The Spectator’s Guide to the Chicago Marathon

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What to Know Before You Go
By Kate Bongiovanni

You know you want to watch the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. You’d love to catch the speedy elites, but more importantly, you want to spot your friends and family who are running. The problem is you have no idea how to tackle those feats without getting lost, missing the runners you wanted to watch, ending up in a traffic jam or blending in with the crowd.

It’s no easy task to run a marathon, let alone spectate one—and spot all the runners on your must-see list. You won’t need a marathoner’s 16-week training program to be a successful spectator, but you might find yourself putting in the planning legwork the night before or thinking quick on your feet at the race to avoid road closures, crowded spectator areas or navigational nightmares. And with an estimated 1.7 million spectators lining the course, you might be doing more jockeying than the runners.

Fortunately, the course layout is in your favor. With a start and finish at Grant Park, the Chicago Marathon loops north, west and south around the city, offering spectators plenty of viewing spots all within a few miles.


“Chicago is such a great course to navigate,” says Jenny Hadfield, a Chicago-based running coach and author. “There are runners in so many different places.”

But the course is just one aspect to spectating this Chicago classic. If you’re going to be a successful spectator, you’re going to need a few more tips.

 

Where to Watch

Runners like Chicago for the flat and fast course; spectators like it for the convenience to watch it from several vantage points.

Find the spots where the runners will go by twice: up LaSalle and down Wells, west on Adams and east on Jackson, up Sheridan and Inner Lake Shore Drive and down Broadway, through Lincoln Park and down Sedgwick. You won’t have to travel very far, but you’ve doubled your chances of spotting your favorite runners.

“I absolutely love and adore the momentum and energy of the start,” Hadfield says. She also likes to watch the runners as they finish the northern arm of the race and head west, near Chinatown and about a half-mile out from the finish line. “You can see it in their eyes that they’re finishing,” she says.

Franklin and Adams, site of Willis Tower, can be a huge spot for spectators. Just four blocks before the halfway point, it might not be the best location to pick out an individual because you’re prohibited from climbing the walls that would provide an overhead view of the course, but the crowd is deep and it roars when the runners pass.

You’re also likely to find some of that same energy within each of the neighborhoods the marathon runs through from an Elvis impersonator to mariachi bands to cheer stations.

 

Find My Runner

How do you find your runner in a sea of 45,000? The easy answer: Be noticed. Wear bright clothes or a goofy hat, carry a poster or a balloon, grab some noisemakers.

You can also sign up for the runner alerts that send text messages to your phone when your runner crosses course checkpoints. The alerts help eliminate some of the guesswork—here’s where that thinking on your feet comes in—and some quick math will tell you when you might expect to see your runner.

But you don’t have to do all the work. Runners can wear the bright clothing—or at least tell you what they’ll be wearing—and sport their names on their singlets.

 

Eye on the Elites

Behind the wheelchair competitors, these world-class runners are the first on the marathon course. But when elites are running sub-5 and sub-6 minute miles, you could be waiting in line for refreshments or still rolling out of bed as they go by. The race starts at 7:30 a.m. and elites will speed through a mile every five minutes. That gives you a rough guide to when you’ll want to start looking for the motorcade that signals the elites are on their way.

 

Touring By Train

Who said you needed to burn almost as many calories as the runners as you hustle by foot around the city? Forget the trekking and board the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line, which has excellent course access—even from the Chinatown station where you can look down on runners—and can get you to some of the must-see points. The Loop has the State Street Theatre’s Chicago sign and fresh-footed runners at State and Lake; the Boystown aid station near Belmont is known for its drag cheerleaders; Chinatown brings out its dragon dancers; and runners cross directly over the Red Line tracks at 35th Street. Make all of those Red Line stops and you still have time to catch runners pushing up the Roosevelt hill in the final mile and then crossing the finish line.

 

Plan Your Attack

Spectating a marathon isn’t rocket science, but you don’t want to go into race day without a clear-cut plan for how and where you’re going to travel. Map out your route the night before. Compare the CTA map to the course map to decide how far north, south and west you want to travel—and know you might need to allow for transition time and road closures. Choose your viewing spots so your runner knows where to look for you. Pack your race-watching gear, complete with an extra layer, an umbrella, a snack, something to drink, maps and your most comfortable walking shoes. And don’t forget to charge your phone. A good spectator needs to be armed and ready for spotting those runners.

 

Sidebar:

CTA 101: How to Ride the L

Need to navigate the city come Chicago Marathon Sunday? Leave the car at home and trekking shoes in the hotel. Ride the CTA, specifically the L, whose lines criss-cross, run under and overlook the marathon course. Here’s what you need to know about riding Chicago’s public transportation system on one of its busiest travel days.

 

Get yourself a one-day CTA Fun Pass ($5.75) or shell out $2.25 per ride. Fun Passes are available at stores such as Currency Exchanges or drugstores, but standard fare cards can be purchased from vending machines at the stations. Last year, fare media could also be purchased at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon’s Health and Fitness Expo.

You might only have 24 hours, but become as familiar as you can with the rail system. Grab a spectator guide at the expo, ask questions at the CTA kiosk, download an app (though not made by CTA unless noted, they contain CTA data), and consult the course map to plan your desired transportation route.

The stations are clearly marked and are easy to find from the street. Each station has maps and signs to help you find your way around the city and to the correct boarding area. Plus you’ll find CTA personnel and volunteers at key locations on race day to answer questions and point you in the right direction.

When the train pulls into the station, its route and final destination are displayed on the side window. Make sure your Red Line train says Howard if you want to go north to Boystown and Old Town or 95th if you want to go south to Chinatown or Roosevelt for the finish. It’s one last check you can make to avoid boarding a train heading in the opposite direction from where you want to go.

Come race morning, allow for extra time to hop from spot to spot. Trains heading toward the Loop will likely be crowded with runners and their support crews, which could mean waiting for a less-packed train to pull into the station.

 

For more information, including maps and how-to guides, check out www.yourcta.com.