Running the Chicago Marathon is an awesome experience regardless if this is your first marathon or one of a many. But if you have never ran Chicago before, here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for a great weekend and race. Full disclosure – I’m not a running expert, I’m just a guy who has experienced the joys of running and like to share my thoughts and experiences.
I will assume that you have adequately prepared and trained for the race. Trust the training you have done to get you to race day. Enjoy the taper that has prepared you to arrive on race day morning fresh and raring to go. Race day is almost here!
- READ THE PARTICIPANT GUIDE – It seems like a no-brainer, but I always shake my head when people ask questions about the race that are clearly covered in the guide. The guide will be mailed to you and can also be downloaded from the event website when it becomes available.
- ENJOY THE EXPO – The expo at the Chicago Marathon is one of the best around. The expo is free and open to all. First up is packet pick-up. Only YOU can pick up your packet, and it has to be done on Friday or Saturday. There is no race day pick-up. You will need an ID, and either your participant guide, the emailed version of the guide or a smart phone that has the participant info scanned into to it to get your bib and check bag. From there you will head to the far back of the expo to get the shirt. This forces you to walk through the expo. If you feel the shirt size you selected is wrong for you, here’s your chance to exchange it at the booth that handles that. If you have forgotten anything that you think you might need (gels, visor/hat, gloves, etc.), you should be able to easily find it at the expo. Nike is the official gear for the race and will be selling tons of stuff with the official logo, but the other athletic companies will be there as well. On your way out, make sure you pick up a poster. This keeps it from getting smashed and wrinkled up while walking around the expo. I like to frame mine. If it is your very first marathon, consider buying the finisher plaque. It’s a little pricey, but you only have one first-time marathon finish. The expo is less crowded on Friday during the day, but if you have to go on Saturday try to limit the time you spend walking around.
- PLAN YOUR TRIP INTO THE CITY – I drove in from the suburbs for my first Chicago Marathon in 1999. The unexpected traffic at 5am left me sitting on the expressway and I almost missed the start. I ended up parking at Soldier Field and ran about a mile to earn a place at the end of the field that was already moving. That forced me to have to zigzag through 25,000 or so slower runners. I think I ran an extra mile just navigating through the field. Then I had to walk what seemed like another marathon back to the car from the finish at the end of the race. Driving in for the expo the day or two before the race gives you a chance to figure out your route for your drive in the morning of the race. Take some time to plan out how early you need to leave to get into the city and find parking that will be accessible to the start and finish of the race. Nothing is worse than having to walk a couple miles back to your car after 26.2 miles of running. And if you are staying at a downtown hotel the night before, you are in good shape. But you still need to know how long it takes to walk from the hotel to your corral. I would normally advise to limit walking around the city the day before, but it pays to walk from the hotel to the entrance to your corral gate to know how to get there.
- EAT EARLY THEN RELAX – Carbo-loading is a honored tradition, but I have seen more and more athletes dialing it back quite a bit. The trend seems to be to start fueling up on carbs the days leading up to the race and not just the night before. I will eat a normal sized carbohydrate based meal the day before, but I tend to place greater importance on nutrition during the race. In the past I have found that if I am downtown on the eve of the race, getting a table at a local pasta place near the hotel is going to be a really long wait. Plus you will be standing around on your feet waiting for a table. Look into getting a reservation for yourself a couple of days ahead, or plan on eating before the crowds, sometime around 3pm or so. You will have no worries finding a table and plenty of time to relax in the evening. And salt everything!
- LAY OUT YOUR RACE GEAR THE NIGHT BEFORE – Take the time to get your stuff together the night before, lay it all out and check to make sure everything is in good shape. Trying to find your race bib, safety pins, socks, etc. in the dark at 5am is not good for your nerves. I like to put Skin Glide on my feet to prevent blisters, so I will place that near my socks. Wear your bib number on the front per the race rules – this will allow the photographers to be able to sort your photos. There is adequate liquids (water/Gatorade) on the course, so you shouldn’t need a fuel belt. But if you have a special relationship with yours, then by all means wear it. You won’t be the only one. If you feel you need to bring extra band-aids, or salt capsules, or sunglasses, make sure you lay all of that stuff out as well. Don’t forget sunscreen. Although the sun won’t make much of a difference at the start of the race, it’s easy to get burned later in the morning once you are out of the shadows of the downtown buildings.
- CHECK YOUR WATCH – If you have a fancy GPS style running watch, make sure that you have charged it fully. Also check to see if you have enough storage room to handle the data from the race. People tend to forget to clear all of those summer training runs from the watch and then find that they do not have enough space to store the race data during the race.
- CHECK THE WEATHER – Keep an eye on the weather forecast. Make sure you have comfortable running clothes for a variety of conditions. A good plan is to dress just warm enough with layers that you can shed if you warm up. You can always shed layers, but can’t put them on if you don’t have them. A large garbage bag will work as a rain coat and warming device that you can toss easily. Just be prepared that they may not let you past the gate if you are wearing it before entering.
- DECIDE ON A POST RACE MEETING PLACE – Finding your family after the race will be a challenge. If you are staying at a downtown hotel, it has been my routine to just meet everyone back at the hotel room. The finish area will keep pushing the runners through until you hit Balbo. If you pick a common place to meet, say like Buckingham Fountain, expect to find that half the field has chosen that as their meet up place. Pick one away from the crowds and the immediate finish line area.
- TRY TO GET SOME SLEEP – I’ve had races where I have tossed and turned all night, and others where I slept like a baby. Don’t be concerned if you don’t get a restful night of sleep. You will still be able to run the race just fine. There will be plenty of time after the race to nap. If you are considering using a sleep aid, make sure you try it out prior to the night before the race.
- SET AN ALARM – Set another alarm. Have someone else set an alarm. Double-check your alarms. Set your alarms for at least 5am. This will allow ample time for you to wake up, make sure all of your bathroom needs are taken care of, eat a light breakfast, take care of some more bathroom needs, get dressed, go to the bathroom again, etc.
- NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY – This is the golden rule of racing. Now is not the time to try the new shoes you bought at the expo (unless you forgot yours!). It is not the time to eat something completely out of the ordinary for you. Nothing new on race day!
- EAT A LIGHT BREAKFAST – I always follow the same routine on race morning that I do during training. I will eat the same thing that I always eat for breakfast, a toasted bagel and coffee. If you run on an empty stomach, now is not the time to eat a banana nut muffin. Nothing new on race day!
- GET TO YOUR CORRAL EARLY – This is the mistake I make over and over again. The corrals are accessed by five gates, but if you are in the first wave – Corrals A through E – you need to go through Gate 1. That’s a lot of people to move through the gate. Only runners with bib numbers will be able to get through the gate. The corrals open at 5:30am. Wave 1 corrals close at 7:20am. Don’t be stuck trying to get through the gate to get to your corral. Also, they will only let people in with the correct corral assignment into the corral. If you are in Corral D and your buddy is in Corral E, they won’t let either of you enter the gate that is not assigned to you.
- HEAD TO THE TOILETS/GEAR CHECK – Once you get through the gate, you don’t have to head directly to your corral. Getting there early will give you plenty of time to chill out. If you are checking your gear, find the gear check tent and drop it off. Find the line for the toilets and try to make one last attempt before heading into your corral. Avoid walking through wet grass and getting your feet wet. Wet feet = blisters.
- ENTER YOUR CORRAL AND RELAX – Once I get in the corral I like to find a dry place to sit down and relax, but once it gets crowded there won’t be any place to sit. Enjoy the circuses, conversations, and the Anthem. It’s GO TIME!
Some runners will treat the Chicago Marathon like an event, and others will race it to the best of their abilities. Whatever your goal, whether to just finish or possibly even qualify for the Boston Marathon, here are some tips.
- RUN NEGATIVE SPLITS – Studies have shown that running the second half of the race faster than the first half will produce the best results.
- HAVE A PLAN B – You can hope for an ideal day for the marathon, but that may not happen. If it’s a going to be a hot day, you may have to dial back your expectations some. Conversely, if the day turns out to be beautiful and you are feeling great, you may want to push a little harder. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
- PACING GROUPS – There will be pacing groups that will be running in the race. You can officially join one of them at the expo, or just latch on to one and try to hang on. The leaders of these groups are proven runners and consistently hit their mile splits. They will NOT be running negative splits, they will hit the average pace expected for every mile for the desired finish time (i.e. for a 3:30 finish they will average 8 mins/mile). You will see them holding a sign with the finish time they are expected to hit. But be aware that once the race starts they will drop the large sign and may carry a smaller version. If they aren’t carrying a sign, they definitely will have the expected finish time bib pinned to their back. Also be aware that there may be more than one pacing group for a specific finish time (i.e. Corral B and Corral C each may have a 3:30 pace group). If you started with the Corral B group pacer for 3:30 and end up with the Corral C group pacer you won’t hit your time because the second group started later than the first.
- RUN THE THIN BLUE LINE – Most people running the race, even those that have done it numerous times, are unaware that there is a painted blue line running the length of the course. That blue line is the official race route. If you stay on that line you will run the most direct route. It’s hard to do at times due to the amount of people running with you, but running the tangents is always smart racing.
- AID STATIONS CAN BE TRICKY – There are 20 aid stations and they are sporadically spaced apart. Each will have tables on both sides of the road. There will be large blue banners for water and large orange banners for Gatorade. The common advice is to avoid the first few tables as they will be crowded, but if everyone is doing that then the back tables become crowded too. I look for my opening and take it. Make eye contact with the volunteer or point at them so they know that you are coming for their cup. They may then try to extend it a little for you. There will be toilets at each aid station. If you know you need to stop, try to spot them right away and head there or you might pass them by.
- WATCH YOUR STEP! – The aid stations can get very slick and you could easily slip with all of the water/Gatorade/gels/cups/banana/garbage on the ground. Also, watch out for course jumpers. These are spectators who have decided that they would rather be on the other side of the course and then just dart straight across. You will cross the river four times in the downtown area on bridges that are made of metal grates. These can be tough on your feet. There will be some thin carpet laid down over a small section of it. Head for the carpet if the footing bothers you.
- ENJOY THE SIGHTS – What makes the Chicago Marathon so much fun is the city, crowds, and circuses of running through 29 neighborhoods. There will be awesome entertainment along the way. Take some time to enjoy the race! My personal favorite is high-fiving Elvis around the 10 mile mark.
- AVOID MENTAL FATIGUE – It’s easy to get physically tired running 26.2 miles, but this race can drain you mentally as well. The crowds and the noise almost make me wish I had earplugs at times. And unless you know exactly where to look for family, spending time studying faces in the crowd will drain you. Try to know ahead of time where they will be. Or pick a side of the course to be on and tell the family that you will be running on that side. Also, try breaking the race up into small segments, for instance every 5 miles, instead of counting down each mile.
- USE THE COURSE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE – If race day is warm, try to stay in the shadows of the big buildings of the early stages of the race. Conversely, head for the sunshine if you are cold. If there is a head wind or you feel cold, tuck yourself in behind a group of runners and use them to block the wind.
- AVOID NON-AID STATION OFFERINGS – Somewhere near the last 10K of the race there will be a guy passing out cups of beer. In Pilsen, there will be good intentioned people passing out orange slices and pretzels. In my opinion, unless you really need a lift, I would pass on these offerings just because you just don’t know how they might affect you. Nothing new on race day, remember?
- SMILE FOR THE CAMERA – There will be several photographers along the course. Sometimes there will be a sign that says “photographer ahead” and sometimes you will later see your photos and don’t remember them being there. The common places are near Mile 12 when you cross the river, at about 21.5 miles in Chinatown, and a big group of photographers taking photos from above around the 23 mile area. And of course, at the finish. Here’s your chance to look like a champion!
- WATCH OUT FOR THE HILL – How hilly is the Chicago Marathon? It’s the opposite of hilly. There will be a few up and down sections over bridges and such, but it’s basically a flat course. But there is one hill of note, and it comes at the 26 Mile mark on Roosevelt Road. You will turn right at the corner and climb this hill for about a couple hundred yards, then it’s a left turn and a downhill to the finish. Just a minor nuisance really.
- STOP YOUR WATCH – Don’t forget to stop your watch at the end. And don’t be confused if the official time being displayed on the clocks is different from your time. The official clocks start when the race begins, but you will be chip timed starting when you crossed the Start Line and ending at the Finish Line.
You will be going on quite an adventure running through 29 different neighborhoods. In truth, the road you are running on will be pretty much the same, with the exception of some rough feeling bridges, so there are not too many surprises. Here’s some advice on how to handle the miles.
- MILES 1-5: You will be super excited and filled with adrenaline at the start. Try to hold back your pace. Let the rabbits go, resisting the urge to get caught up in the tempos of the other participants. By the time you get to Mile 5 you should be in a comfortable pace, and no longer bumping elbows with everyone. You will be tempted to bypass the water/Gatorade but you shouldn’t, especially if it is a warm day. Don’t get behind on staying hydrated or fueled. It’s too hard to catch back up. There aren’t too many highlights through these miles, just lots of tall buildings.
- MILES 6-10: This section of the race will be exciting. Lots of fans and entertainment on the course. You will also be as far north as you will be on the course just after Mile 7. From then on you are heading back into downtown. By Mile 6 you will probably warmed up fairly well and might want to think about shedding a layer. But if you are cool, wait until you get past Mile 8 because you will be heading south and there might be a change in wind direction that could influence your comfort. Keep taking hydration and fuel. The highlights in this section include Lincoln Park, and a glimpse of Lake Michigan near Lake Shore Drive. Also, Wrigleyville and Boystown will certainly be entertaining. Rifle spinners, cheerleaders, and other crazy stuff.
- MILES 11-15: As you head back into downtown, the crowds get very big again. Old Town’s tree-lined streets can provide some shade in this section. Coming up is the half-way point just as you turn west. If you are running for a charity, you will see those cheer sections around Mile 14. It’s a huge pick-me-up even if you aren’t part of their group. Take a look around you – you will probably notice by now that you have settled in with a group of similar paced runners, and you will probably be with those same runners for quite some time. After Mile 14, things change.
- MILES 16-20: After Mile 14 the crowds become very thin and sometimes non-existent. You have entered the dead-zone. But you will be prepared for it from all of those lonely miles you put in during training. The scenery through here is pretty blah. It will be quiet until you get to Pilsen around Mile 19. If you haven’t taken an assessment of yourself yet, now’s the time. Have you been hydrating? Taking in gels or other food? How are your splits looking? How do your legs feel? Make some adjustments and remember your race plan goals to see if you are still on target. Also, around Mile 20 is the time when the dreaded “Wall” makes an appearance. Actually, I find the wall to be easily overcome by just keeping yourself fueled with gels and other food. Keep your energy up and you will not have to deal with the wall.
- MILES 21-25: Ah, Chinatown! This is the section that is always the reminder that we are winding this race down. About five miles to go! But your mind can play tricks on you because you start heading further south at this point, farther away from the downtown finish line. It’s not long until you hit Michigan Avenue and start heading north again. There will be fewer crowds here as most will be wanting to be near the finish. Just keep getting to each aid station and keep moving forward!
- MILES 26-26.2: Make the turn onto Roosevelt Road and tackle that hill! You are almost home! The trip down Columbus Drive will be very short, but you will want it to last longer. Soak up that finish! Great job!
Hooray! You did it! You finished the Chicago Marathon. Well done. Your job isn’t over yet, though.
- KEEP MOVING – You should definitely stop running (ha!), but don’t stop moving. Keep the blood pumping until your heart rate comes back down. There might be some mister-type fans for cooling if you need it. And those mylar type wraps/blankets that they pass out will make a difference as your warm body cools down and you find yourself now slightly chilled.
- AVOID SITTING – That curb may look like a great place to rest, but getting back up from it will be difficult.
- GET YOUR MEDAL – This is what you came for, right? It’s hard to miss the many people passing out medals, but I’ve seen more than one person backtrack to get one. And please, only take one.
- REHYDRATE AND REFUEL – Take a water or recovery drink and try to rehydrate. If you can eat something, try some pretzels, chips or eat a banana to help get your sodium and potassium levels back up.
- IF YOU NEED HELP, SEEK IT OUT – There will be course marshals in the chute sitting up high on stands monitoring everyone walking through. If they notice that someone is not looking right, they will get someone over to them. But if you aren’t doing so well, maybe feeling lightheaded or nauseated, there are areas near the Medical Tent that volunteer medical professionals will be at to help you recover. Their goal is to keep you out of the main medical tent, which is not where you really want to end up. If you make it there you are probably going to get an IV, or an ambulance ride to the hospital.
- TAKE YOUR TIME GETTING TO THE EXIT – You probably are ready to go find your family, but make sure you are in good walking shape before leaving and meeting your loved ones at your previously agreed upon meeting spot. You probably won’t be allowed back in once you leave. Get your finisher photo taken again with your medal, use the bathroom, grab another water and make sure you are in good enough condition to make it to where you are heading.
That’s about it. Thanks for reading and enjoy the Chicago Marathon!