Starting guns are scheduled to fire simultaneously Sunday morning in Washington and Chicago, where 20,000 and 25,000 registered runners, respectively, will begin their marathons.
Similarities between the two races will end at the same time.
Although Chicago could end the year as the country's second-largest marathon, with the Marine Corps Marathon third (behind New York City's more than 31,000 expected finishers), size isn't all that matters in a marathon.
Chicago's race annually features many of the top marathoners in the world, who are drawn to its fast course and generous prize money.
This year, it boasts marathon world record holder Ronaldo da Costa from Brazil (2 hours 6 minutes 5 seconds), last year's winner, Ondoro Osoro from Kenya (2:06:54), and 1997 winner and last year's runner-up, Morocco's Khalid Khannouchi (whose personal best is 2:07:10).
The women's field, with defending champion Joyce Chepchumba from Kenya (2:23:57), Ireland's Catherina McKiernan (personal-best 2:22:23) and Colleen De Reuck from South Africa, is nearly as strong.
The top runners in Chicago will be competing for a guaranteed purse of $400,000 -- $65,000 for first place -- with additional money available for finishing under certain times and for setting a world record.
Marine Corps has a mostly flat course that has potential to be fast, but race organizers offer no prize money. As a result, elite competitors rarely run here. (The fastest time ever run by a man at Marine Corps is 2:14:01, recorded by Jeff Scuffins in 1987.)
In fact, any one of the top women entered in Chicago on Sunday likely would be the overall race favorite if she were to instead run in Washington.
Last year's Marine Corps winner, Washington's Weldon Johnson, will race in Chicago this weekend. Johnson, whose winning time of 2:25:31 was more than six minutes ahead of second place, is changing venues in search of better racing weather, a faster course and, most importantly, stronger competition, which he hopes will pull him to a faster time and the 2:22 Olympic trials qualifying standard.
"I'm tempted to run Marine Corps again," Johnson said recently. "It was a great experience. But I've got to give myself the best chance to run fast and qualify."
Originally known as the Marine Corps Reserve Marathon, the race began in 1976 as part of the U.S. bicentennial celebration. Olympic marathoner Kenny Moore won in 2:21:14 that year, ahead of some 1,200 runners.
Chicago hosted its first marathon -- the Mayor Daley Marathon -- in 1977, with a then-world-record 5,000 runners. This year marks the city's 22nd marathon; there was only a half-marathon in 1987. The site of Steve Jones's 2:08:05 world record in 1984, Chicago fell on several years of hard -- and slow -- times when it lost its primary sponsor in 1991. It has since rebounded to become one of the fastest and most successful marathons in the world.
Chicago's race date floats, based on city conventions and hotel availability, and this year, when its race fell on the same date as Marine Corps, some feared that registration numbers for the Washington event would suffer. But it turns out there are plenty of marathoners to go around.
"Our goal every year is to put on a world-class athletic event," said Carey Pinkowski, Chicago race director since 1990. "But we also cater to local and out-of-town runners. We want them to have the best possible race experience."
That formula has proven successful. Since LaSalle Banks became title sponsor in 1994, Chicago has more than doubled in size. Pinkowski cites studies that show a city-wide financial impact of more than $58 million; his race budget alone is more than $3 million.
Nearly a million spectators are expected to line Chicago streets Sunday, and the race will be televised live throughout the country. (HTS will air a tape-delay broadcast in the Washington area at noon.)
Despite its size, the Marine Corps Marathon is a relatively sleepy affair. The field is generally less competitive than much smaller and shorter local road races that put up a purse of a few hundred dollars.
A small cadre of Marines from Quantico organize the entire event, from media relations to finish-line logistics to course marshals, all at a small percentage of the costs in Chicago. By all accounts, they do their jobs well. But without the allure of bona fide racing, there is no television coverage, and minimal media interest.
"We're `The People's Marathon,' " said Marine Corps race director Rick Nealis. "We try to put on a good show for the average runner. The attitude toward prize money could change some day, but at this point we're content with what we have."
What the Marines have is a wildly popular, albeit insular event. Registration, limited by the relatively small start/finish area at the Iwo Jima Memorial, has closed earlier each year since the field was capped in 1997. Even next year, when the field likely will be expanded for a 25th-anniversary celebration, Nealis expects to turn away as many applications as he accepts.
"We're really different animals," Pinkowski said of the difference between Chicago and Marine Corps. "[They have] always done a great job. They put on a technically sound race. Marine Corps is more of a community-type event, while ours is more of a commercial race."
That Other Sunday Race
Both are basically flat and cover 26.2 miles. Both showcase major metropolitan areas, and both will be this Sunday. That's where similarities between the Marine Corps and Chicago marathons end.
25,000 runners (race is open until Saturday)
Entrants this year who have run in under 2 hours 8 minutes: 3
1998 winning time: 2:06:54, by Ondoro Osoro of Kenya
Course record: Osoro's 2:06:54
First prize: $65,000 plus time incentives (and an extra $100,000 for a world record)
Total guaranteed purse: $400,000
Very flat, past many Chicago landmarks
Part that will most remind you of a movie: lower Wacker Drive, site of the downtown chase scene in "The Blues Brothers"
At the finish you see: boats cruising Lake Michigan full of people far more comfortable than you are
Number of U.S. vice presidents to have finished race: 0
Oprah connection: She began here (on A.M. Chicago)
Broadcast coverage in the Washington area: tape-delayed TV on HTS at noon
Villanova connection: Race director Carey Pinkowski (class of 1980) ran track at Villanova.
21,800 runners (filled by March 1)
Entrants in the history of the race who have run sub-2:08: 0
1998 winning time: 2:25:31 by Johnson of Washington
Course record: Jeff Scuffins's 2:14:01, set in 1987
First prize: A cool plaque
Total purse: Many cool plaques
Mostly flat, past many national landmarks
Part that will most remind you of a movie: the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, site of the rally scene in "Forrest Gump"
At the finish you see: an enormous statue of people far less comfortable than you are
Number of U.S. vice presidents to have finished race: 1 (Al Gore, 1997)
Oprah connection: She finished here (in 4:29, in the 1995 race)
Broadcast coverage in the Washington area: WTOP-1500
Villanova connection: Race director Rick Nealis (class of '75) didn't run there. "I was more focused on my studies," he said.
-- Jim Hage, Bonnie Snyder