There are six World Marathon Majors: Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York. I’ve been fortunate in my amateur running career to have crossed the finish line in both the New York City (2013) and Chicago (2014) marathons so far. Although both are famous for being among the best races in the world, they are very different experiences. If you have been debating between entering the NYC or Chi lotteries, here are a few comparisons that may help you make a decision.
In NYC, security was very tight, which was understandable after the 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy. Once inside, it was well-organized. The exhibitors (and there were tons of them) had developed and offered many race-specific merchandise items for runners, which gave the event a special touch.
At Chicago, security at the exhibit hall was minimal, yet there was a detailed process for checking identification of runners for bib pick-up. This expo also had a great number of vendors who created a fun environment for everyone.
Having to catch a 4:30 a.m. shuttle to Staten Island to then stand in the cold for hours to wait for the start of the NYC race was a horrible experience. Security restrictions did not allow runners to bring bags to the starting corrals. With gear check only offered long before we needed to be in the corrals, I didn’t bring a bag. Although free coffee, water, and snacks were provided, I really needed to eat a breakfast that my body was familiar with. The energy right before the race was incredible, but the other pre-race factors made this my least favorite part of NYC.
In Chicago, runners were able to walk from local lodging or use public transportation to easily arrive to the start area. There were multiple entrances based on your corral location, stations for runner items you may have forgotten to bring, and a very well-organized gear check. Snacks, water, and Gatorade were available, as well as some amazing photo opportunities with the Chicago landscape in the background. It didn’t feel rushed, nor like I was waiting forever.
Both New York and Chicago offer incredible courses for marathoners. The neighborhoods traversed in both cities highlighted their own rich traditions and personalities. The NYC course winds through all five boroughs, and a designated runner from each borough race each other in the Five-Borough Challenge. While NYC is a challenging and hilly course, Chicago is incredibly flat. The Chi course starts and finishes in Millennium and Grant Parks, and takes runners through River North, Old Town, Lake View East, West Loop, Little Italy, University Village, Pilsen, Chinatown, and South Loop. Both races had runners participating from around the world, but the national pride exhibited in the New York City marathon was unparalleled and added a special element to the race experience.
Over one-million people lined the streets of these two courses to cheer for and support runners. While the NYC crowds were often 6 layers deep, Chicago spectators covered every inch of the course as well. The connection between spectators and runners felt more personal in Chicago. This is likely due to the security measures taken in New York City, where barriers separated the crowd from the runners. In Chicago kids could step out to give high fives, and adults handed out additional snacks and beverages to keep us going.
New York has an elaborate finish area in Central Park. Runners who opted out of gear check, like me, were fortunate enough to receive a race warming jacket (not the typical heat sheet) and an early exit area from the chute. It was very crowded and took a long time to get to the family reunion area, though.
Chicago was a little less hectic in the finish area and their system for providing medals, water, etc. seemed to go a tad smoother. Each runner received two Goose Island beers, one in the finish chute and another at the Finish Party (where they could meet spectator friends and celebrate together). Again, there was an early exit for those who didn’t use gear check, but exiting and finding friends was easy either way.
Overall, both New York City and Chicago are memorable marathons that every runner should experience at least once. After running them both, I consider NYC a once-in-a-lifetime amazing experience, and Chicago the race I would run again and again if I’m lucky enough to win a lottery spot or hit a qualifying time.
To read more stories from Andy, check out his profile on our Contributors page.