Tips for Spectating the Chicago Marathon

Note: This has been updated for 2013.

I spectated a couple races (both as a spectator and a “pacer”) and have a few tips. If you’re planning to spectate the Chicago Marathon, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Do your research. The Chicago Marathon has a whole section of their web site for spectators, so read up. The most important information is the list of spectator viewing areas accessible by CTA train. If you know someone (perhaps your runner) with a CTA Chicago Card or Ventra, borrow it for race day and use the L to get around the city. If not, and you’re not familiar with taking the L in Chicago, read up on riding the CTA.

Make a plan. Talk to your runner about their pace, and take a look at the course map and the CTA station list, and plan on where (and when) you will be on the course spectating. While planning your spectating “stations” keep in mind you won’t be able to easily cross the race course. (Unless you are willing jump in the race and run for a block while you make your way from one side of the street to the other.) The only spots that I am familiar with are Kinzie and Illinois Streets, just north of the river – those streets go under or over other streets.

Give your runner a specific description of where you will be – give your runner an intersection, and let them know which side of the street you will be on. (If you can tell them “left” or “right” that will be easier than saying “west” or “east.” We get a little delirious while running. Throw us a bone.) Keep in mind that the closer you are to an L station, and/or downtown, the more crowded it will be.

If you know your runner’s pace, check out this handy-dandy Google Spreadsheet I made. Just type in your expected pace (fastest and slowest) and your expected start time, and it will update with a “window” of time that you’ll pass each mile marker. I also noted the nearest L stop to each mile marker. (I like spreadsheets.) 

My suggested spectator itinerary for my husband and my parents – even if they only hit half of these, that’s a lot of spectating: 

  1. Head to Mile 2 – Jackson & State. Crowds will be crazy but since you’ll be in the Loop, worth a shot to try. 
  2. Take the Red Line north to Belmont, walk east to Broadway (near mile 8)
  3. Take the Brown Line south to Quincy/Wells, walk west to Franklin/Adams (near mile 12.5)
  4. Walk south and west to the Clinton Blue Line, take the Blue Line west to Racine (near mile 16)
  5. Take the Blue Line back east to Jackson, transfer to Red Line.
  6. Take the Red Line south to Chinatown, walk west to Wentworth (near mile 21.5)
  7. Walk east to Michigan Ave via Cermak (near mile 25)
  8. Take the Red Line north south to Roosevelt – walk east to Grant Park / finish – Find me in Charity Village

Note: The red line is closed south of Roosevelt due to construction. You’ll have to find a different way to/from Chinatown if you want to view there. 

Also note: My parents did not follow this itinerary. I ended up seeing them in Old Town (near the Brown Line – Sedgewick stop), Greektown (near the Blue Line – Halsted stop) and on Michigan Ave about a mile from the finish.  

Figure out how you’re going to get there and get around. For some races, driving to a point (or many points) on the course is possible. For a major marathon in the middle of a huge city? Trains are best. If you drive, even if you plan to park in one spot and take public transit from there, you have to deal with road closures and traffic (and expensive parking). If you take the bus, you might still be re-routed and still delayed by traffic. The train may be crowded, but it won’t be re-routed or slowed down. If you do plan to drive, look up road closures and figure out in advance where you will park.

Make yourself noticeable. Find a way to stand out on the sidelines – carry a balloon (filled with helium of course), or a sign, or a life-size photo of your runner, or wear a goofy hat. (I can’t believe I’m actually suggesting this, but I think my husband should wear his cheesehead.) Make sure your runner knows what you will be wearing and/or carrying.

Dress for the weather. Your runner has probably already started weather-stalking. You just need to check the weather in advance, and dress accordingly. Be sure to check the weather at the times you plan to start and finish spectating. Wear layers. It gets warm once the sun comes out.

Dress for comfort. You’re going to be doing a lot of standing. Wear comfortable shoes. 

Don’t forget sun protection. You’re going to be standing outside for hours. Wear a hat and/or sunglasses, and definitely sunscreen!

Bring extras for your runner. Ask your runner in advance if there is anything they would like you to carry “just in case.” Pretzels, handiwipes (wiping sweat off your face over and over means your hands get pretty gross pretty fast), a towel, vaseline/Body Glide, extra GU/shot bloks/etc, extra bottle of water, band-aids, pain killers, safety pins – every runner is different and has different needs, but it is likely there are a couple things that could feel like a lifesaver if you had it with you when they were hitting mile 20.

Bring water and snacks for yourself. Unless your runner is an elite, you might be out there for 3-6 hours. Bring water and snacks for yourself, or some money to buy food along the way (stores might be closed and lines might be long).

Bring necessities. Cash, ID, cell phone, transit card, and most importantly … A CAMERA! Your runner will love to have photos of them in the race without watermarks all over it.

Track your runner. Many large races offer runner tracking, either by text or through the race’s web site. The Chicago Marathon offers both (sign up now for Chicago Marathon text alerts; check the web site on race day for live runner updates). In my experience, the text alerts are delayed, but the web site tracking is updated pretty quickly. If you have a smartphone, bring it, and check runner updates via browser app. Otherwise, some local McDonald’s restaurants will have runner update stations.

If you’re planning to jump in the race for a few miles – All of the above, plus: 

Dress in layers. You’re going to heat up. Wear sweat-wicking fabrics. Pull your hair back. Basically, dress like you are going for a run, but add an extra layer for warmth – a light jacket or arm warmers or something else you can easily remove and tie around your waist/tuck into your shorts/pants.

Carry a small wearable bag. A lot of races (such as 13.1 and Rock ‘n’ Roll) have been giving away draw-string backpacks. They are a little bit cumbersome to run with, but are your best bet while running if you need to have stuff on you that you can’t easily leave in the car (and retrieve when necessary).


Cubicle Dad’s Dad also has some spectating tips.

Any other suggestions?


Chicago Marathon 10.10.10
Be ready for some crowds. 40,000 runners = lots more spectators.
Chicago Marathon 10.10.10
Jumping in the 2010 Chicago Marathon with my cousin


  • Keren
    3 October, 2012 - 9:04 am | Permalink

    This is amazing!! I am printing a copy for my spectator :) and calculating my over/under in your spreadsheet. I made a spreadsheet yesterday but this one out classes mine by quite a bit!
    good luck to you on Sunday!!

  • 3 October, 2012 - 11:32 am | Permalink

    These are some great ideas!!! There is an art to being a good spectator and these tips help get you there!! :)

  • 3 October, 2012 - 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Nice tips. That’s a very handy spreadsheet. I hope I can hit all of the stops and the correct times! :-) One tip to the spectators: “more cowbell”.

  • 3 October, 2012 - 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Awesome tips! I usually take the orange line to 18th and Halsted, and then head to Michigan for mile 25. My friend Laura always brings a jar of Vaseline, which at first, I deemed disgusting, but in past years, SO MANY RUNNERS practically kiss her for having it handy…

  • 4 October, 2012 - 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Great tips!!! This post made me realize how unprepared I was for spectating (umm my plan of “just wandering around the track” doesn’t sound so good now…).

    The countdown is nearing the end, I’m excited for you!

  • 6 October, 2012 - 3:51 pm | Permalink

    These are such great tips! I shared them with my husband and I also posted a link to this entry on my own blog so that I can easily come back to refer to it!!!

    Until you mentioned it, I never thought about having my spectators hold emergency items for me but it is SUCH a good idea!!!

  • Pingback: A Librarian Researches on How To Spectate the Chicago Marathon | Once Upon A Run

  • Leave a Reply