How to Get Into—and Master—the Boston Marathon

Boston marathon
Tim Bradbury / Staff

The Boston Marathon (April 17) is the oldest annual marathon in the world and, for workaday runners, the most prestigious. Even weekend warriors and self-described “joggers” aspire to pound the storied 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton east through the Boston suburbs, over the Newton Hills, and into Copley Square.

With that kind of history, Boston’s also one of the hardest marathons to get into—hopefuls need to meet tight qualifying standards to apply for entry. This year’s edition is long-since full, but qualifying is currently under way for 2018—although if you’ve never done it before, you’ve got some work to do.

To punch next year’s ticket, you’ll need to qualify by running a USATF or AIMS-certified marathon in less than 3:05:00 for ages 34 and under, 3:10:00 for ages 35 to 39 (based on your age on race day, 4/16/18) anytime between now and mid-September, when registration opens for the event.

Terrence Mahon, who coaches the Boston Athletic Association’s High Performance Team, suggests you do even better than that: “You want to be three minutes under the qualifying time for the best shot of getting into the race.”

Boston’s famed course culminates at Heartbreak Hill—the ultimate wall for testing one’s endurance.

Keep in mind, too—getting in is the easy part. With a net elevation drop of 459 feet and a prevailing tailwind, Boston is also one of the most diabolical courses you can race.

“It took me three tries at Boston to get it right,” says running legend “Boston Billy” Rodgers, who has won the race four times. Was it worth it? “Even with all the challenges, it’s the kind of race that changes your life,” he says.

3 ways to ace the Boston Marathon

  1. Run to the hills: “Your training should include every aspect of hill running—lots of uphill intervals, long downhills, downhills into uphills, and whatever combination you can think of as you go,” says running coach Terrence Mahon. “Run on undulating terrain three to four times per week to prepare your legs for the road to Boston.”
  2. Ace your pace: “Boston is not a course where even pacing should be your goal,” Mahon says. With its constantly rolling terrain, “you want to be a little quicker on the downhills so that you can be a little slower on the uphills and not panic about losing your overall pace.” The more a runner can appropriately gauge his physical and aerobic efforts on hills, the better he will do at pacing it out correctly, with steady effort from start to finish.
  3. Don’t forget strength training: “It’s all about making sure your legs are resilient enough to handle all the downhill pounding before climbing up the hills,” Mahon says. He recommends three sets of 90-second to two-minute wall squats and double-leg hip bridges three times per week for a solid month before incorporating hills into your weekly training.


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