More than 30,000 runners will hit the streets of Chicago on Sunday, October 10, aiming to hit goals and break barriers. This race will be particularly significant after the 2020 race was canceled because of COVID-19.
The Chicago Marathon is flat and fast—so fast, in fact, that it has been the host to five world-record times. Most recently, Brigid Kosgei had perfect conditions in the 2019 race, and she ran a 2:14:04 win the race and to obliterate Paula Radcliffe’s world record.
If you’re aiming for a best time—or maybe even trying to qualify for Boston—it’s important to remember that there are many factors that must align in order to run a marathon best. When you think about how often an elite runs a personal record, you’ll begin to appreciate just how special your own record is when it happens. While it’s a huge accomplishment to run an improved time and achieve your goal, you can also “win” the race by running a strong marathon, even if it’s not your fastest. It’s all about reaching for your best performance on the given day.
Before you toe the starting line in Grant Park, keep these 10 things in mind.
Visualize the Course
Knowing the course is your first step in conquering it. Before race day, review the course map and get familiar with where the aid stations are (there are 20 in total). They’re approximately two miles apart, so if you miss one, know there’s another one coming relatively soon.
To visualize the race, it might be helpful to break it up into the three arms—the north side, the west side, and the finishing leg on the south side. That way, when you’re standing in the corral at the start line, think only about the first leg, it takes a lot of pressure off. Remember, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”
The number one mistake runners make in Chicago is running the north side—or the first section of the marathon (from the starting line to mile 10)—too fast. The morning temps are usually cool, it’s pretty flat, and you’re hyped up—three ingredients that can lead to bonking later in the race if not handled mindfully. You must remain patient. There’s a lot of race to go.
Plus, around mile 8, the Frontrunners will treat you to high-energy dancing in amazing costumes. It might be a challenge to avoid jumping in and dancing, but store that energy for later in the race.
Invest in Mindful Minutes
Once you get into the rhythm of the race, you’ll ebb and flow through high-energy and calmer areas on the course. When you reach the quieter sections, take some time to think mindfully. Take deep breaths from your belly and tune in to how hard your breathing rate is. Is that where you should be at this point in the race? If not, slow your pace down.
Tune into your form, and think head to toe about what is going on in your body (head over shoulders, shoulders relaxed, arms swinging like a pendulum, hips under your shoulders, and feet landing under your hips). A mindful minute or two brings you back to what matters the most: keeping a strong mind and body.
Ace the Aid Stations
Your first aid station will come at about a mile and a half into the race, and each one after that will be spaced out by one to two miles. As you approach the aid station, run in the center of the street and toward the middle set of tables (avoid the popular first tables, where the crowds cause the course to bottleneck). Pay attention to the order of the fluids— Gatorade, followed by water, or vice versa. Identify a volunteer by looking at them in the eye or pointing, take the fluids, sip without spilling, thank the volunteer, and be on your way. Establish an aid station system and hit the repeat button on it at every stop. (You can find information on the Chicago aid stations on the race website.)
Be intentional when you stop at an aid station. Think ahead of time about what fuel you need, where you’ll get fluid, and what you’ll drink. The 20 aid stations may seem like overkill when you’re fresh at the start, but it’s important to plan out your stops ahead of time, so you don’t have to think about it as you get fatigued in the race.
If you drop or miss a cup because it’s too crowded, don’t panic. There will be another station coming up, so just take a deep breath and focus.
Run the Tangents
You signed up to run 26.2 miles—don’t make yourself run more than you need! When a course is measured (and certified) it follows the tangents to the curves. A tangent is a straight line just outside the curve (or as close to the curve while still on the road). If you set yourself up to run the tangents on the turns, you’ll ensure your fastest race— taking the long way around turns can add more than a half-mile to the course—and you’ll also keep your mind actively engaged as you attack the course efficiently.
Draft in the Wind
If it turns out to be a windy day, race like a cyclist and draft off a pack of runners. You’ll be surprised at how much energy you can conserve by running in a draft versus a head or sidewind. If the wind is coming at you directly, run behind a taller person or group of people running at your pace. If it’s coming from the right side, run at their left shoulders. If you’re running in a group, take turns leading the pack and dropping back. It keeps the crew working together and makes the time fly by as you rotate your formation.
Mix in Some Pick-Ups
The greatest thing about the Chicago Marathon is the flat and predictable course. But that can also be troubling, as you don’t have the mental and physical relief of downhills.
Once you get into your race tempo halfway through the race, consider adding in 20 to 30-second pick-ups where you change up your stride, run faster, and mix up your pace a bit to keep your legs loose. You’ll be amazed at how turning over a bit faster when fatigue starts to set in (usually around miles 17 to 21) can keep your legs fresh and your mind focused on the pace.
Play Mind Games
As you navigate through Chinatown and the dancing dragons into the toughest miles of the race (the final 10K), get out of your head and dedicate each mile to someone you love, who has loved you, who helped you train, who supported you, who is ill, who cleaned your stinky running clothes or believed in you. It will take your mind off the pain and keep you motivated to run for someone outside of yourself.
When two-time Olympian and 2:26:33 marathoner Molly Huddle nears the end of her race, she repeats a simple and positive mantra to herself—such as “endure” rather than “don’t quit”—before beginning her final surge to the finish line.
“This is my favorite part. It’s really uncomfortable! Here I tell myself to embrace the burn, run into it not away from it, and use up what’s left of my energy,” she wrote in Runner’s World in 2018. As she gets closer to the line, she gives herself cues like “drive” or “knees” to keep her form in check.
Eyes on the Skyline
At just over 23 miles into the course you’ll be on Michigan Avenue and running toward the finish line in Grant Park. You’ll know this because you can see the skyscrapers ahead. This is a long, straight shot and a perfect place to “go fishing”—or pass people. Look at the runners ahead of you, pick one, and “reel them in.” With each fish you reel in, you gain more energy to finish strong. It will keep your mind focused on racing rather than just gutting it out until the end.
Beat the Hill
There aren’t many hills in the Chicago Marathon, but there is one you’re likely to remember at the very end. As you make the turn off Michigan Avenue onto Roosevelt Road, a hill that in the moment looks like Everest will greet you with open arms. You’ll hear the roar of the crowd and the announcer at the finish as you climb up all 10 vertical feet, wondering how something so small could feel so hard. Think short with your stride, drive your elbows back, and don’t let your ego get the best of you.
Finally, no matter what time flashes on the clock at the finish, celebrate your accomplishment. Take it all in with your family, friends, and the enormous Chicago running community standing beside you. Oh, and make sure to get a few slices of deep dish and a beer to refuel.