Everything You Need to Know About the Chicago Marathon

Before race day arrives on October 10, read up on the history of the Windy City’s epic event.

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On Sunday, October 10, nearly 35,000 elites, seasoned runners, and newbie marathoners will charge to the finish line in Chicago’s Grant Park during the Chicago Marathon, a race so pancake-flat and well-supported by spectators that fast times are almost guaranteed.

This year’s marathon will be especially exciting, given that the 2020 race was canceled because of COVID-19.

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Since the marathon’s founding in 1977, the race has witnessed world-class athletes break numerous records, race-day temperatures ranging from as high as the upper 80s to as low as the 20s, thousands of sports drinks and energy gels being consumed, and too many highlights to count.

Here’s a rundown of the marathon—including facts and figures about field size, past winners, and weather stats—plus a preview of the 2021 race.

How the Chicago Marathon Came to Be

In 1977, Michael Bilandic, then the mayor of Chicago and an enthusiastic runner, threw his support behind putting on a race along the downtown streets of the Windy City. The Chicago Marathon was dreamed up by five founders, including original race director Wendy Miller, in November of 1976, and officially kicked off on September 25, 1977.

Fees for that debut event were just $5, and more than 4,200 runners showed up to compete—including 8-year-old Wesley Paul, who finished in 3:15:20—making the Mayor Daley Marathon (named after former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley) the largest 26.2-mile race in the world at the time. The 1977 men’s winner was Indiana native Dan Cloeter, who ran 2:17:52, while Texan Dorothy Doolittle won the women’s race in 2:50:47.

The enormous success of that debut marathon not only established the annual race for years to come, but it also set other running initiatives into motion. Under Bilandic’s hand, what was once an old equestrian trail along Lake Michigan was paved into a five-mile running path, which eventually became the 18-mile lakefront route that Chicago runners know and love today.

2021 COVID-19 Protocols

To ensure the safety of all competitors and the general public, the Chicago Marathon has guidelines in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Participants must provide verification of vaccine status or a negative result from a test administered within 72 hours of attendance. Anyone attending the Abbott Health and Fitness Expo must also provide proof of vaccination or negative test and wear a mask.

Once proof has been verified, participants will receive a wrist band that acts as proof of vaccination or negative test result, which will allow entrance into event venues. The wristband must be worn throughout the race. Face coverings are encouraged in all prerace areas. Masks will be available post-finish as well.

Spectators may be required to wear face coverings in Grant Park.

Race Size and Weather

While Chicago’s flat course certainly contributed to fast performances in the past, the infectious atmosphere, competitive field, and weather on race day has helped, too. In 2007, the race began capping its field at 45,000 participants, making it more than 10 times larger than it was 30 years prior. Every year since then, more than 40,000 runners have participated in Chicago; in 2018, 44,571 runners crossed the finish line in Grant Park.

The average highs/lows in early October for Chicago are usually in the lows 60s to low 40s.

In 2007, marathoners suffered record-high temps of 89 degrees and 73 percent humidity on race day. In 1988—the coldest race ever recorded—they endured temps as low as 21 degrees. In 1993, participants ran through snow. In 2019, runners had perfect marathon weather, with lows in the high 30s and highs in the low 50s.

How to Get into the Chicago Marathon

Registration dates usually aren’t announced until race weekend, but in years past, you’d apply for the lottery starting in October, then find out if you got in by December. You are guaranteed entry if you already ran the race five or more times over the last decade. (Find more information on the registration process, including how to run for charity, on the Chicago Marathon website.)

To secure guaranteed entry, you must hit a time standard between January 1 and when registration usually closes in late November.

Here are the current time standards for Chicago, broken down by age group:

  • 16 to 29 years old (3:05 for men, 3:35 for women)
  • 30 to 39 (3:10 for men, 3:40 for women)
  • 40 to 49 (3:20 for men, 3:50 for women)
  • 50 to 59 (3:35 for men, 4:20 for women)
  • 60 to 69 (4:00 for men, 5:00 for women)
  • 70 to 79 (4:30 for men, 5:55 for women)
  • 80+ (5:25 for men, 6:10 for women)

    Quick Rundown of the Course

    Because much of the route is flat as a pancake, and race day mornings are usually brisk, it can be hard to hold back in the early miles of Chicago—but no matter how good you feel from the gun, 26.2 miles is still a long way to go, so proper pacing is key for staying strong through the finish.

    The looped course starts and finishes in Grant Park along Lake Michigan. After two miles of running through downtown Chicago (the tall buildings could cause problems with the GPS signal on your watch), runners go northward for about six miles, then turn back south, running through Boystown, Lincoln Park, and Old Town until they hit the halfway point. There, runners change directions and head east. For miles 14 through 21, runners pass through the West Loop, University Village, Little Italy, and Pilsen. After mile 21, runners turn south for a spin through Chinatown before heading back north toward the finish line in Grant Park.

    Chicago Marathon course map

    Past Winners and Prize Money

    Since the event’s founding, Chicago has grown tremendously in size and talent. The combination of a deep field, fast course, and a sizable prize purse has attracted the best of the best over the years.

    In 1982, race organizers awarded winners with prize money for the first time; that year, Americans Greg Meyer (2:10:59) and Nancy Conz (2:33:23) each took home $12,000. In 2019, Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei each won $100,000 for breaking the tape, while wheelchair division winners Daniel Romanchuk and Manuela Schär took home $15,000. Chicago also offers a $75,000 bonus for runners who set the course record, and a $5,000 bonus for wheelchair athletes who do.

    Five marathon world records have been set on the course: in 1984, Steve Jones set the men’s record of 2:08:05; Khalid Khannouchi lowered the men’s record to 2:05:42 in 1999; Catherine Ndereba set the mixed-gender women’s record of 2:18:47 in 2001; Paula Radcliffe lowered that mark to 2:17:18 in 2002; Brigid Kosgei smashed that mark with a 2:14:04 in 2019, which still stands as the world and course record.

    Dennis Kimetto owns the course record for men, 2:03:45, which he ran in 2013.

    Here are the past 10 male and female winners, respectively, of the Chicago Marathon:

    • 2019: Lawrence Cherono of Kenya (2:05:45), Brigid Kosgei of Kenya (2:14:04)
    • 2018: Mo Farah of Great Britain (2:05:11), Brigid Kosgei of Kenya (2:18:35)
    • 2017: Galen Rupp of USA (2:09:20), Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia (2:18:31)
    • 2016: Abel Kirui of Kenya (2:11:23), Florence Kiplagat of Kenya (2:21:32)
    • 2015: Dickson Chumba of Kenya (2:09:25), Florence Kiplagat of Kenya (2:23:33)
    • 2014: Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya (2:04:11), Mare Dibaba of Ethiopia (2:25:37)
    • 2013: Dennis Kimetto of Kenya (2:03:45), Rita Jeptoo of Kenya (2:19:57)
    • 2012: Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia (2:04:38), Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia (2:22:03)
    • 2011: Moses Mosop of Kenya (2:05:37), Ejegayehu Dibaba of Ethiopia (2:22:09)
    • 2010: Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya (2:06:23), Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia (2:23:40)

      2019 Chicago Marathon Results

      Conditions were perfect in the last edition of the Chicago Marathon, and times reflected it.

      The highlight of the day was Brigid Kosgei of Kenya smashing the world record with a 2:14:04. The previous world record, set by Paula Radcliffe 16 years prior, was 2:15:25. Behind her, the top American finisher was Emma Bates, who in her second-ever marathon finished fourth in 2:25:27, the ninth-fastest clocking by an American woman at the time.

      In the men’s race, a thrilling last 400 meters saw Lawrence Cherono of Kenya break the tape in 2:05:45, a thin one-second margin over second-place. Jacob Riley ran a personal best of 2:10:36 to win top American honors, leading four other U.S. men under 2:11. Riley would go on to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team just six months later.

      Why You Should Get Psyched for 2021

      At this year’s race on October 10, several top American marathoners are gunning for top spots.

      Two American women who have run top-10 times on the U.S. leaderboard are toeing the line: Sara Hall, who ran 2:20:32 at The Marathon Project last year, and Keira D’Amato, who placed second at the same race with a breakthrough time of 2:22:56. Hall will be chasing Deena Kastor’s American marathon record of 2:19:36. Emma Bates returns after her 2019 fourth-place finish in Chicago.

      2017 champion Galen Rupp is back, hoping to improve upon his performance in Tokyo this summer, where he finished eighth. Expect to 2018 U.S. Half Marathon champion Chris Derrick in the lead pack as well.

      The U.S. runners have their work cut out for them. Seifu Tura and Reuben Kipyego come into the race with sub-2:04 personal bests. On the women’s side, half marathon world record-holder Ruth Chepngetich, with a personal best of 2:17:09, will make her Chicago debut.

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