Tips for Spectating the Chicago Marathon

Note: This has been updated for 2014.

In addition to running the Chicago Marathon in 2012, I spectated a few times (both as a spectator and a “pacer”) and I have a few tips. If you’re planning to spectate the Chicago Marathon, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Do your research. The Chicago Marathon has a whole section of their web site for spectators, so read up. The most important information is the list of spectator viewing areas accessible by CTA train. If you know someone (perhaps your runner) with a Ventra Card, borrow it for race day (as long as they don’t need it) and use the L to get around the city. If not, and you’re not familiar with taking the L in Chicago, read up on riding the CTA.

Make a plan. Talk to your runner about their pace – I made a Google Spreadsheet to estimate what time you’ll pass each mile marker based on your estimated pace.  Just type in your expected pace (fastest and slowest) and your expected start time, and it will update with a “window” of time that you’ll pass each mile marker. I also noted the nearest L stop to each mile marker. You can also take a look at the course map and the CTA station list on the marathon web site, and make a plan in advance on where (and when) you will be on the course spectating. While planning your spectating “stations” keep in mind you won’t be able to easily cross the race course. The only spots that I am familiar with are Kinzie and Illinois Streets, just north of the river – those streets go under or over other streets.

There are many routes you can take if you’re a spectator. This is what I would recommend.

  1. Take the Brown Line north to Sedgewick, walk north to North Ave (just past mile 10 – runners, they’ll be on your right)
  2. Take the Brown Line south to Clark/Lake, transfer to Blue Line, take the Blue to “Forest Park”, get off at Racine, walk north to Jackson (near mile 16 – runners, they’ll be on your right).  
  3. Get back the Blue Line, take it toward “O’Hare” and get off at Jackson, transfer to Red Line.
  4. Take the Red Line south to Chinatown, walk west to Wentworth (near mile 21.5 – runners, they’ll be on your left)
  5. Walk east to Michigan Ave via Cermak (near mile 25 – runners, they’ll be on your left) 
  6. Take the Red Line north to Roosevelt – walk east to Grant Park / finish – Find your runner at your agreed upon spot (HINT: agree on a spot in advance)

NOTE: If you’re running out of time, skip step #4 and go straight to Michigan Ave. Seeing my family around mile 25 was awesome. The finish line is closed to spectators, so if you can get near Mile 25 or 26, that will be a great boost!

Once you know your plan, give your runner a specific description of where you will be – an intersection, or just past a certain mile marker, and tell them which side of the street you will be on. (If you can tell them “left” or “right” that will be easier than saying “west” or “east.” We get a little delirious while running. Throw us a bone.) Keep in mind that the closer you are to an L station, and/or downtown, the more crowded it will be.

Track your runner. In addition to esimating your runners location based on the pace spreadsheet listed above, you can track your runner via text or the marathon web site. The Chicago Marathon usually offers tracking via both ways for free (check the race web site as race day nears). In my experience, the text alerts are delayed, but the web site tracking is updated pretty quickly. If you have a smartphone, bring it, and check runner updates via browser app. Otherwise, some local McDonald’s restaurants will have runner update stations.

Figure out how you’re going to get there and get around. For some races, driving to a point (or many points) on the course is possible. For a major marathon in the middle of a huge city? Trains are best. If you drive, even if you plan to park in one spot and take public transit from there, you have to deal with road closures and traffic (and expensive parking). If you take the bus, you might be re-routed and still delayed by traffic. The train may be crowded, but it won’t be re-routed. If you do plan to drive, look up road closures and figure out in advance where you will park.

Make yourself noticeable. Find a way to stand out on the sidelines – carry a balloon (filled with helium of course), or a sign, or a life-size photo of your runner, or wear a goofy hat. (I can’t believe I’m actually suggesting this, but I think my husband should wear his cheesehead.) Make sure your runner knows what you colors you will be wearing and what you might be carrying. The crowds are thick, but if I know you’re wearing a bright orange jacket, it’s easier to just scan the crowd for orange than to try to look for your faces.

Sort of noticeable. Dad gets an A for effort with the Fast Women shout out. (He also got some chuckles, and maybe some side-eyes.) 

Dress for the weather. Your runner will be weather-stalking. You just need to check the weather in advance, and dress accordingly. Be sure to check the weather at the times you plan to start and finish spectating. Wear layers. It gets warm once the sun comes out. And wear comfortable shoes!  Don’t forget a hat and/or sunglasses, and definitely put on some sunscreen!

Bring extras for your runner. Ask your runner in advance if there is anything they would like you to carry “just in case.” Pretzels, handiwipes (wiping sweat off your face over and over means your hands get pretty gross pretty fast), a towel, vaseline/Body Glide, extra GU/shot bloks/etc, extra bottle of water, band-aids, pain killers, safety pins – every runner is different and has different needs, but it is likely there are a couple things that could feel like a lifesaver if you had it with you when they were hitting mile 20.

Pretzels are awesome late in a race. 

Bring water and snacks for yourself. Unless your runner is an elite, you might be out there for 3-6 hours. Bring water and snacks for yourself (even if stores/shops/cafes are open, lines will likely be long).

Bring necessities. Cash, ID, cell phone, transit card, and most importantly … A CAMERA! Your runner will love to have photos of them in the race without watermarks all over it.

If you’re planning to jump in the race for a few miles – All of the above, plus: 

Dress in layers. You’re going to heat up. Wear sweat-wicking fabrics. Pull your hair back. Basically, dress like you are going for a run, but add an extra layer for warmth – a light jacket or arm warmers or something else you can easily remove and tie around your waist/tuck into your shorts/pants.

Carry a small wearable bag. A lot of races (such as 13.1 and Rock ‘n’ Roll) have been giving away draw-string backpacks. They are a little bit cumbersome to run with, but are your best bet while running if you need to have stuff on you that you can’t easily leave in the car (and retrieve when necessary).

Runners without a race bib are not allowed on the course. Before 2013, it was possible for a friend to jump in a run with you (it was against the rules, but usually all that would happen is you got chased off the course if you stayed on too close to the finish). Not so much anymore. I would not recommend jumping in to pace a friend. 

Cubicle Dad’s Dad also has some spectating tips.

Chicago Marathon 10.10.10

Be ready for some crowds. 40,000 runners = like a million spectators.

Any other suggestions?

9 thoughts on “Tips for Spectating the Chicago Marathon

  1. Keren says:

    This is amazing!! I am printing a copy for my spectator :) and calculating my over/under in your spreadsheet. I made a spreadsheet yesterday but this one out classes mine by quite a bit!
    good luck to you on Sunday!!

  2. Nice tips. That’s a very handy spreadsheet. I hope I can hit all of the stops and the correct times! :-) One tip to the spectators: “more cowbell”.

  3. Awesome tips! I usually take the orange line to 18th and Halsted, and then head to Michigan for mile 25. My friend Laura always brings a jar of Vaseline, which at first, I deemed disgusting, but in past years, SO MANY RUNNERS practically kiss her for having it handy…

  4. Great tips!!! This post made me realize how unprepared I was for spectating (umm my plan of “just wandering around the track” doesn’t sound so good now…).

    The countdown is nearing the end, I’m excited for you!

  5. These are such great tips! I shared them with my husband and I also posted a link to this entry on my own blog so that I can easily come back to refer to it!!!

    Until you mentioned it, I never thought about having my spectators hold emergency items for me but it is SUCH a good idea!!!

    • Yes, the runners are heading north on Michign at Mile 25, and the spectators would be on the west side of Michigan, which would be on the runners’ left.

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