Let me start with this, I was excited to knock this one off the list for a few reasons. One - Chicago is a World Marathon Major, which means I only have four more to go (completed NYC in 2017). Two - it checks Illinois off my list for my goal of running a marathon in all 50! But I digress - to the review!
Upon landing at Midway on Saturday morning, I linked up with a friend who lives in the Chicagoland area and we rolled to the expo together. The traffic and parking situation around McCormick place left a little to be desired, but it wasn't the worst I've ever experienced. Props to Chicago PD for keeping things moving!
EXPO LOCATION: McCormick Place really is the best place for the expo. It's HUGE and can handle the large influx of people. Plus, it allows for greater flexibility with the vendors and what they bring with them (looking at you Goose Island and your L-train bar car). My favorite thing about the expo from a logistics standpoint would be how they managed the packet pickup. Each runner had to have their packet pickup ticket - essentially a QR code - to enter. Once the code was verified, along with my ID, I was sent to one of the packet pickup stations. Keep in mind there were easily more than 50 (maybe even more?!) of these stations. This meant no massive lines to stand in, no hunting for your bib number and then looking for it on a sign. The organizers nailed this and it made pickup SO MUCH EASIER. Other large scale marathons can definitely learn from this model, though the technology and planning involved might be more than some races can manage.
My favorite thing about the expo OVERALL was meeting PAULA RADCLIFFE! I honestly did not even know she was going to be there. I was standing next to a particular vendor's set-up and just happened to look up at the large monitor above, which suddenly mentioned that PR would be at that booth...in just a few minutes. Looked over and THERE SHE WAS! Ran over, got in line, and got to meet a running legend. Let's not talk about the fact that I did not keep it together AT ALL. Very thankful for this random meeting as her world record was finally broken the very next day!
Unfortunately, one disappointing thing about this expo was the official race gear. I was severely underwhelmed at the choices presented by this large, well-known, sports company which was a major sponsor of the event. My standards for event gear, especially at a WMM event, are fairly high thanks to my experience at other events. This is probably the ONLY area where I felt let down during the entire race weekend. On the plus side, it helped me get out of the expo having spent ZERO dollars! :-p Here's hoping YOUR experience with official merchandise is more enjoyable than mine!
TRANSPORTATION: Getting from the expo back to downtown Chicago was super easy. Walked a few blocks from McCormick Place to catch the L (Chicago's "sub"way network). One stop later, I had a quick transfer and then I was on the Orange LOOP train which took me to a station less than a block's walk to my hotel. Did not realize the L was going to be so close and so convenient all weekend. Sidenote: do yourself a favor and get a Ventra card in advance of your trip. I did the 3-day pass, which was $20 for the weekend. Whether you add $$ to the card or purchase a multi-day pass, this really is the easiest way to navigate Chicago. Also, paying in advance and planning travel via the L will save you the (repeated) cost of using Uber/Lyft.
LODGING: Plan ahead, especially for a race like this one. I was fortunate and found a hotel downtown that did not require a three-night minimum. It was close-ish to the start/finish and less than a block away from the L. Added bonus(es): There was a Walgreens next door which was great for replenishing any last minute needs. There was a branch of my bank across the street = no ATM fees if I needed cash! My primary concern was access to transportation, which I nailed, but got lucky with the surroundings. Do your homework ahead of time and you'll enjoy similar results.
TEAM IN TRAINING: My trip to Chicago and participation in the marathon was in part thanks to two groups: Team BibRave and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training. I did not get into the Chicago Marathon via the lottery, so when the opportunity came about to possibly get in via another method, I jumped at it! From the minute I got to the expo, every person I interacted with from LLS/TNT was absolutely amazing. They made me feel as if I had been a part of the TEAM for years. What I will add here for review's sake is this - don't sleep on the charity bib as a way into a marathon. Yes, you'll get to run the race you've always wanted to, but you also will do a LOT of good along the way. LLS/TNT is just one of MANY charities that partner with the Chicago Marathon, so I encourage you to find one that speaks to you and consider supporting it! I'll talk more about my LLS/TNT experience in my detailed race report over on my blog - presramsey.com
RACE MORNING: On race morning, I walked over to the LLS/TNT hotel and walked to Grant Park with a group of my fellow teammates. It was great heading over with people who have done this race before. They knew exactly where to go and when to get moving to be there. Getting INTO the park was a little stressful because there were so many people and not as many security folk checking bags. PRO TIP: make sure you read up on race day policies BEFORE you get to the security checkpoints, no matter what race you run. Most races will NOT allow any bags aside from the clear plastic one runners can collect at the expo. Follow the guidelines and your race day will go smoothly!
GEAR CHECK / CORRALS: Gear check was what you'd expect - find your bib number and give'em your stuff. Pretty straightforward. Best part about gear check was the amazing views of Buckingham fountain (which was on!) at sunrise. The corrals themselves seemed organized about the same as any other race I've run. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to get from gear check BACK to your corral though, as there is a little bit of a walk between the two.
THE COURSE: The start was a little crowded, but it began to spread out fairly quick. The course itself is absolutely great - AND FLAT! The only exception to this would be the bridges, which are small rolling hills at best. Best advice I received and that I will repeat to you: go for the carpet on the bridges! You'll have better traction and lessen the chance of slipping/twisting an ankle in the grating on the bridge. Aside from that, the only real difficult spot on the entire course is inside the last half mile when you make your last right turn and have to climb over the only real hill on the course - "Mount Roosevelt". Favorite part of the course was running through Chinatown! I did not expect it to be as cool as it was and the spectator turnout in that area was amazing.
AID STATIONS: There was no lack of aid stations and toilets along the course. Plenty of Gatorade, Water, and gels to get through the race. The toilet were set up on side-streets along the course near the aid stations, almost like pit stops in an car race. For as many people as there were in the event, the toilets never seemed to be overwhelmed or gross - definitely a plus.
OVERALL: You should ABSOLUTELY make it a priority to run the Chicago Marathon. I don't care how you get there - lottery, charity, etc - just go and experience it. The event is fantastic, the organization of the race is second to none, and just being in Chicago will make it that much more fun.
I would definitely consider returning to Chicago in the future. Thank you BibRave and Team in Training for an amazing weekend!