Boston Marathon - course notes.
It's about that time for those who are running Boston to start thinking about the specifics of race day, even though it's a little less than two months away. Hopefully you're knee deep in hill (up AND down) training and two hour runs already. You've qualified and you're putting in the training over the dark, gloomy and cold winter months. The question remains: will you ready to race?!
Therein lies the rub. Boston is not a course you race. It's a course you execute - or not. Boston is a course that looks fast on paper, despite the Newton hills...roughly 400 feet of elevation loss from start to finish. But it's a course that deserves some study, some practice - very rarely will you get it right the first time...a thinking man's race. I've been fortunate to qualify for - and run it - seven times and hopefully if you're reading this I can guide you through some common mistakes and what to look forward to on your 26.2 mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston.
The first four miles include 200 feet of elevation loss. This is where you have to be careful (the first time). Too fast here and not paying attention to your stride and cadence can spell disaster come 15-16 miles into the race. This is a time to soak in the fact that you're running the famed Boston course...be conservative, use short, quick steps to minimize the pounding on your quads that you'll so desperately need in your back pocket come the last five miles of the race.
Some side notes on downhill run form:
*Stay off the brakes! Many runners will lean back and overstride when running downhill, essentially putting on the brakes with every step. Excessive overstriding will tear your quads into a million little pieces and leave you hobbling at mile 20. Try to run as you would on the flats, keeping your foot placement below your center of mass with a slight forward lean from the ankles.
*Keep the cadence up. By maintaining a higher turnover with shorter, quicker strides, you'll minimize muscle damage as well as reducing the impact on your joints.
*Practice makes perfect. Incorporate downhill terrain of varying grades with all of your runs so that you can gain confidence in your ability to descend effectively and efficiently on race day. If you live in an area with minimal hills, adding some lunges to your routine can help strengthen your legs for those downhill portions.
Ashland is where you hit your first uphill - try not to worry about pace here as you still have 20+ miles to go. This is where you just want to keep rhythm and let those who want to pass go right by you - you'll see them again later in the day.
As you work your way through Framingham, try not to let the crowds, the biggest of the race to this point, affect your pace by surging from the mutual excitement. Watch out for the railroad tracks!
Through mile ten you're hopefully *slower* than goal pace and feeling great..almost like you're running too easy. Putting time "in the bank" in the first ten miles of the Boston course is the death knell for a strong showing, trust me. Seriously. No joke. You CAN negative split this race if you run smart for the first half and resist the temptation to put in a good 1/2 split. The thought of the hills in Newton is a siren song to run a bit too quick for the first 16 miles.
Now coming through Wellesley is one hell of an exciting experience, especially for the men in the race, as you run through the deafening screams from the women of Wellesley College. Again, try not to let the crowd surge you to paces beyond for which you're ready!
The most important section of the race, in my opinion, is the stretch between 15-1/2 miles and the 17 mile marker. This is where you encounter a 1/2 mile steep, potentially quadricep destroying descent, into Lower Newton Falls...immediately followed by an unexpectedly challenging uphill over route 128 that can bring some crosswinds. If you can navigate this 1-1/2 mile stretch feeling good physically and mentally, you're on your way to a strong race because this is where the race really begins...the Newton hills.
Take the right at the fire station after a slight decent and being offered a Power Gel, the infamous hills begin. Four hills over the next four miles to the 21 mile marker. None of them are particularly challenging in amongst themselves, but combined at this specific part of the course is what gives them their notoriety. After taking the turn at the fire station, the crowds certainly give you a push up the steepest of the four hills...but try not to let the noise push you harder than you should - there's still a long way to go. Soak it in, enjoy it. You'll need the energy later!
If you're not aware, Marathon Monday is also Patriots Day in New England - the first day of spring break ...a regional holiday. No work, no school...the crowds are out in force. Coming through Newton is when you start to first encounter the college crowds - possibly offering you a sudsy drink in Red Solo Cup. Unless you've crapped the bed already, best to avoid taking "aid" from a rowdy college student at this point in the race.
Back to the race...run steady through the hills. Yes, your pace will slow slightly - but you've trained for this! Your legs are strong and running a couple miles slightly slower than goal pace will set you up well for a strong last five miles. Just keep in mind that the race is NOT over when you crest Heartbreak, it's merely just beginning.
Once you reach the top of Heartbreak, downtown Boston comes into view...a tantalizing realization that you're close to the finish, but yet still quite far away. The downhill immediately following is one that needs to be approached with caution. The cemetery at the bottom of the hill is where your marathon dreams may go to die and be buried six feet under if you take this descent too aggressively. Use the same downhill cadence and gait that you've used for the other downhill portions of the race and "save" - if you can use that term this late in the race - for when you reach Beacon Street and the seemingly unending crowds and modestly rolling terrain.
Undoubtedly, this last stretch before you hit 25.2 miles in Kenmore Square, the infamous Citgo sign and the throngs of Red Sox fans will leave your quads begging for mercy. This is where an experienced marathoner knows it's going to hurt but you can still keep putting one foot in front of the other...possibly even at a faster pace than the previous 20 miles. This is the part of the race for which you've trained to be tough! If you've paced well to this point, you'll be passing runners in droves...in droves I tell you! If this doesn't give you confidence, I don't know what will.
Once through Kenmore Square, you're pretty much home free - but it is one of the longest miles you'll ever run. Commonwealth Ave, the right on to an *uphill* on Hereford Street before making the final left turn on to Boylston Street. This is where you soak it in...you're going to cross the finish line in Boston. You've earned it...have fun, encourage the crowd, live it up... you never know if you'll get this opportunity again.
If there's a theme here, it's that more often than not, it pays to be patient on this course above others. I've learned from the mistakes of my past that running faster than goal for any part of the first 21 miles can (and more than likely will) lead to a death march for the last 4-5 miles. In my experiences as a marathoner, Ironman athlete and coach, I can tell you that your results will be determined largely by how well you execute the first 75% of your marathon. Be smart, be patient and be confident in your training in preparation and you'll have a great race.