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Road Races

What To Watch For While Running Chicago: A Course Overview

Get to know the Chicago Marathon course before tackling it on race day.

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Photo by Max Herman /

Chicago Marathon Course

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon delivers big-city race excitement from the moment you pick up your bib at McCormick Place until the second you cross the finish line in Grant Park. The prairie-flat course is ideal for clocking a fast time—and its clover-leaf shape makes it easy for spectators to catch fleeting glimpses of their favorite athletes. “It’s a beautiful course,” says New Yorker Ann Restak, who ran 3:22 in the 2016 race. “The crowds were great, and I loved the diversity of all the neighborhoods.”

The start—and the finish—are in Grant Park, on the shore of Lake Michigan. As you take your place in your corral, the first thing you’ll notice is the spectacular Chicago skyline. Look up (way up—1,729 feet, to be precise) at the Willis Tower, advises race director Carey Pinkowski. You’ll see America’s second-tallest building several times on your 26.2-mile tour of the Windy City, and it will be an especially welcome sight during the final 5K as you head for home.

In the early miles of the race, you’ll run through the heart of downtown Chicago—under Frank Gehry’s iconic BP Bridge and then along State Street (Chicagoans all know that the major north/south thoroughfares in the Loop are—from east to west—Michigan, Wabash, State, Dearborn, Clark LaSalle). Near the 5-mile mark, you’ll enter Lincoln Park (Beatlemaniacs may get a boost from a Fab Four cover band here).

After you pass through Lakeview, you’ll turn south and run back toward the Willis Tower, passing through Wrigleyville, home to raucous crowds who’ve practiced cheering for the neighborhood Cubbies all summer long.

Next up is Boystown, in miles 8 and 9. Typically a nightlife hotspot, on the first Sunday in October, the neighborhood wakes up early to welcome runners with hearty high-fives. Be on the lookout for the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps—arguably the burliest baton-twirlers you’ll ever see.

From there, you’ll make your way south through Old Town and River North. You’ll run by the foot of the famed skyscraper and right past it—look up! Just beyond the halfway point, you’ll cross the Chicago River as you travel west. Shortly afterward, a chocolate factory perfumes the air—a cruel tease as you approach mile 15.

As you pass Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Illinois Institute of Technology, you’ll start to understand why “less is more”—you’ve got single-digits to go as you turn back east. Once again, look skyward for a glimpse of the Willis Tower. The next time you see it, you’ll be in the homestretch.

After you’ve passed through the city’s Greek and Chinese neighborhoods, you’ll cross into Pilsen—named for a city in the Czech Republic and now home to Chicago’s vibrant Latino community. Soak up the music, but don’t stop for a taco just yet.

The final miles of the course take you through the South Side. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you pass an Elvis impersonator at around mile 19; after he swivels his hips, you’ll make your way into Chinatown. You’ll run through a traditional gate, and an enthusiastic drum group might inspire you to pick it up a bit (if you’ve been wisely conserving energy and you feel okay, it’s safe to step on it a bit here). “If it’s sunny, this part of the course can be tough,” cautions Restak, “so be prepared to dig deep.”

Shortly beyond mile 23, you’ll finally turn back north and head for the finish. Look for the Willis Tower! Occasionally, there’s a headwind here—and the tall buildings along Michigan Avenue (beginning at mile 24) sometimes interfere with the satellite signals that power GPS watches. But don’t fret—you really, truly are almost there. Past the 26-mile mark, you’ll turn right and climb the only hill on the course: a railroad overpass. On any other day, you’d barely notice the elevation gain, but after 26 miles it will make you grumpy for a few seconds. “Don’t ignore it,” Restak advises. “Use your arms to power you up!” Once you turn left, you’ll see the finish line. Go claim your medal and the Goose Island beer that’s included in your entry fee—you’ve earned them!


Chicago can be unpredictable—they’ve experienced record heat, and also snow. Pack several race-day outfit options that you know will keep you comfortable for the long haul.

Watch This

If you’re flying into the Windy City, use your travel time to get psyched. Spirit of the Marathon is an inspiring documentary about the 2010 race. It follows several runners, from speedsters like Deena Kastor to first-time marathoners. If you can make it all the way through without crying, you’re tougher than 26.2 miles of asphalt. Or if pre-race jitters are bothering you, The Blues Brothers is a hilarious distraction (and a great tour of the city—at a considerably higher speed than the one you’ll enjoy).

Listen Up

The Blues Brothers’ rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” always brings a smile. And as you make your way north in the first 10K, you’ll run down State Street (that great street!), immortalized by Frank Sinatra in “Chicago”—but be advised that “toddlin’” is strictly prohibited on race day. Many marathoners find themselves in dark places toward the end of the race; if you’re one of them, 80’s gloommeisters Depeche Mode have you covered. You’ll run along Route 66 for a few blocks at mile 16, and the thumping beat of their “Route 66” is guaranteed to boost your kicks.


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