There Is Only One Secret to Running the Boston Marathon Course

It's probably the most challenging 26.2 miles to ace, but there is a way. Here's how.

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Michael Doyle
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Investigative journalist and editor based in Toronto

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There Is Only One Secret to Running the Boston Marathon Course 1

I’m going to make a bold claim: if you can ace the Boston Marathon, you have figured out marathoning.

But few have, as the point-to-point course from charming Hopkinton to the 10-deep crowds along Boylston Street is, shall we say, a bit tricky.

But I’m here to share with you the secret to running the perfect Boston, which might just also unlock a foolproof strategy for all your 26.2 mile runs to come.

On paper, Boston doesn’t look terribly tough. It’s a net downhill, and it’s point-to-point, meaning that if you catch a tailwind, you’re going to get some help all the way to the finish line. And those pesky hills that come later in the race are a relatively brief couple of miles long, followed by a generous five-mile downhill cruise into the finish.

Easy, right?

Why is it, then, that so many runners get absolutely done in by this course?

The answer has nothing to do with Heartbreak or the Newton hills, although they are quite the challenge (more on that later). The primary reason why Boston is often the race where PR dreams turn into massive positive split realities is because of that generous downhill section in the first 15K, and because this course doesn’t have a single flat meter.

The Truth About Boston

The one and only “secret” or “hack” to running the Boston Marathon is this: take it very, very easy in the first 15K, and beware that the opening 3.5 miles are the steepest, and most damaging in the entire race. If you aren’t careful, you will destroy your quads, and your race without even realizing it.

Because the race is comprised of 30,000ish really good recreational runners, sub-elites and pros—regardless of where you’re starting in the race—you’re going to be surrounded by people who are probably faster than you. This can be an unanticipated and overwhelming experience for even seasoned marathoners. It’s also the primary reason why so many get baited into going out just a little harder than they should in that tone-setting first few miles. It’s so tempting to “take what the course offers you” with the downhill, as your goal marathon pace is going to feel downright easy in the stretch from Hopkinton to Framingham. But this is a Faustian pact. If you’re too greedy in this early phase of the course, you’ll reap what you sow in due time.

Instead, believe in your training. If you’ve put in the work and know what you’re capable of on race day, stick to your plan, put the blinders on and ignore those around you. If you do this, I promise you that you’ll see all of these runners who are charging off ahead of you at some point down the road, and you’ll be passing them like they are standing still. And many of them actually will be.

There Is Only One Secret to Running the Boston Marathon Course 2

Beware of the Fire Station

The gut-check moment in Boston actually comes just before you really get into the Newton hills. Between miles 17 and 18, right before one of just two major turns in the entire race, you scream down a nasty little hill, and then have to make a sudden and pretty steep little climb. Then, you roll back down another hill and into an abrupt right. This is when the race’s profile quickly changes, and you’re introduced to the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Boston.

This pivotal moment in the race is marked by the iconic Newton fire station situated at the corner. The profile of this building is going to be burned into your memory for a long time to come. It’s at this stage in the race when you’re going to truly face yourself, and discover who you really are as both a runner and person. Ever heard of the philosopher Hegel? As you navigate this turn, you’re going to get to experience what he defined as “the dark night of the soul.”

If you’ve shown patience and checked your ego in that first downhill section of the race, when you see the fire station, you’re going to feel surprisingly composed and motivated for what’s to come. Your memory of this moment will be one of triumph and an almost euphoric sense of excitement that you’re about to crush Heartbreak and cruise back into Boston. It is a rare self-conscious moment wherein you have just accrued actual wisdom that can be applied to pretty much every other facet of your life. Entire religions are based around this concept. And you just experienced it whilst out on a jog. Nice.

If you’ve taken more than you’ve given in training, the turn will signal the beginning of a very long, gruelling next hour or two, which may include a bit of walking and perhaps a few F-bombs and some tears. And that fire station will come to represent for you one of life’s cruel indignities: that you weren’t actually as smart as you thought you were.

I recommend you strive for the former, as the later stings, and makes for an overly long Instagram novella accompanying that Boston finisher’s medal pic. And even though all your followers are going to politely reassure you that you’re not bad at running and it was just “a tough day at the office,” you’ll know the truth.

There Is Only One Secret to Running the Boston Marathon Course 3

But What About Those Hills?

Don’t get me wrong, the Newton hills are tough. Including that opening salvo before the fire station turn, there are four progressively challenging climbs that can pitch up to about a 5.5% grade, which is pretty nasty. You should have a plan for how you’re going to negotiate these four obstacles to your Boston success.

You’re going to have to give up a bit of time in the Newton hills. Unless you’ve massively underperformed in the first 18 miles of the race, there’s no way you’re going to be able to smash your way up (and down) these hills in goal marathon pace. But the overall grade of each hill also isn’t so steep as to completely throw you off your rhythm. So just aim to march your way through each, reassuring yourself at the end of each that on the other side of Heartbreak there’s the reward of a gentle net downhill float home to the best finishing stretch in all of sports.

A note on Heartbreak Hill

Spoiler alert: if you’re not paying attention to which hill you’ve just crested, you may not realize you’ve just owned the dreaded Heartbreak, until of course you spot a sign at the apex congratulating you on arriving at its summit. This is not to say that Heartbreak is a piece of cake, and it is technically the steepest, longest and grindiest of the four Newton Hills. But I’d dare call it overrated as a race wrecking obstacle. If anything, it’s merely a litmus test of how well you’ve negotiated the Boston course up until that moment.

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Don’t Be Fooled by the Citgo Sign

One final head’s up: there’s much talk about the Citgo sign marking the one mile to go in the race. It’s a cool icon and looks pretty sick on a T-shirt, even though it represents an era of pollution and incredible excess in America. But unless you like to slowly drive yourself mad, ignore the Citgo sign, as it’s visible for several miles, and can feel like a bloody mirage at about 22 miles.

Instead, focus on getting through the quiet, virtually spectator-less stretches deep into the race (one of which ominously passes a cemetery). And once you enter Boston proper, there will be a final stinger awaiting you in the form of an underpass. This minor little blip on the course profile feels like running up (and then down) Everest at this stage in the marathon. Lean into the downhill, and use your arms to get back up and out of it, and then force yourself to refocus and regain the flow of your marathon pace, as you can lose minutes even with just a mile to go if you aren’t staying in the moment.

Now you know the “secret” to running the perfect Boston Marathon. For better or worse, the truth is that we all know how to run it the right way. The question is, can you bring yourself to actually do it?

Photo of author
Investigative journalist and editor based in Toronto

1 thought on “There Is Only One Secret to Running the Boston Marathon Course”

  1. Just ran Boston yesterday and PR’d. This article is spot-on. If your run it correctly (and I have not done so in previous years), the first 16 miles should make Boston feel like one of the easiest marathons. The four Newton hills are not steep – they’re just long. And if you presevered your energy and don’t try to outperform in terms of time, you shouldn’t hit a wall (although they will take a lot out of you). It’s all downhill from there (literally). For me, I didn’t feel the hurt until mile 22.


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