Chicago Marathon: The inside track

Former winner Josh George gives us a racer-eye view of the famous route ahead of Sunday’s showdown

a male wheelchair racer crosses the finish line Josh George has won the Chicago Marathon four times © • Getty Images

The USA’s Josh George is a four-time winner of the Chicago Marathon. Here the 33-year-old, who won the world marathon title in 2015, talks us through the intricacies of the 26.2mile race in Chicago, USA, which takes place on Sunday (8th October).

"Every October marathoners from across the globe are blown into the Windy City for the Chicago Marathon.

As racers begin to trickle in throughout the week, the cloud of nervous energy in the hotel lobby grows thicker. Athletes who haven’t raced each other in a marathon since April exchange greetings, enquire about families back home, and furtively prod for signs of how their competitors are performing.

The tell-tale signs that we are on the brink of a big race are in the air. Kurt Fearnley’s hearty laugh echoes through the hallways; Ernst Van Dyk can be found holding court every morning in the hotel lobby.

The growing crowd of terrifyingly fast Japanese racers, and the propensity of orange and blue, as the team from University of Illinois, led by Adam Bleakney, doubles the field of wheelchair racers. And, if you are in the right place at the right time, a Marcel Hug sighting. Rarely seen in the lead up to the race, though his ghost is ever present in any race strategy.

Unless you hail from Switzerland, this year’s Chicago Marathon, the third race in the Abbott World Marathon Majors Series XI, is of crucial importance.

Manuela Schar has a commanding lead in the series after dominant wins in London and Berlin, and her countryman Hug, last year’s Series X winner, secured his lead with an impressive victory in Berlin. Chicago is the world’s chance to respond and it is a race for the masses.

As the racers warm up on Columbus Drive on Sunday morning, the sun slowly crawling out of Lake Michigan to show the way, they will be preparing to navigate a serpentine city course tailormade for large packs and all the scary turns, tactical surges, and occasional mass confusion that they bring.

Much like the London Marathon, it starts fast. After a short climb over the Chicago River, racers scream down Columbus Drive into a hard right-hand turn.

Without fail, I spend the early part of every Chicago Marathon struggling to keep my breakfast down as I dodge potholes and hang on tight to avoid being spat out the back of a pack led by racers insistent on thinning the field in the first 10km.

In the long straight sections through the middle of the race, you can typically find Tatyana McFadden, last seen with a huge smile and “happy to be here” attitude at the pre-race dinner, has now been transformed into a three-wheeled beast with a distaste for pack finishes, hunting for any opportunity to surge and drop the field.

The men have a beast of a different sort on their hands. The long flat sections of the Chicago Marathon can lull a pack to sleep; the chaos of the start settles, and the stomach-inverting intensity of the finish is still miles away.

However, with the depth of the field increasingly annually, a pack of 15-plus racers will always be at risk of sneak attacks. While those mid-race surges are rarely likely to do more than shed a few racers off the back of the pack, if you are not careful you will find yourself working much too hard before the final 5km in a race that is ONLY about those last few precious kilometres.

Long, smooth, and straight, you turn onto Michigan Avenue with just under 5km left in the race. Here is where the real race begins. With four lanes to play with, the pack begins to flatten out. The finish of the Chicago Marathon is one of the most intense in the world.

After 3km of build-up on Michigan Avenue, the course takes a hard right onto Roosevelt Road and the hardest climb of the day, up and over a bridge spanning a set of railroad tracks, before plummeting to an off-camber left hand turn on Columbus Drive for a furious 200m sprint to the finish. THIS is what decides the race, and even if your nickname is the Silver Bullet you damn well better have good position coming into the bridge and be within spitting distance of first place when you make that left turn - or you can kiss sweet victory goodbye.

Chicago is for the masses. A racer with smarts and the guts to take a risk can upset the balance of power, and just possibly, put some Series XI pressure on our current leaders."