Is Chicago The Fastest Marathon In America?

Contrary to popular belief, the Chicago Marathon is not perfectly suited to fast running. But no marathon is, and Chicago comes closer than most.

The Chicago Marathon has a reputation as a fast marathon, and it is a reputation it has earned—at the elite level, at least. In the 1984 race, Welshman Steve Jones set a world record of 2:08:05, and the following year he ran almost a minute faster, although his 2:07:13 clocking was just one second shy of Carlos Lopes’ new world standard. In that same race, Joan Benoit Samuelson ran the second-fastest women’s marathon in history: 2:21:21.

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Sponsorship issues resulted in reduced prize money and lesser elite talent over the next decade, but in 1997 the Chicago Marathon came roaring back when Khalid Khannouchi set a new course record of 2:07:10. The following year, Kenya’s Ondoro Osoro lowered the mark to 2:06:54, and in 1999 Khannouchi smashed the world record in Chicago, running 2:05:42.

Until this time, no major women’s records had been set in the Chicago Marathon, but that changed in 2001 when Catherine Ndereba of Kenya became the first sub-2:19 performer in history, running 2:18:47. That mark lasted all of one year. Britain’s Paula Radcliffe took the standard all the way down to 2:17:18 in the 2002 race, beating all but a handful of men.

It’s not only the elites that come to Chicago in search of fast times. Each year thousands of competitive age-group runners also come to Chicago hoping to set new PR’s. But is the Chicago Marathon really the most PR-friendly fall marathon in America? Here are the pros and cons to consider before you set your sights on breaking your PR in Chicago.

PRO: Flat Course

The first requirement of a PR-friendly marathon is that its racecourse be very flat. It doesn’t have to be completely flat, but the flatter the better, and the Chicago Marathon is certainly flat. It starts at 600 feet of elevation, ends at 601 feet, never drops below 575 feet and never climbs above 602 feet. You really won’t find a flatter marathon course anywhere.

CON: Too Many People

With 45,000 runners, the Chicago Marathon is one of the largest in the world. The problem with that, from a speed perspective, is that it takes forever to get moving at the start. Faster runners are helped by a seeding system, based on recent marathon or half marathon finish time, which places the top 12,000 runners in corrals positioned close to the start line. Also, the use of timing chips helps all runners, as your personal clock does not start until you reach the start line, even if that is 10 minutes after the gun goes off.

However, the Chicago Marathon is so darn crowded that unless you are fortunate enough to start in one of the top corrals, you may have to shuffle along in a dense crowd for half a mile or more after crossing the start line before you are able to accelerate to your goal pace. That hindrance alone could mean the difference between setting and missing a PR.

PRO: Lots of Fast Runners

It’s not just the course that makes a marathon fast but the runners on it. Runners tend to run their best when they are pushed along by others of similar ability. The Carlsbad 5000 is known as the world’s fastest 5K, but its course is actually not all that flat. What makes it so fast is that so many fast runners participate in it, and show up in top form.

Similarly, it is in part Chicago’s very reputation as a PR-friendly course that makes it a fast race. No matter how good you are, you will have plenty of other runners around you to push you along through the streets of the Windy City, whereas in many other marathons, if you are running sub-3:00 pace you may find yourself alone in the later miles.

CON: Unpredictable Weather

The Chicago Marathon is held on the second Sunday in October, and at that time of year, especially in the morning (the race starts at 7:30 AM), the weather is usually cool and conducive to fast running. But once every four years or so, Mother Nature throws a major impediment in the way of runners’ performance goals. In 1989, fierce winds thwarted the field. In 1993, snow and a wind chill of 12 degrees slowed things down. And in 2007, the weather became so hot that the race was officially cancelled 90 minutes after it started.

Nobody set a PR that year!

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