The Boston Marathon is everything it's cracked up to be. The amazing history coupled with the prestige of having to earn lofty qualifying standards means you have an extraordinary event with a high level of intrigue and allure.
I was fortunate to run Boston twice, racing the famed 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to Copley Square in 2005 and 2006, and I also assisted on the production of the race on several other occasions. Each of those experiences taught me valuable insights about the Boston Marathon weekend that went way beyond strategies about how to survive the notorious Newton Hills.
Whether you have qualified for this year's race and are in the final phases of your training or are hoping to go in the future, take heed and follow these eight valuable lessons before you line up in Hopkinton. Knowing what to expect, how to plan accordingly and where to adjust your mindset will go a long way toward making your race a successful experience.
1. Don't be "just glad to be here"
Although qualifying is a significant achievement, you earned the right to take part. Often, those that are new to the event adopt an attitude that is one of gratitude for simply being able to race, and they lose a potential opportunity to actually compete and race well.
Certainly being excited and appreciative of the opportunity is significant, but seizing the moment is imperative. Take advantage of the opportunity in front of you and, although you should soak in the whole experience, don't forget you are also there to race. For a number of reasons, there is no guarantee you'll ever get back to do it again. Make the most of it.
2. Avoid the hype
Unlike almost any other marathon, there is a certain amount of hype and subsequent hobnobbing that precedes this race. Every time I've been to Boston, I hear various conversations taking place in the lobby of the host hotels, where runners are chatting about where they qualified, their age group results, their latest training advice or their new gear.
Again, not to take away from the enjoyment of the experience, keep in mind that you only have a finite amount of mental and emotional reserves. Try to keep all that energy and focus stored up for the race itself, as opposed to expending it on talking about the race.
3. Beware of distractions
The expo is always an exciting part of any event, but especially in Boston because it’s where many shoe and apparel companies debut new gear. Certainly you should take part and enjoy the opportunity to see all the industry has to offer. But similar to the lobby chatter, beware of expending too much energy and focus at the expo. Take part and pick up some nice keepsakes, but also be mindful of the time on your legs, your hydration needs and appropriate meal planning, not to mention how much you are exerting emotionally.
Same goes for the other races the Boston Athletic Association puts on that weekend -- the BAA Mile and the BAA 5k -- and the time you spend shopping, dining and walking around on Boylston and Newbury Streets. When in doubt, take it easy and lay low.
4. Beware the race-day shuttles
Because the starting line in the small town of Hopkinton is 26 miles west of the finish line on Boylston Street, the event includes an extensive shuttle program from downtown to the start. Along with proper meal planning and adjusting you race morning routine, you also need to temper your race day excitement because the shuttles leave hours in advance of the start of the race.
Yes, focus is required race morning, but also plan for a 40- to 50-minute bus ride and consider bringing music, a warm layer of clothes, a book, fluids and even a small meal.
5. Relax before the race
For a race that has grown significantly over the years, the start line setting has remained relatively unchanged. With almost 30,000 runners converging in Hopkinton, the environment is quite crowded and includes hours of waiting for the traditional 10 a.m. start.
Similar to the morning shuttle, you need to plan for this aspect of the race mentally so as not to create unnecessary anxiety. It's going to be a bit chaotic and extremely boring. You're trained, ready to run and you're excited, but the hours will pass slowly. Try to relax as much as possible and don't let yourself get upset when having to wait in long lines at the portable restrooms.
6. Expect unpredictable weather
Unlike many other major marathons around the world, Boston has the distinction of very unpredictable weather on Patriots Day (the third Monday in April). The fickle New England weather was 80 degrees with a 15 mph headwind for my first experience and near-perfect weather the following year. A Nor'easter storm almost canceled the race in 2007 and it was in the mid-80s last year, so you can never tell.
Going into the event you need to adjust your mindset to include the unpredictability of the weather. This is not to say you should be negative or pessimistic, but be realistic that the conditions might not be ideal. But it will be manageable because you are emotionally prepared.
7. Pacing vs. perceived effort
I am a big advocate of learning and then applying the skill of perceived effort. Feel your way through workouts and then apply what you learned to the race itself. Most great performances are executed when the athlete lets the race unfold based on how they feel, instead of being overly concerned with what the watch is telling them.
However, Boston is unique as it relates to the course layout, and, in this instance, paying closer attention to pacing the first 10 kilometers can make for a totally different experience than in the last 10k. Just because it feels comfortable aerobically does not mean it is easy muscularly. Paying closer attention to those early miles and even backing off slightly will allow for a much better second half in Boston. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can bank time by going out quicker; that tends to backfire due to the course topography.
8. The Newton Hills
Ah, yes, now we can talk about the infamous Newton Hills. What makes Boston unique is not that there are hills, but where they fall in the race and what comes before and after them. As I just mentioned, holding back in the first 10k will allow for fresher legs for the hilly sections between miles 19 and 26. The best way to prepare for the hills of Boston is not by simply doing hill repeats, but rather tempo runs and long runs on routes will undulating hills. The objective is to get your system used to having to change from going downhill to uphill and then back to downhill.
The great Bill Rodgers, who won Boston four times, did most of his long runs on the actual Boston course, which taught his body how to manage the various demands that come with sustained downhill running, followed by rolling hills and followed by a gradual downhill section to the finish. You might not have the same luxury, but running on simulated sections of the course in your region will go a long way on race day in Boston.