Did you stretch? Not as much as that Chicago Marathon ‘spectator estimate’ will

With today’s 35th running of the Chicago Marathon, the race is well-established as a local tradition. In fact in my household, we celebrate it each year as that great crisp autumn day when Chicago Marathon organizers announce an absurdly high spectator figure (which the local media then publicize without fact-checking against common sense).

For example, each of the last three years, organizers claimed the same crowd of 1.7 million had lined the 26.2-mile route. But who believes the greater Chicagoland area has that many individuals in shape, let alone into watching competitive jogging?

To put it another way, 1.7 million represents about 1 in every 5 men, women and children living in the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) that stretches from Kenosha, Wis., to Gary, Ind. So this begs the question: where will they all park today, or will they just run in?

Or consider that only slightly more Chicagoland households (1.77 million) watched the Bears compete in the 2007 Super Bowl. Or might a majority of that spectator total be out-of-towners? Well, given that the city and suburbs boast only 110,000 hotel rooms, where are they all staying? In “Occupy the Marathon” tents?

Not that the Chicago Marathon isn’t a great spectacle. It’s the closest thing we humans have to the Serengeti’s annual wildebeest migration. When else can we see 30,000 white people jog through the South Side at an easily over-takable speed? In fact, the marathon probably could draw 1.7 million if each of the race’s six crossings of the Chicago River featured crocodiles ready to pounce and poach the weakest runners.

Grid and Bear it

Thanks to Chicago’s great grid system, we also know that every eight city blocks equals one mile. This means an entire marathon is equivalent to 210 city blocks. Thus to accommodate 1.7 million, an average of 8,100 people must cram along each of the marathon’s 210 city blocks. Anyone still buying this? After all, Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Police have broken up rallies 1/50th that size for fear of “losing control” of the city.

As someone who has twice attended the marathon to cheer on friends and family, I can confirm some large pockets here and there. This includes at the adjacent start and finish lines that feature pretty much the exact same multitude of fans and volunteers. (No double counting, race organizers.) Many of these spectators will also race to five to eight other spots along the race route to lend a regular stream of moral support to their loved ones. (Apparently marathoners without such support systems become highly immoral.)

One of the most popular spectating points is in Chinatown between mile marker 21 and 22. Thousands turn out, but here the main goal is making sure no runners break stride by popping into a souvenir shop for a huge bag of Chinese candy or stop at an Asian bistro for a quick bowl of sour pickle & pork stomach soup.

A Case of the Economic Runs

But as unbelievable as this 1.7 million spectator figure is, it’s actually exceeded by estimates of the marathon’s local economic impact.

This year’s newest “study” claims the Chicago Marathon generates more than $219 million in annual business activity. Subtract out the $6 million in runner registration fees, and this is equivalent to those 1.7 million spectators and 45,000 runners each spending an average of $120. On what? Expensive carb-loading pasta dinners, commemorative Chicago Marathon foam fingers and (perhaps, more believably) overpriced metered street parking?

Discrediting this study is fairly easy. One need only go back two years when race sponsors touted another study that estimated $140 million in economic benefits. Now if both studies are true, this means the marathon’s economic benefits have grown by 57 percent over the last two years despite 1.) no change in reported spectator turnout and 2.) the worst recession since the Great Depression.

So Obama and Romney… are you paying attention? To end the Great Recession, we need only “run” our way out.

Parting shot

What we know today as the 1.7 million Exaggeration-A-Thon began humbly in 1977 as the “Mayor Daley Marathon.” It was named in honor of Chicago’s first Mayor Daley, who apparently must have been an amazingly committed runner to earn this great honor from Chicago’s running community. (Alas, how ironic that Hizzoner couldn’t attend having died the previous year from a massive heart attack caused by atherosclerosis.)

By all reports, that inaugural race was a booming success. The only glitch came when the race’s “starter cannon” misfired and burned two spectators.

No word if the injured were subtracted from that year’s estimated spectator count, or if they and the attending EMTs helped inflate it. However, what we can confirm is this was the last official use of a city cannon on Chicago’s local population.

No exaggerating.

SkitSketchJeff is Jeff Burdick, who feels the quickest distance between two points will typically involve a police chase and circling news helicopters. For more FluffingtonPost humor, visit BurdickComm.com.

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Filed under: Humor

Tags: Humor essay, Pure Chicago, sports

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