Tips for Spectating the Chicago Marathon

Note: This has been updated for 2018.

In addition to running the Chicago Marathon in 2012, I’ve been an official race volunteer and have spectated more times than I can count. 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) who has a Ventra Card they’re not using that day, borrow it for race day, or buy a Ventra Card, and use the L train to get around the city.

Make a plan. Ask your runner about their pace as well as their expected start time.  I made a marathon pace calculator to estimate what time your runner will pass each mile marker.  Just type in expected pace (fastest and slowest) and expected start time, and it will update with a “window” of time that your runner will pass each mile marker. I also noted the nearest L stop to each mile marker. 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 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 11 – 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 (right before mile 17 – 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 or Harrison – 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.”) Keep in mind that the closer you are to an L station, and/or downtown, the more crowded it will be. When I ran the marathon, I found the stretch along Ashland* between Little Italy and Pilsen to feel the most desolate and the crowd was the thinnest (although there were still spectators).  *In 2018, this stretch is actually down Loomis. Might still be desolate. I live right over there now.  

Track your runner. In addition to estimating your runner’s location based on the pace spreadsheet listed above, you can track your runner via text or the marathon website. In my experience, the text alerts are delayed, but the website tracking is updated pretty quickly. Molex is also providing Information Tents.

Figure out how you’re going to get there and get around. The L is the best way to get around the city during the marathon. If you plan to drive into the city and take the L from there, look up street closures and figure out in advance where you will park. Driving from spot-to-spot on the course isn’t very feasible. There are road closures, parking is impossible in some areas, and traffic on the streets that are open might be heavy due to closures of other roads.

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. 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 hoodie, 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, but if the sun doesn’t come out, you will feel the cold more and more the longer you’re outside. Wear comfortable shoes, bring 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, wipes or 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 4-5 hours. Bring water and snacks for yourself (even if stores/shops/cafes are open, lines might 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.

Chicago Marathon 10.10.10

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

Check out more great tips below and add your own!

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12 Comments on “Tips for Spectating the Chicago Marathon”

  1. 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!!!

    1. 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.

  6. Maggie, this is really great!!

    Some location suggestions:

    1) Easy spots for spectating (and being easily seen and appreciated) are in Little Italy and around UIC. It’s usually totally dead over there (or has been the years I’ve run it), and it’s in that uncomfortable spot of the race where you’re too far out to be “close” and too far in to be comfortable.

    2) If you have people who are mobility challenged or you’re concerned about them navigating solo, great spots to cheer are around miles 4 and 11. It’s very easy to see your runner at two points with very little walking, and there are a million cafes or coffee shops in the area for them to rest up in before/after/in-between. I did this when my grandpa came up to spectate, and it was surprisingly easy for everyone.

    Last note: I’d add that if you’re there cheering for your runner, don’t forget to give other runners some cheers, too! Too often, people wait quietly (concentrating on scanning the crowd, and probably because it feels awkward to yell for strangers – totally valid reasons), but it’s welcome and appreciated if you set up shop somewhere way early and are able to lend some energy to the crowd. Yelling “HELL YEA GREEN SHORTS!” or “LOOKING STRONG, [INSERT CHARITY NAME OR PERSON’S NAME FROM SHIRT] at the right time will make some runners’ day. 🙂

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