Report -By Cian Buckley
A week before Christmas in 2019, I received an email stating I’d been successful in the ballot for the Chicago Marathon in 2020. It also stated that $260 had been debited from my account (non refundable). My first thought was that with the results of the New York Ballot also imminent, if I were successful in that ballot too then it was going to be a very lean Christmas! Unfortunately (but in truth fortunately) it would be just the 1 marathon major in late 2020 for me.
I had never visited Chicago nor had I any ties to the City. The basis of my knowledge of the area was both from a few friends who had visited a few years back to see the Ireland Rugby team beat the All Blacks and from a series of pop culture references like Home Alone & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off etc.
With the cancellation of everything in 2020, I was given the option to defer my entry, which I did until this year. My wife and young daughter were going to accompany me so we decided to make a holiday out of it. Hence the delay in getting this report back to Sportsworld HQ!
There are plenty of direct flights between Dublin and Chicago each week so I knew there would be a healthy Irish contingent participating in the marathon too. Fellow Sportsworlder Adrian Lanigan was taking part (Adrian’s brother lives in Chicago) and on race day there were Raheny Shamrock singlets everywhere.
Right from when I arrived in Chicago everything instantly seems so much bigger. Bigger buildings, bigger avenues, bigger monuments and a far bigger Marathon event than the equivalent that I am used to running in Dublin. This was my first experience of participating in 1 of the 6 Abbot World Marathon Majors. A field of over 40k runners would be participating.
We arrived late on Friday and headed to the vast ‘McCormick Place’ to collect race numbers along with the very smart looking Nike participation tee. With Nike sponsoring the event a huge area of the expo was given over to selling merchandise. While there were some lovely pieces in both the men’s and women’s ranges, the prices were pretty extortionate -$70 for a Singlet! I decided to pass on that as I am more than happy with my Sportsworld one.
The Expo was very well organised, there were queues for everything but they all moved quickly enough. There were plenty of representatives there to answer any race day queries and most of the food stands seemed to be giving out free samples rather than actually selling anything. One thing I found particularly useful was the Gatorade stand had left out cups of every flavour which would be available during the race. I am an avid Lucozade Sport man but I knew it would be hard to find Lucozade Sport in Chicago. I tasted a bit of the Gatorade and found a flavour or 2 that I would be okay with using during the race.
The weather on race day was cool in the morning and then warmer from 10/11am onward as the sun shone. I could tell alot of runners were finding the cold tough but I feel as though the temperature was ideal for any Irish runners. I had a 7:30am start scheduled and was advised to be through the security check by 5:30am. I made my way in at about 6:20am and still had plenty of time.
The race start is organised into ‘Corrals’ of which there are 4 in each wave. I was in the 4th Corral of the Wave 1. We got over the start line 12 minutes after the runners at the front of Wave 1 as each corral was released 1 by 1 with a pause of a minute or so between each – a bit of a chilly wait!
As the race began my strategy was to tag onto the 3:20 pacers for as long as I could in the hope of crossing the line in under 3 and half hours. I had trained all year for this marathon but 6 weeks before the start I picked up a bad muscle injury in my lower back/hip which effectively ended any plans I had of a PB. Still after extensive physio and stretching I was just happy to be getting to the start line of what proved to be such an unforgettable experience.
Once we started running my confidence quickly grew. As mentioned it was a cold, dry and calm morning and the Chicago course is pancake flat. The route starts and finishes on Columbus Drive in Grant Park in the city centre. It is a lovely long straight stretch with the only let down being that for security reasons there are no spectators within 300 meters of the start and finish lines. From Grant Park the route takes runners out to the leafy affluent suburbs North and then back to the City Centre. From there the route heads out west as far as Michael Jordan’s old haunt -the United Centre. Finally the runners head to South Chicago and pass through Little Italy and Chinatown before heading back in the the Central Chicago Loop for the finish. I understand the route crosses the 6 bridges along the river and they have red carpet on each to reduce the impact on the knees. Unfortunately the red carpets proved too much for one runner who I witnessed falling twice on 2 separate bridges. He got back up both times but not before shouting ‘JESUS NOT AGAIN’ after the second fall.
During the race we passed through 29 neighbourhoods and some of the nicest parts of the City. There were crowds all along the route and it was impossible to tell where the designated fan zones started and ended. The papers the following day put the number of spectators at 1.7million so as a visitor to the City I was made to feel more than welcome. 2 things which were consistently evident throughout the race were;
1. The loudest and strongest cheers came from the Mexican supporters who were fantastic and present at every stage of the route &
2. There were a lot of Gatorade stations. I would say there were even 3 Gatorade stations for every 1 Water Station. As the Gatorade was provided in paper cups, I found that the ground was extremely sticky at each station.
I managed to stay with the pacers for the full race and even passed them with 2.2km to go. I managed a 3:18:48 finish which was well ahead of what I had planned and I was very happy. My GPS was 500 meters ahead for most of the race but I think this was down to passing through tunnels as well as the enormous skyscrapers in the CBD.
When I passed through the finish we walked almost another km of free bottles of water, fruit, energy bars, flapjacks, Muscle Milk, bags of ice, beer, frozen yoghurt and of course yet more Gatorade.
Directly outside the event I was able to meet the girls in a free organised after party known as the ’27th mile’. Here we were able to stretch out on the grass, bask in some sunshine and listen to some live music. It was a great end to a great race and I was all done by 11:30am! I even managed to get myself cleaned up to meet Adrian for a pint after. He had started later in the second wave and had to run in the sunshine for longer so on reflection I probably got off slightly easier.
All in all I would strongly recommend the Chicago Marathon to any runners who regularly do this distance. If you are planning to get through the 6 majors you might find this one a bit easier to get into via the ballot (as I did!). Chicago can be a great starting point on one’s 6 star journey or equally just as a once off event because it is such a fast course in such a spectacular setting. Well worth the 8 hour flight!