New York may have the crowds. Chicago may have the speed. But the Boston Marathon is the great American race.
It is an annual party on the third Monday in April, a local holiday called Patriots’ Day. The rest of the world works while Boston ostensibly celebrates the start of the American Revolution, but really just celebrates itself and the 30,000 people running from Hopkinton to Copley Square.
About 20 percent of the runners earned their entry by raising money for charity, but nearly all of the others had to qualify with times that classified them in the upper tier of runners in their age groups.
For the lay marathoner, qualifying for Boston is a crowning achievement. It’s also an opportunity to run a monster of a course that goes mostly downhill for the first 16 miles, deceptively shredding the quadriceps muscles, and then travels uphill for most of the next five. At the top of Heartbreak Hill in mile 20 of the race, the Citgo sign outside Fenway Park, roughly a mile from the finish, comes into view. It looks so close and so, so far.
For those running for the first time, or those who have run it before and are still trying to figure out how to master it, here is a course guide for the ultimate journey to the heart of the Hub.
The Bus Ride
Nearly everyone who runs Boston takes the bus from Boston Common out to Hopkinton.
It’s a special moment, especially for those who have gotten in with a qualifying time. These are your people, folks every bit as crazy as you are about splits and intervals and hill training. Chat up the strangers around you about where they qualified, their favorite marathons and what their race plans are. For once, you are not the weird running obsessive.
The friendly banter will take your mind off the obvious: This bus ride is kind of long. Like, nearly an hour, and you have to run all the way back. Try not to think about that.
It is a bit of a walk from the starting village at Hopkinton High School to the start line. That walk to Main Street, which will happen about 20 to 30 minutes before your start, is one of the great moments in marathon running.
People are out on the lawns there to clap for you and wish you luck. Make eye contact with them. Take your time. Soak it in. Feel their warmth and good-heartedness. It’s deep and genuine. All they want is for you to have a great day.
Also, there are hundreds of portable toilets just before the corrals, so once you leave the starting village, you have another chance to empty out.
From those toilets to your corral is two minutes, tops.
Everyone is hyped up. These are fast people. They want to show that early, especially the first-timers. Try to stay calm, especially during the first mile, which is uncomfortably tight and has a sharp downhill stretch. The urge is to burn some nervous energy and clock a fast first one. Resist.
The Early Towns
You could say this about every marathon: that the key is to stay relaxed, take it one step at a time and run the mile you are in. But that is never more true than in Boston, where the temptation to rush is all around you, especially at the beginning, as runners make their way from Hopkinton, to Ashland, to Framingham, to Natick, with long, quiet, rural stretches between the noise of the towns.
Take note of a little hill around the four-mile mark. How did that feel? Legs a little weary? If so, that’s a clue that you might want to back off a bit and remind yourself not to rush. This race is a teapot on a slow boil. Find that balance between getting after it and letting it come to you.
If there is a more beautiful spot in a big-city marathon than the stretch across Lake Cochituate in the 10th mile, please let us know. There is water on both sides of the road here, the sounds of birds, shuffling feet and wind in the trees. The endorphins are kicking in; the pain is most likely still miles away. Enjoy the high here. This is a moment for gratitude, for the beauty around you and for the good fortune of health that has you in this spot, in this race, at this moment.
The Scream Tunnel
The first thought is, “What is that sound?” because you will hear it for at least a half-mile before you see it. The answer is the good people of Wellesley College, who have come to the side of their campus to holler their hearts out and hold profane banners and, in some cases, participate in a contest to see who can collect the most kisses from the men and women running by.
Stay on the right side of the road if you want to get the full auditory effect. Stay to the left if you want to get the full visual.
Whatever you choose, make sure to take it all in. This tradition is as good as it gets.
Halfway, and Then Down Down Down
The 13.1-mile mark comes shortly after all the screams of the tunnel and another raucous scene in downtown Wellesley. It’s another moment when the temptation to surge will be strong given all the external stimulation. Don’t. Take a deep breath. There’s a good 2.5-mile roll down to the bottom of the course in Newton Lower Falls.
Yes, the faster you get through this, the sooner you can get started tackling the hills. Stay patient. The hills will be there soon enough.
The Newton Hills
There are four of them (or five, depending on who is counting). The first one heads over Massachusetts Route 128, which is the informal boundary of Boston and its inner suburbs. That means there are 10 miles left, and the water in the teapot is starting to get hot. There’s another hill after the turn at the firehouse just after at the 17-mile mark, and then two more after that. The third one is the hardest, even though the last one has the famous Heartbreak Hill moniker. Plenty of water along the course here. Drink it.
Here’s a tip from someone who has too many times tried to “hammer the hills” but only ended up hammering himself: Ease off on the actual uphills and take note of the long, flat and rolling stretches between them. There’s speed there if you want it.
Just after the top of Heartbreak Hill, you can catch a glimpse of the Citgo sign off in the distance beyond the Green Monster at Fenway Park. That’s not that far from the finish. You can run there.
The reward for conquering the climbs of Newton is a long mostly downhill stretch to Cleveland Circle. First you can have a beer on the side of the road with the Boston College students if you want. Whether or not you indulge, there’s a good chance that this downhill hurts every bit as much as the uphills, and maybe even more. That’s nearly 16 miles of downhill running taking its toll. It might feel as if knives are stabbing your thighs. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Look around you, though. So many people are in just as much pain as you are. The only way out is through.
Keep an eye out for some old trolley tracks embedded in the road as you come down off the hill and into Cleveland Circle. This is not a good moment to trip and crack a tooth.
The teapot isn’t hissing yet, but the water is starting to boil. The crowd is growing thicker every block along Beacon Street. The noise is building. Boston is calling you. Run to it. There’s an ever-so-slight downhill pitch to the road here. Just keep making forward progress over these next three miles, and you’ll just about be home.
The dirty secret about the Boston Marathon is that hardly any of the course is inside the city limits. There’s one little stretch a couple of miles back, and then just the final two-plus miles after Brookline. No matter. “Boston” is really more an idea and a sprawling metroplex that somehow still feels more like a colonial-era village than a city, and never more so than on Patriots’ Day.
That once faraway Citgo sign is now beside you. Feel the love from the crowd that may be spilling out from Fenway Park, and brace yourself for one last significant rise around the 25-mile mark. Then there’s a final dip and one final up before the six most beautiful words in marathoning: “right on Hereford, left on Boylston.”
There’s the finish line 600 yards ahead.
Sprint. Dance. Scream. Fist-bump the runner next to you. Do take a moment as you pass Marathon Sports to remember what happened here 10 years ago. Now look up and smile for the camera.
You are officially Boston Strong.