Race Day Advice For First Time Boston Marathon Runners
At the time of this post, there are just over 6 weeks until the running of the 122nd Boston Marathon on April 16th. For many, it will be the first time toeing the line at the most iconic race in the world, and likely an accomplishment that has taken some blood, sweat, and tears to achieve.
It's undeniable that this legendary race is like no other, thanks to the rich history of the event, and the tough qualifying standards that make it out of reach for many runners.
If you're lucky enough to experience the Boston Marathon, I have two pieces of advice that are a bit of an oxymoron but will help you to run well in bean town: Chill out and Be Prepared. The big one here is being prepared, so let's start with that one first.
Preparing To Take On A Monster
Wow, that's a dramatic statement to make, and while it's a bit light-hearted, it's pretty accurate. The Boston Marathon is BIG. When I say big, I mean in all ways. Crowds, Athletes, Atmosphere, Logistics, Course layout........the stage that is set before you is significant. All of these components put together can make it overwhelming, so I thought I would unpack these a bit and give you some tips and advice from my own personal experience with the race.
The Boston Marathon is a point to point race, meaning it starts and finishes in 2 separate places. I really like this, because for me running in a giant loop or an "out and back" style marathon can get in my head. Psychologically it is easier on my brain to run in what is more like a straight line, always moving closer to the finish. But with this type of marathon course, there are some real challenges that come with it that you need to be ready for.
A Long Bus Ride Out - You will jump on a bus at one of two pick up locations well before your start time, where you will be shuttled out to the Athlete Village in Hopkinton. The buses will pick you up 2 - 3 hours before your wave start and you will be restricted to only carrying a small clear bag that the race provides, so plan your gear and the stuff you want to take with you in advance. The bus ride will be filled with a bunch of enthusiastic runners, stoked to be running Boston, but be prepared for a good 30-minute drive. It will feel like an eternity, and I kept having to calm myself down and try to shake off the haunting thoughts of how far from the finish line we were going. PS - They're school buses, so be sure to take your nervous bladder to the bathroom before you hop on for the ride.
Athlete Village - Be prepared for chaos as close to 40,000 runners will land in the village. You will find a huge tented area where you can sprawl out and get yourself organized. There are no chairs, so be prepared to sit on the grass. If you've got an old emergency blanket from a past race, pack it along as it's small, easy to carry with you, and will help claim some precious real estate under the tent.
You can expect to find an endless row of porta-potties but it's amazing how quickly they can line up. Don't wait until the last minute to get in line or you may find yourself panicking to get to your corral in time. Yes.....that's experience talking.
You will be happy to find a ton of snack options such as granola bars, fruit, protein bars etc that are scattered around the village, along with water and Gatorade. You will want to treat Boston as a two breakfast morning. Meal one will be somewhere around 3-4 hours before race time (at your hotel) and then because of the bus ride and time to wait in the village, you'll want a second snack to top up your calories. Plan to pick something light to eat around 1 hour before the start of your wave. A banana and granola bar would be a good choice and as mentioned above will be easy to find.
Unpredictable weather - The weather in Boston can be unpredictable from year to year. There have been hot years and there have been cool rainy years, so be prepared for different scenarios. You will want to dress warm for the time you will be waiting at Athlete Village because it will be early and typically it's cool. I wore sweatpants and a hoodie over my running gear that I knew I would never see again and simply dropped them in the clothing recycle bin at the last minute on my way to the start line. Don't take extra layers you're in love with and resist the urge to start out overdressed.
The Boston Marathon course is technical, and one that you need to be ready for. If you execute perfectly you can have a great day. If you make mistakes, you will have your butt handed to you in small pieces. Here's how I would break it down:
Starting Corrals - It's a 1km walk from Athletes Village to the corals. To me, it felt like walking the Green Mile as I shuffled out amongst a massive pack of people from multiple waves. The sound of footsteps was surreal and the reality of what is in front of you will send chills up your spine. You will make your way to your assigned corral, which is identified on your race bib and you'll be directed in one of several directions as you get close to the start.
Try and position yourself as close as you can to the front of your group if possible so you're not stuck way at the back or in the middle. You will be held in place for about 15 minutes and will listen to the anthem while trying to keep your heart from beating out of your chest. This is the part where you need to relax! Don't let the nerves get to you and waste energy. Find someone next to you to talk to, take in the atmosphere and then get focused.
The first 5 miles (8km) - This is the most critical section of the race and where most people blow their marathon in Boston. In this first section, there is a significant decline. Most people will go out way to fast and get fooled by the fact that they're feeling great, thanks to the assistance of the downhill. Running 30 seconds/mile faster than planned is a big mistake in any marathon, especially Boston, where this will come back to haunt you. There is no such thing as "banking time", so don't fall into the trap. A lot of people around you will come flying out at the start, but just let them go. Stick to your race plan and smile because you will pass them later when Heartbreak Hill tears out their soul. Also, don't waste energy trying to weave in and out of traffic. Find a good spot and relax. Use the huge bunch up at the start to your advantage, rather than getting agitated.
Mile 6 - 10 (9-16km) - In this section, the course flattens out, and is a great place to find a nice groove. You should be feeling good if you've kept a conservative pace at the start and your quads will be thankful you did. Here you can pick up to your goal pace and look for opportunities to surge where it makes sense. This is an opportunity to shake out the lactic acid that may have built up in the first 5 miles when you held back.
Mile 11 - 16 (17 - 26km) - In this section, you will work through some rolling terrain. If you've managed your pace well, you should still be feeling good but now you need to focus. The goal through the rollers should be to maintain your effort. Take advantage of the declines by picking it up and keep your effort level when you're climbing back up. At mile 13 (21km) you will run through the legendary scream tunnel and will be greeted by the girls in Wellesley. This will be a huge adrenaline boost and an opportunity to pull over for a quick kiss or high five if you're so inclined. At mile 16 you will hit the lowest elevation on the course.
Mile 17 - 21 (26 -34km) - This is where the climb begins. The brief drop in elevation at mile 16 becomes the start of a climb, all the way to mile 21 where the iconic Heartbreak Hill is waiting. This is a section that you need to manage well while staying calm and in control. Ascending Heartbreak Hill is not as big of a challenge as you might think, but it's because of where it sits on the course (mile 21) that you can get into trouble. There is no doubt that life is starting to suck at this point of any marathon, but if you've stuck to the plan you can survive this tough section. This is where you will be thankful that you didn't go screaming out at the start, and where you will see runner carnage everywhere, as the people who you let pass you at the start are walking or completely stopped. Run by confidently and try not to have a smug look on your face as you put the hill behind you.
Mile 22 - 26 (35-42km) - This is the last section of the marathon, and where you can put down the race of your life. If you've managed the course well, it's an opportunity to let the legs go and find that final boost to the finish. It's all downhill as you descend into downtown Boston and see the finish come into view. The crowds start to get massive and you'll find a ton of encouragement to get you home. You still have some work to do, so stay focused!
Check out THIS VIDEO as it's probably the best and most accurate advice I've found on the Boston Marathon Course
Take It All In
This is where the chill out advice comes in. By far this will be the most electric races you've ever run. The crowds are massive, the support is insane and there's a good chance you may never get the opportunity to run it again. Remind yourself that you're running the BOSTON MARATHON and enjoy the experience. I made a point of trying to soak it all in as I have a lot more races on my bucket list and may not make it back.
Use the crowd support to keep your mind positive and trust me when I say you will be overwhelmed by how much encouragement you will get.
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