Chicago Marathon Guide: History, Course, Training and Tips For Race Day

Are you interested in running the Chicago Marathon but have no clue what to do or where to start? We’ve got your back and have created the ultimate go-to guide to explain all there is to know about the Chicago Marathon. 

Known as one of the world’s best marathons, the Chicago Marathon has been around since the early 1900s. It had a format overhaul in 1977 and is considered to be the ultimate marathon for runners from across the globe. We’ll learn more about this prestigious marathon, the course, its interesting features, and some tips for training. When we’re done, you might just want to sign up.

This is the Chicago Marathon. 

The History of the Chicago Marathon

Chicago marathon guide

The Chicago Marathon is one of the six World Marathon Majors that has its roots dating back to Greece and the start of the Olympics in 1896. Now known as one of the faster marathons in the world, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon welcomes 45,000 runners from across the globe to participate in this 26.2-mile race that sees young and old, amateur and elite runners come together in harmony. 

And though the marathon has seen a few name changes, the thrill of the race is still the same as when it was first established with the current route in 1977. Sponsored by the Bank of America, the Chicago Marathon is a runner’s dream thanks to its flat terrain and looped course. 

The Bank of Chicago Marathon is run in October on the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend and currently sees 45,000 runners hit the streets as they battle it out for that all-important finishers medal.

Let’s take a look at a few key moments in history that made the Chicago Marathon the race we all know today:

  • 1905: The Illinois Athletics Club hosted its first organized road race on September 23rd, 1905. Only 12 entrants participated in the race, with Rhud Metzer leading the pack of seven runners who crossed the finish line. 
  • 1906: Canadian Dennis Bennett became the first “outsider” to win the Chicago Marathon. The band played “Maple Leaf Forever” as he crossed the finish line. 
  • 1907: Runner John Lindquist made headlines for taking shots of whiskey as he ran the course of the Chicago Marathon. Witnesses reported that he looked rather sleepy by the 23-mile mark.
  • 1908: Runner Albert Corey took a page from Lindquist’s book but shook things up and sipped champagne while running the Chicago Marathon. 
  • 1910: The Chicago Marathon was sponsored by the Chicago Daily News. 
  • 1920s: The Chicago Marathon was sidelined as the Great Depression took its hold on America.
  • 1977: The Chicago Marathon was re-established with a new route by Lee Flaherty, an event promoter in the great city of Chicago. 
  • 1979: Beatrice Foods took over as sponsor of the Chicago Marathon. 
  • 1983: The Chicago Marathon was attended by national runners and saw Greg Meyer, an American long-distance runner, cross the finish line with a time of 2:09:00. 
  • 1983: The Chicago Marathon was named one of the most important marathons in the United States, surpassing the popularity of the Boston and New York Marathons. 
  • 1984: Chicago Marathon sponsor Beatrice Foods ups their prize winnings to $250,000. This amount surpassed that of the New York Marathon, making it a must for elite athletes. British runner Steven Jones set a new World Record as he crossed the Chicago Marathon’s finish line in 2:08:05.
  • 1985: Steve Jones breaks his own record as he clocks in at 2:07:13. 
  • 1986: The number of marathon entrants increased to 8,000, with at least 40 world-class runners hitting the streets of Chicago. 
  • 1987: Beatrice Foods pulled out as the sponsor of the Chicago Marathon, resulting in the event being cut short and only a half-marathon being run that year. 
  • 1988: Hellman Brewing Company took over as the official sponsor of the Chicago Marathon.
  • 1991: Hellman Brewing Company pulled out as the sponsor of the Chicago Marathon. 
  • 1993: Major Events Inc bought the Chicago Marathon from Lee Flaherty as Lasalle Bank officially sponsored the event. 
  • 1994: The Chicago Marathon was renamed the Lasalle Bank Chicago Marathon.
  • 1996: Lasalle Bank bought the Chicago Marathon from Major Events Inc. 
  • 1998: The Lasalle Bank Chicago Marathon introduced transponder timing for pinpoint accuracy in finishing times.
  • 2001: Kenyan athlete Catherine Ndebera broke the women’s world record with an impressive time of 2:18:47. 
  • 2007: The Bank of America acquired ABN AMRO (the parent company of Lasalle Bank) and took over as sponsor of the Chicago Marathon. The marathon was renamed the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
    • The Bank of America Chicago Marathon held a special event and invited CEOs, senior partners, and those who earn the company at least $5 million in revenue to take on the challenge and complete the 26.2-mile course. 
    • The marathon came to a screeching halt as parts of the race were shut down due to soaring temperatures that saw 10,000 runners not compete, another 10,934 not finishing, one runner dying, and another 340 seeking medical attention or being hospitalized. 
  • 2020: The Bank of America Chicago Marathon was canceled as lockdowns and in-person events were banned due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Race ticket holders were allowed to defer their entry to 2021, 2022, or 2023 or receive a full refund. 

Today the Chicago Marathon is one of six important events in the World Marathon Majors. The others are held in New York City, London, Tokyo, Boston and Berlin.

Course and World Records

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is a popular event, and its flat terrain makes for some fast runs. Many world and course records have been set over the last few decades, with runners from around the world descending on Chicago to run their PBs.

Here are a few of the world and course records over the years:

Men’s Division

YearNameNationalityFinish TimeCourse or World Record
1984Steve JonesUnited Kingdom2:08:05World Record
1999Khalid KhannouchiMorocco2:05:42World Record
2013Dennis KimettoKenya2:03:45Course Record

Women’s Division

YearNameNationalityFinish TimeCourse or World Record
2001Catherine NdeberaKenya2:18:47World Record
2002Paula RadcliffeUnited Kingdom2:17:18World Record
2019Brigid KosgeiKenya2:14:04Course and World Record

Wheelchair Division

YearNameNationalityFinish TimeCourse or World Record
2010Heinz FreiSwitzerland1:26:56Men’s Course Record
2017Tatyana McFaddenUnited States1:39:15Women’s Course Record

Finishers Statistics

The number of finishers of the Chicago Marathon have increased almost each year. Here are the statistics since 2000 for the runners who’ve finished the race:

YearAverage Finish TimeMaleFemaleTotal Finishers
2020Canceled (COVID-19)

The Impact of the Chicago Marathon on Communities

Hosting a 26.2 mile race does not come cheap, but thanks to sponsorships and many runners and spectators visiting Chicago, the city sees more than $428 million in revenue being generated for the city each year. 

With a purse prize of up to $1 million, the event attracts athletes from around the world and is a great driver of the tourism industry in Chicago. It is also a great fundraising event supporting various charitable causes locally and globally. Each year, thousands of runners participate not just for their love of the sport, but also to raise money for their chosen charities. In fact, in recent years, runners have collectively raised over $22 million annually for charitable causes, ranging from children’s hospitals to environmental initiatives and social justice projects.

Chicago marathon cleanup
Needless to say, the event requires help from the community to clean up! Pic CC via Gregory Regalado

The Impact of Chicago Marathon on the Global Running Community

The Chicago Marathon is a prestigious race that first gained acclaim in 1983 when it was named one of America’s most important marathons. And with companies like Beatrice Foods, Hellman Brewing Company, and Lasalle Bank sponsoring the event, the purse prize has increased dramatically, making it worth the trip for world-class runners to compete. 

And its inclusion as one of the World Marathon Majors has only increased its popularity, with the world’s top athletes battling it out for that coveted top spot on the podium or a course record. 

The Chicago Marathon Course and its Features

The course of the Chicago Marathon is fairly unique and is a full loop route that starts and ends at Grant Park. The course takes runners through 29 neighborhoods and is broken down into three sections, each with notable landmarks. A big draw card is the three famous stadiums. 

They are:

  • North: Wrigley Stadium
  • West: United Center
  • South: Guaranteed Rate Field

The fourth and final stadium, Soldier Field, is located near the start/finish line in Grant Park and is one of many landmarks that make up the scenic route through the city streets.

The course of the Chicago Marathon is fairly flat, bar one hill on Roosevelt Road towards the end of the 26.2-mile run. This makes for faster running and is one of the many reasons the marathon has seen many world records set. It’s one of the fastest marathons in the world.

The first three miles of the marathon are located in the downtown area of Chicago, where many of the top runners set their pace and enjoy a steady run before heading north through Lasalle Street. With many hydration and aid stations on the route, runners can stop and enjoy a beverage or snack and a quick breather before hitting the streets to make it to the next mile marker. 

The cheering sections of the Chicago Marathon are truly something to behold and are quite possibly the best of any other Major marathon. The route of this marathon allows for almost the entire distance to be lined with supporters.

Chicago marathon route on Strava
Chicago Marathon route on Strava

Cheering Sections and Crowd Support

The Chicago Marathon has, hands down, the best cheering sections as locals and traveling supporters come together to cheer on the runners while enjoying the festivities. 

Here are a few of the more popular cheering sections along the route of the Chicago Marathon:

  • Mile 8: Northalsted is said to be one of the better cheering sections where runners can enjoy an electric crowd that sings and cheers them on as they make their way through the streets of Chicago.
  • Mile 13: The Bank of America Chicago 13.1 Cheer Zone marks the halfway point for runners and has music, food, and drinks to bring people together to cheer for their favorite runners. 
  • Mile 14 and 17: The Greektown Cheer Zone celebrates the Chicago Marathon’s Greek origin and has coffee, pastries, a sign-making station, music, and food on offer. Runners will pass this zone twice at miles 14 and 17, giving supporters a second chance to see their friends or family members running the Chicago Marathon. 
  • Mile 15: The Charity Block Party is where the supporters of charity runners converge to cheer on their teams. Located at Adams and Loomis Street, the Charity Block Party has music and other great festivities that help motivate the runners to see the race through to the end. 
  • Mile 17: Setting up camp outside the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, the Mercy Mile Cheer Zone is a family-friendly zone with many activities to keep the little ones busy. Grab a snack or drink while your children enjoy the bounce house, face painting, caricaturist, balloon artist, and carnival games that make for some good old family fun.
  • Mile 17.5: The UIC Student Cheer Zone.
  • Mile 19: The Pilsen Cheer Zone offers Mexican food and festivities with great energy and crowd support. 
  • Mile 21.5: At the Chinatown Cheer Zone, you can enjoy the sights of a massive colorful dragon dancing in the streets as you listen to great music while cheering on the runners as they make their way to the finish line. This cheer zone is especially popular as it is the last before the runners tackle the final stretch to the finish at Grant Park. 

The Importance of Cheer Zones

Cheer zones and spectator support are crucial for any marathon and help motivate and encourage runners to give it their all as they progress through the course. And while being cheered on by complete strangers might not be everyone’s cup of tea, many thrive on the support.

If you are not running the Chicago Marathon but would like to join in the festivities, consider visiting one of the cheer zones above and having a great time cheering on your favorite runners. 

Qualifying for the Chicago Marathon

Like any other marathon, there are a few qualifying standards you should know if you want to enter the Chicago Marathon. From qualifying times to the different programs available, we have the lowdown on how to claim your spot on the starting line at the next Chicago Marathon. 

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Runners must be 16 years and older.
  • Runners below the age of 18 must have parental consent to enter.
  • There are 45,000 spots available.
  • Entry is completed via a lottery system.
  • Qualifying times are by age group.
  • Runners must complete the race in 6 hours and 30 minutes.
  • Entry opens in late October.

Classes and Cut-Off Times

Qualifying times are different for men and women and are divided into the following age groups:


  • 16 to 29 – 3:05:00
  • 30 to 39 – 3:10:00
  • 40 to 49 – 3:20:00
  • 50 to 59 – 3:35:00
  • 60 to 69 – 4:00:00
  • 70 to 79 – 4:30:00
  • 80+ – 5:25:00


  • 16 to 29 – 3:35:00
  • 30 to 39 – 3:40:00
  • 40 to 49 – 3:50:00
  • 50 to 59 – 4:20:00
  • 60 to 69 – 5:00:00
  • 70 to 79 – 5:55:00
  • 80+ – 6:10:00

Cut-off times help organizers of the Chicago Marathon determine who gets to participate, as the number of entrants is higher than the number of available spots.

Ways to Enter

There are a few ways to get your ticket to participate in the Chicago Marathon other than qualifying and submitting your times with your registration and payment then hope to be drawn. Here are a few other ways to take part:

The Chicago Marathon Charity Program

You can enter the Chicago Marathon by raising money and running for a charity, joining 10,000 charity runners that support 170 local, national, and global charity organizations and causes. To register your charity run, contact the relevant organization for more details. 

International Tour Program

The Chicago Marathon International Tour Program allows runners to participate in the Chicago Marathon by purchasing a tour ticket from a tour company, such as Marathon Tours & Travel, who coordinate logistics and guarantee your entry to each race. The ticket includes all travel costs and entry fees.

The Chicago Marathon Legacy Finisher

This entry is for those athletes who have finished the Chicago Marathon five times or more in the last ten years and is a guaranteed spot on the starting line.

The Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle

The Shamrock Shuffle is an 8k run hosted by the Bank of America. Athletes who have completed the race at least four times since 2008 and have registered for the next one are eligible for entry into the Chicago Marathon. 

Charity Teams and the Chicago Marathon

Fundraising is a big part of the World Marathon Majors, and the Chicago Marathon is no different. Supporting a whopping 170 charities, the Chicago Marathon has raised no less than $292 million for these charities since it introduced its charity teams in 2002. 

From animal welfare to youth development, the charity teams raise much-needed funds for various charities that include the following:

  • St. Judes Children’s Hospital
  • American Red Cross 
  • Advocate Health Care
  • Autism Speaks
  • Back on My Feet
  • A Safe Haven Foundation
  • American Cancer Society
  • Blessons for Women
  • Alive Rescue
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago

To get involved, search for your chosen charity on the event website and contact them directly.

How Does a Charity Entry Work?

To run as part of a charity team, runners must raise a minimum of $1,750 for the charity of their choice. Charities are listed under the following categories on the event website:

  • Advocacy
  • Animal Welfare
  • Social 
  • Military or First Responders
  • Sports
  • Youth Development
  • Environment
  • Education
  • Research

All the charities supported by the Chicago Marathon are non-profit organizations that rely on donations to continue doing their important work. Consider becoming a charity runner and make a difference where it matters most. 

Training for the Chicago Marathon

Now that we have covered the finer details of the history of the marathon, how to enter, and the great work of the charity teams, it’s time to get to the crux of the matter: training for the Chicago Marathon. 

Read any fitness blog or article about marathon running; you will find that they all recommend at least 12 to 24 weeks of training. But, the type of training you choose will impact your performance and endurance when participating in the Chicago Marathon. 

Any marathon requires a runner to focus on speed, strength, and endurance. Let’s look at these in more detail:


Speed is key when participating in a marathon, especially if you want to finish the race with a certain finishing time. Choose a training program that helps you work on your speed as you practice pacing rather than running at full speed. The key to finishing the marathon in your goal time is to set a pace and stick to it for the entire 26.2-mile marathon. 


Strong muscles and bones are key when running in general, but especially when training for and running a marathon. Your training program should contain cross-training and strength sessions to build strong muscles and healthy lungs and heart to improve your V02 max rate. 

Your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen available per kilogram of body weight while running. Improving your VO2 max rate affects your stamina and performance when running and doing other cardiovascular activities.

Running is considered a high-intensity exercise, so choose a low-impact cross-training option like swimming, elliptical training, walking, or cycling to build muscle and tone your body while improving your cardiovascular performance. 


Like speed, endurance is key to a good performance at the Chicago Marathon. Practice intervals while training to improve your endurance and, ultimately, your performance. While having good endurance won’t make running any easier, it allows you to run faster and longer before reaching exhaustion point. This is especially vital for distance running.

How Often Should I Train?

A good marathon training program should consist of four or five days of running, with one day dedicated to a long run, one for speed sessions (interval or tempo runs), and the other two or three for easy runs. The remaining two days should be set aside for one active recovery day (cross-training and strength) and one rest day with no physical exertion. 

Start slowly and increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10% each week. Most training plans will see your long runs make up roughly 35% to 40% of your total weekly mileage.

Set a goal, plan your training schedule according to your goals, and adapt where necessary. If you find your training schedule too intense, make changes where needed, even if this sees an increase in the length of your training schedule.

We highly recommend checking out the training plans on the Chicago Marathon site, as they’re tailored to the race itself.

Do I Need a Running Coach?

Professional runners use running coaches to help them hone their skills and up their running game for a marathon. But, for those running for pure enjoyment or the accolade of having completed a marathon, a downloadable training program could be all you need to start your training journey. 

The Chicago Marathon event website is a hive of information for runners and has several training programs that will suit any skill level. Download the app, or follow the advice of the programs on the website to kickstart your training.

If you feel the online training plans you find don’t suit your needs or you have specific training based on your physical situation, consult with a coach to ensure you aren’t doing any damage.

Races and Training to Help Prepare for the Chicago Marathon

Running a few prep races before the big day will help you get used to running longer distances and prepare you for the rules and regulations of running a race. 

Here are a few ways you can prepare yourself for the Chicago Marathon:

  • Enter a few 5K or 10K races
  • Sign up for the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 8K
  • Join a running or athletics club
  • Join the world of virtual running and compete in virtual runs

These runs allow you to get used to running with others around you, controlling your pace when others may influence your speed, and start and finish line protocol.

Chicago Marathon Race Day Strategies and Tips

It’s race day! The long wait is over, and you are about to head to the starting line with 45,000 runners to compete in one of the world’s most amazing marathons. What should you focus on? And what are the more pertinent things you should know?

Here are a few things you should know about running the Chicago Marathon:

The Weather

October is the second month of Autumn in Chicago and brings moderate temperatures. While there have been instances in the past where the temperatures soared, this occurs far less than you’d imagine, and the weather is generally pleasant along the route of the Chicago Marathon.

But, and this is a big but, Chicago is not called the “Windy City” for nothing, and there is a very real chance that there will be a chilly breeze blowing on race day. However, this has advantages as you can run with the wind, increasing your speed. 

It is best to be prepared, so take a light jacket or sweater that can be tied around the waist when not needed. Choose light fabrics, and be sure to wear comfortable shoes that are well-fitting – these should be the shoes you’ve done your training in. 

Making Good Time

Keeping an eye on your time is easy, thanks to the many electronic time boards scattered along the route of the Chicago Marathon. Usually placed every one to three miles, these boards have the current time and the amount of time that has elapsed. 

The Chicago Marathon has a cut-off time of 6 hours and 30 minutes, so be sure to increase your pace if you find yourself running too slowly.

Before race day, determine a pace suitable for your fitness level. Once you know your pace, stick to it. Ensure you don’t run out the gate too fast, don’t try to bank time, or think you can run faster than what you’ve prepared for.

Where You Should Increase Your Pace

Pacing yourself is always a good idea and will help ensure you do not run too fast, causing fatigue and exhaustion early in the race.

Here is a quick look at when to pace yourself and when to increase your pace:

Start line to 4 miles: Pace yourself. Start slowly, running at a conversational pace, and gradually increase your speed – in other words, warm up into the run. 

5 to 10 miles: Control your pace. If you feel you can push yourself, keep this for later. Do not try running at full speed, as this will significantly impact your endurance and running performance. 

The last 2 miles: Push yourself to run at your top speed and empty the tank. The last few miles are always the hardest, so ensure you have enough energy to get you over that finish line. 

Other Tips You Should Know

Here are a few more helpful tips you should follow to make the most of your experience as you take part in the Chicago Marathon:

Rest, Rest, Rest!

Get a good night’s sleep before race day to ensure that you are well-rested and that your body is ready for the intense workout it is about to get. Try to get at least 12 hours of sleep in the 24 hours before the race (you may need to take a few naps the day before) and eat the same pre-run breakfast you’ve been having through training before making your way to the starting line. 

Download the Official Chicago Marathon App

The app is jam-packed with information for athletes and is where your family and friends can follow your progress while you’re on the course running the marathon. 

Stay Hydrated

There are hydration stations located at various mile markers along the route. Slow down, have a drink, and be on your merry way. Dehydration can set in fairly quickly while running, especially when it’s windy, so regular drink breaks are crucial to sustain your energy and help prevent muscle aches and cramps. 

Have Fun! 

Yes, the Chicago Marathon is intense, but try and enjoy the experience of running in a prestigious and world-renowned marathon. If you’re not a local runner, this may be your only opportunity to participate in this race, so soak it up. Embrace the grind! 

Next Step: Run The Chicago Marathon!

The Chicago Marathon is one of the world’s faster marathons and has earned itself the title of a premier marathon that is a must-run for anyone who enjoys the thrill and sense of achievement of participating in a global event. 

We’ve looked at the history of the Chicago Marathon, how you can qualify, touched on training advice, and provided some great tips you should follow for the best running experience. 

Mary R Wittenberg, former president of the New York Road Runners Club, shares this beautiful advice about marathons: “A marathoner is a marathoner regardless of their finishing time. Almost everyone who runs a marathon has trained over months, and it’s that exercise and commitment, physical and mental, that gives meaning to the medal, not just the day’s effort. It’s all in conquering the challenge.”

All that’s left to do is to grab your running shoes, hit the road for some training, and sign up for the Chicago Marathon. The time is now, so get off the couch and get running! 

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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