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Chicago Marathon Course Report

Chicago Marathon: ANYTHING can happen, don’t bet the farm on one outcome

Fallback Point: Mile 13.

If you have not yet checked the course map, it is in the link above. There is a reason big races release course maps AND elevation maps- the elevation maps will show where the hills are (or more importantly, where the recovery ends), but the course map shows you where the turns are. This course is notoriously flat but many people are shocked to discover that this course is not fast, due to the crowds and the multiple turns. You don't need to memorize it just be aware of the effects of dogleg (90 degree) turns and hairpin (180 degree) turns.

The combination of turns and crowds on the course and of course the unpredictable weather sets Chicago firmly off of my list of PR-friendly races. That aside, this race is a solid experience. Every mile is packed with spectators, Chicago is very proud of its hometown race, and the neighborhoods are visually interesting; it’s always fun to see a major urban area from a new perspective.

You guys, this race is SO COOL. It is a marathon major, all the big dogs come to run it, it’s a terrifically cool experience. I want you to love every minute of it, even after you see your finish time. Would rather you plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised than the reverse.

Dogleg and Hairpin Turns: The crowd will slow down to hug the turn (but not quite enough they practically brake at the last minute), then they will speed up too much. The phenomenon is called 'braking' and it will take a toll on your ankles. Be sure to lock your cage and consciously slow your roll when you see the crowd narrowing to one side of the road (meaning a turn is coming) and focus on slowly resuming pace accelerator-style (slowly but controlled, NO SPRINTING) when the turn is behind you. Chicago may be flat, but it has A LOT of doglegs. That means a lot of opportunities to burn up the Bonneville, especially if you get sucked into the "oh no, I'm BEHIND!" mentality I have warned against.

GPS: You probably won't have GPS signal for most of the first hour and last hour. That means you won't have reliable pace data for the first and last hour. Lucky for us, we have the heart rate cap as a backstop. (Chicago is notorious for this). It is a cap, not a target, so be sure to watch effort, let the crowds pass you in the first 5 miles and as you approach each dogleg turn. No one will pass you from mile 19 onward.

The Crowd: 55,000 runners means the fallback point won’t hit until much later in the race (this usually hits in miles 5-8). The corrals aren’t tight like NYCM, so you’ll be released with about 10,000 people at a time. The crowds will not thin out until much much later in the race than seasoned marathoners are used to.

Don't be scared, just be aware. If you mentally prepare for these things and make good choices, you will be fine.

The Course

The first seven miles of the course start out heading north through downtown and then along the shore of Lake Michigan. The course then loops back at Wrigleyville (mile 7.5) and then south back toward downtown and the financial district. Just before mile 13, the course heads west out of the city for two miles and loops back again to the east for about one and a half miles. This is where the crowds thin a bit and the realities of the work that remains will start to sink in. STAY STRONG. Focus on the coachless, unloved amateurs fading like prom corsages all around you.

At this point, it starts a series of six one mile increments near Little Italy (mile 17) that turn the course south, west, south, east, south, and north east. At the Chinatown neighborhood (mile 21), the course heads generally south until about mile 23 1/2 and then it finally swings back north (mile 23.2) to head straight in toward the finish-line for the last two and a half miles.

If that sounds like a lot of turns, it is. I count 31 turns on the course, not counting areas where the road veers diagonally. That’s more than one turn per mile, which is a lot. The impact of this is that it can lead to you slowing and quickening your pace as you approach these corners.

Think of teaching a teenager to drive, you want them to slow their roll as they approach a right or left turn (nearly every turn you take in a car is a dogleg 90 degree turn, if you think about it). You will find that the crowd clusters in toward the shorter line around each corner as you approach, taking the turn as tightly as possible. The crowd will slow in front of you at that point, making you slow down as well. After you come out of the corner, the pace will speed back up again.

Running in congestion is just plain tiring. I’ve heard people say that dodging other runners can add as much as a mile to your race. Who knows if there is any science in there, but based on my experience this is definitely true. Crowded races, I’ve been off my expected finish time by 8-10 minutes, which is just over my mile pace at those times.

Remember, the end of every marathon is gonna hurt. This will be no exception. Order your deep dish ahead of time and have it waiting in your room when you get out of the shower- delivery from the favored hotspots will be hard to get on Sunday night!

MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLC where she trains runners for $29 per month and gives marathon plans away for free. Click here to download her most popular Marathon plan, Tenacious AF, free!

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