How Not To Run the Boston Marathon

I felt a strange sensation as I watched Eliud Kipchoge struggle through the final miles of the 2023 Boston Marathon. I idolize the man, not just as a runner, but as a human. He’s the best we have; excellence in preparation and execution, bold actions, humble words. He’s trained himself to smile at the hardest moments – that’s the best life advice there is. I had tuned in that day expecting to see my favorite runner do something extraordinary on my favorite course. Instead, that course churned him out into a battered and bruised shell of it’s Hokington self, the same as it has for so many thousands of other mortals over the years. As a fan, I was a little bummed. As a runner, I couldn’t suppress a guilty smile. He's like us. Even goats get slaughtered by the Newton hills.

Full disclosure, I had originally intended to write this article as advice on running your best Boston, but quickly had to admit that this is a topic I know little about. I’ve performed decently there over the years, but never managed to put together a complete race. There is always some element, a section of the course or a weather factor, that derails the rest. Admittedly, perfection in any marathon is an ephemeral pursuit. The best we can ever hope for is 51 percent success, 48 percent failure and 1 percent gross, but at Boston it is especially elusive, even enigmatic. On paper, it seems so simple. The weather fluctuates because, well, Earth, but it profiles reasonably well. New England in April isn’t exactly Doha in August. The course consists of rolling hills, with a significant net drop in elevation. In fact, due to the point-to-point configuration and elevation profile, it isn’t even record eligible. The powers that be have deemed it to too easy. So why is it so damned hard?

Boston is to runners what Augusta National is to golfers, not only terms of prestige, but also complexity. Augusta looks charming, even easy. It doesn’t play particularly long for the modern game. The hazards don’t show up on satellite imagery like other courses, but veterans of the game know to respect it. Boston is the same way; alluring temptations, hidden perils and a constant grind that accumulates over time. It isn’t any single challenge, but a combination, and a chronology of many challenges that tears athletes down, often unknowingly, until it’s too late to play it safe.

Back to that net drop in elevation. Gravity isn’t always your friend. The same physical force that permits you to roll a ball down a hill with minimal effort, will destroy that ball if dropped from a tall cliff. By the time most runners reach Boylston Street they feel like their quadriceps have been thrown from off a cliff. Runners are rear driven. We use our glutes and hamstrings, literally running our butts off. Even well trained runners can be weak in front, with quads that aren’t prepared to absorb the pounding of sustained down-hill running, and once those muscles tire the rest of the body begins to break down. At Boston this is especially treacherous because there are long periods of downhill running interrupted by flat and uphill sections during which the quads assume they’re done for the day and go into recovery mode (ie stiffen up). Although most of the downhill running takes place in the first half, miles 16 and 22 have long, steep drops and if the quads aren’t there then gravity will flatten you.

Preparation and pacing are so important. Runners tend to shy away from the weight room. Some of us manage to do so without suffering significant consequences, but to succeed at Boston you really need to adopt a dedicated strength regiment. Running alone will not prepare your quads for Boston. It is also necessary to rethink hill training. Like most runners, I was taught to work the up-hills in training and use the downhills for recovery. To be ready for Boston, you have to flip this approach. I’ll have athletes do complete hill repeats (in which they aim to keep a steady effort level on both the climb and descent with a recovery at the top) or downhill drills in which they walk the up-hills for recovery. It is important to build both of these kinds of workouts slowly over time to avoid injury.

The importance of good pacing in a marathon isn’t a novel idea, but the temptation and consequences of neglect are augmented at Boston. There is an abundance of adrenaline, coupled with a downhill start and pretty good traffic management. Those first few miles can be very fast. This isn’t necessarily a fatal mistake, but does require a course correction. The familiar trap is that runners often get through the first five miles feeling good and on pace for a fast finish. The part of the brain that knows to conserve energy often defers to the part of the brain that sees a shiny object ahead and tells the feet to do whatever is necessary to get it. Even worse, we start thinking about those slower miles later on and start sneaking in faster splits to give ourselves a little extra cushion, essentially making deposits at the least reliable fiduciary institution there is; the time bank.

This is a universal faceplant recipe. Every runner that has ever started a marathon too fast has attributed it to feeling good at first – even Pheidippides probably felt pretty good halfway to Athens. We all know that the way we feel whilst running is relative. In downhill running relative effort is so deceptive as to be practically useless. What feels effortless, in fact takes a steady toll. And then, as the course flattens out later in the first half, the body starts to feel the effects of heavy pounding at the same time that the mind is stressed by mile splits that appear to be slowing. This is the point where a lot of runners - I’m sheepishly raising my own hand – tend to up the effort level in order to maintain a steady pace. The result is a first half that looks fine on paper – even splits and a fast projected finish – but with bodies completely unprepared to tackle the challenges that the final 13.1 present.

The second debacle that is regularly witnessed has to do with the approach to the Newton Hills (miles 16-21). Glancing at an elevation map it is easy to imagine this as the make-or-break section of the course – dominate those hills and you’ll dominate the race. It’s true that the terrain gets a lot easier once you crest Heartbreak Hill but the assumption that the final five miles will take care of themselves has led a lot of runners to go crazy in Newton and leave nothing left for the final stretch. Those hills are littered with historical significance, raucous crowds and hazy mirages of the distant finish line. The first time I ran it my adrenaline level matched that of a cross-country championship meet. I went beastmode up Heart Break and then fed the beast on the way down. Friends, there is no such thing as an easy finish to a marathon. In fact, this part of the Boston course has some hidden perils. There are a few steep downhill sections that wreak havoc on tired legs and long straightaways and static landmarks that beleager the wary mind. And there are always a select few runners who did it right and soar through the final miles with majestic grace, leaving the rest of us in their dust. I respect them, admire them and hate them with the fiery passion of hell.

So how do we emulate those who succeed through these 26.2 miles of temptation and torment? Again, the best I can do is conjecture; but the smart money is on patience. The coarse both requires and defies it. There is an abundance of motivation; a paramount place in the history of our sport, an accomplished field from front to back and the best crowd support period. These are the things that make the Boston Marathon so special, but they are also the things that tend to make us loose our freaking minds. There is no sense trying to ignore the spectacle. It’s impossible, and frankly defeats the purpose. The mantra should be calm observation and appreciation, a steady, gradual embrace of the magic. This means taking the early miles very easy, focusing on form and breathing, almost like a prolonged warmup and only easing into to race mode towards the end of the first half. It means using the Newton Hills as a means instead of an end, gently stretching out the legs on the uphills and recovering on the downhills, all the while imagining a start line instead of a finish atop Heartbreak Hill.

And finally, while I never recommend failure, I do think it is equally important not to let the fear of failure derail our pursuits. Adversity and despair are part of Boston lore - there is a reason Heartbreak Hill is called Heartbreak Hill instead of happy, dancing bunny hill. The marathon is a hard thing, and sometimes our own suffering is a testament to just how hard it is. It’s painful, demoralizing and sometimes even embarrassing, but our failures are part of the greatness of this species’ disposition to do hard things. So if Monday you find yourself turning right on Hereford, left on Boylston and then waddling, deliriously down Boylston for what seems like a day and a half, try to fake a smile. You’ve just joined a fraternity of glorious sufferers.