Chicago Marathon – Tips & Advice

Travelling across the globe is a fair undertaking, so hopefully the below will ensure you get the most out of your trip. If you want to read how I got in 2019 then click here

Travel Tips –

  • Use Skyscanner to search for flights and be flexible. Travelling across the Atlantic is never going be cheap but I managed to get United Airlines from Heathrow for £285 at pretty decent times, only losing two days of work.
  • Don’t forget you need an ESTA for America, which takes at least 3 days, but can be done a long time in advance. Sign up online and make sure you use the proper government site not the ones that charge a fee on top of the ETSA cost.
  • Getting into town from airport is pretty good especially compared to Paris. Train station currently accessed from Terminal 2, which can be walked to from 1 or take free shuttle bus. Train ticket into town on blue line is €5 but need exact change for ticket machines, not ideal if you’ve just landed with crisp €20 notes.
  • Once in town you can either drop stuff at hotel or go straight to expo.
  • Hotels are never going to be cheap in a big city with 45k Runners coming in. Pick what you can afford but would recommend something walkable to and from the Grant Park / lake front area.

img_3897Expo –

  • The Expo is as good or bad as they ever are. I’m not a fan. As usual it’s in a hall in arse end of nowhere but they lay on regular buses from four locations in town to get there and back. Riding a big yellow school bus is kinda cool until the suspension pushes your spine through the top of your head.
  • Don’t forget photo ID to collect and your collection email with QR code.
  • If you’re in for the Saturday 5k run then collect that as well and plan flights accordingly. Someone else can collect the 5k spot with suitable copy of ID but not the marathon bibs, or you get 5k bibs from race start on Saturday.
  • Queues at expo vary. Friday morning was bad, by mid afternoon it was pretty good. There was a lot of duplicate checking of IDs but pretty quick. Annoyingly they give you the bib but then make you fight through the crush of stalls to get to other end of hall to collect the finisher top and drop bag.
  • The stalls are much the same as every expo. Some people will be on a mission to get in and out, others will want to spend on one of everything and would buy a diseased donkey carcass if it had the race logo emblazoned on its decaying rump.
  • Expect to queue for the bouncy bus back to town again.


5k tips –

  • Start and finishes in different locations with no drop bags so come ready to run or bring a rucksack (allowed for 5k).
  • Starts 7:30am so expect it to be cold.
  • You can move pens to run with mates.
  • Everyone will finish the 5k and want breakfast. Everywhere local will be rammed. Hang around or head back to hotel for breakie.

Marathon Tips –

  • The marathon starts in waves from 7:30, 8:00 and 8:30. It will likely be cold so make sure you have bin liner or spare clothes to throw off as you’ll be in the pen for a while after bag drop.
  • Security on entering park is much like US theme parks, lots of lines and baggage searches, then the magic wand over to check for hidden stuff on your person. Allow time for this. I got to the park an hour before my wave and I had time to pass the checks, drop bag, wee in a bush and find the pens. It was relatively tight and I wouldn’t have wanted to cut it much closer or queue for portaloo.
  • The staggered waves mean a 3hr runner setting off at 7:30 is going to have a long wait for their mate doing closer to the 6.5hr cutoff and starting at 8:30.
  • Route is one big loop back to start point so no baggage lorries. Although there’s a few out and back section they’re a block apart so you can’t see and cheer on clubmates in the opposite lane like London.
  • Aid on course is water and gator aid in cups at regular intervals, then gels, carb chews (a lot like shot blocks) and bananas. If you struggle with cups and it’s a hot day I’d recommend taking an empty handheld bottle in to fill on route – security won’t allow liquids into start pens.
  • Security also doesn’t allow backpacks or camel backs but waist belt bottle holders seem to be OK.
  • For 2019 they had biofreeze aid stations with either the pumped gel to rub in or the cold spray aerosols.
  • Keep an eye out for free beer at mile 22, small shot glasses from Goose Island.
  • Also look out for unofficial aid stations with whiskey, beer, doughnuts, coke or just a high five.
  • The course is all road, much of it concrete and in places with potholes the size of a minivan so wear appropriate shoes and look where you’re going.
  • Your GPS will go crazy due to buildings. It makes the instantaneous pace and distance meaningless. Run to feel, stick with a pace maker or just pace to the mile markers, but whatever you do don’t trust your watch. I clocked 28 miles for the run, with ridiculous PBs registering from the dodgy distance.

After the race –

  • The usual foil blankets, water and banana with added can of beer handed out.
  • We also got tokens for a pint at the mile 27 after party. You’re warned to bring photo ID but didn’t seem to be challenged much.
  • Bag collection seemed less slick than London and less randomised so most people finishing together wanted the same two or three queues whilst other collection points were barely in use.
  • The after party at mile 27 is amazing and really made the day for me. Sat in the sun drinking free beer and chatting to runners, checking mates progress on the app was perfect. Make sure to have some cash for more beer and food. There’s a stage with music and it’s a real festival vibe.
  • If you expect to have flattened your phone playing tunes and taking selfies all day consider a battery pack in drop bag too.


Shopping –

  • Both the Nike store and Under Armour are worth a visit for more merchandise but expect big queues, big prices and don’t forget the sales tax on top.
  • Some of the products are of questionable design and manufacture.
  • Nike in particular had a €55 rain smock resplendent with Chicago marathon logo and all the style and quality of a bin liner. It was selling well.
  • Both stores do various incentives for runners including medal engraving and finishers gear.
  • From the WhatsApp group chat I am painfully aware the XS women’s stuff is in short supply even from Friday.

Things to do in Chicago –

  • From the various clubmates the general consensus is do the boat tour or bus tour, then go up John Hancock Building for the Tilt experience (€22 to go up, €8 for the Tilt).
  • Also pop by the bean statue and walk along the lake front whilst marvelling at just how big the lake is. Apparently you could fit Wales in it. Finally something useful to do with Wales.
  • Worth checking what sport events are on. Ice Hockey, Basketball, Baseball or football depending on game schedules or season.
  • Food wise you need to eat the Chicago hot dog with weird stuff all over it and the deep pan pizza that varies from a pastry case of sick to something more presentable.
  • Being a metropolitan city with the normal hipster contingent then pretty much all dietary requirements or invented conditions are catered for.
  • Some places will ID you no matter how bald, grey and pallid you are so bring ID if you want beer.
  • Lastly – The marathon results are printed in the Chicago Tribune on Monday so worth getting a copy for a memento.

Chicago Marathon 2019 – Epic Weekend!

img_4020Short version for those with limited time – Chicago Marathon is amazing. Do it.

For tips and advice click here

Longer versionChicago is one of the majors and has all the good and bad points that brings. Think crowds, regular aid stations, an eye watering price and another bloody expo.

I entered it on a whim. I knew some clubmates had already applied with GFA times and had in my mind I might go one day. London Marathon had moved their GFA qualifiers so my PB of 3:13 wasn’t going to get me in there and the ballot result also didn’t go my way. So I entered the Berlin ballot for 2019. And got rejected again.

In a theme familiar from the book (if you’ve not purchased it yet you really should, I have kids to feed), everything that followed was the fault of a David, namely Foxy. He saw me vent my Berlin annoyance on Facebook, and pointed out my PB was good enough for Chicago and I had a full 37 minutes before the application window closed.

Sat in a car park on a wet Tuesday evening waiting for the club run I frantically registered, thankful of Apple Pay to complete the process. I pasted the link to my 3h13 marathon results from the Running Miles event and wondered if the low key event with around 80 Runners would even meet their requirements for the vetting process. I went for the run and came back to find the acceptance email waiting for me. I was going to Chicago! That was an expensive Tuesday that Foxy has yet to recompense me for.

Knowing I had a lot of ultras in 2019, culminating in the Lakeland 100 the plan was to get these done and then some speed work to target Chicago for a future GFA. It’s fast and flat, with pacers, mile markers, aid stations and all the gubbins needed to help. Dates meant I’d also be running Bournemouth marathon the week before which wasn’t ideal. Neither was buggering my knee up three weeks out making it doubtful I’d even run it.

Having surprised myself with a 3:32 at Bournemouth I set off to Chicago hoping for similar. The majors are expensive so I wouldn’t be making a repeat visit and wanted a time that wouldn’t leave me feeling like I needed to return to do it justice. If I ever get the six-star medal then I want the certificate to have a selection of decent times, not a piss poor stumble to break the Chicago cut off.

img_3887I flew out early Friday with Dennis (my stand in wife for the weekend), managing a course record 1h10min from Milton Keynes to being on the beers at Heathrow post-security. Landing in Chicago we headed to the expo. These are never my thing so riding a bumpy bus to collect a small piece of paper was not high on my enjoyment list for the day. Fortunately Dennis is of the same mind. Had he been in the ‘I must try on everything in my size and ensure it doesn’t clash with my skin tones but also makes my cheek bones really pop‘ approach I’d have left him there.



We headed back to hotel, grabbed a quick hotdog lunch at Portillos (a real cheap and cheerful place) and then out whilst trying to meet up with other clubmates. There was a fair contingent out for various lengths of stay.

It became clear it was like herding cats so we went for dinner for the first of the weekends pizza in Gino’s East. Great venue, but the deep pan is DEEP and definitely worth sharing. Although it tastes great the filling is really jumbled and has the visual appearance of warm sick if I’m honest. Having woken at 4am to get to Heathrow we were flagging but stayed up as late as possible to try and adjust.

img_3963-1Saturday was a more successful rendezvous and we got a good Redway Runners turnout at the 5k run, keeping in a large group taking it sociably. It’s a proper chip timed event but I’m not sure many were going for times.

There should have been woolly hats at the end. Surprisingly for an event put on by a Marathon Majors the organisation was piss poor and they just had piles of hats on a table and greedy twats took loads. 8000 hats for 7000 runners. They were all gone by the time we got there and we were about halfway down the pack. Twats.

There was a lot of disgruntled runners caused by a basic lack of organisation.


I almost wished I’d done the free annual shakeout run at 8am from the Under Armour store instead and saved the dollars. The advantage of the warm up run is it showed just how badly the buildings affected the GPS signals. Our group had the 5k come up at anything from 3-5 miles and explained why google maps on your phone would often go mental trying to find places.


After some failed attempts at a group breakfast I shoved down a Dunkin Doughnuts and popped to the coffee bean statue “The Bean” to meet some random strangers off the internet and hope they didn’t steal my kidneys (this has been a recurring fear of my wife’s). Turned out I got lucky thrice and still have all my organs (neither Johanna in Majorca or Stewart on route to CW50 stole them either) and could enjoy the group run organised by Ten Junk Miles podcast and the clothing company Path Projects.


I’ve been a fan of the podcast for a few years so was good to put names to faces and meet legendary Scott Kummer. We chatted and ran along the lakefront at a social pace and I mostly ignored my knee making an odd noise and causing me to run up stairs with all the grace of a penguin. Fortunately the marathon is flat. At the end of the run the team from Path Projects surprised us all with free swag and I came away with a hat which more than made up for the debacle at the 5k.

img_3940Afternoon was spent drinking beer and eating tacos with John and Dennis (John was staying in the ghetto to get the full experience), before forcing down a much better deep pan pizza at Pizzeria Uno. When not running I’d spent most of the weekend wearing a knee support and applying cooling gel or deep heat in a random cycle to get it to magically fix itself.

img_3954For the evening we’d booked standing tickets at the ice hockey at United Centre. Standing tickets as we’re too tight to pay for seats. Chicago Blackhawks were playing Winnipeg Jets about 3 miles from the hotel so for some reason we decided to walk. As I drank my 5th or 6th beer of the day I wondered if my training strategy bordered on self-sabotage or just stupidity?
As usual with American sports they spread each 20 minute period over an hour so it’s a long night. John, Dennis and I stayed to end of second period then got a bus back. Foxy was also there (in posh seats) and confirmed the game ran onto extra time and Jets pulled a 3:2 win from the jaws of certain defeat. Even with the bus I managed to clock 44,000 steps for the day. Ideal marathon prep.


Race day came and Dennis and I stumbled down to the early 5am breakfast in the basement then joined the rabbles of runners wandering around the streets. He peeled off to walk in with Kerry who he was running with, and I made the rest of the way on my own. It’s worth planning your race day and checking the magazine and website as different start waves go at different times, and your pen letter determines which entrance to the park is recommended to allow easier access to assigned bag drop colours. I was assigned to gate 5 which I forgot and went to 1 instead.

img_3892The lines to get in and through the security check were pretty long. Those without drop bags could peel off to two shorter lines and avoid bag searches. The race instruction advised arriving at 5:30am, ahead of the 7:30 start, I got there closer to 6:30 which was cutting it close, especially when walking to bag drops to be met by the odd panicked runner heading full speed head-on into the crowds and risking a shoulder check from a tired Brit still harbouring crowd rage from the expo.

img_3915Late arrival also meant I missed Jen and grabbing some Caffeine Bullets sweets off her so decided to use whatever food was on course. Everyone advises nothing new on race day, so untested food combined with my new Nike Zoom Fly with fancy carbon fibre plate that I’d worn for all of 5 miles before was yet more ideal prep.

Stood in the pen I felt good. Really good. With the lowest mileage 3 weeks in more than four years I was fresh and mentally ready to go fast. The temperature was perfect, the course was flat. Everything was begging for a PB attempt apart from the stench of deep heat from my knee. Knowing I often hit halfway in 1h35 I found the 3:10 pace group and promised myself I would NOT pass them. I couldn’t trust my GPS so figured I’d run on their experience and local knowledge.


Chicago marathon route is very fast but the block nature of the landscape means tight turns and a lot of pinch points as hundreds of runners try and hit the apex.

5k and 10k came without issue, accompanied by random distance readings and pacing on my watch. I managed a 4m02s mile somewhere in that first section which is pretty impressive had it not been utter piffle.

The aid stations were regular but were cup based. I love Gatorade but it burns when you throw it up your nose by mistake.

img_400510k came under 45 minutes, 8 miles under the hour, 20k at just after 1h31 showed I was slowing a little and let the 3h10 group get away, so I reached HM at 1h36m (a full ten minutes behind what my watch measured) feeling OK but knowing I couldn’t and shouldn’t maintain the pace. I’d done enough work to hopefully ensure a sub 3h30 so could ease back and enjoy the rest of the race. I stopped at the first Biofreeze station and got a handful of cooling gel for the knee, figuring if I was going to try new things on race day I might as well try every new thing possible.

The 16 mile marker was blown down (it’s a very windy city, they should probably warn people) but I managed to glimpse it and passed just over 2hrs. 10 miles to go so best soak it in.

img_3918The crowds at Chicago are great, almost as big as London and certainly out-do Paris. In particular the positive American approach ensures a supportive shout from them just feels more sincere than coming from a Londoner with the dead pan delivery of Jack Dee. This is particular true when they excitedly shriek “You go duck man” or “Run Like Duck, oh my God I love that“.

I’d picked up some random Gatorade chew bar at an earlier aid station, they’re a lot like Cliff Shot Blocks and went down well. I tried to grab another before realising it was a gel and being disappointed. I was getting hungry. There were a lot of unofficial aid stations set up by locals, especially around the Latin American areas of town. I dived across the road to take a cool cup of full fat Coke from one and received a high five from the fella in recognition of my single mindedness. This stuff is a staple of ultras and hits the spots perfectly.

img_3998As I ran on at my reduced pace I was passed a lot and noticed how mixed the genders were as they passed me. I ran Paris in a similar time and it was maybe a 10% mix of women around me. My London times also see me mostly in a sea of testosterone but I presume some of that is down to most sub3:45 women starting in the GFA or Championship pens ahead of me. At Chicago the women appeared to be almost the majority around me and I wondered what was so different in the US to increase their participation so much and how the UK races could learn from this? We have a healthy mix at HM level, but by marathon distance it seems something about vomiting, public toilet incidents and being covered in sick, sweat and blood puts a lot of UK women off.

Eventually I was passed by a familiar green top of Redway Runners as Roger shot past. I briefly tried to keep up with him but it was clearly out of reach as he was cutting through the pack like a man determined to get his Christmas Eve shopping done and be in the pub by lunch. He faded into the distance so I concentrated on more important things like bananas, and a beer from a running club table. The guy handed it to me with a wink “Here have a ‘beer'” and I’m unsure what the chaser mixed in was but it tasted good. Beer doesn’t normally burn on the way down.

Annoyingly I missed a gent handing out Krispy Kreme doughnuts and briefly debated doubling back to get one. I did spare time to dive into the next Biofreeze area set up like a pitstop where two waiting assistants sprayed my right leg liberally. It was slick like an F1 pit-crew but I didn’t pull back out with the speed shown by Hamilton.


At 35k I realised my tourist approach to the second half was probably getting a little too easy and I should concentrate less on beer and food or I might miss the sub 3h30 as I had at Bournemouth the week before. Fortunately Sammy from Redway Runners passed me at around the same time and I decided to use her as a landmark before I lost any more time to foraging. I made an exception at the Goose Island beer stand although I did need to clotheslines runners out the way. The beer was good, the cups were disappointingly small.

At mile 24 I passed the Ten Junk Miles cheering point and it was great to see Scott again. Odd how someone you’ve listened to on a podcast for hours, but only met the day before can suddenly lift your spirits. There were rumours that the cheer point would have beer but I was on a roll now and enjoying closing down the miles and actually passing people after miles of the reverse.

My watch was around 1.8m ahead of the course so kept an eye out for the mile markers and did the maths in my head. We were making good progress through the pack. As we got to the final incline with about a mile to go it was clear I could make 3h24 and Sammy having started behind would fare even better getting a 3h21 PB. The finish was made even sweeter by the cold can of beer at the end, and then even better when I bumped into clubmate Abi who gave me a second beer. Not sure if the beer or the 3h24 was more pleasing. If you think I’ve used the word ‘beer’ a lot already then buckle up.

In the baggage line (a bit long, they didn’t seem to have mixed up the finishing times in the lines as much as London) I joined Stephen who’d got his fastest marathon of the year (out of about 26 gazillion) and John who’d scored a PB thanks to his Run Like Duck buff (and possibly the months of training) and was celebrating with a beer. Next up was Emma who couldn’t finish her beer so I helped out.

They headed back to their hotels whilst I wandered to the Mile 27 after party to redeem my beer token. And then several extra tokens as I bumped into Kas (bent double under the weight of her awesome 6 star medal) and other clubmates. The after party had a great atmosphere helped by the sun burning away the earlier chill, the amazing backdrop, an awesome covers band and me getting increasingly wrecked on free beer. Other events could learn a lot from this as they seldom have such a welcoming area to hang back and wait for your friends, especially needed when the staggered start times means you could be waiting several hours.

5518612b-9590-495c-984c-2ea0283af8cdOnce I ran out of free beer tokens I hooked up with Foxy and his better half Sarah who were walking to seemingly the furthest Irish bar in Chicago.

Narrowly avoiding wetting myself on route we drank (beer) with other 100 Marathon Club legends. Clustered around the table was the combined experience of 950+ marathons and our best skills were still downing pints so I staggered back to hotel before hitting another pub (beer) and then dinner (food and beer) where Andy had booked out most of Hard Rock café for Redway Runners (food was cold and a bit crap, I’d not recommend it but was great to all eat together).

Monday we had time for a quick morning run, and the tilt experience at the tower before heading home ($4 train to airport, bargain!). United staff were great and were making special effort to move passengers around to give anyone with a medal the best seats possible. American enthusiasm is often derided but is incredibly appreciated.

Bournemouth Marathon 2019 – Against the odds

img_3846Things don’t always go to schedule. The plan at the start of 2019 was to do some ultras (OK quite a lot of ultras), culminating in Lakeland 100 in July. Then a period of rest and some condensed training for Bournemouth and Chicago marathons for October in an attempt for some decent times, ideally a PB. Or maybe two. I am greedy.

2 months isn’t long to switch your training around but with a 3h14 trail marathon in preparation for Lakeland I was reasonably confident I wouldn’t be far off pace.

The reality was less rosy. I felt wrecked from Lakeland (although pleased to be one of the 50% that got around) took August very easy, with a long (for me) break from running and concentrated on drinking as much beer as possible at the Beerathon race, and then repeating the beer on the all-inclusive holiday that followed to make sure I was properly rehydrated. I only just scraped 200 miles for August, my lowest mileage in years. I convinced myself this was enough rest and I was good to go again. Stupid.

September beckoned, with ideal running temps and perfect weather. I started with the amazing Dunstable Downs marathon as a check of fitness, taking it on feel, with an aim of a sub4 which I missed due to getting lost like an idiot. I finished but with a bit of a knee twinge that as always I ignored as this approach has worked well for years of running. Mostly I was annoyed that I’d gone over 4hrs for the first time in more years than I could remember.

10 days later and the knee was forgotten so ran another marathon at the Enigma event in Milton Keynes, finishing with a respectable 3h33. Nearly a month left to drop 15 or 20 minutes which I convinced myself was possible as everything was going in right direction. Chicago was going to get smashed.

Then it all went wrong. In the space of a few days I went from running well to my first ever DNF, at a 10 mile race. I only managed to cover 5 miles as that’s where I’d parked the car.

With two weeks between injury and Bournemouth, and a further week to Chicago it now looked doubtful I’d even get around either event, I could barely walk. I checked the cut offs, 6.5hrs each so in theory able to be completed at a fast walk. I know from ultras that I don’t fast walk even when fit. I amble like a man taking in the view so I needed to get to a point I could at least run some.

After some treatment by Rudi at The Treatment Lab I resolved to take the full two weeks off running before Bournemouth. After a week I was going stir crazy so risked a short jog with the dog. 2 miles with intervals of running and walking. It was like a Couch to 5k course. I repeated this a couple more times over the next week to test various shoes to see which suited my knee best but never risked more than 3 miles a day.

Friday we went down to Bournemouth and in the morning I managed 6 miles in the woods with mates and dogs, taking it very gently. I was still noticeably stiff but I was better rested than I’ve ever been having covered around 15 miles in two weeks.


Bournemouth is always a great weekend with the family, with kids races, plenty of tourist stuff and the marathon on the Sunday. This year Cloë, Billy and I ran the 5k again. Or as Cloë likes to mention, they ran it, I sort of limped it.


img_3855Standing on the start line of the marathon after wishing good luck to my mate Ajay running his first ever marathon I was struck by imposter syndrome stood in the white pen right behind the fast club runners. I’m often the fat bloke surrounded by racing snakes in these pens but can usually muster a respectable performance with a course best of 3h17. Today I wasn’t even sure I was going to get around. Not having properly trained, carrying a dodgy knee and about 5kg of pity fat from not running, this was not going to be my finest hour.

Liberal application of deep heat was all that was left for me to do and we set off.

Taking it easy to start I was passed a lot but gradually found my pace and by mile ten I was running well and keeping sub 8 minute miles relatively easy. I may have been undertrained and fat, but I was so fresh from the enforced taper. Only on the slight uphills as the road rolled up and down over the coast did the knee make itself felt.

We dropped down to the sea at mile nine and felt the wind right in our faces. I couldn’t quite draw in the group in front for shelter. Every year I’d wondered how much harder the marathon would be with be with a headwind, this year I was going to find out.

img_3848I still felt positive. So positive that I forgot energy gels make me vomit. I’d not risked one since Bournemouth 2016. I took one climbing the hill after Boscombe pier at mile 12. For a whole half mile it was fine. Then it wasn’t and I spent the rest of the race holding down a mouthful of sick. Every burp had tinges of bile and even the water tasted like stomach contents. Fecking amateur. Thankfully I had shot blocks to use instead. Except I dropped them somewhere around mile 17. Fecking amateur.

Rest of the race went much as expected for someone with a dodgy belly, excess weight, lack of training and no fuelling. I had to walk the normally fast downhill at mile 13 as it was too steep for the knee to take. A comfortable 1h40 HM was followed by a laboured lacklustre 1h53 second half and I finished in 3h33m32s, annoyed not to get the full set of 3s.

img_3851If you’d have asked me two weeks ago I’d have bitten someone’s hand off for a 3h33m. Now I feel a bit deflated knowing a sub 3h30 would have been within reach had I fuelled better, ignored the bloody gel and didn’t have to battle the wind and sand dunes worthy of MDS.

Still next week it’s Chicago, lets do this all over again, try not to eat stuff that makes me vomit and be able to run on roads not beaches.

UPDATE – The day after the Bournemouth Marathon Festival 2019, the organisers dropped the marathon distance and renamed the event Run Bournemouth. Citing issues with the council they’ve decided to make the Half Marathon the main event. This is a real shame as there are few running festivals that incorporate all the race distances and at such a great location.

The race calendar is already awash with overpriced and overhyped half marathons. Road marathons are now an endangered breed. Given events like the Great Run series, London Landmarks and Reading HM have shown punters will part £50-£60 for 13.1 miles, I can certainly see the financial appeal for organisers. Why go to double the effort, double the road closures, double the volunteers for only an extra £10-£15 a head income when can just ramp up the HM price and be home by lunchtime?