It’s the unicorn.
The Boston Marathon is the race—a universe encapsulated in a marathon, with its attendant mythos elevating it beyond almost every other race.
That mythos can be overwhelming, and it gets hard to remember that this is, in a lot of ways, just another race. It’s a big one, an important one, and in many ways the milestone—but at its heart, Boston is 26.2, just like any other.
Of course, every race has its quirks, and Boston has its own logistics to consider, so here’s the average Boston qualifier’s take from prerace to well after the finish:
Check the weather when you wake up; if it’s going to be cool in the morning, make sure you have some tossable layers—even though the race organizers have this down to a science, you’ll still be hanging around in the athlete’s village a while, and you don’t want to be chilled to the bone when you’re heading to the start.
But now you need to drop some gear and catch a bus. If you’re in a hotel/Airbnb/friend’s house outside Boston, the good news is it’s not bad trying to get in for the race, especially if you’re in the first wave. I snagged a Lyft with no issue, and Lyft and Uber cars were all over the place; public transportation is also a great bet, assuming you’re somewhere convenient to the T or buses. If you opt the Lyft/Uber route, it’s a good idea to schedule your ride ahead of time.
Also, if you’re at a close-in hotel, check to see if there’s a shuttle running into Boston Common. My hotel had one, but it was leaving a little later than I would’ve liked.
Once you’re down at the Common, it’s a short wait to get your gear checked (they’re masters of efficiency)—although remember, if you bring it to Hopkinton, the only way it’s getting to the finish is if you’re carrying it.
The wait for the bus is equally short, if not shorter—these guys have logistics beyond nailed down.
Up to the athlete’s village
The bus ride’s as long and as dull as advertised. If you can catch a quick nap, it’s not a bad idea—you’re not missing much. If you’re not napping, just relax—hype time is still hours away. No sense in getting amped up way ahead of time. You’ve got about 45 minutes before you’re in Hopkinton.
The athlete’s village is crowded and crazy, but if you’re not trying to jump in the massive line for a photo with the Hopkinton sign, it’s thoroughly organized chaos. Grab some coffee and some food if you need it (coffee’s more than decent) and find a place to relax out of the sun—no sense baking yourself this early.
If you’re meeting up with people, aim for specific areas—tent corners are a good bet; the tents are massive and hold a small town’s worth of people, so you’ll get lost without a specific meetup spot.
If you’ve forgotten anything, the village pretty much has you covered. Keep an eye out for stands between the tents—Clif had one, among others.
Otherwise, you’re going to be hanging around a while. Bring an old yoga mat or buy one or two of those foam interlocking workout mats—your butt will thank you (and leave ’em for the next wave of humanity, whose butts will also thank you).
Don’t worry about a warmup in the village (beyond maybe a little dynamic stretching). Waves will start getting called well ahead of the start, and you have about a half-mile walk to the corrals, which (combined with that fairly easy first mile) should be enough.
If you didn’t bring sunscreen, stay to the left on the walk down and make use of the tanker truck’s worth of it that one of the cancer charities puts out. Trust me, you’re gonna want it—otherwise plan on looking like a boiled crustacean when you get back to Boston.
And if you need a bathroom pitstop before the race, don’t worry—between the village and the start area, there are acres of portable toilets. You’ll be fine.
The race itself
Hey, you made it to Hopkinton! Enjoy the prerace buzz for a minute in the corral, get yourself situated and set, and just wait for the gun. You belong here, you earned this.
As everyone will tell you, Boston starts off with a decent downhill—enough of one that you should barely be pushing it in the early going (and you won’t really be able to, it’s so crowded). Mile 1 is the Don’t Worry About Your Pace Mile—if you’re within about 15 seconds or so of goal pace, you’re more than good.
You’ll ride out some rollers and mostly finish out the biggest chunk of downhills by the 5K mark, when you’ll be heading into Ashland. You’ve probably noticed that the crowds have been pretty quiet to this point, but you’re finally into one of the towns, and you’re going to get an energy boost—try not to hit the gas too hard.
From Ashland, it’s a decently flat section into Framingham, the next town on the route; the course is opening more from the forests at the start, and you’ll be glad for having smeared on a ton of sunscreen (if you didn’t smear on a ton of sunscreen, now would be a good time to curse yourself).
Damn it, Natick
They aren’t the Newton monsters by any stretch, but Natick throws the first chunk of decent hills your way. The energy you saved through that first section should power you pretty easily through here, but it doesn’t hurt to be a little conservative, especially if race day is on the warm side.
The good news is Wellesley College and the Scream Tunnel are waiting on the other side of town, and the halfway mark is in sight.
Past the half
Right after Wellesley is a sign saying “Wellesley Hills,” which is just cruel. The climb isn’t brutal, but your legs are going to be feeling it. You’ll get a bit of shade through the next 5K, and you’ll get a wonderful boost from the steep downhill toward the Charles River right around Mile 16—this is Newton Lower Falls, and that name should be setting off some alarm bells.
Here they are. Crossing Route 95 seems like a bear, but the Firehouse Turn is where people start getting straight-up murdered. If you’ve paced it right to this point, you’ll be able to grind it out on the shorter, steeper uphills and gain some time back on the longer downhills—and people will be crashing out all around you. Ignore them; this is your race.
Heartbreak Hill will not break you. That’s not to say it’s not tough, or that it doesn’t show up at the least opportune time, but it will not break you.
The good news is it’s not nearly as steep as the three Newton climbs. The bad news is it feels like it goes on forever—keep it steady and you’ll be fine. There’s a bit of a flat at the top of Heartbreak that feels like its own mile, but the downhills are looming.
Revel in the drunk college kids at BC, because you’re not getting anything immediately after them in the Haunted Mile. You’re riding the downhills past the Chestnut Hill Reservoir to Beacon Street, which is flat and seemingly unending—the Citgo sign is a billion miles away, but it will seem tantalizingly close. Getting to the sign means one more climb over the Mass Pike, which will throw one last big punch at your trashed quads.
The final stretch
Once you’re past that thoroughly evil Mass Pike overpass, you’re essentially home—a gentle right puts you on Commonwealth Avenue, the last significant straight shot, although you have to navigate the idiotic little dip under Mass Ave., and climbing out of it can feel five times steeper than reality.
The last two turns are in front of you, though—right on Hereford, with its mild incline, and a left on Boylston.
Boylston is the defining finish stretch—the crowds and towers of downtown press in, and you can’t help but feel triumphant, but it’s a solid quarter-mile. If you have it in the tank, start the kick on making that last left, but otherwise, just slowly press the gas a little harder until you hit the Prudential Center’s street-level plaza, then turn it loose with whatever you have.