Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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The Ultimate Chicago Marathon Race Guide

The Chicago Marathon is one of the largest and most exciting marathons in the world. With over 45,000 runners, hundreds of thousands of spectators, and a pancake-flat course, it is also one of the fastest courses in the world. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few logistical and race strategy mistakes that can ruin your months of hard training and preparation.

In this post, I will be outlining how to approach the logistics of such a large race as well as how to execute the perfect race strategy on a deceptively tricky course.

I hope this guide helps you out and I encourage you to forward it on to your friends who are racing.

If you have any feedback, please leave a note in the comments. While I am not the official site for the Chicago Marathon, I can help you with race strategy questions.

The Last Few Days Before the Race

  • Pack your race gear in your carry-on baggage if you’re flying to the race and put any casual clothes on checked baggage if you are checking. Casual clothes and shoes are great to have, but your whole trip relies on your running gear. Plus, you’re going to be surrounded by runners; so being stuck in running clothes for a day or two if your bags get lost won’t look weird at all. When you’re packing, lay all your gear out on the bed and make sure you pack everything you need in your carry-on bag. Don’t forget band-aids, chafing prevention, and nutritional products (usually energy gels, electrolytes) that you plan to use in the race. Pack these in the carry-on bag. Leave nothing to chance.
  • Carry food with you at all times. In the peaking phase, you never want to get hungry (especially the last 3 days before the race). Don’t overeat, be prepared in case a meeting goes long or you are late for a meal. Always have a good snack available. In addition to your race gear, pack some good food in your carry-on bag. You may want something to eat on the plane/train/car. If you’ve flown in the last decade, you know how frustrating airlines can be with the arrival and departure times. Also, try to keep fluids with you at all times as well. If you’re flying, empty a water bottle out before going through security so you can avoid buying the $4 bottle of water. Don’t over drink, but be prepared.
  • The first thing you should do after settling into your hotel is find a grocery store. Ask the front desk for the nearest one or call ahead to expedite the process. Go immediately to the grocery store and stock up. Buy the foods you like and you know prepare you best for running. I like bagels, peanut butter and jelly, energy bars, yogurt, and sandwiches. Again, you never want to get thirsty or hungry prior to the race. Being stocked will help avoid this. Don’t just eat out of nervousness but have food available if you need a snack.
  • Plan ahead for your meal on the night before the race. There are going to thousands of runners, plus their families, coming to the city to race. Restaurants fill up quickly, especially those suitable for pre-race marathon meals. Search the Internet before you leave and consider making a reservation.  I usually try to eat close to my hotel so I can take a leisurely 10-15 minute walk after dinner. Don’t eat too early or too late. A
  • You’ll need to visit the expo to pick up your race number, chip, etc. Enjoy the expo but don’t spend all day there. It’s too much time on your feet. Browse through it, pick up what you need and get out. The expo is where many runners get dehydrated and hungry so carry fluids and fuel with you to keep this from happening.
  • Plan your sightseeing so it happens after the race. Walking around before the race will get your legs tired and defeat the whole purpose of your visit and all your hard training. Plus, sightseeing after the race is more relaxing (you’re not stressed about the race) and it gives you a good chance to stretch out your legs.
  • Give your family and friends the information they need to follow you early so you don’t have to worry about it as the race gets closer. Here is the spectator guide from the Chicago Marathon website, which includes how to setup runner tracking so they can follow your splits.

Chicago Course Profile and race Strategy

The First Half is Deceptively Fast

The first 13 miles of the Chicago Marathon will have you flying through the streets faster than you realize thanks to the hoards of competitors speeding by you, the flat and fast course, and the excitement generated by the crowds. The first few miles of the Chicago Marathon feel like you’re running through a wall of sound and adrenaline.

chicago marathon course profile

Therefore, it is absolutely critical you focus on your early pace and don’t let yourself start too fast. A lot of runners, especially those that run Chicago, feel fantastic for the first 13 miles. When they come through half way faster than goal pace, they are excited to have “time in the bank” – meaning they can now run x:xx slower during the second half of the race and still finish under their goal.

I’m not sure where the “time in the bank” theory came from, but the strategy has lead to the demise of more marathon runners than any other source. I wrote a little recap of how going out too fast at the NYC marathon cost Mary Keitany the course record.

Still not convinced? Consider the ever so slight difference in pacing between Haile Gebrselassie’s world record attempts at Berlin in 2008, where he successfully became the first person to run under 2:04 for the marathon, and Dubai in 2009, where he faded badly the last 10 kilometers. In Dubai, Gebreselssie was a mere 23 seconds faster at halfway compared to his world record pace in Berlin the year before. However, even this small shift in pace (about one second per kilometer) resulted in a crash that resulted in him finishing some 90 seconds slower than his Berlin time over the final 10k.

world record splits marathon

The trick with a race like Chicago, with a blazing first 13 miles, is to really focus on being slow the first 3-4 miles of the race. This is much harder to do than it seems, so here are some tips:

  • If you have to start far back in the corral so you don’t get caught up running with others, it’s a smart decision. Put your pride away and don’t worry about other runners heading out way faster than you. My trick was to always try and laugh a little inside knowing that they would all come back. It was like knowing a secret they didn’t.
  • Target a pace that is 20-30 seconds slower than your actual goal race pace for the first 2 miles. Yeah, I know it’s much slower than pace, but it does three things: (1) it compensates for not having much a warm-up. With the crowds and the amount if time you’ll need to stand in the corral, you’ll likely start pretty stiff; (2) it gives you a little wiggle room should you go fast; and (3) allows you to be more patient around the crowds until they thin out. Since you’re going slower, you don’t have to freak out and get around people quickly. Just take a deep breath and relax.

Interesting story. When I ran the Twin Cities Marathon in 2006 (the year it was very hot) the leaders ran the first mile in 6:00 and the second mile in 5:45. They finished right around 2:11, which is 5:00 pace average (and the last 10 miles are all slightly uphill). Just goes to show that when you’re well prepared, being slow for 2 miles, even if it’s 45-60 seconds slow, is totally fine and no reason to freak out.

After 4-6 miles, you can start creeping towards goal marathon pace. My advice is to still plan to be about 5-10 seconds slower than goal marathon pace through miles eight or ten. Being a little slow in these miles as your conserved energy will allow you to hold pace the last 10k and avoid the dreaded marathon fade and bonk.

Why does Running Slower the First Half Work?

Running a little slower than goal marathon pace for the first 3 or 4 miles works for two reasons: (1) by running slower, you conserve critical fuel and energy you’ll need the last 10k; and (2) running slower gives your body a better chance to absorb and take on fuel and fluids.

  • Just like a car, the faster you run, the more fuel you burn. Almost everyone has seen the effects of fuel consumption while driving at 80mph versus 55mph. Your body reacts in a similar way. When you run over your marathon pace (scientifically defined as your aerobic threshold), you start to burn significantly more carbohydrates. Similarly, weaving in and out of other runners the first few miles, which tends to happen more with runners who go out too fast, is like driving your car in the city. We all know cars get significantly reduced miles per gallon while driving in the city. Your body is the same way.
  • Your body can store enough fuel to run about 2 hours at marathon pace. This means you’ll need to take on a lot of extra carbohydrates during you run. Unfortunately, your body has a difficult time digesting the carbohydrates you take in while running. The best way to combat this unfortunate bodily function (besides practicing taking gels and fluids in practice) is to take on carbohydrates in fluids early in the race when your body is feeling good and not stressed. If you started the race a little slower, you’ll have a chance to absorb more of the nutrition you take on board.

During this time, you should concentrate on eating and drinking whenever possible and as much as you know your stomach can handle. You definitely want to put energy in the bank.

Once the field starts to spread out, start looking around and engage the competitors around you. Find a group that is running your pace or a little faster and latch on. Try to relax and keep your focus on staying with the group, not your splits. Use the group and the people around you to help you relax and take your mind of the distance ahead.

The Race Gets Empty by Halfway

After 10 miles, get down to goal marathon pace and maintain through half way. After 16 miles, you can creep your pace up to a little faster than marathon pace if you feel good. Don’t go crazy, just pick it up a little if you’re feeling stronger. Continue to focus on running strong, staying relaxed and using the other runners around you to break the wind and pace you.

Once you turn onto Adams Street and begin heading out to mile 13 and the halfway point, you are now heading directly out of the city. This is where the course gets quieter and the realities of the work left to do start to set in.

Be ready for the mental letdown to happen. It goes from real exciting to real boring quickly and it feels like someone kicked you in the gut. Remember that and be prepared to make a push and really focus. Get in a rhythm and focus on you and your internal pace. Here are two tricks for this section of the race:

  • Focus on runners that are coming back to you and fading. Try and replace the motivation from the crowds with the positive feeling of moving past someone.
  • Because the race is completely flat, you use the same muscles and never get a chance to go up or down, which can help change the specific demands on your legs. To combat this, throw in a light surge or two every 10 minutes (like 10 seconds faster than MP) for 30 seconds – it shouldn’t be too hard or crazy, just a little something to change it up. Not only does this help keep you on pace and focused, but it breaks up the monotony.

Enter Chinatown Ready to Work

One you hit Chinatown, you are at mile 21. At this point, you’re heading away from the finish line, which can get discouraging. Again, keep your focus and remember your training.

Know that once you make it to White Sox Park that you turn left and then left again back to downtown. You’ll be able to see the Sears Tower and you’ll know that the finish line is within reach. The last 10k of a marathon is difficult no matter how fast you’re running. Here are my race tips:

  • Keep you mind and body relaxed. Look within yourself and focus on you. Think confident thoughts and repeat confident mantras to yourself; “I am fast, this feels good” or “I am strong, I’m running great”. Every time you feel tired or feel the pace slip, repeat to yourself that you need to refocus and concentrate and get back on pace.
  • Often times, I’ll watch a video of fast marathon runners and when I start to hurt, I’ll imagine myself running like them. Good form – head straight, arms swinging forward and back slightly, powerful strides. Just having the mental imagery of good form helps me maintain my pace when the muscles become increasingly tired with each step.
  • If the pace starts to slip, I’ll throw in a surge to get my legs fired up again. Sometimes all it takes is a small burst of speed to reinvigorate your legs and pace. Since you’ve done surges during your long run, this will be just like practice for you.
  • Finally, I try to break the remaining distance into bite size and easily digestible pieces. After doing lots of hard training runs, I’ll break the race up into one of my best previous workout sessions. For example, if I had a great 2 x 3 mile session, I’ll remember how it felt and think to myself, “hey, I did this workout before, let’s get back on pace and do it again”. Likewise, sometimes a mile can seem like a long distance, so I’ll break it down into a time instead. Thinking I only have 3-4 minutes until I hit the halfway point of a mile makes it seem a lot easier. 4 minutes is nothing.
  • With 3 miles to go, keep your head up and start to try and catch people in front of you. Pick one person and focus solely on reeling them in, nothing else. As you pass them, surge and put your eyes on the next person and repeat. Imagine tying a fishing line to their back and reeling them in. This will take your mind off the tiredness in the legs.

Good luck at your race this year. Run smart, execute your race strategy and let your fitness and preparation shine through to carry you to a new PR!

For more secrets about how to have your best race at the Chicago Marathon, take a listen to our podcast episode with Race Director Carey Pinkowski, where he talks about just how special this race is. If you are racing Chicago, this is guaranteed to turn those nerves into excitement!

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30 Responses on “The Ultimate Chicago Marathon Race Guide

  1. Great post with some good strategies not just for Chicago but for any marathon. But I think your description of Chicago is especially apt – I ran it 4 straight times (2001-2004) and was amazed each time by how it seemed like two different races. The crowds in the first half are what you expect from a big marathon in a big city, but the quietness of the southern reaches (except Chinatown) is a stark contrast and a bit demoralizing. I always looked forward to hitting McCormick Place knowing you were nearly done and the crowds were just ahead.

    • Thanks, Greg. I felt the same way when I hit 13-14 miles in my fist Chicago and it really cost me the race. Had I just been mentally prepared for it, I think I would have finished much stronger. However, since it was my first ever marathon, it really took a toll mentally.

  2. Thanks for this very insightful post. This will be my 8th marathon and have been training with a plan to start slow for the first three k ( about 10 seconds per km slower than MP) and then lock into my pace for the duration. A similar strategy helped me achieve a PB in Niagara Falls last fall and it is also a very flat course. I am also planning on following the nike pacers for my planned time of 3:25. I am wondering , however, about the effect of the huge crowd on my race pace. Will it be difficult to move in the early miles as the pictures of the start corrals show a very tight crowd of runners all bunched up. Any advice? Thanks again for a great article!

    • I don’t know if there’s really any secrets for getting around the crowds. My advice is to stay relaxed, take a deep breath and just wait for things to open up. Surging past slower runners and getting uncomfortable in the tight crowds is an easy way to ruin your race. All the surges and stopping and starting requires a lot of energy. Energy = fuel, so the more energy and fuel you burn up during the first few miles, the less you’ll have over the last 10k. Try your best to set yourself in the right corral and when the race starts, relax and go with the flow until a natural opening for running appears. As you’ve planned already, you’re going to be a little slow for the first few miles anyway, so take a deep breath and focus on relaxing.

    • I was in start corral “C” last year and I didn’t think the start was any more crowded than most other races. My only advice (based on experience!) is to not try to run with a pace group that is starting from a corral ahead of you– I tried that last year, ended up going waaaay to fast for the 1st couple of miles until I caught up, feeling great until mile 16, and then cramping up. Very frustrating since I think I was in shape to have hit my target if I hadn’t gone out too fast.

      I’m also planning to run with the 3:25 group from corral B this year. Good luck!

    • I am really glad the article helped, Chris. I’ve been a fan of yours since reading the $100 startup and watching your interviews on Mixergy. Really made my day knowing that I could help out someone I learned so much from myself. Good luck at the race!

  3. Jeff,

    I cannot thank you enough for publishing this article. It helped me tremendously on Sunday. This was my first marathon which is daunting enough. So to have any specific insider tips is invaluable. Your descriptions on what to expect helped me visualize it enough that I almost felt like I had run it before–the mental preparation was huge.

    And the tip about adding surges to rev the legs up and break the monotony of the flat course was awesome. Used that several times and I think it helped to propel me past my goal of 3:45 to finish in 3:42:28.

    Again, can’t thank you enough for taking the time to put this together. It without a doubt helped to make my marathon debut that much more successful.

    • Thank you for the wonderful comment, Marcie! I am so glad you had an awesome race and the guide helped walk you through the process so well. Chicago was my first marathon too and I wish I had realized how much things changed after 13, so it was a pleasure to write and help others out.

      Congrats on the great time! You’ve probably downloaded it elsewhere, but in case you haven’t, here is our marathon eBook for the next one you run a marathon.

      Finally, here is our article on how to recover after a marathon. Hope it gets you rested up and ready to attack some new PRs this winter and spring!

  4. Thank you for the advices. I am running chicago next month hoping to break the 3h wall for the first time. I agree with everything you say but not with the carbo intake in the first part of the marathon. A lot of article I agree with state to wait because you don’t run the second part of the marathon on glicogen but on fat. The early intake of carbo gel will only stop your body from using your body glicogen and prevent it from switching to fatty metabolism.

  5. Thanks, This is very helpful article.I am running on 13 OCT 2013 Chicago marathon first time.this will surely help me on my race day.thanks a lot again

  6. Thanks for the tips Jeff!! I used your under 2 hour Half Marathon training plan from Runkeeper and ran the Indy Mini in 1:52:43 (down from 2:37:56 last year). Running the Chicago Marathon on Sunday October 13th and will use your tips to help finish strong!!

  7. I just ran the 2013 Chicago Marathon and this article helped me tremendously. The race description is spot on and the strategy tips are priceless. Thanks so much for this invaluable information!!

  8. Thank you coach Jeff!
    I have read your article on Chicago and I feel like I have visualized the course and what I need to do to mentally prepare to achieve my goal! I have not run a marathon strategically before and I am excited to do so! Thank you so much for all of your articles, advice, programs and for following up. I’ve never felt more prepared before and there will be many more marathons to go after this one. I look forward to working with runners connect for my next big one! #nycmarathon2014
    #chicago2015
    #worldmarathonmajors

    • Awesome Samantha! Thanks for the nice comment there. We are very excited to hear how you get on. Let us know if you need anything before the race! By the way, I actually read this guide myself before I raced Chicago last year, and it helped a lot! Glad you found it! Best of luck!

  9. Running the Chicago this year as my first marathon- not trying to set any records by any means but seems like some helpful stuff here, especially since even without the crowds I tend to start my runs fast and I’m going to miss having hills! Thanks

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Running the Chicago marathon this Sunday, first marathon!
    I’m excited, scared, and filled with wonder. I really appreciate your advice laid out here. Looks like the weather will be beautiful!

  11. I used your plan for my last marathon and BQ. This info on Chicago is great and I will set out this Sunday to do just that, relax and enjoy! Thanks for the insight!

  12. Wish I had seen this article before I ran Chicago in 2013. I think it would have been a BIG help, as I pretty much did everything wrong. It didn’t help that I had run the Fox Valley Marathon a month before, but that’s a whole different story.
    I’m running Chicago again in just a few days, and plan to follow the advice given here.
    It’s going to be a great race day!

  13. This Sunday will be my first marathon ever, I have never ran beyond 22 miles which happened during my training. I am planning on using your great suggestions/recomendations in my entire race. Being new in two major aspects of my race-distance and pace, I do not know what to expect, but I now feel much better and feel your awesome article has provided me with the final piece of the puzzle. Truly appreciate you taking the time to write this great article for us rookies. My goal feels much more reachable now for sure…3 hrs and 25 mins is my goal.

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