In a 34-year-old Chicago tradition, tens of thousands of people will pack onto Columbus Drive in Grant Park on Sunday and spend the next several hours racing through the city. Many, many more people -- about 1.7 million, according to organizers -- are expected to line the curbs and sidewalks along the 26.2-mile Bank of America Chicago Marathon course to cheer on those runners in what has become the city's largest morning street party. The 45,000 running spots have long filled up, but if you're more into encouraging others than into beating up your body, we've got the spots to suit your spectating style. We've scouted out the best places to watch the Chicago marathoners, and have included nearby food and snack options, whether your goal is to absorb the view, take in some culture or yell as loudly as possible in a verbal bid to catapult the runners to the finish line.
Best View of Humanity: For an aerial view, and to get the best eyewitness account of what 45,000 runners look like when they're all packed together, hunt out a spot on the Randolph Street overpass just north of Millennium Park. From there, you'll spot not only the elite runners from Kenya and all over the world as they take off at exactly 7:30 a.m., but you'll also see the waves upon waves of more typical marathoners as they cross the start line as much as half an hour later. Enfused with adrenaline and not the least bit tired -- they've run just a couple of hundred yards by this point -- thousands of runners will look up and wave back at you and other spectators as they jog under the Randolph Street overpass.
Stay for: It's going to be early, so head west on Randolph toward the Loop for the the Chicago classic that is Intelligentsia, where you can wake up with Black Cat espresso or Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong tea. If you're in the area a few hours later for the marathon finish and crave something sweet, drop into Sugar Bliss Cupcake Boutique for chocolate peanut butter, cinnamon carrot and lemon coconut cupcakes.
Closest mile marker: Between the start and 1 mile in the Loop
Best Autumn Spectating Scenery: With a course that winds through the North, West and South sides, spectating during the Chicago Marathon brings a bevy of inspiring neighborhood views. But if you place yourself along Sedgwick Street in Lincoln Park, you should be able to surround yourself with the yellow and orange leaves of autumn as the runners pass by the neighborhood's stately stone homes. If you're closer to downtown and don't want to slog up on the Red Line to the North Side, then head west to Little Italy and Taylor Street near Racine Avenue. The multicolored leaves of Taylor Street's low-hanging, arching tree branches rise over runners in a kind of autumn canopy.
Stay for: If you want free breakfast, walk to Cornelia and Broadway, about mile north of Lincoln Park in Lakeview East, to the Volkswagen Mile 8 Tailgate. The tailgate will have free coffee and waffles for spectators, who can scarf down breakfast while listening to local bands All Eyes West, Archie Powell & the Exports and Secret Colours. Since it's expected to be an unusually hot October day, stop by Bobtail Ice Cream Company for a scoop of Cappuccino Crunch Yogurt or the Lakeview Barhopper, a concoction of Dutch cocoa ice cream and Jack Daniels.
If you're in Little Italy and craving breakfast, drop into Stax Cafe for white chocolate chip raspberry pancakes or banana French toast stuffed with dulce de leche. For a breakfast that's a tad more country, try Sweet Maple Cafe. Located a half-block down from Stax, Sweet Maple serves up scrambles with grits that can be ordered with Italian (romano and mozzarella cheeses) and Mexican (jalepeño peppers) twists.
Closest mile marker: Between miles 9 and 10 in Lincoln Park; between miles 17 and 18 in Little Italy
Best Spot to Get Cozy with Others: For Chicago marathon runners, making the right turn from Jackson Blvd. to Halsted Street feels like a remarkable embrace. That's because each year, throngs and throngs of people cluster on the corner of Halsted and Jackson, yelling encouragement to runners and ushering them south into the soul of Greektown. The effect on that corner, as the phalanx of runners rushes by, is a feeling that, for a few minutes, the marathoners and crowd become one big, vibrant Windy City being.
Stay for: Flaming saganaki at The Parthenon restaurant, where the fiery, flambéed cheese -- known for the accompanying cry of "Oopa!" was invented and became so popular that the practice has been exported to restaurants in Athens.
Closest Mile Marker: Between miles 16 and 17 in Greektown
Most Vivid Ethnic Enclave: If you really want to get your culture and dance on, or rather, your cultural dance on, find a place on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown. Dancers near Cermak Road and Wentworth spend hours moving around inside of elaborate, multicolored traditional Chinese dragons, buoyed by a constant drumbeat that infuses rhythm into the crowd as marathoners turn from Cermak onto Wentworth. Spectators can cheer on the marathoners as they pass under the Chinatown Gate on Wentworth and run by the stunning, pagoda-topped Pui Tak Center, which is now used by Chinese Christian Union Church as a community center that serves Chinatown's residents, including recent Chinese immigrants.
Stay for: Dim Sum deliciousness at Phoenix Restaurant or further south at New Furama Restaurant. Both restaurants serve such appetizing small plates as shrimp-filled fun rolls, beef dumplings and fried sesame balls. For a substantial liquid snack, pick up a drink from Joy Yee's Noodles, which for years has been known for its bubble tea drinks and its seemingly limitless flavors, like green tea, taro, lychee and strawberry, papaya and durian fruit.
Closest Mile Marker: Between 21 and 22 in Chinatown
Most Encouraging Spot for Runners: It doesn't matter how good of a runner you are or how many marathons you've completed. The agony hits somewhere around Miles 21, 22, or 23. Your body screams at you, saying it's too sore and too steeped in pain to continue. Your legs would stop moving entirely if your brain didn't will them to continue. This is where the spectators can make the difference between a runner dropping out and staying in to finish what they've trained for months to complete. Concentrated on the South Side, these remaining miles are also some of the sparsest in terms of spectators, which is exactly why enthusiastic onlookers are so needed.
Stay for: Collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried catfish, banana pudding, peach cobbler and all-around, self-proclaimed "down home Southern Cooking" at Pearl's Place Restaurant in Bronzeville. To get there, walk south on Michigan Avenue, five blocks down from where the marathoners turn north after running by U.S. Cellular Field. For something that's more grab-and-go, stop by Rick's Munchies on nearby 35th Street to carry out a Mississippi Jerk Chicken Sandwich or Pot Roast Salad that you can chow on while helping the marathoners get through their final stretch.
Closest Mile Marker: Between 22-25, from Wentworth Avenue south of Chinatown to 33rd Street, to State Street to 35th Street and north on Michigan Avenue in the South Side