The Boston Marathon Cheat Sheet
Champ Amby Burfoot and streak runner Ben Beach give the DL on the world’s most storied marathon
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Ben Beach was a high school senior in 1967 when he heard a radio broadcast of the Boston Marathon. “I thought, “I’d really like to do that next year,’” Beach says. “It was an unpleasant day—it was sleeting—and it really appealed to my sense of the bizarre.”
So he called up Jock Semple, the petulant Scottish-American race director dead set against hosting college hooligans. “Fraternity members who would run the marathon as a stunt drove him crazy,” Beach says. “He wanted serious runners.”
Beach somehow convinced Semple he was serious—despite never having logged more than five miles at a time—and ran his first Boston Marathon in 1968 after paying the $2 entry fee. (His time: an impressive 3:23, despite doing his final long run of 22 miles two days before the race.) He’s run every Boston Marathon since; this year will be number 49.
“There are so many things that make it special,” Beach says. “The history, the point-to-point course. I love the spectators; they’re dedicated and knowledgeable. The volunteers are unbelievable. It attracts the best athletes in the world, and it’s so well organized. And Boston is a cool city.”
A lot has changed since Beach ran his first Boston. Now you have to qualify, the entry fee is $180, and running 26.2 miles is no longer considered bizarre. But one thing will never change: the feeling you’ll get crossing the finish line for the first time.
“It’s one of my most cherished memories, running down those final couple hundred yards,” Beach says. “I almost get choked up now just remembering it.”
Ready to run Boston? Below, Beach and Amby Burfoot, Runner’s World Editor at Large and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, give the inside scoop on all things Boston Marathon.
There are three ways to run Boston: qualify, raise money for charity, or bandit. “I don’t think many people bandit these days,” Burfoot says. “It’s still the young, mostly drunk college students.” If that’s not you, don’t do it, lest you suffer the wrath of the Internet like Foursquare co-founder, Dennis Crawley, and his wife did after banditing the 2014 event. #bibgate
So qualify; adding a BQ to one’s running résumé is an impressive feat. Up your chances of making the cutoffs by doing “a thorough study of the fastest courses and best conditions,” Burfoot says. “Nothing says it can’t be a downhill course.” Check out this list of the most popular qualifiers. Then train hard and pace it smart. “Find a pace team or group who will work together to achieve a qualifying time because it’s huge to have help on the course,” Burfoot says.
If qualifying is out of the question, 27 official charities await your fundraising prowess. Bonus: Besides raising money for a worthy cause, many of the charities offer training programs.
Course Recon and Strategy
Boston starts late—after 10 a.m. for most people—because you’ll be bused from Boston Common to Hopkinton in the morning. Expect some insane porta potty lines and cold weather in Hopkinton, where announcers will tell you when to start walking the approximately half-mile to your corral.
Tip: “Everybody I know goes to the thrift store” to load up on gloves and hats, sweatshirts, and sweatpants to shed just before racing, Burfoot says. That way you’ll stay warm until go time without sacrificing your own clothes.
“The first mile is a very steep downhill,” Burfoot says, followed by more downhill for the first four miles. “Sometimes you don’t realize it because you just see 3,000 runners all around you and you run it way too fast.” That will set you up for quad failure later on. So start easy and controlled. “Boston has a small window of opportunity to run a good time,” Burfoot says. “It opens up if you go out slow and run an even pace.”
Tip: Kiss the girls. At about the halfway point, you’ll run by the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, where hundreds of co-eds carry signs, many asking for a kiss. “In the old days, seconds counted and I wasn’t slowing down or stopping for anything,” Beach says. “Once, fairly recently,” he paused for a kiss. “They were probably hoping for a young buck in his 20s or 30s, not some senior citizen.”
At 20.5 miles, you’ll encounter the famous Heartbreak Hill. It’s not that bad, climbing about 90 feet in half a mile. “Just slow down, modulate your pace, shorten your stride, keep the effort, and chug up it,” Burfoot says. Friendly spectators might even give you some water and orange slices to help you up.
Tip: Mentally prepare for the stretch between miles 23 and 25. “I swear they’re the longest two miles anywhere,” Beach says. “If you know it’s going to seem longer in your head, then maybe you’ll be prepared.” Or not. “Somehow I’m never prepared,” Beach says. “Those two miles just go on and on.” Of course, they’ll feel even longer if you’ve cooked yourself on the downhills.
Then finally, you’ll be instructed to go right on Hereford, left on Boylston. It’s the famous chicane printed on t-shirts and bumper stickers. Once you make that right turn, you’ll have less than a mile to go, surrounded by thick, cheering crowds. Enjoy the fat, final straightaway to the finish line. You’ll be sprinting it—unless you went out too hard. Then it’ll be a slow but glorious hobble to your medal.
Now you know about the initial downhill. So prepare for it. “You can get quite a bit of benefit from just one hard downhill running training effort,” Burfoot says. “Two or three times and you’ll get even more benefit.” Your legs will get accustomed to the eccentric contractions and get stronger.
“So don’t worry about the uphill training,” Burfoot says, “but do three to four workouts before Boston with some downhill repeats at a pretty good clip where you’re seriously putting some stress on your quads.” If you’ve already got mile repeats planned, do them downhill. And choose mostly downhill routes for some of your long runs. “If you do your last downhill workout two to three weeks out, you’ll have plenty of time to recover,” Burfoot says.
“In the last four or five miles, the wind goes from a warming tail wind to a cooling breeze off of the bay,” Burfoot says. So run with layers. Specifically, a lightweight windbreaker you can tie around your waist—if it’s not 89 degrees like it was in 2012. “In April the weather can be 35 or 85, and it can change on course,” Burfoot says. So check your weather app often. And don’t forget to hit up your local thrift store for pre-race gear.
Even if it’s cold, don’t forget a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, on a sunny day. “There are no leaves on the trees yet,” Burfoot says. “So many people have finished the Boston Marathon with an extreme sunburn on the one side of their body that’s been facing the sun the whole way.”