Short version for those with limited time – Chicago Marathon is amazing. Do it.
For tips and advice click here
Longer version –Chicago 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.
I 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.
Saturday 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.
Afternoon 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.
For 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.
The 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.
Late 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.
10k 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.
The 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.
As 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.
Once 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.