With the 2019 Chicago Marathon just around the corner and quite a few of my athletes racing in the city this year, I wanted to put together a helpful guide based on my experience running the event. I have run Chicago the last 4 years (2015-2018) and this will be the first year that I’m on the sidelines cheering instead of on the streets of the city. It is one of the most amazing races I’ve ever been a part of and so special; if you are running Chicago this year for the first time, you are in for a treat!
Transportation to Expo
If you are able to, I suggest going to the expo on Friday to avoid the big crowds and to be able to take your time walking around since it won’t be the day before the race. If you are planning to go Saturday, however, don’t worry, this is one of the most organized race expos I have been to before. The expo is held at McCormick place which is a convention center 2 miles south of Grant Park where you’ll be lining up on Sunday morning for the start of the race. There are a few different ways to get to McCormick place if you are coming from downtown. My favorite way to get to the expo is the Metra Electric line as the train lets out underneath the convention center. If you’re staying near Millenium Park or Grant Park, there is a stop at Millennium Station or Van Buren Station that you can get on and take about a 10 minute ride to Grant Park. The marathon also provides shuttle service from 4 hotels to and from the expo (scroll down to the section in the link labeled “free bus shuttle service”). The lines can be long for the rides back so know that you’ll have to bring your patience. The ‘L’ is Chicago’s subway system and you can get close to McCormick Place but still have to walk a little bit. A more active option is to take the Lakefront Trail down either on a Divvy bike rental (bikes you can rent all over the city and return to any Divvy location), do a shakeout run there, or walk. Finally, Uber is an option, but I have a feeling there will be surge pricing due to the high volume of people trying to get in and out of the convention center so that’s something to be aware of.
Spending Time at Expo
The Chicago Marathon expo is extremely well organized. You should have received either a booklet in the mail with a QR code or an online email you can scan when you get there to pick up your packet. Last year, security was increased due to recent events in the country at large public gatherings so I spent a lot more time in line for security than I had in previous years; this is just something to be aware of when making your plans. Once I got through security, the process was seamless. Your pass will be scanned and you’ll be directed to a certain counter where you will get checked in and pick up your race bib. Then you will be directed to head over to pick up your race t-shirt and goodie-bag which is organized by shirt size (can be found on your race packet). There should be free posters around the expo and I recommend picking one up to commemorate your race! After you’ve picked up your goodie-bag, you’re free to walk around the rest of the expo. Since Chicago is a world marathon major, pretty much every major running company is going to have a booth and they’re often very intricate and give out fun free things. If you aren’t concerned about alcohol before your race, check out the Goose Island booth which gives out free samples of the beer you’ll get after crossing the finish line in Chicago! If you want a pace band with mile splits, check out the Nike Pacer stand at the expo to get a free temporary tattoo pace band for your goal time. If you’re looking for your next race, many of the booths will be other races there to promote their events and offering special discount codes for expo attendees. There will also be speaker series at the expo where you can hear from professional runners and beyond. Check your guide for all of the details. I would recommend picking one or two of those since it’ll force you to sit and not be walking around too much before the race. Truth be told, my approach to big expos is to get in and get out so that I don’t risk picking up any germs or taxing my body too much walking around. You won’t feel like you’re spending too much energy walking but you’ll be surprised just how many steps you’ll pick up while in the expo. If you’re looking for more information on the expo, click here.
Where to Do a Shakeout Run
If you are staying downtown near the start/finish line of the marathon, your best bet for a running route is along the Lakefront. The views are spectacular, it’s flat, and it’s where you’ll see tons of other runners in town for the weekend (including the pros!) getting their runs in before the race. The trail is a safe place to run and a great place to take some great action shots running! If you’re part of Team Sugar Runs, you should have received an invite to our team shakeout run if you’re running Chicago. If you’re on the team and are not running the race (like me!), you are still welcome to attend.
Where to Eat While in Town
Before the Race
Although I live outside of the city, I have stayed downtown for 3 out of the 4 times that I ran the Chicago Marathon to be able to sleep in more before the race. I’ve done takeout from Noodles & Company to eat in my room and avoid the hustle and bustle and I’ve also eaten at Italian Village which houses three Italian restaurants under one roof. I recommend making reservations ASAP for somewhere to eat if you haven’t already because you’ll notice that all of the Italian restaurants fill up pretty quickly on marathon weekend. If you can’t find a table at Italian Village, you can always order carryout and bring it back to your room while watching some TV to calm those nerves! Last year the marathon did a big pasta feed but I haven’t seen any information on that for this year (note: I have never participated in the pasta feed).
After the Race
Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. This city is all about its deep dish pizza and Chicagoans are pretty divided between Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s. I personally love the texture of Lou’s and the chunky tomato sauce but I have to admit that when I think of Chicago deep dish, Giordano’s is what comes to mind. You can’t go wrong with either option but I really don’t recommend eating this before the marathon because it’s heavy and greasy, both which can make for unwanted porta-potty stops along the way. You can find multiple locations of these restaurants across Chicagoland and if you aren’t feeling like going out to eat, order a pizza for delivery or takeout (and send your significant other to go pick it up for you if they didn’t run). If you’re eating in, you can make a reservation and call ahead for your pizza since they take about 45 minutes to bake.
Still looking for more tasty treats? Check out Garrett’s Popcorn which is known for its famous Chicago Mix popcorn (cheese corn and the most delicious caramel crisp popcorn you’ve ever tasted). They also have seasonal varieties, or for the plain Janes like myself, you can buy a bag of a single style of popcorn (I go for the caramel corn because I have a sweet tooth!). Another Chicago staple is Stan’s Donuts, a specialty donut store in the city. I don’t love their coffee so I’d recommend stopping somewhere else for that but their donuts are to die for.
One thing I like to do when in a new city is to try the beer brewed in that city. Chicago’s most known beers are probably Goose Island and Lagunitas Brewing Company. They will be served on tap at restaurants throughout the city. Lagunitas allows employees to bring their dogs to work so if you’re a dog lover like me, it’s easy to get behind the brand! Both offer tours (I have never been on either) so if you’re looking for something to do in the city afterwards, this may be a good option.
How to Dress
I recommend bringing tossaway clothes as you will likely be standing outside for awhile prior to starting the race. Last year it was rainy for the race so I kept my clear poncho on (good for being able to still see a bib through) until I got to the starting line. It kept me dry for the start of the race and even if it’s not raining I recommend a poncho if it’s a cooler morning to keep your heat in and not waste your energy warming your body up before you’re running. I’ve also brought sweatshirts and sweatpants to tossaway before and all discarded clothing will be donated to local charities.
I have run the Chicago Marathon in all kinds of weather. In 2015, it was hot and all I needed was a tank top and shorts to run in and line up in. In 2016, the weather was perfect and I wore a tank and shorts to race in and wore a trash bag over my body to the starting line to stay warm before the race. In 2017, it was hot again and I just needed the tank and shorts. In 2018, it was cool and rainy so I wore a tank top and shorts for racing and wore a poncho over me to keep me warm and dry for the start. The common theme here is shorts and a tank top but I would recommend you bring extra layers in your suitcase just in case. I have packed gloves and a headband before along with tights just to have everything I could possibly need as the weather can change quickly along the lakefront. One piece of clothing I would plan to run with is a visor or hat to keep either sun or rain off your face. My visor was my life-saver in 2018 and without it I wouldn’t have been able to see with the rain getting in my contacts. I will try to give an outfit update closer to race day when I see what the forecast is.
Security will be tight getting into the corrals and I nearly missed getting into my corral last year after waiting in line for nearly 45 minutes due to stricter security. I recommend getting there early so you don’t have to deal with the stress of nearly missing your corral (but rest assured, if you do, you’ll be able to start in a farther back corral and won’t miss the race. Not ideal but you’re not completely out of luck). If you are planning to gear check, you’ll want to get there even earlier to have time to do that and make it into your corral. Once you get through security, you will have to find the letter that corresponds to your corral. You must have your bib on and will be checked prior to gaining entry into your corral.
Course & GPS
The course is flat. I gained a total of 149 feet of elevation according to GPS last year and lost 143 feet; over 26.2 miles that is nothing. There are occasional bridges but they are short and they are not steep. The only real incline is up Roosevelt about 400 meters out from the finish; it’s affectionately known as Mount Roosevelt in this race because when you’re 26 miles into a marathon, an uphill climb is going to hurt and feel like it goes on forever. You’ll “climb” up the elevation for about 200 meters, turn, and then it’s a flat sprint into the finish. My most asked question about the race was on GPS. Expect that your GPS will most likely go haywire for the first 3 miles of the marathon. Don’t panic, there are mile markers at every single mile of the course so you’ll still know how you’re doing based on your overall time. Pretty soon after starting the race you go through a tunnel (around mile 0.5) and GPS will not be working properly. No, you’re not suddenly running a 4 or 5 minute mile, it’s most likely just GPS not being able to pick up signal. You’ll notice this for the first 3 miles or so if you’re looking at the pace on your watch while you’re running through downtown and the skyscrapers so my suggestion is to either turn off GPS and manually click your mile splits when you hit the mile markers to know exactly how long it was between each mile, or to just be aware that things can be a little wonky. Once you get out into other neighborhoods and out of the skyscrapers, however, I haven’t had an issue with the GPS. One last thing on GPS: I recommend getting your watch synched up shortly after entering the corral. With all the people lined up and also trying to sync, I have noticed it can take awhile to get signal (last year it took me around 15 mins for it to finally sync!).
There is a single blue line painted on the entire course if you are running in the middle of the course; this marks the tangents where you could run an exact 26.2. Unless you’re in the elite corral, however, you most likely aren’t going to be able to follow this very easily with lots of people being in your corrals so don’t stress too much about it; yes, you’ll probably end up running over 26.2 but in a world marathon major, that’s bound to happen with all the people running. You may be able to follow the line in later miles when less people are around but I would suggest just running your race and not focusing on this so much; spend your energy wisely, you have a long way to run! The one thing you can do for certain, however, is make sure that you don’t run down the middle of the bridges and choose the carpeted sides. There are grates all on the bridges and it’s uncomfortable to run directly on them so making sure you position yourself for the carpeted portions is important. Fortunately, however, if you get stuck off the carpet, the bridges in Chicago are pretty short so you won’t be on the grates for too long. You will notice that the first 10K can be a little crowded, however, I’ve never had an issue running my goal pace in these early miles. The streets in Chicago are wide so there is plenty of space to run your race, whether that’s by following a pace group or if you decide to go it alone (the pacers are great in my experience if you’re looking to stay with a group but that’s not always possible depending on which corral you’re in and what time you’ve trained for).
The Chicago course takes you through many different neighborhoods in the city, each with their own unique flair. One of my favorite neighborhoods to run through is Boystown around mile 8 because it’s a big party and everyone is so energetic. The toughest part of the course for me has always been miles 20-24. Yes, it’s partially to do with the fact that those are the later miles in the race, but it’s also where the crowds are a lot thinner since it’s in an industrial area so there isn’t as much energy. Chinatown is at mile 21 and this helps a little but prepare to need to use your mental tips and tricks here. Pick a mantra and repeat it through these miles. Some favorites of mine have been “one foot in front of the other”, “pump your arms and lift your knees”, “I’m doing this today”, or “throw it all down”. Maybe it’s one you’ve been using through training, or maybe if you’re running with music this is the time to play your favorite pump-up jams to power you through. Once you come out at mile 24, however, there will be tents lining the course from different charity organizations that have runners in the race and they’re really awesome spectators and will propel you to the finish. When you hit mile 25, you’ll be back downtown again on South Michigan avenue and the crowds will be growing as you approach the finish. Use this and let everything you have left out here. The noise will become deafening as you get close to the intersection of Michigan and Roosevelt where you’ll turn and head up “Mount Roosevelt”. I get goosebumps thinking about this because finishing Chicago is so special; crossing the giant finish line, cameras will be waiting to take your photo so throw those arms up in the air because you’ve made it!
Note, there will be a video of the course at the expo on a big blow-up screen that I recommend checking out to get yourself pumped up for the big day but in the meantime, click here to watch the course.
Tips & Trips
Being a world marathon major, there are over 40,000 people who will run the race. After having run the race the last 4 years, here are some of the tips I’ve picked up on:
- Run past the first few water/Gatorade tables and use the second set. There will be far less people using these tables so you’ll be able to continue to run and have less of a chance of bumping into someone. If the cup is full, dump some of the liquid out, then crease the top of the paper cup to make a small spout so you get all of the liquid into your mouth and not just all over your face. Don’t stop after getting a cup before you’ve gotten out of the way or you might get run over by the crowd behind you!
- If you’re trying to see family/friends along the course, have them tell you exactly where to stand to find you so you know where to be looking for them. I often miss my family at large races but the more narrowed down we get down to the mile they’ll be at, the more likely I am to see them. Chicago is an awesome course for spectators because they can see you at multiple points along the course by riding the “L” to different stops.
- If you’re going to run with music, that’s ok, I run with music too, but for the first mile or two I normally have it on pause so I can hear the roar of the crowds through downtown. It’s electrifying and it makes me so happy to see and hear how many people came out to support the runners.
- Be aware of the GPS issues in the first few miles and don’t freak out too much about it. You can always look at your overall time as you’re at mile markers to see where you’re at in relation to your goal. There will be a Nike Pacer stand at the expo giving out free pace temporary tattoos with every mile split on it for goal times. These are awesome to have on race day!
- If it’s a warm day, the Chicago fire department will be shooting off water from trucks to cool runners down. Run through it and let yourself get wet; it’ll cool you down for a little bit and is worth getting wet for.
- Let a pacing team do some of the “work” for you in the early miles. More information on pacing teams can be found here including which corral pacers will be in. You can’t move up in corrals (you can move back) so if a pacer isn’t in your corral, you can still run your own race just like you have been doing in your training. You can find out more information about pace groups at the expo; you don’t need to be registered for a pace group to run with them but if you feel it will help, you can always get the pace team bib to wear on the back of your shirt for race day. I typically skip that piece because I don’t like that added pressure but everyone is motivated differently.
After crossing the finish line, you will shuffle your way through to get your medal and a heat sheet prior to getting some water/Gatorade and food. This is also where you can get your souvenir Goose Island beer can which you can save and write your finishing time on after you’ve finished your drink! You are not allowed to leave the finisher area with your full beer so you either need to drink it or dump it if you want to keep your can. There will be photo stations along the way where you can take a finisher photo with your race medal with one of the course photographers.
Once you’re ready to reunite with family and friends, you can exit the finisher area into the family-meet zone which is coded with letters. Pick a letter to meet at (choose the first letter of your first name or the first letter of your last name to make it easy – you get to choose this with your family!) and plan to meet up there. Cell phone service can sometimes be spotty with everyone trying to text/call relatives and pinging the same cell towers so having a plan ahead of time for how you’re going to meet up is advised. Go celebrate your hard-earned finish with your loved ones!
Being a Tourist
If you are sticking around after the race for a few days, there are lots of fun things to do in the city. Here are some recommendations based on the type of experience you’re looking for (make sure to check out prices online as well for tickets).
Chicago has some of the best museums in the country with easy access through public transportation (the Museum Campus). The Field Museum is one of the largest Natural History museums in the world and is home to “Sue”, the giant T-Rex fossil. They have rotating exhibits that come through as well so check out the museum’s website here to learn more.
If you’re more into aquatics, then check out the Shedd Aquarium which is also located on the Museum Campus. This is my favorite museum in the city because I love seeing all of the different fish and it is definitely an entertaining one for people of all ages.
If you’re into science, you’ll be in for a treat at the Museum of Science and Industry. This museum is great for kids and adults alike as the exhibits are fascinating and able to be understood at a variety of levels. You may also be interested in the Adler Planetarium where you can learn more about the solar system.
Finally, Chicago also has an amazing Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago. I will fully admit that art is not of big interest to me so I haven’t been in a very long time to this museum but it’s one of the largest art museums in the U.S. so if this is your interest, I would definitely take a trip while you’re in town.
After running a marathon, the last thing you probably want to do is walk around a lot, but you most likely still want to see the city. Doing a river cruise is a great way to see the city by water and from a different angle. I recommend the Wendella Tour; I have taken Wendella boats to get from the train station to other parts of the city before but they also offer guided architecture tours where you can see some of Chicago’s iconic buildings along the river. There are also tour buses that go around Chicago but knowing the Chicago traffic, I personally wouldn’t pick something like this and would prefer to walk and see the sights (but that’s not to say these tours aren’t great, too).
Chicago attracts major Broadway shows and musicals and there are many theatres in the city to check out. Here is more information on what will be showing and where when you are in town: click here.
If you’re looking for some comedic relief after your race, I highly recommend seeing a Second City comedy show. Comedians of the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler started at Second City and the group is extremely talented. Note that these shows are generally not appropriate for children and can sometimes be a bit raunchy so know your own personal preferences. You can check out which shows will be playing when you are in town and learn more about what each of them are about: click here.
Michigan Avenue and State Street are the two major shopping areas in Chicago. On State Street, you will find the iconic Marshall Field’s clocks (now Macy’s) as well as a variety of department stores. Michigan Avenue has more department stores, Nike Chicago’s main store, as well as Water Tower place mall. If you’re over by Water Tower, check out the Ghiradelli store where you can get a delicious hot fudge sundae or other chocolatey treats. The Hersey store is also on the same block for the chocolate lover.
Places to See
The Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) has one of the best views in the city if you’re ok with heights. You can pay to stand on the glass floor that juts out past the building and if you’re brave, to look down below.
Millennium Park is home to the iconic “Bean” where you’ll see lots of tourists taking photos. It also neighbors Maggie Daley Park which is a free outdoor big playground for kids; if you have young ones in tow, here’s a spot to let them get their energy out! You will finish and start the Chicago Marathon in Grant Park where you can check out the Buckingham Fountain, another icon of the city. If you don’t get a chance to on race day, this isn’t a far walk from Millennium Park.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the few free-admission zoos in the country. This is a fun place for both kids and adults to visit exotic animals!
If you’re into sports, check out the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Socks (boo!), Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Bulls, or Chicago Bears websites to see when they’re playing in town. I am a Cubs fan so I am biased but nothing says Chicago more than sitting in a seat at Wrigley Field with a hot dog in hand cheering on the Cubbies. We are lucky to have so many sports teams in the city so someone is always at home playing a game.
Finally, Navy Pier is a fun attraction for families. They recently put in a new ferris wheel that gives great views of the city from the lakefront and you can shop and eat out near the lake.
I hope that you found this guide to be helpful and all-encompassing for the full Chicago Marathon weekend experience. If you are running the Chicago Marathon this year, I wish you the very best of luck! Trust in your training and in the process and know that you belong on that starting line on October 13th. I will be out cheering with Oiselle’s Cowbell Corner near mile 17.5 of the course so let me know if I should be cheering for you and look for me! I am so excited to be a spectator in my hometown race for the first time ever and cannot wait to welcome you all to this wonderful city of ours. Go make those dreams a reality!
4 thoughts on “Guide to the Chicago Marathon”
By far this blog has the most amazing tips and guidance for a first time marathoner like me.
Keep up the good job Katherine.
Thanks, Anwar! I’m glad you found it to be helpful! Best of luck in Chicago this year. I’ll be cheering for you!
This is amazing. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Love these tips! Chicago Marathon will be my 3rd marathon. And I’m super excited. The countdown is on!
Yay !! Amazing advice! Ty ❤️