Spectating in Chicago: #ChicagoMarathon 2017

Even though I’ve now lived in Chicago for a few years, it still blows my mind that major national and international events happen here with some frequency. Events that show up in major newspapers and get covered extensively on national and international news. Except now they are close enough to where I live that I can sometimes actually see them in person without a whole lot of logistical challenge. Oh, the Chicago Marathon will be happening this weekend? Cool. Let’s just hop on the L and head over to Lakeview to catch a glimpse of some OLYMPIC MEDALISTS AND RECORD-HOLDERS PASSING THROUGH TOWN, NO BIGGIE!

Truly, you know you are a running geek when you wake up before dawn in an attempt to catch the world-class runners at miles 8-9 of a marathon. I have watched races before, usually to cheer on friends who are running at mere mortal pace, but have never been there early enough to see the true elites. Truth be told, I was so excited for this that I actually woke up a few minutes before my alarm clock, which basically never happens except maybe Christmas morning.

[Image: Sun just barely peeking over the horizon in a clear sky over Lake Michigan] I am a complete night owl, so this sight is not one I see with any kind of frequency.
While the weather was a little hotter than ideal for running, it was perfect for spectating. We got to Lakeview around 7:30, which fortunately gave us a few minutes before the action happened, unless you count “action” as being “watching unsuspecting cars accidentally turn onto the course (after first driving the wrong way down a one-way street!!!) and get yelled at by the police and course marshals.” Which in that case we did have a little bit!

Soon enough, though, we saw the lead police cars and motorcycles, with the first pack of wheelchair racers close behind in formation. So many people think races are boring to watch, but I guarantee these people have never seen a live, major marathon. Seeing the first group of athletes barreling down the street, for every division (wheelchair, men, women, and then the masses), was nothing short of humbling and inspiring.

The first pack of wheelchair racers pass by in a blur. Somewhere in this photo is the men’s wheelchair division winner Marcel Hug.
The lead pack–men’s division. If you zoom in and look really closely, you can see the head and orange shoes of this year’s men’s winner Galen Rupp.

NOTE: I had every intention of getting a picture of the women’s lead pack, but I was too busy trying to spot the favorite Tirunesh Dibaba (today’s winner for the women) and Jordan Hasay (3rd place finisher today and now second-fastest ever American woman marathoner) to actually have time to take the picture by the time they had already passed by. Mea culpa!

As a rec runner, it is mind-boggling to see the elites in the flesh, running as fast as they are and making it look so effortless. Their biomechanics, and strides are nearly flawless. No hip wobble whatsoever, no extraneous bobbing or arm motions, beautiful efficiency and economy. They looked like they were out on a casual Sunday long run, barely breaking a sweat, except then you realized they were nearly keeping pace with the lead car, i.e., an actual car (with a digital time display mounted to the back) that was doing more than just idling along.

Gradually, more and more runners started filling the course. Behind the elites were the sub-3:00 folks, and what surprised me most was just how big a contrast there was in terms of number of people on the course between sub-3:00 and 3:00. When the 3:00 pace group appeared, it was almost visually like the start of another race all at once.

[Image: thin group of runners coming down the street] Still the sub-3:00 crowd, but not quite at the level of “keeping up with the lead car.” Obviously still very, very respectable athletes.
[Image: much more robust crowd of runners coming down the street] The ~3:00 crowd, per the pacer’s sign roughly in the center of this photo. We are now solidly in “mere mortal” territory, but still faster than most people will ever be.
And the crowd of runners just kept coming from there, never noticeably thinning out the entire time we stayed, which we did until we saw some of the 4:30-ers, then decided to call it a wrap.

By the time I got home, all I wanted to do was go on a run, inspired by seeing so many fantastic runners of all shapes, sizes, and speeds in today’s Chicago Marathon. I’m not quite ready to take on the distance just yet, but after today, I will admit the siren song of the marathon is calling me just a bit more loudly and insistently than before. Someday I will do it, and maybe even in Chicago. But no matter what, it will be far, far behind the lead car!