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Appreciate The Journey: The Chicago Marathon

5 world records, 45,000 runners, and 1.7 million spectators, almost 120 years of history elevated the Chicago Marathon into the Majors.
Chicago marathon runners pack
The runners pack. Source: Medium

When the International Olympic Committee decided to organize the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, they could have not imagined the rise of sport in mass culture. Among all the disciplines part of the first edition of the games, the marathon, and running more broadly, was the one that spread across the globe. It took only a year for Boston runners to organize the first marathon in their hometown. Chicago followed in 1905.

Since its first edition, the Chicago marathon was a big moment for the local community. More than 100,000 spectators showed up to cheer their fellow Chicagoan Rhud Metzner cross the finish line first at Washington Race Track. Back then, running a marathon was considered a huge sports accomplishment: only 7 runners completed the race out of 12. As we all know this changed quickly during the century.

Usually, drinking alcohol while running is not a thing - unless you are competing in an ultra - but in 1907 and 1908, the Chicago Marathon looked more like a beer mile. In 1907, John Lindquist took the lead while doing whiskey shots but by mile 23 he was falling asleep. The year after, Albert Corey went for champagne and was able to win the race. Reports from those years can’t be fact-checked anymore but we want to believe it.

chicago marathon 1979 runners
Runners from 1979 edition. Source: brightspotcdn

The Chicago Marathon as we know it today unofficially started in 1977, everything before can be considered a prologue. Local runners organizing the race had to juggle between citizens committees and administrative approvals to be able to run along Lake Michigan, an iconic landmark of the city. Thanks to the mayor's support, Richard Daley, they made it happen. Since then the course changed to accommodate the growing amount of runners and ensure the best experience possible. It begins and ends in historic Grant Park, sweeping through 29 diverse and colorful neighborhoods including Lakeview, Greektown, Little Italy, Pilsen, Chinatown, and Bronzeville.

On September 25 at 8 a.m., more than 4,200 runners lined up to run the Daley Marathon, named after the mayor deceased unexpectedly the year before. Back then the entry fee was only $5, raised to $10 the year after. Dan Cloeter and Dorothy Doolittle were the first male and female winners of the Chicago marathon, with times of 2:17:52 and 2:50:47, respectively.

1978 chicago marathon finish line
The 1978 finish line. Source: mychicagoathlete

The first half of the 80s gave a first notoriety boost to the event thanks to important sponsors willing to invest money to attract elite runners. This established the marathon among the big four and as the closest rival to the New York Marathon. Beatrice Foods, the title sponsor at the time, raised the prize money bar to $250,000 in 1984, surpassing New York by $50,000. More money meant a deeper field of elite athletes and faster finishing times that enhanced the event’s reputation. The first of the five world records broken at the Chicago Marathon was run that year by Steve Jones, 2:08:05.

Twenty-six years ago, people looked at the marathon as an ‘extreme experience,’ but now it’s become so mainstream. [The Chicago Marathon is] a traditional weekend that people mark on their calendars, and I think the acceptance of the marathon has changed dramatically. Carey Pinowski, executive race director since 1996
chicago marathon runners 1977
Runners with the Mayor Dailey t-shirt. Source: interactive

This period came to an end in 1987 when Beatrice Foods dropped out as a sponsor. This started a dark era long 7 years. The 1987 edition was canceled and only a half marathon was hosted. For the following 7 years, sponsors came and went without being able to replicate Beatrice’s financial commitment. About 39 years later, that period seems remote. In 1994, the Chicago Marathon found financial stability that fuelled its growth and to maintain its top-tier place in the sport. World records started to be broken again in Chicago: Khalid Khannouchi in 1999 (2:05:42), Catherine Ndereba in 2001 (2:18:47, 2001), and Paula Radcliffe in 2002 (2:17:18).

In 2007, Bank of America became the title sponsor and it has been associated with the marathon since then. The marketing team of the bank was probably behind one of the most curious running events we ever heard of: the CEO Marathon Challenge. The race featured a special competition among the CEOs, presidents, company owners, and C-suite executives of companies with at least $5 million in annual gross revenue. We couldn’t find any footage on the internet - send us if you have any. We take Zuckerberg over Musk for this one, by the way.

chicago marathon fire fighters truck
Runners fighting the heat. Source: brightspotcdn

The Chicago Marathon is famous for its unpredictable weather conditions. During the years its date has been moved around between spring and autumn trying to find the perfect spot in the calendar. Rain, hail, wind, extreme cold, and extreme heat. In 1999, the temperature dropped below 0 degrees to -2 degrees Celsius. The 2007 edition remained in the books for its extreme heat, around 32 degrees Celsius. 10,000 runners decided not to start and by 11:30 am the race was interrupted and canceled because of the heat.

The marathon's success went hand in hand with the rise of running as a mass sport and finishing a marathon became a realistic goal for everyone. In 2008, the marathon reached its actual capacity of 45,000 runners and 1.7 million on-course spectators, testifying to how much the event is rooted in the city culture after almost 120 years. In 2011 the race went sold out in 31 days and the current lottery system was introduced in 2014. Keep your eyes open if you want to enter the lottery - no qualifying time is needed.

Brigid Kosgei chicago marathon 2019
Brigid Kosgei crossing the finish line in 2019. Source: NYT

The casual fan might think that the Chicago marathon lost part of its competitiveness since the early 00s but this is far from reality. Denis Kimetto holds the fastest time with 2:03:45 since 2013, Eliud Kipchoge won in 2014, Galen Rupp won in 2017 15 years after the last American and Mo Farah won the year after. Even more important, Brigid Kosgei ran the current female world record in 2019 (2:14:04) and Ruth Chepngetich came very close last year in 2:14:18 to seal off her second win in Chicago.

So if you are not running this weekend be sure to put your name in the lottery for next year. Become a true Chicagoan - at least for one day.


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