The Boston Marathon Lie


The grandfather of all marathons is what they call it and it has as much mystique as you can imagine. Nearly 125 editions have been run of the fabled race and some of the greatest runners have conquered and been conquered on the journey from Hopkinton to downtown Boston. A race entry is one of the most coveted in all of marathonville. But for many, getting a BQ is the start of training for what many call the hardest of the six marathon majors.
This is where the Boston Marathon lies begin.
Boston as its simply referred to by serious runners has a reputation of being a really tough race, in large part to the Newton Hills,  a series of three hills which kick up just before 18 miles and stair-step through the 21-mile mark. Runners are chock full of my legs fell off in the Newton Hills” stories. Others bemoan having to walk the final section of Heartbreak Hill, the penultimate point of the three hills.
More lies. 
All the handwringing about how hard the Boston Marathon is more lore than fact. 
As evidence: 
In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest marathon ever run, up until at that time, with a 2:03:02, surpassing the previous fastest time by 57 seconds. To this day it remains only 6 seconds off the world record. That same year, Ryan Hall set the American marathon record at 2:04:58 on the same course. To further dispel the Newton Hills myth, Mutai’s record-setting run was done with a negative split. This means he ran the first 13.1 miles slower than the last 13.1 miles -- 1:02 versus 1:01:06 -- despite having to cover the Newton Hills over the closing half of the race.
Looking at the course profile, most people would be surprised to see the dreaded Heartbreak Hill peaks at only half the height, 250ft above sea level, from where the race starts, 500ft above sea level. Also, the last five miles of the race has an elevation drop of nearly 250ft.
So why are there so many horror stories about Boston being such a hard race? 
In all likelihood it comes down to pace management. The first four miles out of Hopkinton are a bit like running off a cliff with 20,000 other people. The course drops nearly 350ft before the 5K mark. In the first mile, the course drops 200 feet. Most runners go into the race with a pace goal and then find themselves running :10, :15, even :30 seconds faster per mile during the first four miles because of the crowd, the magnitude of the race, and the elevation drop. A runner’s marathon pace should feel pretty easy for the first two-thirds of the event. When runners are going sub-race pace early in the event, they don’t feel the strain. Instead they feel great and think I’ll bank time”. Seldom does the bank time” model work in marathoning and Boston is perhaps the worst place to apply this philosophy.
When runners come off the four-mile descent at the start of Boston, they hit a stretch of relatively flat road. Seven miles of smooth running, but the legs are already turning faster than normal and runners start to get greedy as they see the time they are banking”. What goes unnoticed is the pounding their legs took coming down the four-mile descent and the gradual accumulation of running faster than they have prepared their body to do. 
Here is the point where Boston really tricks people. 
About 11 miles into the race, runners are just starting to settle into the day. The euphoria of being at Boston” is starting to wear off, the fast start hasn’t caught up with them yet but they know theyre starting to level out a bit. Just then, euphoric runner is coerced into continuing an ill-advised pace as the course again takes another 100ft drop from miles 11-12. Next, you get the adrenaline shot from the Wellesley tunnel with all its girls, screaming, and signs.
Boston has officially got you right where it wants you. 
You’re halfway done and thinking massive PR” because the time you’ve banked. Then the first hint of reality starts to set in. Mile 14 to mile 15 is ever-so gradually uphill. So gradual you almost don’t notice it, but here is where the fast-starting runner begins to feel the pain of the pace and has to begin making withdrawals from bank. For runners in this situation, the next six miles are a leg breaker. Boston teases you with another great downhill, dropping 150ft from mile 15.5 to mile 16. At first, you think you can start banking more time or at least slow down you’re withdrawals. However, this time it doesn’t feel fast. No, this time you can feel your quads burning from the way you flew down the first four miles. 
Then it happens, the first real hill of the day. 
Climbing more gradually, but longer, than any of the Newton Hills, this is the section where the Elite race often sees a big shake-up in the field. Technically, this climb isn’t one of the Newton Hills. As a result, most non-elite runners don’t pay much attention to this gradual riser prior to race day, but the Elite runners know the race really gets down to business here.
Runners have a little over a mile to collect themselves and regroup before the Newton Hills. The turn onto Commonwealth Ave at mile 17.5, marks the entrance to the Newton Hills and almost immediately the course points up. Individually, none of the Newton Hills are that dramatic. They are mildly steep and not particularly long. Even when taken in succession, the three miles which gain 150ft -- can still be run pretty smoothly; unless of course you have already run 18 miles.
For those who lacked discipline in the early miles, this is where Boston punches you in the gut. 
Due to the mild nature of the climbs, many are able to fight to stay on pace to the top of the first hill but each subsequent hill takes another withdrawal out of the already smashed legs. 
That’s when the walkers show up.
It starts out with one here and one there but by the time you get to the fabled Heartbreak Hill” it seems like 15 or 20% are walking. Some runners hear this and think theyre talking about back-of-the-pack runners, not sub 3-hour people”. Wrong, people with 2:45 marathons under their belt are walking sections of Heartbreak and they still have five miles to go. Remember, these runners are not walking because the Newton Hills are steep or long. They’re walking because they got sucked into running below their target pace in the first half. 
There are plenty of PRs made on the Newton Hills as the smart runner with a good pacing strategy will find themselves flying past 100’s of people during these famous three miles.
Once the Newton Hills are behind you, Boston again offers up more punishment to the undisciplined, via a screaming, three-mile downhill section. A downhill section from 21 to 24 miles sounds great to most marathoners. However, if your lack of discipline early in the race has smashed your legs, this downhill could end up being the most painful three miles of your running life
Then, you see it. The Citgo sign! The finish line is on the horizon. Not so fast…
Turning onto Beacon street marks the homestretch. Many first timers fail to realize how far away they are from being done. The tree-covered, straight road offers occasional glimpses of the famous Citgo sign which everyone associates with Fenway Park, near the finish. However, the sign is visible from more than two miles away. To reach it, you have to go up one tiny hill which can feel like a 40,000-foot climb.
When you finally make the long-awaited left-hand turn onto Boylston Street, you have about 500 meters to the finish. It is a long way off and for the runner who has spent the last eight miles paying for unbridled running during the first eight miles…it seems the finish line will never come. But for the smart runner who stuck to the target pace from the beginning, the journey down the most famous finishing straightaway in running is a truly memorable experience. 
And that’s no lie.

2 comments


  • Nick

    2011 had a massive and fantastic tailwind. Being a point to point course from west to east and therefore world record ineligible due to the layout of the course, a steady one direction tailwind helped tremendously. Being well disciplined and fit enough to handle the downhill (lots of rolling) throughout the whole race is the biggest thing like you mentioned. Also, I will continue to pray for that PR giving tailwind every year. We haven’t had it since and it’s strength was obvious given Ryan Hall’s time.


  • David LaBerge

    This is spot on. I blew up on this course because I got caught up in the euphoria. It’s a great corse and can be fast if you run it correctly.


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