Spectator Guide: Chicago

Updated: January 29, 2007, 5:39 PM ET
By Bryan Williams | Special to ESPN Travel

With its flat course, brisk weather and no qualifying requirements, the Chicago Marathon (to be held Sun., Oct. 22 this year) is a favorite among distance-running newbies, and its party atmosphere (not to mention free beer for finishers) only adds to its appeal. More than one million fans turn out on the Windy City's streets to cheer on the runners as they make sweeps out from the downtown core -- the Loop -- to diverse surrounding neighborhoods to the north, west and south. Here's a spectator's guide:

Miles 1-3: Grant Park to the Loop
What better place for 40,000 competitors to begin their day on the road than in Chicago's front yard? On the shores of Lake Michigan, sprawling Grant Park isn't just a center of recreation and quiet retreat for Chicagoans; it also includes the Taste of Chicago and the Chicago Blues Festival among its attractions in hosting many of the city's most popular events, and on this day, it is home to both the start and finish lines for the Chicago Marathon.

From the northern end of Grant Park, behind the Art Institute of Chicago, the runners swarm northward through a newly redeveloped section called Millennium Park and into the city streets. Despite the huge field, there is no staggered start. The wheelchair racers begin first at 7:55 a.m., followed by the runners just five minutes later at 8 a.m. They will traverse the Chicago River three times over the first three miles, following a meandering zigzag pattern as they make their way west from the park.

After an initial sojourn up Columbus Drive, the route turns briefly west on Grand Avenue, then south on State Street for approximately one mile, passing the Chicago Theater, Marshall Field's and entering the heart of the city's downtown business district known as the Loop. The Chicago Transit Authority's "El" train has red-line stations all along State Street, making this an ideal first stop for fans who want to see the marathon at various stages. The back-and-forth nature of the course makes it easy to see several points in the race with minimal effort. A spectator beginning at the corner of State and Grand, for example, could see the runners pass Mile 1, then needs only to walk three blocks west to see them at Mile 3, then another block to see them at Mile 12.

Continuing within the Loop, the race turns west on Jackson Street, then north on LaSalle Street right in front of the Chicago Board of Trade. Less than a mile later, the runners cross the Chicago River for the third time, leaving the Loop behind and beginning a circuitous tour of the North Side.

Miles 4-8: Chicago River to Wrigleyville
The route proceeds north on LaSalle, passing the art galleries and restaurants of River North and the luxury high-rises of the Gold Coast before entering Lincoln Park at Mile 5. Its 1,200 acres of paths, trails, beaches and gardens adjacent to Lake Michigan were originally a cemetery before being converted to a park in the mid-19th century. The popular (and free) Lincoln Park Zoo is right on the marathon route, and later, the Diversey Harbor marina fronts sweeping views of the lake.

Exiting Lincoln Park at Diversey Parkway and rolling up Sheridan Road, the runners reach Chicago's more eclectic neighborhoods of Lakeview and Wrigleyville. Lakeview East features an array of shops, theaters, restaurants and bars and is the epicenter of gay and lesbian culture in the city, hosting the Chicago Pride Parade each summer. The route reaches its northernmost point at Addison Street, just blocks away from Wrigley Field, turns west momentarily, then, with the Sears Tower in the distance, heads back down Broadway toward the city center.

Fans looking to join the wild crowds for this segment (as well as the next) can hop on the El train's red, purple or brown lines, which run north-south several blocks west of the marathon course.

Miles 9-13: Lincoln Park to the Sears Tower
It's not a return to Lincoln Park: The Park; this time it's Lincoln Park: The Neighborhood, a hopping area of recent college grads and young families just west of the park itself through which the race passes along Clark Street. Approaching the DePaul University environs further south, the route veers off of Clark and onto Sedgwick Street before moving into the historic district of Old Town. Just off the course, the soaring and ornate St. Michael's Church -- the tallest building in Chicago when it was erected in 1869 -- comes into view to the west. Old Town is also the birthplace of the Second City improv comedy troupe, a veritable pipeline to Saturday Night Live and other popular TV shows that boasts such alumni as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Castellaneta, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

Turning east on North Street, the course moves over to Wells Street and resumes its southward progress parallel to and just one block off LaSalle, which the runners' much fresher versions of themselves left in their wake miles earlier. They cross the Chicago River for the fourth time just after the 12-mile mark, re-entering the Loop to the roars of enormous crowds spurring them down Franklin Street to Adams, where they begin to make their way west toward the halfway mark in the shadow of the Sears Tower.

Miles 14-18: West Loop to Little Italy
Another river crossing to the West Loop, a mini-celebration at the halfway point and the marathoners are on a two-mile trek out to the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls. The crowds thin a bit on this spur, but again, the course here is conducive to fans who want a short walk between several segments of the race. The El's blue line stop at Racine Avenue gives spectators easy access to Miles 14 (two blocks north), 16 (one block north) and 18 (half-mile south).

Meanwhile, the marathon route hits the United Center, moves a block south to Jackson Boulevard and goes back in the opposite direction. At Halsted Street, the race turns south and enters Greektown, the first in a series of internationally flavored pockets in this area of the city. Reaching the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the runners again head west on Taylor Street and into Little Italy, where, in addition to a bevy of renowned restaurants, visitors can find Joe DiMaggio and Rocky Marciano among the enshrinees of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.

Miles 19-22: Pilsen to Chinatown
After moving south for approximately one mile on Ashland Avenue, the runners turn west down the 18th Street corridor in the heart of Pilsen, Chicago's largest Latino community. There, elaborate murals decorate the sides of buildings, and authentic Mexican cuisine is served up in restaurants and bakeries. Spectators can take the pink line to the 18th Street (one block west of Ashland) to catch this portion, or alternately take the orange line to Halsted to see the race turn south off 18th at Mile 20 and cross the Chicago River one more time.

The course reaches Chinatown following a short stretch up Archer Avenue and Cermak Road, turning south through the Chinatown Gate on the area's main strip, Wentworth Avenue. Like 18th Street in Pilsen, Wentworth is lined with shops and restaurants that are unique to the neighborhood's culture, and the mood is celebratory and festive as the aching marathoners near the point where they'll head back toward the finish line in Grant Park. The red line's Cermak-Chinatown stop will put fans right on the course between Miles 21 and 22.

Miles 23-Finish: Bronzeville to Grant Park
With Interstate 90/94 on their left, the runners proceed south down Wentworth, then stair-step down to 35th Street via 33rd and State, giving U.S. Cellular Field -- home of the Whits Sox -- a wide berth. Here they reach the southernmost point of the race in Bronzeville, an important piece of African-American history that served as a haven for freed slaves in the post-Civil War era and later became the incubator for Chicago jazz and blues.

A 2 -mile stretch of Michigan Avenue between 35th Street and Roosevelt Road serves as the final approach for the finish line in Grant Park, taking runners straight north past McCormick Place -- the country's largest convention center -- and Soldier Field before re-entering the park at the 26-mile mark at Roosevelt and Columbus. From there it's just a short -- yet ever so long -- distance further to the finish line.

For the competitors, it's a mere prelude to the revelry at the park's iconic Buckingham Fountain, where they will celebrate their achievement with the strength that can only come from ice-cold free beer.

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