Boston Marathon Guide: How To Qualify, Train, and Run the Route

In this guest post, Boston Marathon finisher Margret-Ann Natsis walks us through everything you could want to know about the Boston Marathon: including the event’s history, how to qualify for Boston Marathon, training, and tips for the race itself.

Chasing the Boston Unicorn

The unicorn is an iconic mark of the Boston Marathon.

You see it at the finish line, on the medals, the iconic jackets and all other paraphernalia associated with the race.

This mythical creature symbolizes something that is meant to be chased but never caught.

According to Jack Fleming, the Boston Athletic Association’s chief operating officer, “The unicorn is a mythological figure that is meant to be pursued, but, in that pursuit, you never catch it. So it inspires you to continue to try – to race harder in the case of running – and though it may be elusive, it really is the pursuit of the unicorn that makes you better and better and better.

Running the Boston Marathon is something many people dream of and consider an extremely proud achievement, as they should.

Over the years the qualifying times have gotten faster and it’s getting harder to gain entry, making the race a true unicorn.

Let’s jump in!

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History of the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon is one of the six World Major Marathons and the oldest annual marathon in the world. It is always held on the third Monday of April, known as Patriots’ Day in the greater Boston area.

Many schools and even workplaces have the day off to celebrate some of the first battles of the American Revolutionary War, though many take this opportunity to spectate the race.

The race dates back to 1897, just one year after the first marathon competition in the1896 Olympics. On average, the marathon has about 30,000 registered participants.

Boston has always been known as a tough marathon to enter as there are time qualifying standards unlike most of the other major marathons.

That is just one of the reasons that Boston is so special.

A few others include:

  • Up until 1972 women were not allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon. However, Roberta Gibb is retroactively recognized by the race organizers as the first woman to run the full marathon in 1966. And in 1967, Kathy Switzer was the first woman to run and finish with a race number.
  • The Boston Marathon does not satisfy the rules of a record-setting course due to the elevation drop and point-to-point nature of it. So although many fast times have happened at Boston, they cannot be recognized as records.
  • Heartbreak Hill is the famous elevation climb that can break elite and recreation runners alike. While the climb itself is relatively slight, it’s located between miles 20 and 21 making it tough on the legs and mind.
  • In 2014, the year following the horrific bombing, Meb Keflezighi became the first American to win the race in 30 years. Not only that but at 38 years old was the oldest male to win since 1930.
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How To Qualify for Boston Marathon – Running a Boston Qualifier (BQ)

Getting into the Boston Marathon truly can feel like chasing a unicorn.

Here are some key pointers:

  • The qualifying standards are based on gender and age and have changed over the years.
  • As more individuals are running marathons and finish times are dropping, the Boston Athletic Association has changed the qualifying times.
  • A runner must complete a full marathon on a certified qualifying course within a certain time period before the date of the Boston Marathon.  This is usually during the month of September, about 18 months prior to the race.
  • While you are chasing a specific time in order to get into the race, you should aim to get in some ‘buffer’ to give yourself a better shot.

The application period is open on a rolling application process that gives the fastest runners priority.

Due to the popularity of the Boston Marathon, not all qualifiers who submit an entry get in due to field size restrictions. This is certainly upsetting for those who are on the cusp, which is why the organization continues to updates the BQs needed accordingly. They hope that all who achieve their goal of a BQ are able to actually run the race.

To find out what your BQ is, you can learn more on the Boston Marathon qualifying details webpage.

Training for a BQ

The time needed to run Boston can be intimidating.

It’s no joke for a young man to run a sub-three-hour marathon or a woman in her 50s to run under four hours.

But again, that’s why they call it a unicorn.

Qualifying for Boston is not meant to be easy.

Getting to the application process is an achievement in and of itself.

Key to success is getting a great training plan to increase your speed and ultimately run a BQ.

However, no plan is a blanket for all individuals to use. Every runner is unique in their physical capacity and time constraints for training. You may handle high mileage well but have a hard time fitting in multiple track sessions a week due to your work schedule. Or maybe you don’t run as many miles due to past injuries but supplement training with cycle classes.

Your best bet in reaching the start line at Boston is to hire a running coach, or follow an online program like the Marathon Training Masterclass. Nowadays you can work with coaches online or over the phone, making it easier than ever.

You might also consider joining a local running group where you can meet runners going after similar goals.

Running solo can be tough, but you may find with friends it’s more enjoyable and you’re more likely to push yourself.

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Training for the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon course is known for being difficult due to the Newton hills.

While overall the course is net downhill, there are some brutal upward hills towards the end of the race that can take a major toll on your legs.

So if you aren’t used to running on hills then that needs to be a major piece of your training for Boston.

If you live in a very flat geographical area you can mimic hills on the treadmill or even in a parking garage.

Don’t forget to work on running the downhills as well!

You also need to take weather conditions into consideration.

The marathon is in mid-April which brings rather unpredictable weather. One year it might be 75 degrees with beaming sun and the next year it’s a headwind and hail.

It’s tough to have control of the weather you train in, but if you live in a cold climate then take advantage and train outdoors.

You have already run a speedy time to get into the race, so now it’s about maintaining that fitness and mentally preparing for the tough course ahead.

If you already have a marathon training plan or coach that you feel confident about, then stick with that. Otherwise, there are plenty of online resources and books to tap into for compiling a training plan that works for you. A little bit of research on the upfront will go a long way during the training cycle.

The Race Itself – Running The Boston Marathon

The city of Boston comes to life during marathon weekend. It truly is a special weekend with a buzz in the air.

There are runners everywhere, elites mixing with the masses along the Charles River and a general feeling of excitement.

A few tips for the actual race:

  • Read ALL the information that the organization sends you so that you fully understand the start corral times, transportation and details. It’s a bit different than some other marathons with a later start and needing to bus out to the start line.
  • Watch your weather app religiously! You’re likely already doing this, but with Boston, you want to be extra prepared for whatever weather comes your way.
  • Your adrenaline will be pumping at that start line, but resist the urge to speed up. The beginning portion is a lot of downhill, but if you let yourself go you’ll feel it in your legs later.
  • Consider a smooch at mile 13 from the Wellesley College ladies! That tunnel can be heard from a mile away; soak it in.
  • When you see the Citgo sign, you’ve got one mile to go. Right on Hereford, left on Boyleston and you’re in the home stretch. Let yourself smile, wave at the crowds, give a fist pump.
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The best advice for that weekend is to soak it in. At this point, the hay is in the barn, you’ve already accomplished something huge, and it’s time to enjoy the ride. Allow yourself to savor each moment.

There really is something magical about the Boston Marathon. Maybe that unicorn is real after all.

– Margret-Ann Natsis, Boston Marathon finisher

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

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