Any review of the Boston Marathon could be summed up in just two words:
This is the race everyone talks about. If a non-runner has only heard of one race, it’s this one. I have been running for 11 years, and when I tell someone I run marathons I often get the question, “Have you run the Boston Marathon?” For now and forever, I can finally say, “Yes.”
Boston was an especially big deal for me. I spent a few years pursuing a goal, The Marathon Grand Slam, and when that was done I knew I would need a new goal. I decided the next big one would be to complete all the Abbott World Marathon Majors and become a Six Star Finisher, and Boston was the last piece in that puzzle. I was thrilled to receive not only my first Boston Marathon medal, but also my Six Star medal, soon after the Finish Line on Boylston Street.
Rather than just talking about how great the race is, let me offer some thoughts for those who will be running it in the future, to help you have the best time you can:
1. Hope for the best weather, plan for the worst
In the days leading up to the race, every conversation between runners was about the weather. The forecast was perfect for a while, then it started looking like the mess from 2018, then in the final 24 hours it changed again. The problem was figuring out what to wear. I had brought a whole range of clothes, from shorts and singlet to tights, long-sleeve shirt, ear protection, and gloves. I literally decided on my clothes about 10 minutes before going out the door that morning, and fortunately I got it right. We had rain, with thunder and lightening, as I woke up; then clouds and 13C temps at the start. The sun came out around Mile 8 for me, and the temperature climbed to 21C. Then around Mile 18 it began raining off and on to the Finish, with a 20kph tailwind. I had chosen to run with shorts, singlet, and a hat, and that all worked out. I also managed to get sunburned, which at 7am had seemed an impossibility.
2. Make sure you are ready for race day
The race had over a 97% completion rate. If someone started, they were pretty much ready to finish it, so you want to make sure you have trained up for this and are ready to go the distance at whatever pace you wish to pursue. Considering that most people get into Boston by running a qualifying marathon time, this typically is not going to be your first marathon, so you expect the people around you to be able to run it. (there are also about 6,000 charity and invitational bibs, so there may be a few first-timers in there, but the people I know who DNF’d tended to be faster runners in the earliest waves who simply had a bad day) This is Boston; be ready for it.
3. Take it easy at the Start
The race begins with a downhill run, and the elevation keeps dropping for a while. It’s very, very easy to get moving fast and feel like you’re going to fly through this, but the stress you put on your quads by going too fast on the downhill will haunt you later. If you find yourself running a personal best pace after the first couple miles, chances are you are going too fast and need to back it down. That’s tough to do – I mean, it’s Boston, and who doesn’t want to do well there? – but you need to save something for later. One nice thing I did notice about the Start was that, unlike in so many races, I never felt like we were all bunched up without any maneuvering room. I felt like I had the space to run whatever pace I wanted, and not be blocked by others or have to weave around people. That was so nice!
4. The Newton Hills are everything people say they are
Starting around Mile 17, and continuing through Mile 20, are the infamous Newton Hills, 4 rolling slopes that culminate in Heartbreak Hill. This is where you will discover if you went too fast on the earlier downhills, because your quads will wake up and say, “Hello there! We are going to hurt a lot now.” People talk about having to dig deep and grind through the final miles, but for me the Hills were the most challenging time. Starting around Mile 18 I developed serious pain in my left leg, stretching from my IT band up to my hip, and while I couldn’t tell where the real problem was, I could definitely tell that it was slowing me down. I popped a couple Panadol and stopped at one point just to stretch things out on Heartbreak Hill, and if I ever make it back to Boston it will be with the intent of conquering that one particular piece of the course.
5. Listen to your body
The weirdest thing happened on the course: I had to stop twice to go to the bathroom. That’s not normal for me, and I had been especially careful about my hydration before the race, so I was really surprised. What concerned me was that maybe I was taking in more water than I needed early in the race when the temperatures were pretty cool, and so I started skipping a few water stops. Boston has water stops every mile, which is a little closer to each other than I see in most races, and I cut back a little bit so as to avoid overhydrating. If something doesn’t feel right, then even though this is Boston and you want the experience to be perfect, give yourself a chance to slow down a bit and assess what’s going on, and take advantage of the medical teams and other support along the way if you need to. When your body talks, you need to pay attention.
6. The crowds will make you feel like an elite
A Singaporean friend now living in California flew out to cheer me on. He’s seen me run a couple times in Singapore, and his idea of race spectators was that they wait for the person they know, yell some support, then go quiet again. He was unprepared for the hundreds of thousands of people cheering for total strangers along the road. If all your races have been in Southeast Asia then you may be very surprised by the enthusiasm of the crowds at Boston, which stretch from Start to Finish. The Majors all have big crowds with 1-2 million spectators, depending on the race. I felt the fans pushing me the whole way, and in the final kilometer I felt like I was winning the Olympics. Big crowds are awesome. Enjoy them.
7. Get a hotel downtown if you can
I made a hotel reservation even before I had a spot in the race (I highly recommend this, by the way, as hotels fill up far in advance – just make sure you get a reservation that you can cancel if things don’t work out!). Originally I had a hotel in the town of Cambridge, figuring it was a short subway ride away, but after the Starwood/Marriott merger was complete a bunch of new options opened up for me, and I ended up 2 blocks from the Finish Line. This was perfect; not only was I close to the Finish, I was also a 10-minute walk from the Expo, and a 20-minute walk to the buses to the Starting Line. In addition, the whole neighborhood was filled with runners for the entire weekend, and that added a lot to the experience. Try to stay in the thick of things!
8. Consider running for a charity
Unlike the majority of runners, I was able to run because I had a spot on a charity team, raising money for a group called IMPACT Melanoma that fights skin cancer. This is one way to get into the race even if you don’t run a qualifying time, and I found it added a lot to the experience. Boston was the third race in which I have raised money for a charity group, and I love it. It’s a lot easier to get through those final miles when you are running for a reason. (note that if you get your bib by qualifying, you can still raise money for one of the official charities, and I suppose you could also pick your own and use this as a chance to raise money for them – it really does make the whole event more meaningful) My supporters raised over $10,000, and I want to give a special shout out to BestTop Career Consulting of Singapore, who made a very large donation!!
9. Make a spectator plan
If you have friends or family who are going to be cheering for you, figure out in advance where they will be and how they will get around. My friend joined my charity team’s cheering section between Miles 16 and 17, which was one of the first spots on the course that was easily accessible by public transit, and really, that’s the only way you’re going to get around that day. However, even the public transit can get overcrowded and cause delays; my friend was on trains that had to be taken out of service because there were too many people on them and something broke. My suggestion is to pick a point near the middle of the race, and then after you pass it have your supporters go to a spot near the Finish; you’re probably only going to get two chances for them to see you. Don’t worry though, there will be plenty of other people cheering for you.
10. Run your own race
Everybody has their own goals for the Boston Marathon. Some are running it to go as fast as they can, some are trying to qualify for next year’s race in this one, and some just want to enjoy the experience. For me, I figured this might be my only Boston, so I wanted to enjoy it. I would high-five the little kids, I would kiss the ladies at Wellesley College, and I would not worry about my time (well, I might worry a little, but not too much). Don’t focus on anyone else’s goals, and don’t try to meet others’ expectations; this is YOUR Boston Marathon, so figure out what you want from it, and then go for it.
This was my 30th marathon, and while I have had some amazing adventures before this, there was something uniquely special about this one, even compared to the other Majors. As much fun as all the Majors have been, this race is really the Super Bowl/World Cup of marathons, or at least it feels that way. You spend the weekend surrounded by thousands of people all excited about the same thing, you bump into elites in the hotel elevator, and then you run the oldest marathon in the world. There are many races that are great, but Boston is BOSTON!!
(Want to know more? I share my adventures on my Facebook Athlete page.)