For Speed, Chicago’s Marathon Is Second to None

The Chicago Marathon means business.

That’s how Ben Rosario sees it. Rosario, the head coach of the Northern Arizona Elite training group is sending two athletes to race in Chicago Sunday, and they are all going for the same reason.

“People go to run fast,” Rosario said over coffee in Flagstaff, Ariz., where his athletes live and train at 7,000 feet above sea level to maximize their oxygen-rich red blood cell levels.

Rosario, of course, was talking about the best marathoners in the country, some of whom are in his training group. But he could have been speaking for many of the thousands of lay runners who will toe the starting line Sunday, and thousands more who plan to run the race in the future.

The New York City Marathon has marketed itself as the world’s marathon, bringing in tens of thousands of international runners to the city’s biggest block party. The Boston Marathon has positioned itself as the most prestigious marathon in the world, a Super Bowl for amateur runners where meeting the race’s stringent qualifying standard provides a lifetime of bragging rights to runners of all ages. And the Chicago Marathon has become known as the racetrack — where runners go looking for their best performance.

How a Midwestern marathon became a speed destination for elites and first-time marathoners alike is a tale of turns, and a 1985 race. More on that in a bit.

As many racers prepare for speed in Chicago, across the world, should the conditions align, Eliud Kipchoge is attempting another kind of distance record. The current men’s world-record holder is waiting for the ideal moment to try to break the two-hour barrier for the marathon distance marathon in an event called the ‘INEOS 1:59 Challenge.’ Kipchoge tried this two years ago in Italy and missed by 26 seconds, He will be on another flat, fast course in Vienna, and he will have 40 of the top distance runners in the world pacing him, but his venture, amazing as it might be, will not be recognized as a world record, which has to happen during an actual race and comply with several other parameters that track and field’s world governing body has set.

Chicago meets all of those, and though Kipchoge’s world record for men of 2:01:39, set last year in Berlin, appears safe for now, race organizers have their eyes on Brigid Kosgei, the 2018 defending women’s champion from Kenya. Kosgei, 25, ran a blazing half-marathon at the Great North Run in September in northern England, where she finished in 1:04:28. She also won the 2019 London Marathon with a time of 02:18:20. She ran the second half of that race in a searing 66:42.

Now she is hungry for a record in Chicago, either a course record or women’s world record if conditions allow it, and those conditions are shaping up to be fairly ideal, with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s. She may not be ready for a crack at Paula Radcliffe’s world record of 2:15:25, set in 2003 in London, but Radcliffe’s course record of 2:17:18 appears vulnerable.

“There’s such a tradition of women doing historic things here,” said Carey Pinkowski, race director for the Chicago Marathon.

That is hardly an accident. A fast marathon demands the right altitude, 26.2 miles of relatively flat or downhill roads, and weather that is as predictable as possible. Pinkowski had two of the three going for him when he was designing the course a few decades ago. He first looked for ways to keep runners close to downtown in the Windy City while keeping them away from the wind.

Pinkowski, who has been at the helm of the marathon for close to three decades, mapped the course in a cloverleaf formation. Runners weave through 29 neighborhoods, but they don’t run in one direction for more than a few miles before turning. That way, he said, strong gusts off Lake Michigan can only derail performances by so much and runners are likely to spend as much time running with the wind as against it.

To be known as a fast course though, the performances had to match the expectations. Pinkowski credits a group of elite women for providing the proof.

In 1984, Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first Olympic women’s marathon in 2:24:52 and set the running world aflame. She entered the Chicago marathon the next year and set both an American record and a course record with a time of 2:21:21.

That record stood for 18 years, during which the U.S. went through a second running boom as marathon participation skyrocketed.

In 2001, Samuelson’s record was broken by Catherine Ndereba, who finished in 2:18:47. Samuelson ran with some 7,562 runners in 1985. Ndereba finished in a field of 28,830. Paula Radcliffe lowered the world record time the following year in Chicago, running 2:17:18.

Those times sent a message: If you want to run fast, whatever fast means to you, come to Chicago.

Despite a field of 40,000 — among the largest in the world — Chicago’s logistics are relatively simple. The majority of athletes walk to the start line, which is in the same location as the finish line. If there’s inclement weather, runners can huddle in nearby hotel lobbies.

The marathon has a team of more than 100 pacers — runners who volunteer to lead groups of people through the marathon as a reliable metronome. They are expected to hit an even pace and finish within one minute of their goal time, said Paul Miller, the pace team coordinator for the Chicago Marathon. The pacers are assigned to goals anywhere from a finish time of 5 hours 45 minutes to a sub 3-hour marathon.

The race also helps assign pacers to the professionals, which is not always easy considering many professionals run at speeds that are impossibly fast to match. “The first time with Paula we couldn’t find anyone,” Pinkowski said of Radcliffe.

Now that men and women race together, it’s easier to find a pacer that can keep up with a someone going for a world record.

Rosario’s crew from Flagstaff aren’t in that category, but they have their own reasons to want to run the country’s fastest major marathon.

Stephanie Bruce and Scott Smith are both running Chicago for their first time, and it will likely be their last marathons before the Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta. The race could provide a nice confidence boost heading into one of the most anticipated Olympic Trials Marathons in years.

“I had heard if you want a fast, flat course with local Chicago communities cheering their heads off, you have to race the Bank of America Chicago Marathon,” Bruce said Thursday.

Smith had a disappointing day in New York last year, where he failed to break 2:17. He’s hoping for better results on Chicago’s pancake-flat course.

“Having paced a teammate here last year, I got to see how fast this course can be if conditions cooperate,” Smith said days before the race. “Now that the race is almost here, it looks like conditions will be good enough to still attack that goal.”