I signed up for the Chicago Half Marathon about six weeks or so before the race…. and then about two seconds after I finished registering, I realized that I had already signed up for Storm the Stadium, which was the day before. 6000 step stair climb on Saturday and then a half marathon on Sunday? Bring it…. I’ll write another post about the experience of doing back to back races like that soon. For now though, I wanted to focus on the half marathon itself.
Despite the crazy weekend schedule, I ended up being really happy that I signed up for this race. It wasn’t the first time I’ve done it (I did it last year and also all the way back in 2006 when it was still called the Banco Popular Chicago Half Marathon), so I pretty much already knew what to expect: The course starts near the Museum of Science and Industry on the far south side of Chicago, where runners do a small 5K loop through the Hyde Park area before heading out onto Lake Shore Drive and running north until about mile 8 (with awesome views of the Chicago skyline, I might add) and then across an overpass and back south towards the finish line which is also close to the museum. The course really hasn’t changed much over the years (I think the first one I did went through the neighborhoods a little more and spent a little less time on Lake Shore Drive but it was a long time ago and I honestly don’t remember and either way it was still pretty close to what it is now)…. I really like this race a lot though and other than a few minor tweaks, I hope it never changes.
Here are some of my favorite things about the Chicago Half Marathon:
It attracts a decent sized crowd but it’s still not huge. There were somewhere between 7000 and 8000 people who ran either the marathon or the 5K that was also offered this year. So it has a big enough group of runners to be a good sized race, but it’s not so crowded that runners feel boxed in and claustrophobic for the first couple miles like in some of the other big races around the city.
It’s a different route than most of the other Chicago races. There are a lot of really well known races in Chicago that start around Grant Park and head through the loop or south on Lake Shore Drive, etc… and a lot of others that are up in the Montrose Harbor area… and these are all great races. I do a lot of them every year as well… but it’s also nice to do a Chicago race with a course that’s completely separate from the others. The northernmost point of this course, which is the turnaround on the 31st street bridge at Mile 8, is still further south than the southernmost point of most other races and running it gives people a different view of the city and exposes them to new areas that they might not get to see otherwise.
It’s on the south side. This is kind of along the same lines as my last point, and I also have a feeling that this is what keeps this race from getting too crowded. If anyone who lives on the north side of the city or in the North Suburbs writes a review of this race, my guess is that they’ll talk about how inconvenient the location is and what a pain it is to get to…. and I can totally see that point of view. I grew up on the south side though and I currently live in the south suburbs so I love being able to drive to the start line in under 30 minutes… and the view of the Skyline that runners see when heading north on Lake Shore Drive is the view that I grew to love when I was younger.
The time of year is perfect. The race is always in September right after the temperatures finally start to cool off and on this year in particular, the weather couldn’t have been more beautiful. The temperature was in the high 50’s at the start of the race and only warmed up to the low 70’s. It was sunny and there were times when but not humid.
The course is nice and flat and fast. Even after doing Storm the Stadium the day before, between the flat course and the mild temperatures, I was still able to cruise through the first 10 miles of this race without even noticing that my legs were sore. I’ve written before that the toughest races usually make for the best memories later, but it’s also nice to have an easier one every once in a while and considering what my last few races were like (Anchorage Alaska – super hilly with driving wind and rain, Rock n Roll Chicago, which was milder than most years but still really humid, and Rock n Roll Virginia Beach, Which was 90 degrees with 100% humidity), I really needed one like this.
For the size and location of this race, there’s a lot more crowd support than you would expect. This is surprising considering that the majority of the course is on Lake Shore Drive, but there are a pretty decent number of people who come out to watch this race and cheer on the runners. There are a couple dead spots here and there but the biggest crowds are exactly where they’re needed – from about mile 10.5 through the end of the race, when runners are feeling the most tired and worn out, the street is lined with spectators reminding them that they’re in the home stretch.
Lastly, I have special memories of this race. I don’t know if this will necessarily convince anyone to sign up for it, but it does underscore my last couple points about the course being nice and flat with generally mild weather: When I did this race in 2006, it was the first time I broke 2 hours in a half marathon….. and I’ll always remember my finishing time because it was exactly 1:59:59 lol. If you’re looking for a half marathon PR, this is definitely a good course to shoot for it.
So all that being said, there are a few things I would change about this race if I could (most of these are pretty minor):
The expo itself isn’t bad, but I would move it to a different location. It’s always at Navy Pier where parking is expensive and there’s always so much other stuff going on at Navy Pier that it can be hard to fight your way through the crowds, etc…. McCormick Place Lakeside Center would be a better location – closer to the location of the actual race itself with better parking and fewer crowds….
It’s always hard to find good parking on race morning…. If you get there super early, you can park in the garages at the Museum of Science and Industry and there are a few school lots in the area that you can pay to park in…. otherwise you have to park on the streets in the surrounding neighborhoods. This year I ended up parking near the University of Chicago and walking about a mile to get to the start line. The problem really isn’t parking itself as much as the area not really being designed to handle a lot of traffic in general, so a lot of the streets near the start line start to back up an hour or so before the race leaving people scrambling to find a spot to park once they’re finally able to get close. I don’t think there’s much that can be done about this, but I do think that the shuttle bus stops can be laid out a little bit better. There are a couple downtown shuttles, but it also probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to take advantage of the US Cellular Field Parking Lots since they’re so close by and offer shuttle service from there.
Like I said though, those things are minor. The race itself is excellent and even if the expo and parking situations didn’t change, I would still do it again and recommend it to other people.
Over the last couple years, the race organizers have started building a series that includes this race along with the Chicago Spring Half Marathon in May and the Chicago 13.1 Half Marathon in June along with extra medals and awards for people who do different combinations of them. The Chicago Half Marathon will definitely be on my list again next year and I might have to look at some of the other races in the series as well.