Chicago Shoreline Marathon - Race Report

Saturday, 22 September 2007 14:09 | Written by  Erik Borgnes
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Challenging First Chicago Shoreline Marathon

September 8th was the 1st annual Chicago Shoreline Marathon, an open water race from Calumet Harbor--the former industrial epicenter on the south side of the city--to Leone Beach on Chicago's north side.

Local organisation  

The event was organized by local paddlers and involved the hard work of many individuals to oversee the logistics of racing across one of the most scenic and busy shorefronts in the United States. Twenty - five miles of clean, clear fresh water.

Chicago skyline
Awesome idea - surf ski in Chicago! (Photo: Scott Fincher)

The race organizers had provided for secured boat storage and parking for the night at Leone Beach so we didn't have to drive around town with boats on our roof racks. The pre-race meeting was over dinner at a restaurant 3 blocks south.

Downwind? Nope! 

On race morning, we prepped our boats, loaded them onto the provided trailer, hopped into the provided shuttle, and drove 30 min south - downwind - along the lakefront to the start line at Calumet Harbor. Yes, you read that correctly. Nothing like doing the old car shuttle for an upwind run. Unfortunately, the prevailing South wind didn't prevail that day...though it had for the preceding two weeks. Today, the wind was from the NNE and our course was to the NW then NNW. It was going to make for an interesting day, to say the least.

As we rode in the shuttle to the start, we got a good look at much of the downtown Chicago shoreline. The race course would pass shore comprised of undulating concrete and rip rap walls, marinas, bays and piers, interspersed with many beautiful fine sand beaches. The beaches were all protected from the prevailing south winds by long breakwater piers.

Start of the Chicago Shoreline Marathon
And they're away... (Photo: Scott Fincher)

The start was well coordinated and obeyed--which is not a surprise in an upwind 25 mile race-- and we, or everyone but one paddler, headed for the northern opening in the breakwall as directed. That one lone paddler headed for the east opening in the breakwall, later saying that he was surprised that he was leading by such a big margin during that time. The US Coast Guard promptly ran him down and turned him the right direction (anyone remember the Monty Python Olympic event of the 100 yd dash for runners with no sense of direction?). Anyway, immediately outside the breakwall, we were confronted with a prelude to the day's conditions: 1-3 foot wind waves with lots and lots of rebound off the rip rap rock walls. Once we got away from the Calumet Harbor breakwall, the rebound subsided and it was nice diagonal surfing for 5 miles to the first of 4 beach stop check-ins.

Beach Stops 

At each beach stop, you rounded the breakwater wall, and surfed perfect little waves onto a sandy beach, walked a few yards up to the officials, gave your name, grabbed a Gu or water if you needed it, returned to the boat, and proceeded to the next stop. Between that firststop at 63rd Street and the next at 12th Street (where the Adler Planetarium is located), our course was slightly different, more or less due north and upwind. The wind was about 5-10 mph from the NNE, and the waves were increasing here to 2-4 feet and completly multi-directional, i.e. clapotis.

Surf Ski on Lake Michigan Chop
Chop on Lake Michigan (Photo: Scott Fincher)

It was very technical for the next 5 miles and if you slowed down, it was heck just trying to keep your balance. I was completely focused on the water just a few feet in front of my bow and managed to take advantage of a rebound wave pattern going my way for much of this leg. As we got closer to the planetarium, we also got closer to shore and to more concrete walls facing different directions. This seemed to focus the clapotis and the waves got bigger - into the 3-5 foot range in a few areas. Check-in on the beach, then out through the surf again and on into the downtown area. The next few miles passed the heart of downtown Chicago. The Sears Tower, the John Hancock Building and McCormick Place were to our left, and a concrete breakwall was out to sea a mile or so to our right. We passed marinas, moored boats, water taxis, double decker tourboats, and enjoyed watching an enormous schooner from an era gone by sailing near the outer breakwall. We passed the Chicago River, the locks, and headed straight for and around world famous Navy Pier. During this leg, the waves were smaller, the wind was pleasant and cooling, and the sights were fantastic.

Safety Boats 

It was here that I first noticed the safety boats watching over us. Coast Guard and Marine Police vessels were escorting us from the start, but were a bit further away from us on the open water. At about the midpoint of each of the five legs of the race, and at each of the last few mile marks of the race, there were volunteers in sea kayaks wearing dayglo orange hats, floating in our path. They were ready and able to give directions and make sure that we racers were doing alright. Now, even when you know that you are on the right course, and even though you feel fine, it's nice to know that multiple people associated with the race are keeping track of where you are.

On again around Navy Pier and out through the breakwall towards the North Avenue Beach stop. Through here, the waves were really challenging with all the rebound caused by the one mile stretch of multi-directional concrete walls that protected Lake Shore Drive and its runners and cyclists on the adjacent paths. North Avenue Beach was rife with beach volleyball, bikinis, and all sorts of activities - it was a shame we couldn't stay longer.

Between North Avenue Beach and Montrose Beach, our point to point course took us about 3/4 mile from shore, past a couple of marina entrances, bays, and a combination of rip rap and concrete shore. In here it was probably no more challenging than between 63rd and 12th (the second leg), but by this time, we had been on the water for 3 hrs and through more than 10 miles of big confused seas. So, it was a long leg and I was starting to just slog ahead. For most of this leg, I had a Marine Police escort on a jet ski 20 yds over my left shoulder. Twice, he/she raced ahead and got between approaching motor/sailboats and me, so I didn't need to change my course or play chicken with larger vessels. Around the next harbor wall, ride the surf to the beach, check in, and prep myself for the final 4 miles. This last leg was easy. One to two ft regular beam-ish waves with no rebound or slop and a shoreline comprised primarily of sandy beaches. The finish was easy to spot due to the large orange weather balloons which also marked each of the four preceding beach stops. A seemingly unlimited supply of burgers, hot dogs, potato salad and ice cream awaited us at the finish.

Chicago skyline from Surf Ski viewpoint
Paddler's view of the Chicago skyline (Photo: Scott Fincher)

In summary, the water in Chicago was very challenging that day as the rebound and clapotis just went on and on. We had about the worst possible wind direction for the race this year, though the wind wasn't that strong. However, due to the structure of the shoreline, you could ride rebound waves or paddle across fairly protected water for about half of the 25 miles in that headwind. The prevailing wind direction in Chicago at this time of year is from the south, and when the race date coincides with a nice south wind, it'll be a hoot.

Chicago Shoreline Marathon - logo

"the most well organized and professionally run race"

In all, it was about the most well organized and professionally run race I've been in. The course was varied, challenging, and scenic.

Beautiful sandy beaches in Chicago? - you bet! You definitely have to put this one on your calendar next year.

For more info (and the results) see: 

Triple Crown? 

The hope is to lure paddlers to compete in the US surfski champs, the New York City Mayor's Cup race, and the Chicago shoreline marathon - as kind of a triple crown series.  I believe that this race could become one of the major races as it's centrally located and it's a great course.

Erik Borgnes


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