Boston Marathon Guide: History, Course, Training and Tips For Race Day

The Boston Marathon, hosted by the Boston Athletics Association, is one of the toughest marathons that sees tens of thousands of athletes flock to Massachusetts each year to participate in this coveted event. 

Held on the third Monday in April, the race has undergone significant changes since its inception in 1897 and is one of the highlights on every marathon runner’s calendar. 

We’ll explore the Boston Marathon by looking at its history, the course, and its unique features, and include a couple of tips for those athletes who are itching to add this to their list of accomplishments. 

This is the Boston Marathon. 

History of the Boston Marathon

Run the Boston Marathon guide
Our guide to running the Boston Marathon, background pic CC via Marco Verch

The Boston Marathon, the oldest and most prestigious annual marathon in the world, has a rich history that might surprise you as you discover how it came to be. 

The first Boston Marathon was run in 1897, just one year after the Greece Olympic Games included the marathon distance for the first time. 

With only fifteen competitors, the first marathon on April 19 saw John J. McDermott (an American) victorious, with a finishing time of 2:55:10. This was just the first of many marathons for the city, with the most recent in 2023 being the 127th marathon. 

Until 1972, women weren’t officially recognized participants in the race. The first woman to run the Boston Marathon was Roberta Gibb in 1966 – after sneaking into the race, she completed the course in 3:21:40.

Here are a few notable moments of the Boston Marathon over the last 127 years, including some pertinent changes that made it the marathon we all know today:

  • 1898: The Boston Marathon was won by Canadian Ronald J. MacDonald – it was his first-ever marathon. MacDonald completed the tricky run with a finishing time of 2:42:00.
  • 1900: Canada takes the top three places in the Boston Marathon. John P. Caffrey, Bill Sheering, and Fred Hughson made history as the first three foreigners to take first, second, and third place in the fourth Boston Marathon, which was held on Patriot’s Day. 
  • 1911: Massachusetts native Clarence H. DeMar won the Boston Marathon. This would be his first of seven wins, with the other six from 1922 to 1930. DeMar would take his last title in 1930 when he was 41 years old. 
  • 1924: This year saw a change in the length of the Boston Marathon – it was lengthened from 25 miles to 26 miles 385 yards to match Olympic standards. This change moved the start of the race from Ashland to Hopkinton. 
  • 1928: Record-holder Johnny “Kelley the Elder” Kelley made his marathon debut. Winning the titles in 1935 and 1945, Kelley holds the record for the most Boston Marathon runs, having completed it a whopping 61 times. Kelley ran his final Boston Marathon in 1992 when he was 84 years old.
  • 1936: Jerry Nason, a reporter for the Boston Globe, coins the nickname “Heartbreak Hill” for Newton’s Hill, one of the last hills before the finish line that sees many runners face the ultimate mental challenge as they tackle this daunting obstacle. The nickname came after Johnny Kelley caught up to leader Ellison Brown and tapped him on the shoulder as he passed him. Brown regained his lead on this final hill and ultimately won the marathon – a move that was said to break Kelley’s heart. 
  • 1947: This year stands out in Boston Marathon history as Korean runner Yun Bok Suh sets a new world record time, finishing the marathon in just 2:25:39.
  • 1966: Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb defied the rules and became the first woman to run (and complete) the Boston Marathon when she joined the race shortly after the starting gun went off. Though she came in 126th with a finishing time of 3:21:40 in 1966, she was the unofficial women’s winner in 1967 and 1968. 
  • 1967: A woman, Kathrine Switzer, receives a race number as she competes in the Boston Marathon. Women would only be admitted to run the marathon officially in 1972. 
  • 1969: The date of the Boston Marathon – usually run on Patriots Day – is officially changed to the third Monday of April. 
  • 1970: The rules of the Boston Marathon were completely overhauled as qualifying standards were officially introduced. They stated, “A runner must submit certification that he has trained sufficiently to finish the course in less than four hours.”
  • 1972: Women are finally permitted to participate in the Boston Marathon. The first winner, Nina Kuscsik, finished with a time of 3:10:26 and was one of eight women taking part that year. 
  • 1975: The Boston Marathon welcomes its first wheelchair participant, Bob Hall. He completed the prestigious race with a finishing time of 2:58:00. Rules stipulated that participants in wheelchairs would need to finish the marathon in under three hours. 
  • 1986: Organizers of the Boston Marathon include prize money for marathon winners. Winner Robert de Castella finished in 2:07:51 and walked away with $30,000 for his win, $25,000 for setting a new course record, and a new car.
  • 2007: The Boston Marathon again underwent a few changes as new qualifying times and cut-off times were implemented. 
  • 2013: Tragedy struck at the 2013 Boston Marathon when a terrorist attack resulted in three deaths and dozens of injuries at the marathon’s finish line in Copley Square. 
  • 2016: This year marked the 50th anniversary of the historic run by Roberta Gibb in 1966. Serving as a grand marshal for the Boston Marathon in 2016, Gibb was given the winner’s trophy by Atsede Baysa, the winner of the women’s race, as a show of appreciation. 
  • 2020: Thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Boston Marathon was postponed from April to September of 2020, but ultimately did not take place as lockdowns and travel bans were instituted worldwide. Instead, the marathon was run as a virtual event, with 16,183 participants from over 90 countries taking part by running the length of the marathon in their neighborhoods. Finishers received the coveted unicorn finisher medal.

The Boston Marathon is one of the six marathons that form the World Marathon Majors. The others are New York City, London, Chicago, Tokyo and Berlin.

Early photo of the Boston Marathon finish line

Course Records and Wins

The Boston Marathon attracts not only marathon runners from across the world but several spectators, too, with residents of the city and its surrounding towns coming out in droves to support their favorite runners (and participants in general).

Here’s a quick look at some of the notable wins and course records over the years:

Men’s Division

YearWinnerNationalityCourse Record
1927Clarence DeMarUSA2:40:22
1928Clarence DeMarUSA2:37:07
1929Johnny MilesCanada2:33:08
1933Les PawsonUSA2:31:01
1939Ellison BrownUSA2:28:51
1940Gerard CoteCanada2:28:28
1942Joe SmithUSA2:26:51
1947Suh Yun Bok South Korea2:25:39 (world record)
1957John J. KelleyUSA2:20:05
1963Aurèle VandendriesscheBelgium2:18:58
1965Morio ShigematsuJapan2:16:33
1967Dave McKenzieNew Zealand2:15:45
1969Yoshiaki UnetaniJapan2:13:49
1970Ron HillUnited Kingdom2:10:30
1975Bill RodgersUSA2:09:55
1979Bill RodgersUSA2:09:27
1981Toshihiko SekoJapan2:09:26
1982Alberto SalazarUSA2:08:52
1986Robert de CastellaAustralia2:07:51
1994Cosmas NdetiKenya2:07:15
2006Robert Kiprono CheruiyotKenya2:05:52
2011Geoffrey MutaiKenya2:03:02 (current record)

Women’s Division

YearWinnerNationalityCourse Records
1972Nina KuscsikUSA3:10:26
1973Jacqueline HansenUSA3:05:59
1974Miki GormanUSA2:47:11
1975Liane WinterGermany2:42:24 (world record)
1979Joan BenoitUSA2:35:15
1980Jacqueline GareauCanada2:34:28
1981Allison RoeNew Zealand2:26:46
1983 Joan Benoit USA2:22:43 (world record)
1994Uta Pippig Germany2:21:45
2002Margaret OkayoKenya2:20:43
2014Buzunesh DebaEthiopia2:19:59 (current record)

Entrants Statistics

The number of entrants participating in the Boston Marathon have increased with every event. Here are the statistics, by decade, for the number of people who have entered the race:



Spectators are an integral part of any marathon. The Boston Marathon sees thousands of spectators descend upon the course each year to witness the festivities accompanying this thrilling race. While there is no way to track this data accurately, it’s safe to say that the most recent Boston Marathon attracted no less than 500,000 spectators. 

The Impact of the Boston Marathon on Communities

The Boston Marathon has had a remarkable impact on the local community of Boston but also on the global running community. And, while the first race in 1897 only had fifteen participants, this number has risen drastically, with roughly 30,000 athletes participating in the 2023 marathon. 

This, in turn, means big revenue for the city of Boston. The expected income has climbed to over $200 million as athletes and runners flock to Massachusetts to participate in or spectate at this world-famous marathon. 

The event has also become a big deal in the running world, with athletes worldwide flying thousands of miles to line up on the start line. Winners can expect a handsome cash prize, running points, and of course, the prestigious title of the winner. 

The Boston Marathon Course and its Features

The Boston Marathon route, mapped on Strava
The Boston Marathon route, mapped on Strava

Like many other marathons, especially the World Marathon Major races, the Boston Marathon has unique challenges and is known for its daunting hills that test runners physically and mentally. 

The 26.2-mile race, changed in 1924 to meet Olympic standards, starts in the picturesque town of Hopkinton and takes athletes through eight towns and cities. With a 350-foot elevation drop in the first four miles of the marathon, runners have described their legs as feeling “soupy” as they take on the treacherous route to Ashland and beyond. 

These are the towns and cities passed through along the Boston Marathon route:

  1. Hopkinton
  2. Ashland
  3. Framingham
  4. Natick
  5. Wellesley
  6. Newton
  7. Brookline
  8. Boston

The finish line is on Boylston Street, in the now-famous Copley Square. But, there are several obstacles runners must overcome before they reach that seemingly unreachable finish line. 

Four major hills make the Boston Marathon a challenge. With three of these located on the Massachusetts Turnpike, each is more challenging than the one before, with many runners pushing like never before to reach the finish line. 

Possibly the most famous, Heartbreak Hill was given its name in 1936 when reporter Jerry Nason witnessed Johnny Kelley tapping the shoulder of fellow participant Ellison Brown, resulting in Brown speeding ahead to win the race. It is known as the most challenging of the hills, where most athletes draw on whatever physical and mental strength they have left to continue to the finish line. 

There is, however, good news (sort of): the remainder of the race is downhill, with the finish line just a few short miles ahead. 

The finish line of the Boston Marathon is located in downtown Boston, at Copley Square. And while the finish line is a welcome relief to tired athletes, the buzz of excitement at the finishing line is truly something to behold – fans, families, and spectators line the streets to watch the first runners cross the finish line while cheering on the final runners just as enthusiastically.

Crowd Support and Cheering Sections

If you’ve ever participated in a marathon, running race, or other sporting events, you’ll know the importance of crowd support and cheering sections on the sidelines. 

From motivation to encouragement, there’s much to be gained from running the Boston Marathon, with thousands of people cheering you on along the 26.2-mile route. Some runners have spoken of the mental and physical benefits of good spectator support. 

Many say that the clapping and cheering gave them the confidence and encouragement to push on and finish the race when ready to give up.

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon takes runners on a 26.2-mile journey through eight towns and cities. Organizers want to ensure that all participants have the fitness and strength to complete the challenge safely, so runners must qualify for the Boston Marathon. How do you qualify for the race, and what cut-off times do runners need to know?

Here are the qualifying standards of the Boston Marathon:

  • Entrants must be 18 years and older.
  • Athletes must have completed a run on a certified course as prescribed by USA Track and Field or the international equivalent. Details are available on the Boston Athletic Association website
  • Cut-off times must be adhered to. Only the fastest runners can register first, with slower runners being admitted based on field sizes. 

The qualifying window for the Boston Marathon opens 18 months before the event, with registration taking place around September – roughly seven months before the race. Registration is normally open for 5 to 7 days. Runners looking to compete in the marathon must be at least eighteen on race day. 

Classes and Cut-Off Times

Cut-off times for the Boston Marathon have changed over the years, with different cut-off times specified for men, women, and those who identify as nonbinary. While qualifying times included an additional 59 seconds in the past, this has since been done away with, and athletes who do not meet the qualifying time will no longer be allowed to participate. 

The current cut-off times for the Boston Marathon are different for each age group and are broken down as follows:


  • 18 – 34: 3:00:00
  • 35 – 39: 3:05:00
  • 40 – 44: 3:10:00
  • 45 – 49: 3:20:00
  • 50 – 54: 3:25:00
  • 55 – 59: 3:35:00
  • 60 – 64: 3: 50: 00
  • 65 – 69: 4:05:00
  • 70 – 74: 4:20:00
  • 75 – 79: 4:35:00
  • 80+: 4:50:00


  • 18 – 34: 3:30:00
  • 35 – 39: 3:35:00
  • 40 – 44: 3:40:00
  • 45 – 49: 3:50:00
  • 50 – 54: 3:55:00
  • 55 – 59: 4:05:00
  • 60 – 64: 4:20:00
  • 65 – 69: 4:35:00
  • 70 – 74: 4:50:00
  • 75 – 79: 5:05:00
  • 80+: 5:20:00


  • 18 – 34: 3:30:00
  • 35 – 39: 3:35:00
  • 40 – 44: 3:40:00
  • 45 – 49: 3:50:00
  • 50 – 54: 3:55:00
  • 55 – 59: 4:05:00
  • 60 – 64: 4:20:00
  • 65 – 69: 4:35:00
  • 70 – 74: 4:50:00
  • 75 – 79: 5:05:00
  • 80+: 5:20:00

These times are the minimum number of minutes and seconds you would need to subtract from the qualifying time of your race class to be accepted as a participant in the Boston Marathon. 

Cut-off times help organizers of the Boston Marathon decide who gets to participate, as the number of entrants has skyrocketed in recent years, with the number of entrants far exceeding the field size available. 

The problem with cut-off times is that no runner knows the exact cut-off time in advance, as this is controlled by organizers who need to cut down on the number of entrants due to field size and other restrictions. 

To ensure a place at the starting line, athletes should strive to shave a few minutes off their qualifying time to guarantee entry to the Boston Marathon.

Charity Teams and the Boston Marathon

The Boston Athletic Association, the organizers of the annual Boston Marathon, introduced their Charity Program to promote charity and community upliftment, allowing athletes to participate in the prestigious marathon while raising funds for several charities. 

A few examples of charities that benefit from this program are:

  • The National Multiple Sclerosis Society
  • Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired
  • Boston Children’s Hospital
  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester
  • American Liver Foundation
  • American Red Cross
  • Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Each year, the Boston Charity Program invites athletes willing to run for any of the causes in their program to participate in the event, regardless of their qualifying times. Those who wish to participate should contact the beneficiary directly for details on how to secure their entry. 

Entry to the Boston Marathon via the Boston Charity Program requires the athlete to raise a minimum of $5,000 for their charity. But this does not mean qualifying athletes are barred from participating in the charity program. They can also contact charity organizations to pledge funds for the relevant cause. 

Charity program entrants impact the field size, but the organizers of the Boston Marathon have recently capped the number of charity program entrants to keep entry to the marathon fair. 

Training for the Boston Marathon

Now that we’ve covered the essentials and looked at how the Boston Marathon came to be, it’s time to take a look at how to train for this marathon – it has a finish rate of roughly 98%, which is good news! But the Boston Marathon is anything but easy and is usually only completed by the toughest of athletes who have spent months (sometimes years) preparing for this race. 

While we encourage anyone reading this to take up running and train for the Boston Marathon (or any other race), the main purpose of the information below is to help athletes who’ve already got some experience train for the Boston Marathon. 

Training Period

Training for the Boston Marathon should start around 18 months before race day. This is because you must run a qualifying time to register for the race. Once that’s done, you must focus on improving your mileage before working on performance and speed.

The training period for the Boston Marathon race itself is normally 12 to 24 weeks depending on your fitness level and experience.

The Principles of Training for a Marathon

Six main principles need to be followed when training for the Boston Marathon. They are:

  1. Weekly mileage
  2. Long runs
  3. Speed workouts
  4. Easy runs
  5. Strength training
  6. Rest and recovery

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

1. Weekly Mileage

26.2 miles is no joke and is not for those who run for fun or simply to keep fit. Training your body – and mind – to run 26.2 miles requires hard work and determination and can often take months or years to achieve. To prepare for the Boston Marathon, you must run four to five times a week, focusing on increasing your mileage over a few weeks. 

Several marathon training programs are available, so be sure to find one that suits your needs, experience level, and lifestyle. You can also work with a running coach to custom-create a plan.

Your marathon training plan will start with less mileage than it’ll end with. Ensure you never increase your mileage by more than 10% per week.

2. Long Runs

Long runs will help you increase your endurance and stamina – physically and mentally. Your training program should include one long run per week to increase your running performance and V02 max rate. This will help your body prepare for the intensity of the Boston Marathon. 

Your long runs shouldn’t exceed 40% of the week’s total mileage. Long runs should be challenging but comfortable – somewhere between the exertion of an easy run and an interval session. 

Remember that this marathon has several daunting hills to conquer, so add a few hills throughout your training to help your body acclimatize.

3. Speed Workouts

Maintaining a set speed (or pace) when running a marathon is vital to making those all-important cut-off times. Intervals and tempo runs are a great way to increase your speed and endurance, so add those into your training program – once a week is enough.

These are also excellent forms of cardiovascular exercise that will increase your lung capacity and V02 max rate so you can dominate the Boston Marathon.

4. Easy Runs

Easy runs make up the bulk of your training – two to three of your weekly runs should be easy and run at a gentle, conversational pace. These runs are critical to preventing injuries and allow your body to absorb your more intense workouts. 

5. Strength and Cross Training

Runners run because they love running, but to enjoy longevity in the sport, you need to support the structures that allow you to run. That means strength training is important.

You only need to include two strength training sessions of 20 to 30 minutes weekly. Whether you choose bodyweight training, resistance bands, or free weights, maintain proper form and posture to avoid injuries. Focus on exercises that work your shoulders, back, core, and legs.

You also need to include cross training twice a week – this can be anything from walking or cycling to elliptical training or swimming. Cross training develops your cardiovascular system without placing strain on your body.

6. Rest and Recovery

No athlete can run seven days a week without getting an injury at some point. Choose a training program that includes rest days as you give your body – and mind – a chance to recover from the intensity of running. 

Remember that running is a high-intensity exercise that can lead to many injuries as your joints (and feet) absorb the shock of the pounding on the ground while you run. You should also respect and adhere to your taper period before a marathon, ensuring your body is in peak condition for the upcoming race. 

Races and Training to Help Prepare for the Boston Marathon

There are many races you can participate in before the Boston Marathon. Join your local running club, sign-up for virtual runs, or participate in a few 5k or 10k runs to help you prepare.

The Boston Athletic Association website has a list of recommended runs you can complete before the Boston Marathon as a part of your training. Also, it has its own comprehensive training program to help guide athletes according to their running and fitness levels. 

Boston Marathon Race Day Strategies and Tips

Now that you have qualified for the Boston Marathon and race day has arrived, are there any other strategies or tips that might be useful?

Here are a few tips and strategies shared by athletes who have completed the prestigious Boston Marathon that could make a difference to your performance. 

#1: Time

Ask any seasoned marathon runner about the most important factor of the race, and they’ll tell you it is about time. While the Boston Marathon sees runners finish in an average time of 3:52:40, elite runners need to shave off minutes and seconds to earn themselves a coveted spot on the podium. 

For elite men, a good time is roughly 2:02:00 to 2:10:00, while the time for women is around 2:15:00 and 2:25:00. These are, of course, for those in the top ten. 

It’s important to remember that each marathon is different, and your finishing time will depend significantly on the course conditions and weather. The Boston Marathon is known for its treacherous hills, so consider this when deciding on your goal for times.

#2: Race Day Weather

The weather greatly impacts your running strategy, as those who participated in the rainy 2023 race learned. And while the weather is generally pleasant, almost warm, it can be unpredictable as Mother Nature often has her own plans for what the weather will be like on any particular day. 

Take a light jacket or sweater that can easily be thrown to the side of the road or tied around your waist while running. Remember to layer yourself with sunscreen – especially your shoulders, face, and ears. Warmer weather will increase the need for hydration, so factor this in when considering the time you’ll lose at the hydration stations along the route. 

Boston Marathon race day rain

#3: Pacing and Other Challenges

Consider the old story of the hare and the tortoise when working out your pacing strategy. Rather than running at full speed out the gate only to crash later, pace yourself and reserve your energy for the hilly sections in Newton. 

Heartbreak Hill is a well-known and much-hated challenge for runners, so remember to keep something in the tank for this last hill. You can easily make up your time on the downhills, so conserve your energy at the start, stick to your pacing plan, and at the end, see what you have left by emptying the tank.

Boston Marathon Tips for First Timers

If you’re preparing for your first Boston Marathon, these tips are for you and will help you make the most of your running performance and experience on race day. 

Before the Race

You’ve qualified, registered, done your training, and arrived in Boston for the marathon. What now? Now is the time to rest as much as possible to give your body a break from your intensive training program that has seen you push yourself to your limits. 

A two to three-mile run a day or two before the race to shake out the nerves is more than sufficient, so give your body a break and let your muscles rest as much as possible. 

Race Day

If it’s your first time participating in the Boston Marathon, it’s important to know that taking a bus to the Athlete’s Village is easier than driving yourself and struggling to find parking. Hop on the bus with other athletes and wait for your starting time. 

Refreshments and snacks are available, so eat a light snack and hydrate (not too much) before you run. Pack in a jacket or light sweater that you don’t mind leaving behind or can tie around your waist – mornings are cold at Athlete’s Village, so ensure you have something to keep you warm. 

This waiting time is perfect for doing some stretches and a warm-up jog, clearing your mind, and preparing yourself for the upcoming challenge. 

On The Course

Athletes who have completed the Boston Marathon all have the same thing to say: pace yourself. While the first few miles are all downhill, your legs are feeling fresh, and your adrenaline is pumping, remember that several hills loom ahead and are where you will need most of your energy. 

Pace yourself for the first ten miles, sticking to your pacing strategy as closely as possible. At the 10-mile mark, assess how you feel, and if you have any tightness or niggles, then press on based on the strategy you had based on your current condition. 

When the road widens towards the end of the race, you’ll see many runners increase their pace – this is where you can increase your pace and battle Heartbreak Hill. Focus on your breathing throughout, and keep your speed and breathing steady as you tackle this fun yet challenging marathon. 

Next Step: Run the Boston Marathon!

The Boston Marathon has long been the highlight of the marathon calendar. It brings a bevy of local, national, and international athletes to the city as they all have one goal – to tackle the treacherous yet prestigious Boston Marathon. 

And while it has its challenges, it’s still one of the most coveted runs for athletes who want to push themselves with the most challenging – and rewarding – road marathons known to man. 

With just over 30,000 finishes per year, the race has several qualifying standards that must be met, giving those who take running seriously a chance to tick the Boston Marathon off their bucket list. Sign up today if you consider yourself worthy of the Boston Marathon and its infamous Heartbreak Hill. 

As Des Linden, winner of the women’s 2018 Boston Marathon, said, “The Boston Marathon is a race that’s captured my heart from day one. The road from Hopkinton to Boston is technical, challenging, and deserves respect— it’s where true racers thrive.”

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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