So You Want to Run the Chicago Marathon?


Larisa Redins


Participating in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon can be both an exhilarating and intimidating experience for first timers. That said, with proper preparation and a great support system in place, you have a good chance finishing this marathon with a smile on your face.


Why Run this Marathon?


People decide to run the marathon for a variety of different personal reasons. For some, the wish to get in better shape or improve themselves in some other way motivates them to register.


“Just before my 30th birthday I ‘woke up’ to the fact that I was pretty unhappy with the way my life was going,” says Kerry Walsh, a Chicago-based attorney. “Consequently, I sat down and wrote a blueprint for what I wanted my life to be and a plan to change it. One of the steps I took was to start working out and becoming healthier. I knew that I needed to start running.”


Still others participate in the Chicago marathon as they are looking to take on their next running challenge.


“After racing in a series of neighborhood 5Ks in 2007, I started training and ran three half-marathons in six months,” says Janet McGrath, a Chicago-based high school English teacher. “After a finishing with 2:13:16 PR at the 2009 Rock n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon, I just knew I could finish the Chicago Marathon.”


How to Prepare for Your First Marathon


If you want to run a marathon, first and foremost, you should be honest with yourself about your fitness level. From there, you can determine your specific marathon running goals.


“As a coach, one of my biggest jobs is to help people take a good, hard look at their goals and fitness/health background before even choosing their goal event,” says Coach Mike Norman from Endurance Sports. “Why do you want to run a marathon? Do you have the proper fitness background to attempt such an aggressive goal? Would it make sense to focus on completing a shorter distance and doing it well before you jump on the marathon wagon? Yes, I want you to reach for your goals, but I also want you to be safe, successful and healthy for the rest of your life.”



While you can train for a marathon on your own, if you are looking for extra motivation and support, you can get involved with an organization that can help you with the training process in a group situation. One such program is the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) program.


“I signed up for a CARA training program to help me through long runs and provide me with a training plan,” says Walsh. “CARA has been an essential part of my evolution as a runner. I enjoy and really need the community and companionship of the CARA training programs to help me through tough runs and give me motivation in down times to stick to my training plan to achieve my goals.”


Moreover, marathon training is also a great way to meet new and friendly people. “I had a particularly good group leader in 2011 who is still a close friend of mine,” says Walsh. “In addition to Saturday long runs, we met midweek to complete our longest midweek run. We got to know each other over all those miles on the path and still work out together twice a week.”


What First-time Runners Should Expect during the Race


Of course, while each person’s individual race experience will be different, Megan Sullivan, Training Program Manager for CARA, notes that as the Bank of America Chicago Marathon has more than one million spectators, it is common for participants to be somewhat nervous. However, she advises first time marathoners to not get caught up with the excitement and remember to keep their pace.


“I think that most people’s biggest obstacle on race day will be mental rather than physical,” says Walsh. “Expect to have doubts and fears, worries and unanswered questions. Expect that if you have never run it before, you cannot know how far 26.2 miles really is. Expect that you may have thoughts—even if they are not serious—of quitting. But also expect that you can overcome all of these feelings and finish strong.”


That said, still other participants feel energized by the huge crowd at a marathon.


“The thrill of starting a race with tens of thousands of people is such a great feeling,” says McGrath. “Running through the fabulous neighborhoods of Chicago with cheering and support and dancing and music and people handing you fruit and spraying you with water and shouting out whatever name or word you have written on your shirt is joyous. Boystown was definitely my favorite and I ran my fastest down Halsted because I was so excited!”



Being Prepared for the Unexpected


Of course, it is imperative to be well-prepared both mentally and physically for a marathon. However, despite completing all of the required training on a consistent basis, there is still a possibility that you may come face-to-face with an unexpected situation during the actual race.


“I had projected a faster finish time (I finished in 5:36:14), but it was very hot that year and I remember that my feet were burning,” recalls McGrath. “Further, my hip was so tight and painful that it hurt more to walk than to run. The fact that I soldiered on despite heat warnings made me feel like a warrior though.”


“However, I would have strength-trained more, and I did while training for my second marathon. It made a huge difference in not getting injured.”


Walsh adds, “I was shocked at how intimidating the distance was as I toed the starting line and how my feelings of intimidation made it difficult for me to run my best. Consequently, I would have focused more time on making sure I was emotionally and mentally prepared for the race.”


Lessons Learned from the Running the Bank of America Chicago Marathon


Through training for this marathon, you will learn that you can accomplish goals that you previously did not think were possible. Marathon training requires a significant amount of dedication and commitment: skills you can apply to other aspects of your life.


“I learned the incredible reward of committing to something as huge as an 18-week training program, sticking to it, and accomplishing a goal at the end,” says Walsh. “After we leave school, there are very few opportunities for adults to commit to something as regimented and strict as a marathon training program, and we forget the value and reward of that kind of dedication.”


“I learned that I can accomplish any goal I want to as long as it’s reasonable and well-planned,” McGrath adds. “I learned that patience and dedication and hard work are their own rewards.”