Chicago Marathon Spectator & Runner Guide, by a runner.

In 5 days I will be running the Chicago Marathon for my third years in a row.  For the first time I feel more excitement than I do nervous.  I have also coordinated 8-9 other people from my run group in Michigan to come down and also run it after I got back from my adventure last year.  It is crazy to believe that almost 10 months ago a group of us doing this was a half baked (and half drunk) idea after one of our weeknight runs as we sat at the bar; then on lottery day as we woke up and check our emails (and bank accounts) to see if we had gotten in.

In 5 days this idea will be anything but half baked.

In the process of coordinating this, and thinking about places to go, it got me really thinking about the marathon, the course, and the spectators- all of which are amazing.  But I wanted to use this post as a means to celebrate the various spots along the route for runners- and some key advice, as well as to be helpful to spectators.

In the five years I lived in Chicago, and the countless miles I ran there (including two Chicago Marathons), I am more than qualified to give out some unsolicited advice here.

I’ll start with Spectators:

  1. Discuss with your runner the night before what you will be wearing/what they will be wearing.  There are 45,000 runners and double/triple the amount of spectators.  Saying you’ll see them at mile 12 won’t cut it.
  2. Don’t get “trapped” outside the course- the Chicago marathon is a point-to-point course that does form a loop- when you look at the course map- think of the route as the outer perimeter- don’t get outside of that- unless you specifically intend to (getting on a train etc).  Again 45,000 runners, crossing a street is no easy feat, and runners will not thank you for cutting them off.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes, layers, and be caffeinated.  Last year my family told me how much adrenaline they had hopping around the city- and also how much fun it was.  They ended up seeing me in four different locations, this took: an Olaf (Frozen) balloon, 2 smart phones, several coffee stops, several potty break stops, countless train stops, and a cta day pass.  It also took a lot of planning on my end to make sure I gave them train stops, with locations and destinations
  4. Get a day pass, and be prepared to get on a train.  Download an app like “Transit Stop: CTA Tracker”, and make sure your phone is charged
    1. Speaking of apps make sure you are tracking your runner
  5. Don’t carry unnecessary baggage, some areas will be more crowded than others.  And again your runner can be running anywhere from 2 1/2 – 5 hours- you’ll be on your feet too.
  6. Make time to go to the bathroom, and get food.  When you get to certain locations you may be waiting for a bit.  Better to get off your train and get what you need right away than go without.
  7. Have a rendezvous planned post race, will you meet at the family/friends reunion at the finish line?  Or will you meet at the starbucks a few blocks away?  Establish that beforehand, due to the sheer amount of people cell service can be unreliable
  8. Speaking of unreliable, the trains and your feet will be the most reliable mode of transit after the runners begin finishing- especially if you are a mere mortal and finish after the four hour mark

For the runners, I’ll spare you the advice you’ll get at the expo and from countless Runner’s World Articles about not going out too fast, and going based on effort versus pace.  I’ll also spare you the cliche: “have fun”


  1. I lied.  HAVE FUN!  I get it, if you’re going for a BQ or prize money you’re probably not going to be taking in the amazing scenery, and people.  Again- mere mortals- take it all in.
  2. Pack an ipod, but don’t plan on needing it, until you’re in the pain zone, the crowds are unreal.
  3. Speaking of pain zone, the toughest miles (IMO) are after mile 21 (leaving Chinatown) until mile 24 (you’re back on Michigan avenue heading towards the city.  These miles are tough for several reasons: this is a really common time to experience glycogen/fuel depletion and bonk, these are some of the more desolate miles of the course across the board, and lastly- you run away from the city.  At mile 21 you are on a path that if continued takes you back downtown, but then you turn and head south.  Mentally it stinks, but knowing about it beforehand can help with the much needed mental games we all play
  4. Boystown (mile 8) is really cool, buy my favorite areas on the course are at: Mile 9.5-10 in the Old Town Neighborhood (residents will be out on the curb brunching, drinking mimosas, and cheering as you run by).  Mile 19 in Pilsen, Pilsen is more hype than Boystown, the cheers from the crowds, and bands are DEAFENING.  Pilsen is also the home of my Chicago Club: Venados, and they keep that mile the best mile. I also love running through Little Italy (mile 17.5).  Honorable mention spots are the students of IIT who come out to the street and offer everything from gummy bears to wine (mile 23) and the crowd that gathers on Michigan avenue (23.5) to cheer you on to the start of that last 2.5 mile stretch.
  5. Chicago is flat, flat, flat.  You only need to prepare for two small inclines: 1 around mile 12 (I believe on Orleans st), and the other at mile 26 (aka Mt Roosevelt).  Neither climb is crazy, but preparedness is key, and the climb at 26, I mean its not that bad, but you’re gassed at that point, so it feels like you’re climbing for eternity.
  6. Chicago has a great course, but its the spectators that make it so amazing- so thank them, smile at them, high five them.  It’s the spectators that put gummy bears in cups, offer you beer, chop up fruit, set out sunblock/vaseline for the runners.  As I’m sure some of you know, this makes SUCH a difference.
  7. In addition to the typical mind games we all play, break the course up into “legs” you have your north leg (mile 1-12), west leg (13-21), and the south leg (22-26.2).  You break each leg up however you want.  I will tell you that when you get back out on Michigan avenue around mile 23.5-ish it will be amazing (I mean, don’t get too excited you still have about 2.5 miles left).
  8. Be prepared for the expo- it is such an easy way to spend too much money but also spend more time on your feet than what you mean to.  Go in knowing there will be a ton of stuff.  Narrow down how much you’re willing to spend, and once you have spent that, leave.
  9. Remember to say thank you to your spectators. While they didn’t run a marathon, they hustled all over the city to see you. 
  10. If you’re not staying near the start line make sure you get there early. Lines for the porta potties will be very long. Also, if this is your first time running, it is imperative you are in your corral before it closes leading up to the start. 
  11. Follow the blue line! No not the train. The blue lines on the course are there to map out the most direct way to 26.2. It can be tricky to see when you’re in a crush of people. So my advice is to carefully look down 

Photo Cred @lazielife

The Chicago Marathon is my favorite race, hands down. I hope this post serves as a helpful resource to runners and spectators alike! For spectators and fans, I hope you all have fun, weather-wise, it’s looking like a great day to run a marathon!! 

1 Comment

  1. I love the Chicago Marathon and am so excited for you to be doing it again. Sadly, I will not be there this year but am cheering from afar. I totally agree with you about Pilsen and Chinatown. Also that area around mile 21-23 is not only mentally tough but the course is BORING. I’ve often said it would be awesome if they could reverse the course. Have a wonderful race!

Leave a Reply