You’ve heard about Heartbreak Hill, the Citgo sign, and the amazing crowds at Wellesley. You’ve probably even envisioned yourself crossing the iconic finish line on Boylston Street. But if you’re running the Boston Marathon and want to have your best Patriot’s Day possible, you’re going to have to handle the infamously challenging course. With our insider’s guide to every hill, twist and turn from Hopkinton to Boston, you’ll know what it takes to toe the line April 20 with the confidence of a pro.
The Boston Marathon Course Overview
Beyond its rich history and amazing crowds, the Boston Marathon is also known for its difficult route. “It has humbled the greatest of runners,” says Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World, Bart Yasso. “You can blow your race in the first five miles and not realize it until after the half-way point,” says the man widely recognized in the running community as “the mayor of running.”
For this reason, to run Boston well you have to know and understand the course, says race director Dave McGillivray. “Not many people run Boston to the best of their ability the first time through,” he claims. “Knowing what you’ll be facing is critical.”
Even 2014 winner Meb Keflezighi admits it took him three attempts to get it right. “The course is unique in many ways,” says the Skechers-sponsored athlete. “It’s challenging because of the Newton hills. You can feel great during the first half but then be in pain during the second half.”
While traditional thinking is that the best marathons are run with an even pace, Boston is a tough place to execute that strategy. Instead, our experts recommend you plan to hold back as much as possible in the opening miles and aim for a negative split — running the second half faster than the first.
“Your mind will start to challenge you and you’ll have a degree of uncertainty here.”
It all begins with the downhill miles heading out of Hopkinton, where the rush of excitement and gravity make it easy to go too fast. “Here’s where you need to hold back and focus on shorter strides so that you don’t beat up your quads,” says Yasso.
Keflezighi agrees and in fact ran the opening miles of Boston conservatively enough last year that he was able to maintain his pace even in the late miles. “This is where you have to compose yourself,” says Keflezighi. “It’s very easy to get overly excited with the crowds. But stay composed and establish your rhythm.”
Around mile six, the course starts to flatten out a bit and you can start cruising toward your goal pace. You’ll have this flatter, slightly rolling terrain for a good stretch of time, passing Lake Cochituate in Natick and traversing several sets of railroad tracks.
Next up: the town of Framingham. “This is a great place to do an assessment of how you’re feeling,” says McGillivray. “Are my quads sore? Am I laboring? If so, then pull back a bit. If not, this is the place to run at goal pace.”
By mile 10 in the town of Natick, you should have a pretty good indication of the kind of day you’ll be facing, McGillivray adds. “If you’re feeling bad at mile 10, it’s tough to recover,” he says. “So assess and make a decision on how to proceed.” That could mean staying on goal pace if you’re in a good groove, or pulling back to play it more conservatively so that you don’t hit a wall later on. Regardless, you want to ensure you’re not being too speedy this early on because you could pay for it big time when the hills hit.
From here your next big course landmark is Wellesley College, approaching the half-way mark at 13 miles. You’ll hear the screaming crowds before you see them, which makes it easy to start nudging your pace up too fast if you’re not careful. “Use the crowd to your benefit and draw energy,” says Keflezighi. “But at the same time, don’t do anything crazy. Remind yourself how much is left in the race.”
“If you are prepared for the hills from your training, you will be OK. If not, it will be tough but you can do it.”
This is also a good spot to check in on your fueling plan. Have you been taking your gels and drinks as planned? If you’re off schedule, make note of it and try to get back on track.
Marker 13 to 16 after Wellesley is often thought of as the loneliest stretch of the race, says McGillivray. “You still have a long way to go and you haven’t hit the hills yet,” he explains. “Your mind will start to challenge you and you’ll have a degree of uncertainty here.” To combat that, McGillivray recommends another assessment to determine how you are feeling and what you’ve got left for the remaining 10 miles. By mile 16, however, be ready to start an uphill climb.
“Newton begins a series of four hills,” says Yasso. “If you’ve run a smart race up until this point, you won’t really notice them so much. But if you’ve had a bad day, they can feel like Everest.”
This is where you have to start to work, says Keflezighi. “You need to use your technique in this section of ups and downs,” he explains. “If you are prepared for the hills from your training, you will be OK. If not, it will be tough but you can do it.”
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Concentrate on effort here, not pace, so that you don’t take too much out of your legs. Use shorter, choppier steps to get up and over the crests and let gravity be your friend coming down the other side.
The most famous of the hills — Heartbreak Hill — comes at mile 21. This is where whatever energy you conserved comes into play, says McGillivray. “You can even get a bit of a reprieve because you don’t have to be fast on this section.”
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To that end, Yasso recommends running the hills by feel. “You’re not going to get your splits here, so don’t look at your watch,” he says. “You’ll be much better off listening to your body.”
Once you’ve crested the big one, you get a significant elevation drop down to Beacon Street. The tough part is behind you. “You know you’re going to make it to the finish line once you’re here,” says McGillivray.
The Final Stretch
Now that you’re beyond the rolling humps and nearing mile 22, things start to flatten out and even descend again for the remainder of the course. “If you’re feeling good, you have a chance to pass people here,” says Yasso. “You need to concentrate on keeping your legs moving here and if you do, you can start flying toward downtown.”
Next up, comes the turn onto Beacon Street, and your first glimpse of the Citgo sign, famous because it marks one mile to go on the course. “Seeing the Citgo sign helps emotionally even if you are hurting physically,” says McGillivray. “Even if you are really tired here, you can pick it up because you’re so close you can afford to use up what you’ve got left.”
Miles 25 and 26 are all about working off the crowd’s hype. “They carried me to the finish line last year,” says Keflezighi. “The support and encouragement you get from the spectators is amazing.”
Here, all that’s left to do is soak it all in. The final left onto Boylston Street brings on a flood of emotions, but keep in mind that it usually feels longer than you’d expect to reach the finish line, says McGillivray. “Don’t start sprinting as soon as you make the turn,” he cautions.
When at last you reach the finish, it’s time to celebrate, says Keflezighi. “You don’t have to win or set a PR to celebrate,” he points out. “Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is huge, and so is crossing that special finish line.”
Originally published April 2015. Updated March 2016.