October 8, 2017 was my first Chicago, and their 40th Anniversary Race.
For the past few years I don’t think I’ve ever heard a negative word about the Chicago Marathon. Everyone who ever raced it told me that I’d just love absolutely everything about it.
They were right! Loved it and would go back to run it again in a heartbeat.
The positive feelings started before I ever arrived in Chicago and it was pretty basic: I was able to get in. That might sound rather frivolous but it’s just not that easy to get accepted into some of the big races. There’s good news and bad news about that. It’s great to see more and more people out there wanting to run marathons but, with increasing numbers, the odds of getting accepted in some races are worse than the lottery. Has anyone tried to get into London or Tokyo or Berlin lately? Good luck.
I respect it and feel pretty ‘special’ to have earned my way into Boston and New York but I’m not an elite runner so I have to rely on a lottery for many of the big ones. And that’s what great about Chicago. While the Chicago Marathon course has seen four world records and more than a dozen national records over the years, it still feel like a ‘people’s race’ where, if you apply, the odds of getting that bib are pretty good.
The ease of getting to Chicago is also a real plus. It feels so accessible in terms of travel. This was certainly evident when I read that the starting grid of 45,000 participants for the 2017 race had runners from more than 100 countries and all 50 states. I hadn’t expected it to draw such an international field: there were 2500 from Mexico; 1150 from Brazil; 1300 from China; 300 from Venezuela; 250 from the Philippines; 500 from Germany; 350 from Italy; 400 from Japan; and 1400 of my closest friends from Canada 🙂
The course starts and ends in Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago.
It was an early morning. My corral went out at 7:30 am and they wanted us there for 5:30. Now…in early October, that means it’s still dark when you start the trek to the start. It’s very much like Philadelphia in that way. Or…think heading to the buses in the early morning darkness in Boston and New York.
One of the things that make it feel like a big city marathon is that we all start together. It’s like Scotiabank in Toronto when everyone lines up on University Avenue. You just get a sense that this is a really big deal and there is a grandeur to the moment.
My hotel was close so I only had about one kilometer to walk. Dutifully, I was there for about 5:45 am and it was a piece of cake with security. I was through in a matter of minutes and then into the race compound inside Grant Park. At that point, it became ‘hurry up and wait’ in the dark. The light started peaking over the Lake about 6:30 am, and shortly after that I saw a few friends and we were happy to pass the time together.
While it was cool waiting for the race to start and we were shivering, I think that everyone would have taken a shot of that cool air by mid-morning when the temperature shot up to 25 degrees. It was hot…quickly!
The corrals went off very smoothly. I left at 7:30 am although there were other waves going at 8:00 and 8:30 am.
The course was essentially a tour of Chicago and passed by the Lincoln Park Zoo, Willis Tower, United Centre, Chinatown Gate, and 29 ‘official’ Chicago neighbourhoods. It passed memorable Chicago architecture in the Loop, historic homes in Lincoln Park; music and street dancing in Lakeview; iconic baseball parks in Wrigleyville; murals and Latin music in Pilsen; and dragon-costumed dancers and entertainers in Chinatown. You were never alone on this very urban course, and 1.7 million spectators seemed to fill every conceivable spot on the curbs.
Now…an aside. When I was talking with some of my fellow runners after, they asked if I saw the Elvis impersonator, smelled the chocolate…and really ‘took in’ the City. The funny thing is that I honestly don’t remember seeing any of it. Whether I was so focused on running…so ‘zoned out’ in the heat…I don’t know. How can you spend four hours running through a City and remember so little about what you saw? I’m not sure I have the answer but it’s happened to me now in several places. I hardly remember the streets of Berlin or the beautiful countryside along the Boston route (I didn’t even know when I was on Heartbreak Hill…but…I thought they were all ‘heartbreak hills’ by then…) or the maze of New York…. I think that I need to go back to all of those courses and walk or drive them because it all seems like a blur. I was really there…but….
Here’s another ‘aside’ that most Chicago marathoners will remember. I looked at my watch at the end, and it showed me as having run 43.3 km. I tried to cut the corners and follow the ‘blue line’ but almost everyone I met had run much more than 42.2. Some of our watches were a bit ‘out’ because of signal disruptions with the number of big buildings, but…1.1 km extra? I sure didn’t need it!
I do remember the finish. Why is there always a little hill or bridge or some little ‘surprise’ waiting for you at the end of a race? In Chicago, I didn’t realize there was going to be a last little bridge hiding around the corner (they’re never little at that point in the race) just before the final one hundred metres to the Finish Line. It was tough…and I didn’t appreciate it for sure. It didn’t kill me so, maybe it made me stronger!
I understand there was a huge screen coming down that finishing chute: didn’t even see it!
The post-race experience was great from beer (in other words…carbs!) to ice-cold face clothes (even better!) to Gatorade Recovery drinks. It was hot, and I saw quite a few runners cramping up and requiring medical assistance in that finishing area. If you didn’t hydrate well along the way you would have been in serious trouble by then.
Maybe the best feeling was leaving the Finish area and seeing all the ‘regular people’ waiting to greet their runners. What a great feeling just to see everyone. And, that’s what I think I liked the most. In Chicago, on that weekend, everyone was either a runner or had a friend who was one. The whole City (as does Ottawa during Tamarack Weekend) just embraced it and I can’t count the number of congratulatory ‘high fives’ I got from strangers on the walk back to my hotel. It’s the antithesis of races in Toronto where you have a feeling, as a runner, that the City just wants to get you done, out of there, and off the streets, so we can turn things back to the car.
Chicago made you feel like you were a runner and a runner in a very special marathon. It made me feel like I want to come back and do it again and, hopefully, see the 42.2 km that I seemed to have missed on this tour!
(Note: Mitch placed 58th out of thousands in his AG for his first Chicago)