Acceptance into the Boston Marathon is a coveted achievement dreamt about by runners all over the world. This race is a collection of incredible athletes who have dedicated hours of training and sacrificed time with loved ones in order to have the privilege to race one of the most famous marathons in the world.
Being accepted is only the beginning of the journey, as upon entry the athlete then has to start training to race. Preparing for the Boston Marathon is a challenge in and of itself, given that the race takes place in April so for most runners this means training during some cold and unpleasant months. However, Boston-bound athletes understand the importance of being well prepared for this event as the course can annihilate even the most well-trained and seasoned athlete.
So, what makes Boston so challenging you ask? Well, on top of the 26.2 miles, the weather is unpredictable, the headwind can be brutal and the hills are relentless on the body. How’s that for a race description?
The challenge of this course however is part of the allure. It is a strategic race which can yield a different result each time you run it and may take a few times to master. One needs to practice patience during the first half, have a tested nutrition plan, be confident with their abilities to hold back just enough to charge the Newton Hills and have a strong 10K once they crest Heartbreak Hill. For many runners the race is defined by how strong you feel during those last six miles.
With the right race strategy, the Boston Marathon is bound to be an incredible race. My number one tip: enjoy the experience. Take in every moment and celebrate your accomplishment. I have put together a course guide with advice on how to race for success in this challenging yet magical course.
Plan Your Boston Marathon Pacing
One of the smartest things a Boston-bound athlete can do is to plan a pacing strategy that takes into account the hilly terrain of the course, as well as the possible weather obstacles. A good way to do this is by using a pacing calculator such as TrainingPeaks’ The Pacing Project. This calculator allows you to calculate mile-by-mile pacing times based on a goal finish time, a graded pace time (which takes into account your average pace on a similar, flat course to determine your pacing for a specific course), or a recent pace model (which determines your best pacing and likely finish time based on your recent workout pacing). Once you’ve input the data, you’ll be shown a specific race plan, which includes average pacing, mile splits and your NGP, which is the average normalized pace adjusted for the course’s elevation profile.
For example, if you are racing in the 2017 Boston Marathon and are curious about what time you will likely finish, you can input some of your finish times at lead up races to the event in order to calculate roughly what your pace will be. Say you ran a half marathon during your lead up in 1:55 and a 10K race in 50 minutes, your average pace for Boston will likely be 9:26 min/mile, putting you across the line in about 4:09.
Knowing your average pace can help keep you on track during the race, most importantly in the beginning when many people simply go out too hard. Knowing an approximate finish time can also help you make a solid nutrition plan that takes into account just how long you will be out on the course.
Boston Marathon Nutrition and Hydration Plan
In reality, your marathon nutrition and hydration plan should begin not once the race gun goes off, but rather in the weeks leading up to the race. This complete guide to proper marathon nutrition lays out the specifics in detail, but here are some important takeaways:
Do your research
Learn what types of fuel and liquids will be available on the Boston Marathon course, and where on the course they’ll be.
Practice, practice, practice
Make sure you are training with either what will be available on the course or your own liquids and fuel well in advance of the race so you know how they work with your own physiology and sweat rate.
Learn your sweat rate
Doing this will allow you to calculate the optimum amount of fluids you need to be consuming every hour in order to stay properly hydrated and to keep your gut functions running smoothly.
Fuel up with carbohydrates
The average person should plan on consuming between 30g and 60g of carbohydrate per hour in order to keep your glycogen levels up. Your needs depend on several factors, including your weight and heart rate, and should be thoroughly practiced and perfected in training.
Plan on waking up early enough to consume breakfast between three and four hours before the start of the race. Don’t eat something new that you came across in the hotel breakfast buffet, have a traditional breakfast that you’ve eaten before long training runs on a consistent basis.
Plan Your Race Morning Carefully
Prepare yourself mentally and physically for an early morning wake-up, a long bus ride and lots of waiting around. The buses start picking up athletes at 6:00 a.m, on the Tremont Street side of Boston Common in Boston’s Back Bay. Buses are loaded according to the wave which you have been assigned. The first wave doesn’t start until 10:00 a.m. so this gives you about three hours to eat, nap and work out any last minute butterflies. As you’d expect, the lines to the bathrooms are long so make the best of it and chat with your line buddy.
Bring some warm gear because the weather is always unpredictable. Remember anything you bring to the start will be donated, so consider what you bring with you carefully. Use this time to eat, hydrate and stay on top of your nutrition.
Lastly, relax, take it all in and make a new friend or two. Take some time to visualize a successful race day, work on relaxation breathing techniques, or settle on a mantra to recite to yourself when things start getting tough. These mental training tips should ideally be practiced in the weeks leading up to race day as well.
The Race: A Mile by Mile Breakdown of the Boston Marathon Course
Hopkinton: Miles 1 – 6
The race starts on a steep downhill, and it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and go out too fast. This is where your pacing calculator times will really come in handy. Unlike some marathons, keeping even splits is harder that you think in Boston as the first half is fast and you are surrounded with fast athletes. The right approach is to conserve your energy and hold back, the course will destroy you if you are not conservative in the beginning. Do all you can to find your rhythm, hold back and just settle in.
Framingham: Miles 6 – 13
This is where the course gives you a little reprieve as it flattens out for a bit. Now is the time to assess your body and see how your quads are doing. Also an ideal time to take some fuel and keep hydrated. If you are feeling good, this is the ideal opportunity to get back on your goal pace and bank a few seconds. Just make sure that you stay in control as miles nine to 11 are deceivingly uphill.
Wellesley: Miles 13 – 16
Yes, the stories are true. As you approach Wellesley College you can hear the sound of screaming ladies, most of them ready to reward runners with a few kisses if you choose to get a smooch. My advice is to keep focused and use this time to take your mind off of the race, enjoy the atmosphere and soak in the energy. Keep your pace in check as this flat section can make you go faster than you really should be going. Remember you still have 13 miles to go.
Newton Hills: Miles 16 – 20
Get ready to climb. The hills are actually not that bad, what really gets you is the undulation of the course, lots of small elevation changes which make it hard get in a good rhythm and keep on pace. The frequent change in elevation comes exactly when you are feeling tired and if you’re not mentally strong, you may lose a good deal of time in this section. This is where most runners notice their biggest loss of time. Despite how much you hold back at the start, Newton will try to get the best of you. Run this section on feel and try to keep your heart rate under control, listen to your body and make smart choices. As you get close to mile 20, make sure you take in some fuel; what you take in now will be beneficial during that final stretch into Boston.
Boston 10K: Miles 20 – 26.2
As soon as you crest Heartbreak Hill (which is roughly .4 miles long a little past the 20-mile mark), get ready for some speed work as the elevation drops on your way into downtown. Just be careful as this section has quite a few rolling hills which can seem challenging this late in the race. The key is to increase your cadence and try to pass anyone you can. You will quickly see the famous CITGO sign which marks the final mile of the race. This may seemed like the longest mile you have ever run as it rewards you with one final underpass. Once you make your final turn on Boylston Street you will hit a wall of noise as thousands of spectators celebrate your accomplishment. All you can do at this point is hold back the tears and enjoy the crowds— the feeling of emotion that will flood your body is indescribable.
Running a perfect race, setting a personal best or qualifying for Boston at Boston is just icing on the cake. Whatever you do, enjoy this moment and make this your day! It is an incredible accomplishment to make it to this hallowed starting line. Try not to get too wrapped up on goals and finishing times and rather, just enjoy the magical experience.
Congratulations and see you in Boston!