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.
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.
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!