Boston Marathon Course Preview

There is perhaps no race in the world that carries the prestige of the Boston Marathon. As “The People’s Olympics,” qualifying for the race alone is a feat many runners can only dream of. The challenge of simply making it to the start line is significant enough that the race itself can take on a mythological meaning. I’ve seen it unravel many runners. The uniqueness of the Boston Marathon course and experience amplifies the chances of under performing without the right mental and tactical approach.

Channel the Excitement

Just like the race you ran to qualify, this marathon is 26.2 miles. The energy surrounding the event is truly special. Use it to your advantage rather than allowing it to turn you into a nervous wreck. Excitement and nervousness are very closely related in our psyche. Understand you have the power to channel that energy appropriately. If you feel yourself getting nervous, take a moment to remember: 1) it’s just running and 2) how freaking cool it is to have this experience.

There is a lot to be said for running Boston as a fun run, to just enjoy the experience and not focus on performance. But if the goal is performance, there are a number of things you can do from the moment you arrive in town to the moment you cross the line to tilt the odds in your favor.

Manage Your Pre Race Energy

The first thing to understand is you need to let the environment give you energy, not take it away. Every year in Boston there are a million things going on, friends to see, and events to be a part of. If your goal is to perform to the best of your ability you need to be very selective with the social obligations you undertake. When we take the ZAP athletes to these big events, whether it’s Boston or the Olympic Trials, there are typically some obligatory things we need to attend. Outside of obligations, we tell them to just relax and save their energy. It’s very easy to stay busy and pour your energy into other people and things. This can take a toll on you over the course of the weekend. Enjoy the experience, but be a little bit of a hermit too.

Secondly, if it works within reason for your travel schedule, try to get in a short shakeout run with a few light strides after your travel. This will help improve your circulation and get the pooled blood out of your legs after a flight or long drive. Typically, I’ll schedule this shakeout run for the day prior to the race, but if you don’t usually run the day before your long runs you can do it 2 days prior.

Race Day Logistics

When it comes to race day logistics, you’ll have to catch the long bus ride out to Hopkinton. Try to get in a good breakfast before you head out. Pack a few small snacks to eat in the final 2-3 hours prior to the race. If the weather is going to be wet or cold be sure to wear some throwaway clothes to the start to keep warm. As you wait, keep your focus on what you can control. And even narrower, only focus on your next action. Don’t allow you anticipation chew away your energy and ramp up your anxiety. Once you develop the plan keep your focus on the next step.

Trust Your Instincts

Tyler racing to a 4th place finish on Boston Marathon course in 2018.

With that, it’s time to get into our race plan, specific for the Boston Marathon course. But before we dive in, I want to highlight one important caveat to the plan. Having a plan is crucial, but it’s also important to be flexible at certain times of the race. There are unpredictable things that happen over 26.2 miles. The feedback your body gives you during the race is critical and you’ll do well to trust your instincts.

If your body is telling you the effort is too hard in the opening 25k of the race, listen to that. It’s common to go through bad patches, even early. You can simply back off for a few minutes and then reengage when it passes. Or you may need to back your pace off a few seconds per mile and save your energy for later in the race. It’s important to trust those instincts and not judge them. Accept what is and react the best way you can, that’s a huge part of cultivating success on the course.

The “trust your instincts rule” only applies to running too fast. If you feel like you could be running faster, stick to the plan through at least 25k. It’s common to feel great at 10 miles, pick up the pace, only to regret it over the final miles. Stick with the plan. Know that if you feel great late in the race, you can make up a ton of time over the final miles.

Ok, now on to some specific thoughts on the Boston Marathon course!

Negative Splits on Boston Marathon Course

I’m a huge proponent of running even to negative splits from the first half to second half of a marathon. Running the first 15 miles a touch slower than your goal pace is a great way to ensure a strong finish. And to avoid stepping over the line that can cost you minutes over the final 10k if it goes the wrong way.

However, the Boston Marathon Course is unique in that in the first 16 miles you lose over 400 feet of elevation. This might not seem like much over 16 miles. However, I assure you that your quads and calves will beg to differ, especially when you start climbing up the Newton Hills.

The trick to managing those first 16 miles is to make sure you don’t run them too fast. The early downhill miles can make the pace feel effortless. For 99.9% of people, their lungs can write a much bigger check than their legs can cash. Be patient and your quads and calves will thank you over the final 10 miles for your discipline.

Managing the Boston Marathon Crowd

The start of the race will be crowded. And because there is no way around this fact, you’re best to stay relaxed over the first 9-10 miles until the road opens up a bit. Boston does a great job of starting you where you qualified. So even if you’re hoping to run a bit faster you should be surrounded by people running about the same pace you are.

If you qualified much slower than you’re attempting to run then you will have problems. However, you’re still better off running with the pace of the pack during the crowded opening miles. Even if it leaves you with a little time to make up after 10 miles. It’s not worth the energy you’ll spend bobbing and weaving and stopping and starting to make your way through the sea of people surrounding you. The road will open up, and while it might not be ideal, you’re better off waiting until you have room to run instead of burning precious energy zig-zagging across the street.

Start to 16 Miles

Spend the first 3-5 miles easing yourself into your goal pace. Unlike a flat course, you’ll want to target goal pace or even 5 seconds per mile quicker than goal pace after those first few warm-up miles. On a flat course you’d want to target being 30-90 seconds slower than goal pace at halfway. But on the Boston Marathon course you’ll want to be at goal pace or up to 45 seconds faster than goal pace at halfway.

As you’re rolling your way down to the 16-mile mark think about your feet landing underneath your hips. The common mistake people make in downhill running is to extend their feet out in front of them and lean their shoulders back in a braking motion. This will increase the pounding force on your legs and leave your quads shot the final 10k. Keep your repetition of foot strike high. That will help keep you from over striding and trashing your legs on the downhills.  

16 Miles to 20 Miles

As important as the first 16 miles are, the next 5 miles are the legend of the Boston Marathon course, the Newton Hills. If you set yourself up well the first 16 miles, and trained on some hills, you’ll be fine in Newton. However, even if you’re feeling good and excited to attack the hills, you need to approach them with caution. You will be tempted to charge up them as the first hill is preceded by the steepest downhill of the race. But the series of 4 hills requires patience and focus. You will work hard through here, make no mistake about it. However, you need to get to the top of Heartbreak Hill at mile 20 with running left in your legs. There is a lot of running to be done in the final 10k.

20 Miles to Boston Marathon Finish

The final 10k is where your early patience will pay off. After Heartbreak it is mostly downhill to the finish, which will give you a nice breather coming off the hills. It will also put your legs through a test they’ll need weeks of callousing and a smart race plan to endure successfully. But you’ve put in weeks of hard work, and you’ve read this far, so you’re golden!

It’s easy to overlook these final 6 miles and really struggle home. So be sure to get to the top of Heartbreak ready to race. The final 10k you need to think about keeping your repetition of foot strike high and your feet underneath you. Let gravity be your friend and avoid that instinctual braking posture. You know it: the feet out in front of you-hips forward-shoulders back biomechanical nightmare we all become if we aren’t paying attention. Pay attention and turn what can be a course that’s brutal on your body to one that can be, when run correctly, surprisingly quick.

And most importantly, enjoy the run down Boylston Street into the finish. Whether you’re having the race of your life or struggling home, (which you obviously won’t be since we’ve established you’re fit and have a great plan!) savor the trip down Boylston Street. When you make that turn, the road opens wide, and the Boston skyline surrounds you, that’s a feeling you can’t prepare for.