This was to be an opportunity to grab a 3rd star for the Abbott Marathon Majors journey I’d indirectly found myself on and, to add to the anxiety it was also to be run on my birthday. No pressure on myself then.
I’d arranged with my employer that I could work from the Chicago office for a few days in the lead-up to the marathon weekend which meant I could arrive a few days early and acclimatise to the timezone change. Accommodation isn’t cheap in the city so I’d booked at the outskirts and on the edge of Chinatown.
Arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, it was apparent that many other runners had also decided to arrive early. There were lots of ‘us’ and to add to the excitement a few large welcome banners hung from the ceiling at the entrance to the train station.
Travel tip Getting into the city from the airport is incredibly straightforward as there’s a train line directly from the terminal. Inside Terminals 1, 2 & 3 it’s signed for the train station. When arriving at terminal 5 (international arrivals) you will need to take the free connecting tram that loops around the airport terminals and hop out at 1, 2 or 3. To get into the city (it’s $5 by the way) the Blue Line, “L”, pronounced “El” takes about 50 minutes, just find the most appropriate exit station for you. There are lots of ticket machines and I’d recommend paying in cash for your travel, lots of people struggled with their foreign credit cards.
An hour or so later I was in Chinatown and heading to my hotel (Jaslin Hotel) only a couple of blocks from the Red Line Cermak-Chinatown stop.
For the next couple of days, I worked in the city centre which helped me orientate myself. On Thursday after work, I headed to the McCormick Convention centre to collect my race numbers for Saturday’s 5KM as well as the marathon. The expo premises is large and definitely gave my feet a good workout.
Travel tip The nearest train station to McCormick Place is served by an overland train, Metrarail, leave at the 18th street stop. CTA passes do not work on this service so you must buy a ticket. If you’re using the CTA then take the Green Line and leave at Cermak-McCormick Place, it’s about a 20-minute walk.
Arriving at the convention centre banners hung from the high ceiling welcoming runners. Lots of people stopped and posed for their photos.
After a brief security bag check, I was guided to the registration desks for the marathon and 5KM events. At the 5KM booth I received my race number and this joyful bobble hat, unbeknown to me it would be just the ticket for the following day. The CTA badge on the hat (or button in the USA) was picked up from the Chicago Transport Authority stand, they were fun to talk with and I couldn’t resist the nostalgic logo.
Inside the expo area, all the major brand names had a stand and the buzz of excitement rippled throughout the cavernous hall. Heading to the rear of the exhibition I grabbed my race number pack before ambling around and looking at the merch, of which there was a lot. After a few purchases, I departed, heading back to my hotel. With bags dropped it was time to find a pasta dinner in readiness for my run the following day. I headed back to the city centre to Pizano’s, I’d seen this on TV and it was rated well.
Saturday, the 5KM
My sleep pattern was still finding a new routine but I had managed to get a decent 7 hours of sleep. As I left the hotel I met other runners also ready for the run, everyone smiling and nodding acknowledgements. I walked with one runner, Jenny, two blocks to the Cermak-Chinatown subway station. I was interested to know her intended route to the start line for this and the marathon to see if it tallied with mine. It did, and that was a relief. In the usual way runners talk about running we chatted about all manner of topics. As each subway stop passed more runners hopped on, all wearing their bobble hats and some taking photos.
There was much joviality. A few stops later and everyone departed. A steady stream emerged up into the outside world and headed toward Grant Park, where our start line awaited.
It was bright and the sun was beginning to climb over the horizon. It was also cold. The 7:30am start was still about 20 minutes away. Some runners were beginning to discard their warm tops and foil blankets but in my mind, this seemed too keen. We found our way into the start pen looking toward the start gate in the distance over a sea of pale blue bobble hats. I wished I’d brought mine. The crowding of people acted as wind-break which took the edge out of the light chilling breeze, remember Lake Michigan was only a few hundred metres away so the moisture was being drawn across.
Little by little the vast pack of runners shuffled ever closer to the start. Loud music played as small waves of runners were released. It was 7:30am and we were nowhere near the start line. In fact, it wasn’t until I hit start on my watch at 7:57 did the relief of movement finally begin. For a small event, there were a lot of people out along the streets cheering us on our way.
Much of this route was familiar to me due to having already been in the city centre, those walking commutes and lunch forays had taken me around many blocks over the days.
I kept my pace light and easy for this was purely a shakedown run. My fingers were slowly returning to some sort of warmth and normality as each KM ticked on by. The finish line loomed into sight and as soon as the run had started it was now all over. Medals were presented, congratulations given and numerous food bars, drinks of dubious colour and vegan-friendly jerky were handed out. Following a brief chat with an English couple, it was time to head back to the subway and the hotel. Jenny and I agreed to meet up again the following morning to head to the start line together. I headed off to a nearby coffeehouse to grab a warming hot chocolate and a piece of cake. My 5KM had burnt nothing more than a chocolate bar’s worth of calories but as far as I was concerned the marathon would most probably take care of what I was about to consume. In the queue, I started speaking with another runner from the UK, called Martin. He’d just come off the back of running both London and Berlin marathons in the previous weeks, humbly explaining he most probably wouldn’t be aiming for a PB as his legs were still feeling a little battered. Oh my.
After of a ‘small amount of city exploring,’ I grabbed another pasta dinner from a restaurant near the hotel before getting an early night.
Sunday, the Marathon
Two alarms brought me out of my slumber with a startling shock. Unsurprisingly, I’d had those ‘panic dreams’ of being late to the start line but that was most probably due to the vast amount of garlic I’d consumed the night before.
Entering the hotel lobby was a deja vu with runners waiting for friends, nodding and acknowledging others. Heading outside the early light of day was beginning to appear and large crowd control barriers had mysteriously arrived overnight – this part of Chinatown being on the marathon route. Jenny and I chatted on our way to the subway comparing notes of our carb fuelled meals of the night before. The morning temperature wasn’t as low as the previous day plus I had the added bonus of wearing a baggy hoodie. The familiar pattern of yesterday’s routine followed although this time when we surfaced there were far more runners. Arriving at Grant Park we parted ways and headed toward our respective start gates.
The map of the route.
The sun was rising over Lake Michigan as runners emerged from all the streets leading to Grant Park. It was cold but nothing like the previous morning which was a relief.
The porta-loo queues were snaking around the park, a common scene at any mass running event. I had plenty of time before the 8am start so I joined one of those lines, knowing that by the time it was my turn the cold would have done its thing.
In line, I chatted with a guy from New York – he didn’t even need to tell me where he was from as his accent was very strong, although he thought I was from Australia. This is the part I love about running events, meeting people and hearing their stories – not the Australia part.
Time seemed to be accelerating and entering the start pen I only had 20 minutes before the big event began.
Once again, I struck up a conversation with a runner next to me. I recognised her running top team name to be from an area only 30 miles from my front door. We chatted about all sorts of running-related topics, she clearly is very accomplished and had run races in many countries. All very fascinating as far as I’m concerned.
Time was marching on and the crowd moved ever closer to the start line. Booming music and countdowns released wave after wave of people into the city. It was nearly my time so off came my hoodie, I bunched it up and threw it to the fencing line. Unfortunately, it unfolded in the air and fell marginally short catching the shoulder of someone walking on the edge as it fluttered down – apologies to this runner. It was now our group’s turn. This countdown was for us.
Walking was now replaced by an uptempo trot, to a jog then to a slow run. With each step, I placed it cautiously so as not to catch the heel of the runner in front. The volume of the supporters at the start line began to fade only to be replaced by people from above as we passed under a bridge.
I saw this guy’s t-shirt a few minutes after starting, the comment, “I know a short cut”, made me grin.
Entering the tunnel beneath East Randolph Street runners peeled off and hid beside pillars to attend to nature’s call. Exiting the tunnel we found ourselves crossing the first of many bridges. These structures, cast in iron, needed careful navigation. Their surface comprised of crisscrossed metal with gaps just the right size for the toe end or heel of a shoe to land awkwardly. A narrow width of red carpet had been fixed to help guide runners, the challenge here was to deal with the mass of people all funnelling onto it.
With the first bridge successfully navigated over the Chicago River we were into the city vibe. Streets were lined with supporters and from this point, I felt the race had truly begun – looking at the crowd and seeing their excitement I find quite uplifting. “How long have they been patiently waiting?”, I think to myself. “How long will they be here for before heading off to another part of the course?”.
The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone brightly, it was around 14 degrees celsius which was perfect for me. I was loving being out in the city looking at so many happy and cheery people. As I plodded on I read the myriad of names printed on boards, large pieces of paper and homemade banners. Over-sized blown-up photos of a person’s head neatly cut out held high up above the shoulders of the crowd. Even photos of dogs with a runner’s name proudly imprinted – even the pets sent their love and support. I had lots of support from my wife and friends for that day and while they were not physically there there’s something about the energy in the crowd that brings them to me.
I was following a pacer for the 3h50 finish time. It wasn’t planned, I just happened to be in my own rhythm. I noticed she was holding the flag, it was not in her backpack, which would affect arm movement significantly. Clearly just out for a jog then!
The route through the streets took the form of an accordion as the field of runners stretched out and bunched up navigating wide roads then narrowing into filtered sections. All the while the crowds cheered and waved us along.
The local Police and Fire services helped to keep the smaller road intersections safe for us runners. They too cheered us on. I acknowledged them and got occasional nods and waves back. At the larger junctions, the city snowploughs were parked strategically, it was clear no one was passing them.
The mile markers pass by with many aid stations offering cups of energy drinks and water. Occasional food too. At the first sighting of vaseline (to help with chaffing), a large sign informed us, “Do NOT eat“. The route was strewn with cups. I focused on keeping my feet away from these, a lesson learned the hard way from the Paris Marathon earlier in the year.
The cheering rises and falls as we negotiated the different personalities the city had to offer. Smaller streets packed with people made for ear-wincing volume compared to the mere ripple out in the open as we passed recreation fields.
Mile 15 arrived with a far different level of crowd excitement. This was the charity block and provided a very different few minutes of people-watching. There was live music, food and drinks. Everyone was welcome to stop and refuel but I remained focused on putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying the sights.
Everything had been going well, the pacer remained in view and sometimes within a few metres. I’d been sipping drinks, eating flapjack and taking on gels but by 28KM my stomach had a different opinion. Tight cramping pain recurred every time I tried to consume fluids. This wasn’t good. I still had a fair distance to go and clearly not drinking wasn’t an option. My energy level seemed fine but again, fuelling would be needed. I made the decision to give my stomach a rest for a while and this seemed to work, the discomfort passed. The mile markers passed by slower than I would have liked but the pacer was still in view and the crowd energy still soared.
Chinatown was upon me and this was familiar ground given my hotel was on the route. I’d snapped this photo first thing in the morning as I headed to the race.
A short way down the road I spotted a guy holding a sign with, “Worst parade I’ve seen“, printed boldly on it. This truly made me laugh and by far was my favourite of the day.
Approaching mile marker 22 the crowd thinned out and the road width opened up massively. Looking ahead all I could see was a long straight road and to my left runners approaching as they ran down the other side. It was one of those up and back sections, my least favourite and especially as I had resorted to sipping my drink which brought the discomfort back. I could see the mile marker 24 on the other side so I knew how far I’d need to run before being on the return leg. The pacer at that point ran off into the sunset never to be seen again by me.
Time seemed to move slowly and I recall checking my watch an awful lot, the perfect example of exhaustion and wanting it to be over. Just after mile marker 23 the route turned back on itself and from this point it was just a simple case of getting to the finish line in Grant Park. I was completely done with sipping drink as the discomfort was getting worse. I had a Parkrun distance left so I broke it down into small chunks to motivate me, inwardly rewarding and coaching myself with comments and reminding myself I was doing this on my Birthday. It wasn’t long before the crowds returned for the final stretch and this boosted me no end. I won’t lie, I was really struggling.
With the finish line in sight I was overwhelmed with relief, then emotion, then relief. I crossed it arms held high.
Walking into the finish area I took time to compose myself, I needed to keep moving and also I wanted something to drink. I collected my medal and assisted gleeful runners with their photo taking. With every passing minute my body recovered and soon I was eating and drinking. I declined the Goose Island IPA beer as I didn’t expect my body would thank me for it.
I spotted an official photographer nearby so I asked for a picture.
After a quick arty photo of my medal I left the park soon after as I was keen to keep moving.
After a short train ride I was back at Chinatown heading to my hotel although getting to it was tricky given the race route was right in front of it, eventually though I found a crossing area.
I watched from my window as the runners passed beneath me.
The following day I headed out for a walk to stretch the legs before travelling home. My intended destination was the art district within Grant Park and to the area most known for the giant jelly bean, officially called Cloud Gate. There were lots of excited runners there having their photos taken wearing their medal.
The city was alive with runners all proudly wearing their medals, I kept mine safe in my pocket but inwardly shared their happiness and glow of achievement.
As I packed my case later in the day I took one last photo of my Birthday weekend of running.
So with 3 of the Abbott Majors under my belt I’m working out how I can get the others…
2 thoughts on “Chicago Marathon 2022”
Great write up! And a huge congratulations for another major completed. I really enjoyed reading this post. It was the next best thing to actually being there in person. Loved the community feel that you had on the journey in to the shakedown run and the marathon itself. It is so inspiring to see how all runners and running enthusiasts come together to create these amazing vibes together. Fingers crossed on your quest to get into the other majors! I’m personally hoping that Cape Town will one day meet the criteria to become host to a major. Amazing location and scenery – and currently another one on my ever growing ‘todo’ list!
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Thank you Sean! The uplifting community support is quite an extraordinary feeling. I love that buzz. I heard the WMM are reviewing their list of the big 6 so fingers crossed they shuffle it with a more worldly balance.
My ‘todo’ list keeps growing too, we definitely need to compare notes!