’ll need it for all the freebies you pick up from the booths.
- If you’re already downtown, ditch the “free shuttle” and cab it to McCormack Place. You’ll pay $10-20, but save an hour or more in travel time.
- Don’t buy the first race gear you see. All the major brands (Saucony, NB, Brooks, etc.) will do Chicago-branded items, and styles and prices will vary widely.
- Soak it in! I always love expos. Everyone is excited and no one’s race has gone to sh*t yet. The air is full of possibility. And isn’t that really why we all run?
Throughout the race, it’s much easier for a runner to spot a spectator than vice versa. For the best chances of catching a glimpse of your support crew, pre-plan your meeting points and give them some sort of large sign to carry. My husband carries a large Scottish flag. This gets him noticed by me and the 10 or so actual Scots who typically run in a given year.
Your runner will notice this. I promise.
- If you’re a spectator, the L is your best friend. (And no, you’re NOT going to get mugged at 9AM on a Sunday morning. Unless you’re just being really, really not smart.) Through smart use of public transit – and a bit of willingness to walk – my husband typically manages 5 “sitings” on course.
- Avoid the official “Cheer Zones”. Their advantage is that their near L stops, but they’re packed! If you’re willing to walk just a quarter mile in either direction, you’ll have much better viewing.
- Don’t bother with the finish line. With all the fencing, you won’t get anywhere near it. Plus, your runner doesn’t need you when they can see the finish. They need you at mile 25, when they’re still death marching up Michigan Avenue. Go there.
Of all the races I’ve done, Chicago has both the most runners and the most efficient start. (None of this sitting on Staten Island for 2 hours business.) Get to your corral in time for the 30-minute cut-off, but don’t bother being 90 minutes early. That will just leave you standing in the cold. Yes, even in the “hot” years, it’s still chilly on the lakefront at 7am. As for Gear Check, I’ve never done it. Do you want to “check” your cell phone and wallet with 20,000 other bags? I didn’t think so. If you have a friend or family member out supporting you, give them all your stuff and agree to meet in the Reunion area after the race. If you’re on your own, take your key, ID, and credit card and run with them.
- You DON’T need your phone. (You’ll never get a signal with the other 40,000 people trying to text, Instagram, etc. at the same time anyway.)
- Wear throw away clothes, but don’t throw them until you’re 100 meters or so past the start. The corrals are so crowded that dropping them pre-start will inevitably trip someone, and then you’ll spend the entire race feeling like an asshole.
- WATCH THE GROUND. There’s GU and worse down there. You don’t want to know what the worse is.
- Don’t risk the Port-A-Potty line. When they close the corrals, they CLOSE them. You will not be let in and you will have to start in the very back with the strollers. You’re much better off stopping on course, where there are Port-A-Potty’s pretty much every mile.
Miles 1-4 (The Loop)
The race makes a big deal about going through 29 neighborhoods. It really does go through that many, but you’ll honestly notice about 7 of them. The first of these is the Loop, which is the downtown business area. This means lots of tall buildings and sharp 90 degree turns. Since you’re near the start, this is the most crowded you’ll feel, but that’s actually a good thing. It’s virtually impossible to go out too fast at Chicago. You’d have to shove people out of your way, and again, you’d feel like an asshole. Just relax and look up occasionally. The city is majestic.
- GPS obsessed? Guess what: After 1/4 mile, you go underground. And you stay there for another 1/4 mile. No Garmin can survive that. Your time on lower Columbus will be filled with watches beeping and runners losing their sh*t along with their satellites. Know this is going to happen and plan for it. I personally leave my watch running and just use the stopwatch time to check my pace at each mile marker. (And if you really need it, the average pace will be about right again by mile 4, anyway.) Your other option is to re-start your watch at mile 1. Pick a strategy and feel superior to all those people screaming obscenities at mile 0.4.
- There’s a large median immediately after the start. It doesn’t matter at all which side of it you go on. Groupthink will typically take 75% of the race to one side. Take the other route and enjoy some breathing room.
- Remember the turns: Left, Left, Right, Right. The streets in the loop are “narrow”, but narrow by Chicago standards is still 4-6 lanes. You can add a lot of unintended mileage by navigating these first turns poorly.
- Unless you really REALLY have to go, skip that first Port-A-Potty stop! It has the longest lines you’ll see on course. I personally recommend skipping the first aid station as well. Everyone is still too wound up, and you probably don’t need water at mile 1.5.
Miles 4-7: Lincoln Park
The first part of this stretch is technically the Near North neighborhood, and it’s an ideal place to send spectators if you have them. Miles 4 and 11 are literally two blocks apart. My family likes to fill the hour in-between with mimosas at one of the many brunch pubs in the area. Miles 5 and 6 are quieter, but also some of the prettiest on course, as they take you through Lincoln Park. This is where the course really does get narrow, but by now the crowd will finally start to thin, so it shouldn’t be an issue. (You’re never going to be running solo on this course, so give up that dream now.)
- Again, study the turns. This is the windiest part of the course, and the narrow roads can make it a bit more challenging to navigate. I like to stick to the left side of the road. Most runners are so well-trained to avoid the camber at the edges of a road that they stick to the middle without realizing there is no camber on a park lane.
- After you exit the part itself, start looking up and to the right. There’s a high-rise retirement home at mile 6.5 where all the residents line up at the windows and wave. If you don’t tear up thinking about how lucky you are just to be young and healthy and able to run, you might not have a heart.
Miles 7-12: Old Town and Boystown
When people talk about how fun and beautiful the Chicago course is, this is usually the stretch they’re referring to. Every year, this section wins the “What’s your favorite neighborhood on course?” poll on the race web site. And while it’s not actually my personal favorite, it is one giant, motivating block party. You will see lots of drunk college kids, lots of drag queens, and lots of the beautiful brick architecture that only exists in northern cities built before cheaper materials were discovered.
- DON’T speed up too much on Wells! It’s long and wide, and you’ll probably be amped from the thought that you’ve gone as far north as you’re going to go. (So it’s kinda sorta a milestone.) You can churn and burn here for sure, but you might pay for it with a burn out on the south side around mile 21.
- Look for the stage at mile 8 to catch my favorite group on course, the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps. This all volunteer LGBT group features very fit men in camo twirling rifles to disco and techno. They are amazing. Someday I’ll have to see them when I’m not busy running.
- The Elvis impersonator at mile 12 isn’t very good. That’s okay though. He’s out there! Give him a wave, even if you don’t love The King.
Miles 12-15: Going to the Bulls Game
Yeah, this section technically goes through neighborhoods, but once you cross the halfway point, things get a little less exciting for a bit as you head to the more industrial feeling areas around the United Center. Luckily, rents closer in are getting so high that there are new apartments (complete with balconies and spectators) every year. This section also takes you through the Charity Block Party, where you will feel humbled by the sheer capacity of runners to do good. Yeah, it can be annoying to have to raise money because you missed the lottery, but the support the charity volunteers provide is more than enough payback.
- Settle in to a pace you can hold. After the excitement of halfway, you really start to think about just how long a marathon actually is. It’s a mental challenge that can be almost as bad as the infamous “last 10K”. Just take some deep breaths and hold your pace. Hey, at least it’s Chicago – there aren’t any hills coming up!
- Look for the dancing liver in the charity village. It’s exactly the level of humor you can appreciate at mile 14.5.
- On Adams, try not to look to your left. You can see through to Jackson, which takes you back east, and it’s depressing to realize all those runners just a block away are at least a mile ahead of you.
Miles 15-17: Potty Break!
I’m not kidding. There’s a HUGE bank of Port-A-Potty’s right behind the aid station as you turn from Van Buren to Ogden. They are never full. If you think you’re going to have to plan a potty stop on course, this is where to do it. Bonus, after the aid station you get some more pretty, tree-lined neighborhoods. Enjoy it because…
Miles 17-19: The Worst
This is the deadest part of the whole course. Oh, there will still be people out, but you’ve had 17 miles of 3+ deep crowds. Well, Ashland’s not pretty and it’s not on public transit. Plus, this is where you realize you only thought you were headed back toward the lake. The extra jut west is just cruel and unusual. Just gut it out, because there’s a huge party waiting for you at 19.
It’s not a hill! It just looks slightly…uppish.
- Everyone always says Chicago only has one hill. That’s a bit of a fib, because you go over a couple overpasses in this section that are just slight hills. If this was your typical training run, you wouldn’t even notice them, but at mile 18…yeah. It’s okay though. Remember, party ahead!
- They’ll be handing out Power Gels at mile 17. You might be tempted to take one. Ask yourself, “Have I ever tried a Power Gel? Did I like it? Am I dying?”. Unless you can answer, “Yes, yes, yes,” think twice about taking one. They’re warm and goopy. Ick.
Miles 19-22: Pilsen and Dragons!
Now you are entering my absolute favorite neighborhood: Pilsen. It’s the heart of the Mexican community in Chicago, and if you are from, say…south Texas, it feels like home. HUGE block party. The whole neighborhood is out, with music, dancing, and all sorts of free food. (You’re at mile 20 though, so eat at your own risk.) If it’s a hot day, these are the Chicagoans you can depend on to have their hoses out.
The dragon was right behind me.
Half a mile after you get some nice hose action and an orange slice, you turn left and, boom!, dragons. Or dragon dancers more like. And also LOTS of spectators. You’re in Chinatown, and running by the biggest cheer station on course. Soak in the encouragement, because you’re now well into that dreaded last 10K.
Miles 22-25.5: Highways and Sh*t
As you leave Chinatown, you track south on the Dan Ryan Expressway. Okay, you’re not really on the expressway, but you are definitely on the frontage road. There’s a well-placed aid station to help distract you, but watch your step. It has bananas.
- You feel far from the finish here, but you’re not. If you have gas left in the tank, start using it at mile 22. There’s not much in the way of scenery anyway, so it’s a good time to just focus on the hurt.
- Don’t read the thermometer at La Salle high school. It can be 50 degrees out and that thing will say it’s 87. I think it’s some sort of senior prank.
- There’s an overhead photographer at mile 23. Why? Because they’re evil, I suppose. If you feel dead, just try not to look it when you’re on the painted bit of road. Computers are really, really good at reading numbers these days.
- When you get on Michigan Avenue, pick a focal point. I personally like to stare at the Hancock tower. Then, remind yourself that you don’t have to run anywhere near that far. The buildings are so tall that they look decently close, so this is a true mental boost.
Miles 25.5 – 26.2: A Hill? Really??
Ah yes. Roosevelt. The infamous one hill on course. It’s really not that bad. It’s maybe 400 meters and probably not even as steep as your driveway, but it does look like a mountain after 25.9 miles of flat. You’ll see several runners stop to stretch here. Rather than think about how hard the hill is, focus on how you’d like to scream at them: “What are you doing??? We have 800 meters! You’re going to stretch now?!?”
- At the top of Roosevelt, you turn left and have about 400 meters to go to the finish. This is perfect. You get the finish chute feel without the “Why God, why?” of being able to see the line for 5 whole minutes. Gun it! (If you can.)
- Listen for your name. Even with the 40,000 runners, they really do try to read every single finisher’s name. I’ve heard mine most yours.
The Finish Chute
Hooray! You’re done. Kind of. It’s still going to be a good 3/4 of a mile to the Reunite area, so prepare yourself. You might see some people give up and lie down halfway there. DON’T join them! This will get you dragged to a medical tent, and your family will worry.
- Don’t take everything they offer you – at least until you get a bag. There’s so much food here that if you weren’t about to collapse under the weight of running a marathon, you will collapse under the pile of bananas, pretzels, Gatorade, and protein bars.
- That Goose Island beer is the best tasting beer you’ll ever have. Take one.
- There’s a point between the finish chute and the Reunion area that says “No Alcohol Beyond This Point”. They’re lying. Don’t abandon your hard-earned beer.
- There are some steps after the Buckingham Fountain. Go down them backwards. Trust me. (Or try to go down forwards, and learn why you should have trusted me.)
- Have a pre-agreed upon letter at the Reunion area to meet your people, and everyone stand as close to the letter as possible. Also, have your people hold up their big sign. It’s actually not too crazy packed, but you’ve just finished a marathon and you’re race-stupid.
- DON’T depend on getting a cab back to your hotel. The cabbies know how gross you are, and they know you’re probably a cheap fair. If you’re within a mile or two, the walk will help flush out your legs. If you’re farther, embrace the public transit!
I will say they are not super creative in medal design. Then again, their title sponsor is a bank.