5 Last Minute Tips for the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon is on Monday. I repeat: the Boston Marathon is on Monday. Now is not the time to cram in last-minute training or change all your plans. However, maybe you’re waiting to hop on a plane to Boston and killing a few minutes at work because you can’t concentrate on anything other than the big race. In that case, now is a good time for a quick refresher, along with a few last minute tidbits, to help you make the most of your big Boston adventure.

Between my husband and me, we have raced Boston nine times and lived there for over 10 years. Boston is a great city with a huge running community. The city is really behind the marathon and it feels like everything in the city stops for the race. There is much to enjoy over marathon weekend. I know the Boston Marathon course and the city very well, so I figured I’d offer my two cents on both the race and enjoying the city of Boston after the race!

The dangerous downhill at mile 15

If you’re racing on Monday, you should know by now that the first half of the Boston Marathon is largely downhill, but, even so, banking time is not a wise move with the Newton Hills late in the race. What you might not know is that there are a lot of downhills after the halfway point. I think one of the toughest parts to hold restraint is mile 15 to 16.  This is a very steep downhill and it’s easy to get carried away, especially because you are past the halfway point and may think “I’m feeling good and am ready to start rolling.” You still have over 10 miles to go and five of the miles include those hills, including everyone’s favorite. It’s important to know that once you pass Heartbreak Hill you will be running downhill almost the whole way to the finish. If you hold yourself back on the screaming downhill at 15, your quads will thank you when you get to the last five downhill miles.

The firehouse just before the start of the Newton Hills.
The firehouse just before the start of the Newton Hills. Best news? The worst hill might already be over!

The ugly uphill at mile 16

Heartbreak Hill rises between miles 20 and 21 and is, of course, Boston Marathon’s most infamous hill. If you’re here, you have probably planned for all the Newton hills, the ones that come immediately before Heartbreak and start after the course turns by the firehouse (not this firehouse). The hill a lot of people don’t prepare for is the not-Newton hill that occurs just after the big mile 15 downhill. Mile 17 is almost all uphill as you cross an overpass.

This mile can feel very challenging with the terrain change from the downhill just before, plus it is the most exposed part of the course to the wind, and, perhaps worst of all, it is one of the only parts of the course where there aren’t many spectators. So let this be a reminder to be prepared that the hills start on the I-95 overpass between mile 16-17, not once you turn onto Commonwealth Ave at the firehouse.

Don’t sweat the splits

Due to Boston’s rolling course, it is very difficult to run mile-by-mile even splits. If you are numbers person, I’d recommend taking splits in 5k increments to get a more telling read on your average pace. If you’re not inclined to going by 5k splits, then just know that if you are running an even marathon EFFORT, you will not see even splits. Don’t sweat it. It’s better to focus on the effort and conserving energy instead of trying to hit perfect splits every single mile.

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You can see the Mile 15 downhill and the Mile 16 uphill in the circle. You can also see from this elevation map why even splits are almost impossible.

Grab some post-race grub

Once you’ve had time to hobble back to your hotel room and are feeling up for some grub and a few tasty, well-earned beverages, let me warn you that downtown Boston is a bit of a pain in the ass to deal with on Marathon Monday. You have the marathon runners, their support crew, the folks who were at the Red Sox game, and all the folks of the Greater Boston area who are off from work or school to celebrate Patriots’ Day. You will likely have a long wait to be seated at places there and who wants a long wait to eat and drink after they ran a marathon?

So, if you are feeling adventurous and not interested in waiting forever for some food, hop on the the Red Line or jump in a cab and head across the river to Cambridge. Central Square is just across Massachusetts Ave from downtown Boston and Kendall Square is on the other side of Longfellow Bridge. If you are a fan of beer, like I am, then Cambrige Brewing Company in Kendall Square is an excellent choice. In Central Square you have places like the Asgard, Phoenix Landing, and Miracle of Science (a really neat place that pays homage to the biotech companies in the neighborhood).  There are many more bars and restaurants worth visiting in Cambridge, but these will all be relatively easy to get to. (If you are so inclined to travel a little further into Cambridge or want something more off the beaten path, I can provide you with even more suggestions. Hit me up in the comments section!)

Celebrate!

Boston is unique among marathons. Boston and all of the people in the towns along the course are super into the race. It seems that everyone and their brother are out lining the course, cheering for the runners and offering up everything from orange slices, beer, and high-fives. It’s like running through a giant block party! And when those hills start catching up with you, the crowds will be at their most supportive. Loud cheers, cowbells, bullhorns, you name it. The energy from the crowd is incredibly motivating and might be just the thing you need to forget how much your quads hurt. Among the 14 marathons I have run, nothing compares to the experience of spectator support of Boston. Soak it in!

Good luck to all those racing!

Anyone have any other good last-minute tips for Boston racers?

I'm a licensed massage therapist with a background in biochemistry and also a mother of two. After almost two years of focusing on shorter race distances, I am back on the marathon training horse. My next goal race is the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. I write mostly about health and science as they relate to running as well as being part of a running family.

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13 comments

  1. I 100% agree with you about the dangerous downhill at mile 15! That’s gotten to me both years I’ve run Boston. As a Boston resident I’d also recommend post-race celebration at Mead Hall in Cambridge, or grabbing food at Paramount or good pizza at Figs in Beacon Hill.

    1. I think it’s so easy to forget about how big that downhill is at 15 and how much it can wreak havoc on your legs if you aren’t careful.

      Yeah, Figs is definitely a good one!

  2. This is awesome — thank you! I’m running my first Boston on Monday, and I can’t wait! Very much appreciate the last-minute tips.

  3. I’ve never run Boston… it’s on my list. But when I do, I’ll remember this post, and be in touch with you for more first-hand information!

    1. Yes! Boston is definitely worth doing and there are some good spectating spots with grassy areas that are great for kids to run around in, particularly in Newton. I’d be glad to share more on the course if you ever do it down the road.

  4. If you have a goal time, don’t expect to be able to hit your pace for a few miles. The start of the race is very crowded. I remember being a little frustrated that I couldn’t run faster.

    Soak it all in–the crowds, the sights, the energy. Kiss a Wellesley girl and high-five the spectating kids. Boylston street will take your breath away when you round the corner towards the finish.

    Enjoy the race! I’m envious of all of you who are running this year. Good luck!

  5. These are great. I’ve never felt the hill at mile 16 but maybe it’s because I was apparently able to let momentum carry me. The elevation chart does make it look scary. I’ll make sure to remember that again, Shalane’s tips (in a number of publications) are great too!
    I find that Beacon St and the hill before Kenmore to be the worst (especially if you are struggling or pushing pace). It’s like, please just stop! And the tunnel under Mass Ave before the turn can also be overwhelming. I always forget to use my mantras and work the crowd. For those that haven’t clocked it, it’s just abt 1/3 mile on Boylston, possibly longer than you think. All out sprint is possible but just remember it’s more than 1x around a track.

    If you have run the first half conservative but strong, what are your thoughts about when to pick it up? Before, at or after the hills?

    http://www.si.com/edge/2016/04/15/boston-marathon-course-guide-tips-from-shalane-flanagan

    1. Well, I think if you are running conservatively, when you get to the hills your splits won’t actually slow down from what you were running the previous miles (ie your 16-17 and even 17-18 miles, which are primarily uphill, will look similar to what you were hitting on average for the first 14 miles). Once you get past 21 then (the last of the big uphills) that same effort that carried you up the hills will yield faster splits on the downhills and I think that will happen pretty naturally if you were running strong and even through the uphills.

      Oh, and I hated when they added the Mass Ave underpass in 2006. It’s so mean!

      Also, good point on how long it takes to get to the finish line once you get on Boylston. The balloon arch at the finish can seem so far away when you turn onto that road.

  6. poppy! love the food recommendations in Cambridge. Heading over to Harvard Square tonight with the family, any dinner recommendations? Cambridge brewing company’s menu looked good but might be looking for something a bit closer to Harvard…

    1. Right in Harvard Square is Cambridge One, which serves thin crust gourmet pizza. It used to be one of my favorite places when I lived there. There’s also John Harvards, which has pretty good food (and they brew their own beer).

      On Mass Ave, past Harvard, but before Porter Square, is Cambridge Common. They have good pub food and lots of beers. This was also one of my favorite places when I lived there. A few blocks up Mass Ave from Cambridge Common is Stone Hearth Pizza. They are good, but I think that location is on the smaller side so not sure what seating on a Saturday night is like.

  7. I have now done Boston 3 times (including last week) and I wish I had read this and thought about it ahead of time… I managed to make every rookie mistake again! Ah well, there’s always next time…