(Editor: Thanks to RaceRaves contributor Dan Solera, Chicago native & 4-time Bank of America Chicago Marathon finisher, for sharing his insider tips on this epic running event! Note the following details are subject to change as COVID-19 policies for the 2021 event continue to evolve.)
The World Marathon Majors feature six global marathons with incredibly deep fields, world-class organization and tens of thousands of dedicated runners. Each event has its personality and standout characteristics that lure runners into its lottery or qualification system, selling out in seconds every year.
London is the battlefield, usually with the deepest field of top runners from East Africa. Berlin is the time trial, where one or two of the world’s best face each other in hopes of earning a new World Record. Boston is the most prestigious of all, making all racers prove themselves before the privilege of registering. New York is the behemoth, the largest marathon in the world in the center of modern Western culture. Tokyo is the wild card, still fleshing out its charms as the newest marathon to be added to the circuit.
So where does that leave the Bank of America Chicago Marathon?
It’s the best one. The Chicago Marathon gets absolutely everything right, from the setup to the farewell and everything in between. No event involving an unstoppable stream of runners covering 26.2 miles is without a few inevitable faults, but Chicago seems to have tightened every screw and greased every axle to perfection. From the layout of the city to the course accessibility, everything comes together for a glowing case study in event management.
There is a definite personal bias at work here. The 2009 Chicago Marathon was my first-ever marathon in the city where I’ve lived for the last 15 years. But since then I’ve run 40 additional marathons, from large (New York City) to small (Tupelo, MS), and almost everything in between. So I can confidently say that if you’re running Chicago for the first time this year, you can anticipate an amazing experience from start to finish. This is how it should play out:
The Abbott Health & Fitness Expo is where you’ll pick up all of your race materials, additional souvenirs and discounted gear. Held in Chicago’s massive McCormick Center, it is truly a breathtaking event that showcases the depth and breadth of the running community. However, its size is not so big that it is dizzying to navigate like Berlin’s, nor is it small enough to feel cramped, as New York’s can during peak times. Be on the lookout for the many running icons who routinely make Chicago a staple of their promotional circuits, including Dean Karnazes, Scott Jurek and Desi Linden. Bring their books and get an autograph.
If you’re in the city, the best way to reach McCormick Center is on the #3 King Drive bus, which runs down Michigan Avenue starting at Chicago Avenue. Be sure to say hi to the many Expo-bound runners who will pack the bus and shrink your personal space to the width of a timing chip.
THE DAY BEFORE
If pasta is your meal of choice before a big race, welcome to Chicago. There is no shortage of Italian places to fill your stomach with energy-rich carbohydrates. However, you’re clearly not the only one who had the same idea, so be sure to make reservations well ahead of time. Just south of the UIC/Halsted Blue Line train is Little Italy, specifically Taylor Street, where you can find many delicious Italian restaurants. However, if you want to stay a little closer to the city, for my money I’d go to the classic Italian Village, which features three Italian restaurants under one roof. Not only is the food great, but its size will mean you’ll have a better chance of snagging a table.
If Italian isn’t your thing, you’re in luck, because Chicago has virtually every kind of cuisine imaginable. Stock up on noodles in one of the nation’s largest Chinese neighborhoods before running through its red gate at mile 21.5. Though there are many delicious options, Joy Yee Noodle is a local favorite and easy primer for newcomers. If you’re old-school and prefer a bone-in ribeye steak, good luck choosing from the many award-winning steakhouses the city has to offer.
Perhaps the Chicago Marathon is merely an excuse to visit the Windy City and taste its illustrious signature deep dish. With so many restaurants and locations to choose from, you’re likely to find a great pie wherever you stay. However, there is one definitive pizza god among pizza kings, and that divine title belongs to Pequod’s, whose main attraction rises above its peers with a layer of caramelized cheese on its cornmeal crust. The resulting earthy chewiness adds an extra dimension of flavor and texture to an already famous mouthful.
Pequod’s can be challenging to reach if you’re staying closer to the Loop. For runners who prefer to stay within the skyscraping confines of Chicago’s epicenter, you can’t go wrong by finding a table at Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, or Giordano’s. My personal recommendation is Gino’s, as they have a much better beer list than their competitors.
THE STARTING LINE
Some races require that you arrive hours early to the start line. New York, for example, starts in distant Staten Island and the logistics are arranged such that most runners will end up waiting for a considerable amount of time in Fort Wadsworth. Boston, I have heard, does the same. But Chicago’s start line is located in Grant Park, literally in the middle of the city, where all paths lead.
No matter where you stay for the weekend, there are many ways to get to the start. The Red Line train stops at Monroe and Jackson will get you closest to the start line, as will the Brown / Orange / Green Line stop at Adams & Wabash. Most people will crowd the Red Line, so if you are north of the city and a Brown Line train arrives, don’t be afraid to hop on.
If you need to use the restroom beforehand, arrive forty minutes early to avoid the long lines. However, organizers don’t close the start corrals until about twenty minutes before the start, so you don’t need to arrive crazy early to secure a spot if you have your bladder issues under control.
The Chicago Marathon is flat and fast, but most importantly, it is wide. The first four miles are run on empty, four lane roads, which make it very easy for every runner to have their own personal space as they fine-tune their mechanics and establish a comfortable pace. From Columbus to State Street and eventually LaSalle Boulevard, there is no shortage of elbow room. However, the very first mile takes you literally under the city, so don’t expect your GPS watch to have an accurate reading of your actual pace. In fact, for much of this race, I’d turn off the AutoLap feature and rely on the mile markers to keep pace.
Aid stations are monstrous, with some taking up entire city blocks on both sides of the street. As with any race, ignore the temptation to go for the first person with an outstretched hand. Doing so will cause unnecessary congestion. Trust me when I say these aid stations are longer than you think.
A quick look at the race’s official course map shows that it is mostly counterclockwise, so if you’re aiming for your fastest possible time, do yourself a favor and stay to the left. The course shape can help divide the experience into three discrete sections to get your mind off the daunting task of running 26.2 miles. This division also allows the race to become a scavenger hunt for Chicago’s professional sports stadiums.
The first is hallowed Wrigley Field, which is barely visible near the course’s northernmost point just past mile 8. United Center is the second stadium, located at Adams & Damen or mile 15.5, the farthest west the course goes. The third is the White Sox’s Guaranteed Rate Field at mile 23.2, which means runners are just a 5K from finishing. Right as runners reach mile 26, a quick look to the right will reveal the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field, with the finish line beaming to the left.
If sports stadiums don’t mean anything to you, the course still offers plenty to see. Around mile 5, you will run through Lincoln Park and if the timing is right, the leaves will light up the course with their orange and red autumn colors. Keep enough energy to party just past the mile 8 turnaround into Boystown, where crowds will be incredibly deep and incredibly vocal. Look out for Elvis at the Fleet Feet aid station in Old Town just past mile 11. The invigorating atmosphere will continue as you re-enter the Loop and spectators line the streets in large crowds. Many local high schools will bring their best cheerleaders to keep you going as you head west on Adams, past the halfway mark.
In fact, the cheering is near ubiquitous, so find a way to prominently print your name on your singlet for a never-ending series of motivational boosts.
Once past the charms of Little Italy and the raucous celebrations of Chicago’s Hispanic community in the Pilsen neighborhood, harness the power of your preferred energy sources between miles 20 and 21.5, because this is the only part of the course that can get a little uninspiring. Once past this stretch, however, look for the serpentine dragons keeping watch over Chinatown and don’t succumb to the runner’s wall. Two miles later, you will be on Michigan Avenue for the final stretch. It is three miles long, but the ever-increasing crowds will pull you northward and over Mount Roosevelt, the only meaningful elevation gain in the entire race, to earn your post-race beer.
Pro Tip: When you cross the 33rd Street Bridge over the highway just past mile 22.5, don’t look left. You will see how far away the city is and it might mess with your head. Also, somewhere after the 23rd mile, the Chicago Hash Harriers will man a beer station. Find it before the police do and give yourself a hoppy pep in your step.
Although the runners are having the most fun, I should note that the race is friendly to spectators as well. My personal favorite race-watching strategy starts at the west side of the Clark/Lake Red Line station, across the street from the famous Chicago Theater. Just past mile 1, runners are fresh, invigorated and eager to prove themselves. After seeing your runner(s), hop on the Brown Line at Clark/Lake and get off at Sedgwick. Walk east on North Avenue toward LaSalle and watch your runners cross the 4.5 mile mark. Depending on how fast your runners are, you will have 30-80 minutes to relax until they come down Wells Street, just one block away. Hop back on the Brown Line and get off at Quincy to see them just before the halfway mark.
The next 8 miles take place in the western neighborhoods of the city and aren’t as easily accessible by public transportation. Though you are welcome to try and see your runners near mile 19 by taking the Pink Line to 18th Street, you will have a hard time making it to Chinatown for the next spectator spot. Instead, hop on the Red Line at Jackson and head south to Cermak/Chinatown to see runners attempt to overcome the dreaded wall at mile 21.5. From there, board the Red Line heading north to Harrison and walk east toward the lake for the finish line celebration. You can try and catch your runners near the finish line by getting off at the Roosevelt Red Line station instead, but recent security concerns have made it impossible to see them any farther than mile 25.8.
Pro Tip: If you’re coming from outside the United States, bring your country’s flag and wear it proudly and prominently. You may find runners cheering for you instead.
THE POST-RACE PARTY
Despite finishing in Central Park, the New York City Marathon escorts you on a long, winding path out and into city streets without offering you a sunny patch of grass. Chicago has no such lapse in hospitality and allows runners full use of Grant Park’s ample space and greenery. Hydrate properly, but make sure to find the Goose Island beer tent and restock your carbohydrate stores with local brews to your heart’s (and liver’s) delight. Buckingham Fountain is a great meet-up space because it’s easy to spot and provides excellent post-race pictures with loved ones, regardless of which direction the camera faces.
Pro Tip: Finally, wear your medal all day. Even though the Chicago Marathon has been around for decades, your accomplishment will still be met with admiration and warmth in the Windy City’s busy streets and businesses. For those who want to continue cheering on the rest of the field, visit Weather Mark Tavern located after Mile 25 on Michigan Avenue. It’s a great neighborhood watering hole that opens at 10:30am, just in time to spot anyone who intends on finishing slower than three hours. As you watch the last runners inch their way toward glory, raise a glass and toast to the best big-city marathon the United States, and possibly the world, has to offer.
(Updated Sept 21, 2021; originally published Sept 22, 2015)
About our contributor:
Dan Solera was bitten by the running bug in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. At any given point he is training for his next big race, which will likely contribute to his goal of running a marathon in all 50 states. His love of running is matched only by his predilection for heavy metal, skiing and writing, interests which seldom intersect. His dream is to take a three-month summer sabbatical and travel through Europe, running races in every major city until his medal rack is flush with mementos from the Old World. Follow along with his marathon musings at dans-marathon.com.
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