A spectator’s guide to the Chicago Marathon

The Chicago Marathon is one of the most spectator-friendly courses I know. The way in which it weaves back and forth through downtown allows spectators several opportunities to see runners at multiple spots on the course without going too far out of their way.

A spectator can essentially view the course at mile 1, 5k, and Half without venturing more than a few blocks. Being a little more ambitious and creative, a stop at a critical point in Chinatown (mile 21) can be added and you can make sure you’re there to celebrate as your runner makes that last turn into Grant Park for the Finish.

I ran Chicago as my fifth marathon in 2015. I have also run New York City, New Jersey (Long Branch), and Bucks County (Pennsylvania), as well as 40 Half Marathons in three countries and eight States. Chicago stands out because it was the only one where “my fans” (people from New Jersey, no less) where out there cheering in several places. And if you’ve ever run a marathon, you know how important that is.

My boyfriend is running Chicago next year. Last weekend, I was out there for marathon weekend and he showed me how to navigate the course so I can be where he needs me to be to offer encouraging words. In case you’ll be there in 2018 to support a runner too, here is the plan.

TIP: Pack a backpack with some important necessities like snack/protein bars, fruit, a bottle of water, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and a portable phone charger. Depending on the forecast also consider hat, gloves, and/or rain poncho. Make sure the backpack is large enough to stash some layers, as the temps from the start to finish tend to increase dramatically. Also don’t forget sunglasses, reading glasses and any of your own personal necessities. You don’t want to wind up bailing on your runner because you arrived unprepared.

Depending how important your runner is to you, escorting them to the start in Grant Park might not be totally out of the question. There’s parking in the Millennium Garage below (enter off Michigan Avenue) assuming you got there early enough. If not, drop your runner to get to their corral on time and head to a side street well off the marathon course.


The first mile marker is at Rush and Grand. If you’re coming from the starting area in Grant Park, walk up Michigan Avenue through the Marriot and come out on Rush Street. Walk to Grand. Now is a good time to pick-up a cup of coffee. There’s a Starbuck’s on Grand; one block to your left at the corner of Wabash.

The road will be empty now, so get a good position on the opposite side of the street on the runners right (this is important for maneuvering later when the roads will be filled with runners and virtually impassable).

Now you wait. The first wave start is 7:30. The elites will come through mile 1 at about 7:35. Take a good look at them because it’s the last you’ll see them on the course since you will be focused on being in the right place for YOUR runner. Depending on their wave (there are 3 wave starts at 7:30, 8:00 and 8:35) and corral position, your runner could be anywhere from another 5 minutes to over an hour later.

TIP: If you are tracking your runner on the Bank of America Chicago Marathon App, you will be able to see when they have started and reached certain points along the course. I just caution you that it’s not 100% real time and you don’t want to miss your runner because you were looking at your phone. Use it as a general guide and get to the key points on the course well in advance of the predicted time. Then stand there and be patient.


IMG_8882Once your runner has passed mile 1, work your way over to the 5k (or 3.1 mile) mark. Walk across Grand to La Salle and make a left. The 5k mark is at the corner of Hubbard. Make sure you’ve coordinated your whereabouts with your runner. After coming over the bridge at 3 miles, runners have the choice of going right or left. You want them to bear right. Because you are coming from the east, you will be stuck on that side of the street.

TIP: A runner is a moving target. It’s much easier for them to spot spectators as long as they know about where to look. To stand out, wear something bright and have a sign. Let your runner know what to look for.


After 5k, the marathon goes north through the neighborhoods of Old Town, Lincoln Park and Lakeview for a turnaround in mile 8. You will be heading over to the Half Marathon point (13.1 miles). From your spot at 5k, continue south on La Salle, over the bridge and use the River Walk to get to the other side. If you need a restroom now, there is one off the River Walk. Just walk east toward Michigan Avenue.


Now from the River Walk come up on La Salle on the west side of the street. Walk south on La Salle to Monroe. Cross Monroe and make a right, proceeding to meet the marathon course. The Bank of America cheer zone is just past the 13-mile mark and before halfway. While you can access the marathon anywhere along here, there is a lot of energy at 13.1 miles which is halfway.

For those whose runner is affiliated with a charity, there are a few key places that may be of interest and somewhat accessible from your current location. Since your runner will be north of you for 10 miles, you have time to explore (and maybe get an early lunch). About a mile after the Half Marathon is the charity block party were many of the beneficiary organizations are represented. Gilda’s Club Chicago has their clubhouse right on the course at about 11.5 miles on North Wells (just passed Hubbard).

TIP: The Map on the Bank of America Chicago Marathon App is helpful and will predict where your runner is. Access to Google Maps is also essential and having a back-up hard copy map is also a good idea. Course maps are available at the Expo.

Once your runner passes the Half Marathon point you can make a choice. You can walk east on Monroe over to Michigan Avenue, then proceed ten blocks south to try catching them as they make the last turn into Grant Park (that’s a very crowded interchange). Since you might have close to two hours (or more!) to kill while your runner navigates the entire second half of the course by themselves, you could grab a leisurely lunch and put your feet up somewhere. After all, you’ve been doing a lot of walking! Or…


Make the effort and get out to the critical 21-mile mark in Chinatown. This is where a lot of runners are hitting the wall and seeing friends and family members is often a needed boost. So, from the 13-mile mark, walk back on Monroe to State Street. Make a right for entrance to the Red Line (consider purchasing your Ventra Card ahead of time). Take the train in the direction of 95th/Dan Ryan. Get off at Cermak/Chinatown. Walk to end of platform. From here you will see the marathon course to your right. Position yourself near the corner of Cermak and Wentworth on the runners’ left.

TIP: If you’ve run a marathon, you know what to say and what not to say to runners at mile-21. If you haven’t, I suggest words of encouragement like “you look great” (even if it’s a blatant lie!), “you’ve got this” or “you’re doing fantastic” are probably the best things you can say. Not so much: “only five miles to go” or “you’re almost done” – they’re not and often covering another five miles when you are feeling as depleted as one can feel after running 21 miles seems like a pretty daunting task. Just saying. 🙂


Once you’ve encouraged your runner to keep going and they are headed to the home stretch (yay! they only have five miles to go!), you can head in that direction too. Just proceed back along Cermak to Michigan Avenue where you will find the marathon at the 40k mark (or toward the end of mile 25). You can find a good spot anywhere along here, but again, best if you have a pre-determined location at which your runner can look for you. The closer you go toward the finish, the more crowded it gets, so my advice is to go right on Michigan, not left.

NOW this is it. NOW they are almost done! Scream and yell with every bit of energy you have left.

It may take runners a while to get through the finish, collect their metals, refreshments and gear. Head over to the reunion area to find them and give them a big hug! Yes, they’re sweaty. Yes, they probably smell. Suck it up! What they just did is awesome! And your support was a big help; don’t stop now. You’re a team; revel in that and celebrate the achievement.

TIP: If you are tracking multiple runners (as we were on Sunday), especially runners of varying start times and paces, you may want to stay put for longer periods of time and cut down the number of locations you choose to go. You will not be able to see everyone at every spot and may ultimately wind up missing everyone.

I can’t wait to be a spectator and cheerleader for my favorite runner next year. He and I ran our long run last weekend on Saturday – eight miles – in the rain. We were super motivated by the marathon Sunday and got out for a nice steady 5k run on Monday. Wednesday I competed speed work (400×8) – Tuesday being a travel day back to New Jersey, and Thursday was a 3-mile tempo. 10k race on Sunday. So my training is still progressing. Twenty-eight weeks and 2 days until my marathon.

IMG_8938Buffalo Creek Forest Preserve, Long Grove, Illinois. October, 2017


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