Sunday, April 15, 2012

Marathon Match-up: Boston vs. Chicago vs. NY

In honor of Boston Marathon weekend, I thought I’d do a little head to head match up of the American Marathon Majors: Boston, Chicago, and NY. I considered a whole slew of different factors that go into a great marathon experience but I admit this is largely based on my opinion and my own experiences when I’ve run these races. (Although I did do some serious Googling of weather, prices, etc.) Feel free to completely disagree and/or leave your opinions in the comments section below.

Registration/Getting in
Boston: Famously the only marathon you need to qualify for, making some people call it the everyman’s Olympics. BQs just got harder: Men under 40 need to run a 3:05 and women a 3:35.
Chicago: Registration has closed faster every year the last few years, closing in a record 31 days this year.
NY: Works by a lottery system. Everyone signs up by mid-April and participants are randomly picked. Being from South Dakota or Bangladesh helps. There is a roughly 1:10 shot of getting picked.
Edge to: Chicago. You can always get in, provided your Internet connection is fast.

 2009 NY Poster
Swag (aka free stuff)
Boston: Long-sleeve dry-fits with Boston Marathon and the year down one side. Shirts from the years I ran (2009 and 2011) are hi-lighter yellow. Other years are more attractive colors. The posters have every participant’s name in very small letters over classic images from the race and the finish. (The jackets, which are NOT free, are a cherished symbol among runners of qualifying.)
Chicago: Short-sleeve dry-fits. 2010’s was red with the words “Bank of America Chicago Marathon 10.10.10” in a white box. 2011’s was white, with “Bank of America Chicago Marathon” over a white star. They are incredibly plain. The posters have had pictures of some of the runners whose stories they highlight. It’s a nice gesture but they are a little too focused on those people and hard to consider as memorabilia from your personal experience.
NY: Posters and shirts from the only year I ran (2009) have an image of the NYC skyline where the buildings are made of the names of the places, streets, and bridges you run through. One of my favorite T-shirts ever.
Edge to: NY. In huge, expensive races like these it seems like there should be a graphic artist to design cool posters and shirts. Chicago’s are as plain as my local 5k’s. Boston’s are better, but the best part (the jackets) you have to shell out more money for.

*Registration fees only. Hotels/food/flights not included but will be expensive for all three.
Boston: $150
Chicago: $150
NY: $255
Edge to: I trust you can figure this one out on your own.

The Course
2009: With my new jacket, in front of
the infamous course map.
Boston: Until recently, considered to be a tough course, mainly for the Newton hills that culminate in the notorious Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. In the last few years, due to incredibly bold Kenyans and a helpful tailwind, this thinking changed when the world’s fastest time was set there. (It didn’t count as a world record due to the net downhill and tailwind. This hadn’t been an issue since 1947.) Course records: men: 2:03:02, women: 2:20:43.
Chicago: Flat and fast. In the last thirty years, all world records set on American soil were set here. And they count. Course record: men: 2:05:37, women: 2:17:18
NY: The bridges are the hills, from the start going up the Verrazano Bridge to the finish through the rolling hills of Central Park. Probably the hardest of these three. Course record: men: 2:05:05, women: 2:22:31
Edge to: Chicago.

Boston: You have to train through the winter, which means a lot of dark and cold runs. You also should emphasize downhill running with some strategically placed uphills.
Chicago: No hill training required! And you can train in the summer. (This will also help you get acclimated to the heat, which can be a factor, see below.)
NY: You can train in the summer, but need to search out some hills.
Edge to: Chicago.

From the last 5 years (avg/high):

Edge to: NY. Heat is increasingly becoming an issue, especially at Chicago. Boston’s weather for tomorrow’s race is also abnormally hot, in the mid-80s.

The start
Boston: Busses leave from downtown and drop you at the start hours before the race begins. It’s usually chilly and of course the Porta-potty lines are ridiculous.
Chicago: You can pretty much walk to the start from most downtown hotels or easily take the L.
NY: Busses leave from downtown and drop you at the start hours before the race begins. It’s usually chilly and of course the Porta-potty lines are ridiculous.
Edge to: Chicago

Boston: 0.5 million, including the infamous Wellesley women’s tunnel of love near the halfway point. Can be a little desolate between the top of Heartbreak and the turn onto Beacon.
Chicago: 1.5 million, can be a little bare through miles 20 to 22.
NY: 2 million. Although an eerie silence takes over Queensborough Bridge (mile 15), the crowd on First Ave will get you re-energized again.
Edge to: NY, but any of the fans at any of these races make you feel like a rock star.

Chicago 2010: Deep dish!
Boston: Not even a contender
Chicago: Deep dish
NY: New York style
Edge to: What can I say, I’m an East Coast girl. NY style all the way.

*I mean professional runners, not P. Diddy and Oprah. (NYC would win the more traditional celebrity category.) It can be incredibly exciting to run the same race as your idols, not to mention score their autographs at the expo. All three have top tier Kenyas and Ethiopians. But where do our American elites run? I’ve considered the appearances of the top five finishers at January’s Olympic Trials in the last four years.
Boston: Desiree Davila (2011), Kara Goucher (2009, 2011), Meb Keflezighi (2010), Ryan Hall (2009, 2010, 2011)
Chicago: Desiree Davila (2008, 2010), Ryan Hall (2011, did not start in 2010 but was around to give me his autograph)
NY: Shalane Flanagan (2010), Kara Goucher (2008), Meb Keflezighi (2009, 2010, 2011), Ryan Hall (2009), Abdi Abdirahman (2008, 2009), Dathan Ritzenhein (2010)
Edge to: NY. Why do Americans shy away from Chicago?

Chicago 2010: Ryan Hall's autograph.
The finish
Boston: Amazing finish down Boylston St.
Chicago: Amazing finish in Grant Park.
NY: Amazing finish in Central Park.
Edge to: All of the above. You finish any of these marathons, you’ll be on the top of the world.

The intangibles and final score
Boston: If you are anywhere near a BQ, you already know the appeal. Qualifying for Boston catapults you to a new tier of marathon runner. Your reward is an incredible race along the infamous course, tackling the same hills and hearing the same cheers as other Patriot’s Day runners who have gone before you over the last 116 years.
NY 2009: Happy at the finish.
Chicago: If you want a PR (or a BQ) this is the race. It’s flat, it’s fast. You don’t have wake up at the crack of dawn to get on a bus and then sit at the start for hours. It’s well organized and ready for you to run your best. But you may want to start praying for good weather now.
NY: If you run one marathon in your life, you should run NY. Standing on the Verrazano Bridge with 45,000 other runners and a path before you that weaves through all five boroughs is an incredible experience. People from all over the world come to run it. The crowds are amazing and will make you feel like all 2 million of them are cheering for you.
And the winner is: Boston. It remains my favorite marathon and I hope to run there again in the next few years. It didn't win many of these categories upfront, but all around it is an amazing race and a great reward for all it takes to get there. 

Good luck to all those running Boston!!

Dream big,


  1. Boston even has a holiday designated for the Marathon. Technically it's Patriots Day, but we all know it's all about the big race now!

  2. Awesome "run" down of these races! Very inspiring, makes me almost want to go run them myself (....almost). Its fun to remember all these races you've been to and the experiences you've had. Please update your sentiments after you've given ny your second !

  3. NY probably has the worst finish because you're not allowed to stop once the race is over; you have to walk another mile or two (feels like more) just to get out of Central Park even if you chose the early exit option. Somehow NYRR forgets to mention that before you sign up!

  4. How can you rank NY pizza over Chicago or Boston? Especially being from the East Coast!

    On a different note, I'm surprised you think that Chicago has the best course when it's missing all the hills.

  5. Hello, nice post. Im from Mexico, ran 2015 New York and get a BQ (3:01) aiming to run this year Chicago and next year Boston. This info is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you very much!

    1. Glad it helped! Good luck at Chicago and Boston--both are absolutely awesome races :)

  6. Great read! I applied to the lottery this year for NY... we will see if I get in! Boston is on my bucket list... have to take some time of my marathon first though! Thanks for the info!

  7. Great read! I applied to the lottery this year for NY... we will see if I get in! Boston is on my bucket list... have to take some time of my marathon first though! Thanks for the info!

  8. I remember reading this before my first Boston and freaking out about the weather (it ended up being 70+ at the start) while, at the same time, getting so excited! I LOVED Boston, but my heart belongs to New York <3 Will be back in Boston next year though. Had a successful day, but want to see what I can do now that I know the course!