Thursday, April 9, 2015

Countdown to Boston: Course Strategy

The 119th Boston Marathon is now just 11 days away! Those of you who are currently tapering for it are probably going a bit mad right about now. You've no doubt combed every inch of the BAA website and parsed every word of my first-timers guide to Boston. Maybe you've really gotten into the weeds and have read my "Wicked Good Guide to Boston Speak" or you decided to pick up a copy of Just Call Me Jock for some light reading. Those are all well and good, but one thing you can really do to help is think about your race strategy. To assist you in that, I present my course strategy for the Boston Marathon. 


Start slow and keep things easy and relaxed for the first 10k. Gradually pick things up but plan to hit the half at pretty close to your average goal pace--you can negative split this race. You may lose some time on the Newton Hills but if you've run smart and saved some energy, you can make up lots of time in the final 10k. Boston is a PR course.

The route hasn't changed much since this map was put together.


The Start: Hopkinton to Framingham (Miles 0-6)

If you know anything about the Boston Marathon, you probably know that it starts with a steep downhill. In fact, the course drops over 100 feet in the first half mile or so. You will be surrounded by runners who are just as excited as you and there will be a big temptation to take the start too fast--DON'T. Most likely the crowd will keep you in check--Boston has a very narrow start and you'll be pretty packed in--but you still need to focus on your own pace. Run the first couple of miles slower than your goal pace, not by much, maybe 7 to 12 seconds slower, but enough to keep you from trashing your quads early on.

After the first couple miles, start easing into goal pace. This should not feel difficult--if you think you're running too fast you probably are. Miles 3 to 6 are generally downhill and the steepest descent is behind you so it's okay if you're a little fast than goal pace but not much faster. You're goal shouldn't be to bank time--that doesn't work. By the time you pass the Framingham Train Depot near mile 6, you should feel fresh and have settled in on a comfortable pace.

The Flatlands: Framingham to Natick (Miles 6 to 10)

These miles are the closest thing you're going to see to flat until the race's final 10k. This is the perfect time to really settle into your goal pace and to start thinking about hydration and fueling. If you haven't already taken nutrition, go ahead and do so. The sidelines aren't as packed here (though there are still plenty of spectators) and the the field has started to spread out a bit more. Enjoy the breathing room and think about your race.

Cheering Crowds and Co-Eds: Natick to Wellesley (Miles 10 to 13.1)

There are some minor rolling hills in this section but there are also great crowds. Mile 10 brings you through downtown Natick, which is always packed with spectators. As you exit downtown, there's a brief dead zone as you run along some railroad tracks. One of the tricks in this section is to enjoy the crowds but avoid having them affect your pacing. This is especially true as you pass the gates of Wellesley College. You can hear the girls of Wellesley screaming before you can see them and if you're not careful you can find yourself really picking up the pace.

After you pass the school, there's a short uphill and then you're running through downtown Wellesley and some more gently rolling hills. You'll have plenty of spectators and soon you'll hit the half. Hopefully you've managed to keep things in control and you've crossed crossed the half at near goal pace. You can be a little fast, but you're going to need lots of energy for the second half of the race.

The Calm Before the Hills: Wellesley to the Newton Lower Falls (Miles 13.1 to 16)

Washington Street through Wellesley is relatively flat and you should be feeling pretty good. Hopefully you've been consistent with your fueling plan because if not, you'll feel it soon. Mile 15 has the steepest drop on the course since the first mile--90 feet over roughly 3/4 of a mile.  Try to lean slightly into the downhill to save your quads. If you "brake" excessively on this stretch, it will really come back to bite you. That said, make sure your pace is controlled as you cross over the Charles River into Newton and pass the Lower Falls Wine Co.

Those Infamous Hills: Newton (Miles 16 to 21)

This section of the course is undoubtedly the toughest, but it doesn't have to ruin your race. The Newton hills are a series of roughly four hills with an elevation gain of roughly 200 feet. The thing is, for every uphill, there's a downhill. You may lose some time on these miles, but if you run smartly, you won't lose that much.

Try to focus on maintaining an even effort on the uphills. Don’t overstride and try to speed up the hills: they’re too long and there are too many of them for this. Focus on shorter strides and faster turnover instead. You can make up some time by pushing the downhills a little, but also use them as a recovery. The final hill—Heartbreak Hill—comes between miles 20 and 21. You’ll know you’ve conquered it when you pass Boston College at mile 21. 

Well-Earned Downhill: Boston College to Coolidge Corner (Miles 21 to 24)

Right after Boston College the course begins a long stretch of downhill. You have to avoid the temptation of charging down the hill. You still have almost 10k left and if you're legs have made it this far, you don't want to trash them now. Focus on your form and use the downhill to pick up some speed without going out of control.

At mile 22 you run by the Chestnut Hill Reservoir and make a turn onto Beacon Street, a straight line into Boston. Enjoy the increasing crowds and let them pull you forward.

The Final Push: Coolidge Corner to the Finish (Miles 24 to 26.2)

You've made it this far and you know you can finish. The Citgo Sign is looms overhead, right at the 25 mile mark. The Red Sox have likely wrapped up their annual 11 a.m. Patriots Day game and the spectators should be deep on either side of you. Use their energy and focus on the Citgo Sign because there's a little blip of a hill as you run across the Mass. Pike overpass. Focus on moving forward--use your arms if you have to--because you're almost there.

Whether you've realized it or not, you're now running on Comm. Ave. There's one more minor elevation change as the course goes under Mass. Ave and back up, but as soon as you conquer that final dip, it's time to take a right onto Hereford. Hereford is another slight uphill, but it's short and the crowds will be electric at this point. If you have a kick, hold onto it until you make the final turn, a left on Boylston. You can see the finish now so give it everything you've got left. Cross the line and give yourself a high-five--you're a Boston Marathoner!


  1. this is awesome! when i run boston again (hopefully 2016!), i will have to re-read this. in 2012 it was so hot that i ran for fun and didn't notice any hills! i can't wait to get back there and really experience the course.

    1. Honestly 2012 was both the hardest marathon I've ever run, and the most fun! In that heat, Boston could have been pancake flat and I don't think it would have made much a difference. Hopefully when you run again there's better weather.