Chicago vs Boston marathon

I had the pleasure of running the Chicago Marathon in the fall 2018 and the Boston Marathon in the spring of 2019. In this post I’ll compare the two races. I hope one day you get to run them both but if you have to choose, maybe this will help you decide.

Chicago Marathon finisher medal

Getting a bib

Lottery

One of the reasons a Boston marathon bib is such a big deal is because you cannot get a bib through a lottery.

Chicago, like New York does provide the opportunity to get a bib through a lottery, though unlike New York, you have a decent chance of getting a bib through the Chicago lottery.

in 2015, 53% of those who entered the lottery received a bib. I have a number of friends who have successfully received a bib through the lottery in the past few years. Unfortunately, you cannot submit two runners together and request that you either both get bibs or both do not get bibs (i.e.if you want to be sure the two of you run the same year the lottery doesn’t provide that option). But! Chicago does provide the option of deferring your bib for one year. So if you get a bib and your friend does not, then you could defer your bib for one year (for a fee) and see if your friend gets in the lottery the next year.

Race # Entries received # Entries selected % selected
Chicago 2015 54,800 29,044 53%

Time Qualifier

racetimerAlmost all the Boston marathon runners qualify through a time system

Chicago also has a guaranteed entry for those who meet qualifying time standards

Here are the 2020 qualifying standards for Chicago and Boston

Age group Boston Men* Chicago Men Boston Women* Chicago Women
18-29 3:00 3:10 3:30 3:30
30-34 3:00 3:15 3:30 3:45
35-39 3:05 3:15 3:35 3:45
40-44 3:10 3:25 3:40 3:55
45-49 3:20 3:25 3:50 3:55
50-54 3:25 3:40 3:55 4:10
55-59 3:35 3:40 4:05 4:10
60-64 3:50 4:00 4:20 4:35
65-69 4:05 4:00 4:35 4:35
70-74 4:20 4:30 4:50 5:10
75-79 4:35 4:30 5:05 5:10
80+ 4:50 5:00 5:20 5:45

*Unfortunately running your BQ (Boston Qualifier time) may not in fact guarantee you entry into Boston. Boston caps the number of bibs provided to time qualifiers. If too many runners register with a qualifying time, they reduce the qualifying times until they have the correct number of runners. For example in 2014, runners had to qualify with a time 1 minute and 2 seconds faster than their BQ times to get a bib in Boston and the cut off times are getting progressively harder.

2014 cutoff 1:38

2015 cutoff 1:02

2016 cutoff 2:28

2017 cutoff 2:09

2018 cutoff 3:23

2019 cutoff 4:52

Because the cutoff time was almost 5 minutes in 2019  they dropped all the qualifying times by 5 minutes for 2020.

Charity Entry

charityBoth races provide the opportunity to fundraise for an official race charity. to get a guaranteed entry to the race, but Boston sets the bar high for charity entries.

Chicago 2019 fundraising targets start at $1250 if you claim a charity entry during the application window and $1750 USD if you claim a charity entry after the application window (i.e. if you decide to enter the lottery, and don’t make it then decide to do a charity entry because you didn’t get in through the lottery, you have to fundraise more $)

Boston 2019 fundraising targets started at $5000 USD.

Local races

shamrockChicago provide the option to help local runners get a guaranteed entry by participating in local races.

Chicago has the Shamrock Shuffle

If you have run the Shamrock Shuffle 8k four or more times in the past 10 years and have signed up for the next Shamrock Shuffle you can guarantee a spot in the Chicago marathon.

Boston does not provide any sort of run x races get a guaranteed bib for Boston.

Tour Entry

If you really want to race Chicago or Boston and you have the financial means to do so you can purchase a tour package that includes a bib from one of the official marathon tour partners. Check the race website for a current list of official tour partners. There are a small number of entries available through tour groups for Boston outside the US and Canada but they sell out fast.

Cancelled Entry

If you get into Chicago and are not going to run the race, you can cancel/defer your entry once. You lose the registration fee but it gives you a guaranteed entry the following year.

Boston does not provide the option of deferring. Which might account for the people you see on the start line walking or wearing crutches 🙂

In Summary

Are you noticing a pattern here? Suffice to say it is MUCH easier to get a bib for Chicago than a bib for Boston.

Weather

Fall races are typically more predictable weather than spring races, but, Chicago is generally hotter weather than Boston and had a few years where heat was a major factor for runners (80F+) including the very infamous 2007 Chicago marathon when they had to shut down the course.

Here’s a breakdown comparing the weather at the two races the past 10 years. Since Chicago is not a point to point race whatever the wind direction you will spend about half of it as a tailwind and half of it as a tailwind.

YEAR Boston weather Boston Wind Chicago weather Chicago Wind
2010 49-55F Partly Cloudy ENE 2-5 MPH (headwind) 59-84F Scattered Clouds No wind
2011 46-55F Cloudy WSW 16-20 MPH (tailwind) 57-80F Clear ESE 3 MPH
2012 65-87F Clear WSW 10-12 MPH (tailwind) 38-51F Mostly Cloudy WNW 6 MPH
2013 54-56F Clear E 3MPH (headwind) 46-65F Clear NW 4 MPH
2014 61-62F Clear WSW 2-3 MPH (tailwind) 45-65F Partly Cloudy SE 8 MPH
46-46F Overcast and rain Calm 54-78F Clear SSW 11 MPH
2016 61-71F Clear WSW 2-3 MPH (tailwind) 50-63F Partly Cloudy ESE 8 MPH
2017 70-73F Clear WSW 1-3 MPH (tailwind) 56-73 Partly Cloudy SW 8 MPH
2018 35-50F Rain NE 14 MPH (headwind) 57-64F Drizzle ENE 5 MPH

Pre-Race Experience

Packet pick up

Both Boston and Chicago are well organized for packet pick up and both provide a shirt exchange if you discover the shirt size you ordered does not fit.

You must pick up your own race kit at both races. Don’t forget your government issued photo id!

Race swag

Official race gear at Chicago is sponsored by Nike. Nike focuses on running clothes for the official Chicago marathon gear. In 2018 they sold find t-shirts, long sleeved shirts, tank tops, visor, and jackets. If you want coffee mugs, laptop stickers, and cotton t-shirts you will have to explore other booths in the expo. You may also want to visit the Nike store on Michigan to purchase your official race merchandise, the lines were shorter, and they have a DJ and a fun atmosphere Friday and Saturday before the race. The Under Armour store just down the road from the Nike store on Michigan Ave also had some marathon branded running gear.

Official race gear at Boston is sponsored by Adidas. There is the traditional celebration jacket which is the most brilliant marketing scheme ever, since you feel like you have to buy one every year (and it isn’t even a good running jacket). There are often other jackets which are nicer than the celebration jacket (which might account why I have never run Boston without coming home with two jackets). There are also a good assortment of other official Boston marathon merchandise – a wide assortment of running gear but also baseball hats, visors, pint glasses, shot glasses, pins, stuffed unicorns, etc…Chances are you will spend more money on official merchandise at the Boston expo. You will find even more merchandise at other booths in the expo as well.

Pace bands

Boston had pace bands available at the booth just outside the race expo. They had the pace bands tailored to the Boston course. Boston has some tough hills in teh second half so it’s nice that they have the race specific pace bands.

In Chicago, they had arm tattoos instead of pace bands. I prefer the tattoos because the font on the tattoos was nice and big (I need reading glasses and some pace bands use print too small for me to read :))

Race morning

Getting to the start

Boston

The Boston marathon is a point to point race, with a finish in downtown Boston. The race starts in Hopkington. To reach the start you can:

  • take a shuttle bus from Boston commons (estimated travel time 60 minutes)
  • drive to Hopkington parking lot and catch shuttle to athlete’s village

The race starts in waves. As of 2019, the male elites start separately from the rest of the runners, so the elites don’t have to worry about that one runner who really wants to be on TV trying to lead the elite pack for the first mile.

  • 9:32 AM Elite Women start
  • Elite Men 10:00 AM
  • Wave one start 10:02 AM
  • Wave two start 10:25 AM
  • Wave three start 10;50 AM
  • Wave four start 11:15 AM *

*in 2019 due to the weather forecast they chose to start Wave four immediately after Wave three so they would have less time exposed to the elements in the athletes village)

Shuttle bus times depend on your start wave

in 2019

  • Wave one runners shuttles ran from 6:00 – 6:45 AM
  • Wave two runner shuttles ran from 7:00 – 7:45 AM
  • Wave three runner shuttles ran from 8:00 – 8:45 AM
  • Wave four runner shuttles ran from 8:55 – 9:30 AM

I was in Wave 3, I set my alarm for 6:30. I met friends in the hotel lobby at 8 AM and we walked over to catch the buses, one of the friends was staying further out of town and had taken the train into downtown to catch the shuttle bus. i.e. you don’t have to pay the $350+ USD a night hotel and stay within walking distance of the start.

Chicago

The start is much earlier. Wave 1 starts at 7:30 AM. I was in wave 2, 8 AM start. I still set my alarm for 5 AM. My hotel, like many downtown Chicago hotels, was walking distance from the start line (I was at Ontario St and Michigan Ave).  All I had to do was walk. If you want to find a cheaper hotel, you can stay further from the start and take the Metro line to the start. Yes, the Metro will be packed with runners, the first train might even be too packed to get in, but once on that train, in 15-40 minutes you are at the start. Security is efficient and quick (just like New York).  You don’t have to worry about a bag check cut off time because the bag drop off and bag pick up are the same place. Since they don’t have to transport your gear anywhere, you can just drop it off 5 or 15 minutes before you walk over to your corral.  Getting to the start in Chicago is much less hassle and much less stress.

Port-a-potties

ChicagoPortapottyYou can’t compare marathons without mentioning access to port-a-potties at the start!

Boston

In Boston you will find a good selection of port-a-potties in the athlete’s village, expect a line of 20 or so runners. Depending on how you enter the village you may pass a smaller field before you reach the main athletes village, that smaller field appeared to have shorter lines.  There are additional port-a-potties on the way to the corrals as well (with much shorter lines), but you can’t use them until your wave is called to the corrals. Guys – if you get to the corral and realize you need a pee PLEASE don’t pee on the clothes by the fences, that is really disgusting. If you really have to go, since you start in the suburbs, not the city, you do go past a wooded area in the first km and many a gentlemen runner takes advantage of that first set of woods to find a convenient tree.

Chicago

In Chicago The start area is split in two by the corrals. I found the lines for the port-a-potties shorter on the city side of Grant Park than the lake side of Grant Park. The lines at their worst were maybe 10-15 minutes long. Which is why there is NO EXCUSE for the dudes who were peeing beside the fence in the start corrals!  Witnessed by at least two of my running friends. Seriously! I have no problems with guys running out to find a tree on races past wooded areas, but peeing on the discarded clothing in the corral is really gross. Not what I want to see when I am walking over to the fence to toss a shirt or stretch. Boston and New York both threaten disqualification if you are caught doing something like that (FYI I have yet to meet a runner who has witnessed the famous ‘yellow rain’ on the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge in New York).

SIDE NOTE: Best solution I saw for this was the Vancouver marathon that had a fenced off set of troughs for guys who needed a quick pee before the start. This saved them a long wait at the port-a-potty and shortened the line for us ladies.

Corrals

Both Chicago and Boston divide up runners into waves, and corrals This helps spread out the runners and keep the start areas less crowded. Both Chicago and New York will check your bibs to make sure you are in the correct corral. Both races allow you to move to a slower corral but will not allow you to move to a faster corral. All runners have a common waiting area, so you can hang out with friends in Wave one before you start (as long as you get to the athletes village before they are called to the corrals).  FYI, it’s not encouraged, but I do know runners who boarded the buses for an earlier wave with friends.

Race course

Hills

Below are the hill profiles for Boston and Chicago. Note the difference between minimum and maximum elevation in each image.

BostonBoston Hill Profile

Boston is a net downhill, but that does not make it an easy course! There are two notoriously tough sections late in the race. The Newton hills around km 25 and Heartbreak Hill around km 32. You won’t find many flat stretches in Boston. This is considered a difficult marathon.  I have my marathon PR and I have my Boston PR. They are 10 minutes apart and I am proud of both of them. It is possible to set a marathon PR in Boston, but let’s just say you had better do your hill work or you are going to have a VERY rough day.

Chicago

The big climbs in Chicago are less than 10 meters. My friend Christopher said Chicago is “waffle flat”. I think that’s a perfect description. It is flat, with little bumps here and there. There is one “big’ hill in the last half mile of the course, but that hill is about as hard as one of the rolling hills in Central Park, it just messes with your head because it is so close to the finish line.  Chicago is a much easier course in terms of hills. Chicago is a good course to try for a personal best.

ChicagoElevation

Crowds and Energy

racesignsBoston has an estimated 500,000+ spectators. The Chicago marathon press release estimates they have 1,700,000 spectators.  That number will of course vary depending on the year and on the weather. Both races have great crowd support. In Boston, you have a couple of “scream tunnels”: the famous Wellesley college girls offering up kisses to runners, and dare I say it, Boston college may not be handing out kisses but matches or might even exceed the decibel level of Wellesley. I loved the dancing drag queens in Chicago. Each race only had short stretches with thin crowds except in locations where they cannot cheer such as the tunnel at the start of Chicago.

Boston has the added element of “Boston Strong” ever since the bombing at the Boston marathon in 2013 there is a spirit of taking back the race shared by both the spectators and the runners. This adds to the overall intensity in Boston.  Personally I got more more energy from the crowds in Boston, but both races were amazing crowd support!

Running your own race

In 2010 there were 26,632 finishers in the Boston marathon. In 2018 44, 571 runners finished the Chicago marathon. At no point in either race are you going to be running alone.

Boston

There may be a few patches at the start in Boston where you feel a bit trapped and have to move around to find your pace. It’s better than most races that size because just about every runner in Boston required a qualifying time. That means everyone else in your corral qualified with a similar marathon time to yours. You will all go out at a very similar pace. The only people you see going very slow or walking in the first few km will be runners who are injured but are determined to cross that start line because they worked hard for that Boston bib and they are going to do whatever they can! It’s not unusual to see at least one pair of crutches on the start line.

Chicago

In Chicago the wide roads reduce the congestion, and they do crowd management asking the spectators to move back off the road and leave room for the runners. As a result I found I was able to settle into my own pace within the first mile and only got stuck behind other runners very occasionally. I caught up to the 3:55 pace group and ended up following them for about 5 miles without any difficulty and I managed to pass them without a lot of dodging around runners as well (often pacers have a clump of runners around them making it hard to pass).

You can run your own race in Boston or Chicago.

International spirit

World_map-3One of the things I love about Chicago and Boston are the runners from around the world!

In 2018 Chicago had runners from 105 countries

In 2019 Boston had runners from 99 countries

Spectator Experience

Getting around

Chicago has a fantastic spectator guide  you can pick up at the race expo, the best I have seen.

Elites at the race

20171103_153854Both Boston and Chicago are likely to have presentations by well known runners on the main stage. Sponsors may have an autograph session with familiar names as well.  In Chicago 2018, Maui Jim sunglasses had Meb Keflezighi signing autographs at the expo and you could catch Meb, Joan Benoit Samuelsson and Paula Radcliffe on the main stage. Boston 2019 had Deena Kastor, Sarah Crouch, and Meb was around as well (he was the grand marshall)

Prize money draws big names. Both Chicago and Boston offer big prize money

The prize money is the same for the men and women – Hey rest of the sporting world did you hear that! Same prize money for both genders 🙂 okay I’ll get off my soap box now.

Ranking Boston Chicago
1st place $150,000 $100,000
2nd place $75,000 $75,000
3rd place $40,000 $50,000

There are also a variety of bonuses as well for running under a particular time, being fastest American, etc…

Boston elites in 2019 included:

Athlete Gender Top Finishes
Yuki Kawauchi Male 2018 Boston Winner
Geoffrey Kirui Male 2017 Boston Winner
Lelisa Desisa Male 2018 NYC winner & 2x Boston winner
Lemi Berhanu Male 2016 Boston winner
Wesley Korir Male 2012 Boston winner
Desiree Linden Female 2018 Boston winner
Edna Kiplagat Female 2017 Boston winner
Caroline Rotich Female 2015 Boston winner
Aselefech Mergia Female London winner
Mare Dibaba Female 2016 Olympic Bronze

Chicago Elite in 2018 included:

Athlete Gender Top Finishes
Galen Rupp Male 2017 Chicago winner
Mo Farah Male 4X Olympic Gold
Abel Kirui Male 2016 Chicago winner
Yuki Kawauchi Male 2018 Boston winner
Dickson Chumba Male 2015 Chicago winner
Brigid Kosgei Female 2017 Chicago 2nd
Birhane Dibaba Female 2018 Tokyo winner

Boston attracts a few more of the top elite. BUT! you are more likely to see a record setting run in Chicago

Four world records were set in Chicago

  • 2:08:05 Steve Jones 1984
  • 2:05:42 Khalid Khannouchi 1999
  • 2:18:47 Catherine Ndereba 2001
  • 2:17:18 Paula Radcliffe 2002

in 2018 Mo Farah set a new European record 2:05:11

Finish Area

Boston

When you finish in Boston you move into a finish chute to collect the usual medals, blanket, water, banana, etc… I have never checked a bag, but pick up is just past the turn off to the family meeting area.  Copley station is closed on race day since it is inside the secure finish area, but Arlington station is a short (though it feels long) stumble from the finish area if your hotel is too far waay to walk. I admit my hotel was only on the other side of the commons but I decided to take the transit rather than walk across the Commons even if that meant navigating a set of stairs to do it.

Chicago

In Chicago the walk from the finish line to the exit is similar to Boston. Bag pick up was quick and efficient and it was only a short walk to meet friends and family (although there was a short set of stairs, I think I felt all 6 of them 🙂

Both races insist you keep moving after your cross the finish line. If you sit down, a medic will be by quickly to either take you to the med tent or get you moving again. There are volunteers in the finish chute in Boston with wheelchairs ready to grab runners who need help.

Both races had the usual food and drink at the finish. I think Chicago had a slightly better selection than Boston, and the finish area and family meeting area definitely felt more celebratory in Chicago.  I got a kick out of the beer in souvenir beer cans in Chicago provided by Goose Island. Runners could also get a free beer at the tent in the next to the family meeting area. I don’t drink beer, so sadly wasted on me. As drinks go I prefer a chocolate milk post-race 🙂 Sadly neither Boston or Chicago offered chocolate milk, there was a chocolate protein shake in the kit I got at the race expo but that was all the way back at my hotel, so I had to settle for water and Gatorade.

Post-race atmosphere

ChicagoSpectatorBoston

After the race in Boston, everyone wears their celebration jacket for that race year. It’s kind of cool seeing the same jackets all over the place when you go out for dinner and being able to offer a smile and congratulations to each jacket you pass. Some hotels and restaurants will cheer you when you walk in wearing your jacket after the race.

Chicago

When I hobbled into a pub in Chicago with my thermal blanket, there was no cheering, but the staff took amazing care of me. In no time I had sugar, caffeine and salt in the form of a coke and some pretzel bites. When I asked for a couple of wet naps to wipe my face they even brought me a clean rag soaked in warm water. If you want cheering head to the Nike store post-race for the cheering staff on every floor as you proceed to the 4th floor for free medal engraving.  The next morning there was no shortage of runners walking around with their medals and/or race shirts. The local pancake house had quite the waiting list for breakfast but was worth the wait.

The Chicago Tribune lists the names of the runners and their times in the Monday edition.  I don’t think the Boston paper publishes the results of all the runners, but they will have race coverage.

Volunteers

Volunteers rock at both races. THANK YOU to all the volunteers at both races!

thank-you

Summary

It is harder to get a bib for Boston and the course is tougher, but that’s what makes it memorable. There was a lady with me at the start line who was running her first Boston and I remember her saying with determination “Whatever it takes, I am going to enjoy this race, if I have to walk, if my leg hurts, I don’t care, I am going to enjoy this, I am running the Boston marathon!” There’s a lot of that in Boston. If you don’t want to be there, there are many, many, others who would happily take your place.  But it’s unlikely you will set a personal best on this tough course.

Chicago is a lower stress race. It’s easier to get to the start,its MUCH flatter. its in fall so weather is less likely to be a factor, and I found the water stops had enough tables that I could get water and Gatorade more easily than Boston. You are much more likely to set a personal best in Chicago.

You may have a different experience from mine in Boston or Chicago depending on your start wave and the weather.  But there is a reason these races are so popular. If you get a chance to run either race, do it!

If you are curious how these races compare to New York, I have compared New York and Chicago in another post  and I have also compared New York vs Boston.  If you are interested, I also have other race reports and running related posts

4 responses to this post.

  1. Great post!
    I’ve never run Chicago, but I ran Boston for the 9th time this year.
    Each year they seem to do a little better, which is remarkable when you think how well Boston is organized.
    With the addition of porta-potties near the start, fewer people are peeing in the woods. and it was men AND women in the woods.
    This year there seemed to be more porta-potties at each mile than last year.
    Boston has always been light on food at the finish. One year Gatorade had some awesome protein drink but they only had it one year.
    It is tough to get into Boston even with a charity bib, but I hate the lottery system. As you mention, what do you do it you make it and your friend doesn’t? They may not get selected the next year either.
    Fundraising starts at $5K and goes to $10K. Average seems to be $7,500 now, but I think more people are just saying no. I’ve seen an increase in charities asking for runners in February or March.

    Reply

    • Yes, there did seem to be less guys running into the woods in that first patch of woods this year, and yes a few women as well. Great point about the finish supplies, I’m going to add a note about that to the blog post. Gee more Gatorade at the finish line, it would have been nice to have an alternative to ‘more gatorade’ in the finish area. Chicago had beer 🙂 I don’t drink beer, but it was appreciated by many.

      Reply

      • Yeah, the BAA isn’t big on beer. Sam Adams had a beer tent at the BAA half last year for Distance Medley runners only. The first time I’ve seen beer at a BAA event.

  2. True – but at least Sam Adams has the official 26.2 brew every year at the local restaurants 🙂

    Reply

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