For most marathoners, making it to the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass., is the completion of a long journey filled with endless miles of training and months of anticipation. But once you make it there, you still have a race to run, and a very difficult and entirely unique one at that. The Boston course is unlike that of any other major marathon and presents a serious challenge for even the best runners. To help first-time Boston runners and veterans alike, here is a semi-comprehensive guide to the race and the course.
Once you get to the athletes’ village in Hopkinton, grab a spot inside the big tent. (This will be especially important this year with rain and high winds in the forecast.) You’ll likely have at least two hours before the start, so many Boston veterans bring inflatable air mattresses or foldable chairs to relax in. If you feel like taking a walk, wander around the village for a few minutes and you might run into Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter or Amby Burfoot. Once the officials start calling runners to the start, they do so in reverse bib number order, again calling the higher numbers first. But as with the buses, you can wait as long as you want. They’ll let you into your corral—or any corral behind yours—any time before the start. Hang out in the village for a few extra minutes and you’ll get a clear shot at the port-a-johns and have less time to kill standing in the corral.
Every runner knows about the hills on the Boston course, but what many don’t realize is that the course actually has a fairly large net elevation loss from start to finish. It starts at nearly 500 feet above sea level in Hopkinton and finishes at sea level in Boston. The first mile is a steep downhill on a very narrow stretch of road, lined on both sides by thousands of screaming spectators. It’s very difficult to resist the temptation to go out fast here, given the downhill and all of the adrenaline that’s been building up for months. But this course punishes rabbits like few others, so take it easy. The downhill continues till the four-mile mark and all of it is along pretty narrow roads.
You see the first uphill between miles four and five and then the course flattens out for several miles as it meanders through Framingham and Natick. This section of the course is not exactly the most scenic portion, as you’ll be running through commercial and semi-industrial areas. But there are a couple of roadside biker bars in the early miles whose parking lots are always filled with well-lubricated, leather-lunged fans who seem to scream for hours non-stop.
As you approach the halfway mark, you’ll slowly become aware of a dull roar. The noise will gradually increase as you pass the 12-mile mark and crescendo when you reach the famed Wellesley College Scream Tunnel. It’s almost impossible to describe this phenomenon, which can literally be heard a mile away. The Wellesley College women turn out in force for the marathon, rain or shine, and scream their heads off from the time the leaders fly past until the last runner goes by. Stay to the right side of the street to get the full effect of the screams (and the scenery—Wellesley is an all-women’s college). The halfway point is just past the college and the course really begins to assert itself at this point. You’ll face a moderately steep hill that’s more than a mile long, beginning around 13 miles, and then head down a very steep decline that is a cruel bit of punishment for your quads as you approach the beginning of the Newton Hills.
Heartbreak Hill is the most famous of what is actually a series of three increasingly steep inclines covering nearly five miles. The first one begins just before mile 16 and continues for more than two miles as you turn right onto Commonwealth Avenue at the famous Newton Firehouse. This is a nice, scenic residential area with thousands of spectators, including tons of kids handing out orange slices, popsicles and M&M’s. But most runners barely notice as they push up the hill. At mile 18 you get a short respite from the climb as you pass through a flat section of about a mile and a half leading to the second hill. The climb beginning at mile 19 lasts about a half-mile and serves as a short prelude to Heartbreak Hill itself, which begins around mile 19.5.
You’ll pass the 20-mile mark in the middle of the climb and can amuse yourself by calculating your splits and guessing your finishing time. With glycogen depletion setting in, that level of math could occupy you for the rest of the hill. At the top of the hill, take a moment to savor the fact that all of the uphills are behind you. But don’t get too cocky: You now face six miles of harsh, unrelenting downhill running as you descend from the suburbs into Boston proper.
Your reward for conquering the hills is two of the best miles on the course as you pass through Chestnut Hill and the Boston College campus. Do your best to resist the offers of beers and hot dogs from the BC kids who have been tailgating all morning and take care not to push too hard on the initial downhill. This part of the course is usually littered with runners desperately massaging cramped hamstrings and calves.
As you pass through Coolidge Corner and approach downtown Boston, keep an eye out for the Citgo sign and the tops of the Hancock and Prudential buildings. These are the first indications that you’re nearing the finish. There’s a short uphill section as you enter Kenmore Square, and depending on your pace, you might get some unintelligible shouts of encouragement from the over-hydrated fans leaving the Red Sox traditional Patriots’ Day game. The 25-mile mark is right at Kenmore Square and after a few more blocks on Comm Ave., you’ll make a right onto Hereford Street, which is a short uphill to Boylston Street.
As you turn left on Boylston, take it all in. You have a quarter of a mile to go and both side of this street will be jammed with fans, screaming deliriously. There is no better finish in the major marathons than Boston’s, and it’s worth savoring. The couple of minutes it takes to cover the few hundred yards to the finish is a blur of sound, color and emotion. And if, like most runners, you questioned why on earth you came to this race during those brutal climbs and descents in Newton, all of the doubts will fade as the race announcer calls out your name and the volunteer hangs the medal around your neck. Fewer than one percent of all marathoners get the chance to run Boston, and you’ve just done it. Now all you have to do is find your luggage bus. As they say in Boston, good luck to you.