How the Boston Marathon Works

By: Jill Jaracz
boston marathon
The elite men start the 114th running of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass., Monday, April 19, 2010.
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Running comes naturally to most people, but marathon runners know differently. Nearly two hours into the Boston Marathon, the runners' approach to Heartbreak Hill lets them know that marathon running is every bit as challenging as they thought. Cheering crowds -- and a likely endorphin rush, the runner's high -- help them conquer this seemingly endless obstacle and push forward toward Boston. That's if they can avoid hitting the wall (losing energy) while running miles 21 through 25. If they make it up Heartbreak Hill, marathon participants will soon become finishers.

The Boston Marathon is the granddaddy of marathon running events. This 26.2-mile (42.195-kilometer) run is the world's oldest annually contested marathon. It began when Boston Athletic Association member John Graham decided to organize a marathon in his city after experiencing the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The first Boston Marathon took place on Patriots' Day, April 19, 1897. It's since been held on this Massachusetts state holiday that marks the beginning of the American Revolution.


While some people may think 26.2 miles is way too long for a run, the marathon has actually grown in popularity. Some people consider it one of life's ultimate challenges. Others run it to raise money for charity. Hundreds of thousands of people participate in marathons every year, with nearly half a million people finishing one in 2009.

As one of the five marathons in the World Marathon Majors, the Boston Marathon is one of the premiere marathon races in the world. Say all you want about its grand history and its hills, people really want to run the Boston Marathon because of its difficult qualifying requirements. That's right. Not only is the field limited to 25,000, but you must first qualify before registering.

Read on to learn how you can qualify for the Boston Marathon.


Boston Marathon Qualifying

While most marathons around the world have an open registration policy, the Boston Marathon is one of the few that requires its runners to prove they can go the distance. Before you can even register for the Boston Marathon, you have to run a certified marathon in a certain time limit that's determined by your gender and how old you'll be on Marathon Monday. Race organizers give you nearly a year before registration even opens to earn your qualifying time. Of course, if you are one of the world's top runners, you'll be invited to compete in the Boston Marathon. The rest of the world has to qualify.

Athletes with disabilities aren't exempt from qualifying standards either. The push rim wheelchair division has its own age-group qualifying times for men and women. Blind and visually impaired athletes must run a five-hour qualifying marathon regardless of age and gender. Those who have difficulty ambulating have a six-hour qualification time, and racers who have prosthetics, leg braces or crutches must qualify in eight hours.


However, there is a way to compete in the Boston Marathon without qualifying: Run for charity. Each year, the Boston Athletic Association and the John Hancock Company, the race sponsor, offer charitable organizations and non-profits a limited number of slots in the marathon for racers who raise money for charity. If you choose to go this route, you don't have to have a specific qualifying time, per se. However, you do have to agree that you can complete the marathon within six hours. As part of the charity program, you're required to raise a minimum amount of money for your charity, and you must participate in a months-long marathon-training program. It's a win-win for both runners and charities. Runners get to conquer the marathon and help a cause, and charities raise some much-needed cash. In 2010, around 2,150 runners took part in this program, raising over $14 million for their causes. [source: Powers]

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is just half the battle in terms of registering for the race. Due to the race's limited field of just 25,000 runners, registration fills up quickly. Competitors can register online starting about six months before race day.

Once you make it into the race, what should you expect? Read on to find out more about Marathon Monday.


Boston Marathon Route

boston marathon kiss
A Wellesley college girl gets a kiss from a runner as the race passes through Wellesley, Mass., during the 114th running of the Boston Marathon.
AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

The Boston Marathon course is a USA Track & Field certified course, meaning the 26.2-mile route is accurate. However, this race doesn't meet eligibility requirements for international record setting. Why? First, the course has a decrease in elevation over one meter per kilometer. Second, since the course is basically a straight line, the start and finish lines are too far apart to meet record-setting standards. [source: USA Track & Field]

The race officially gets underway at 9 AM, when the mobility-impaired runners take off, with the handcycle and push rim wheelchair divisions starting soon thereafter. The elite women start at 9:32. The main field has two waves of runners: The elite men and faster runners start at 10:00, and the second, slower wave of runners begins at 10:30.


The runners face a challenging course that starts in the western suburb of Hopkinton. The course winds its way eastward through the suburbs of Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brighton and Brookline before reaching the city of Boston.

The Boston Marathon route has an overall downward trajectory, starting at an elevation of about 450 feet and sinking to nearly sea level at the finish. This marathon is known for its challenging hills, and that's evident right from the start. The first mile alone features a 130-foot drop, the steepest downhill on the course. More rolling hills kick in at mile eight. Although the halfway point of the race takes runners through Wellesley, they'll hear the college about a half-mile before they get there. That's due to the infamous Wellesley Scream Tunnel, where the women of Wellesley College line the route to cheer on tiring runners and dole out kisses for good luck.

Then it's on to Newton, and the last set of hills. The most famous of these is Heartbreak Hill, which comes between mile 20 and 21. While the climb up Heartbreak Hill isn't that steep, it is the last major hill on the course. It also comes at a psychologically difficult spot, where some runners begin worrying about hitting the wall and being unable to continue.

When marathon participants make it over this hump, it's literally downhill from there. Continuing east, they'll finally hit the Boston city limits with 1.7 miles to go. With one mile left, runners pass a Citgo sign, one of the most famous landmarks on the racecourse. The last mile is usually one of elation because runners know they have just a little longer before they cross the finish line at Copley Square.

Next up, we'll take a look at record-setting results for Boston Marathon finishers.


Boston Marathon Results

boston marathon 2009 wheelchair division winner
Men's wheelchair winner Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa kisses his trophy in Boston after the 114th running of the Boston Marathon Monday, April 19, 2010.
AP Photo/Elise Amendola

For the elite runners in the field, the Boston Marathon can be a lucrative day at the office. In 2010, the winners shared $806,000 in prize money. The first place finisher in the men's and the women's races each take home $150,000. The top 15 overall finishers each take home money, with the fifteenth place finisher winning $1,500. Racers in the Master's categories divvy up a $40,000 pot, with the male and female winners taking home $10,000 each. Push Rim Wheelchair competitors share a $60,000 pool, with the winners taking home $15,000. Set a world best or course record in your division, and you can earn a cash bonus. [source: Boston Athletic Association: Prize Money]

In 2010, Robert "The Younger" Cheruiyot of Ethiopia blitzed a new course record of 2:05:52. Kenyan Margaret Okayo established the women's course record in 2002 with a time of 2:20:43. The course records for the wheelchair division are 1:18:27 by Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa, set in 2004, and American Jean Driscoll, whose time of 1:34:22, set in 1994, has yet to be beat.


Four Olympic champions, three of whom are women, have also won the Boston Marathon. Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia is the most recent Olympic champion to have this distinction. She won the 1996 Olympic marathon and took the Boston Marathon title the following year. American Joan Benoit Samuelson won two Boston Marathons before winning the first-ever gold medal in Women's Marathon at the 1984 Olympics. Portugal's Rosa Mota won three Boston titles, one of which was in 1988, the same year she won Olympic gold. The only male Olympic champion to win Boston was Gelindo Bordin of Italy who won the Olympics in 1988 and the Boston Marathon in 1990.

In the stamina category, two-time Olympian John A. Kelley "The Elder" has the distinction of being in the most Boston Marathons. He started 61 races and finished 58 of them. Two of his finishes were wins.

Even though the Boston Athletic Association organizes the race, it can only boast one champion throughout the marathon's 114-year history. B.A.A. Club Member John J. Kelley "The Younger" won the race in 1957, with a then-course record of 2:20:05.

For most runners, however, finishing the granddaddy of all marathons is victory enough.

Read on for lots more information about competing in marathons.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Boston Athletic Association. "Boston Marathon: Charity Program." (July 23, 2010)
  • Boston Athletic Association. "Boston Marathon: Course Map." (July 23, 2010)
  • Boston Athletic Association. "Boston Marathon: History." (July 23, 2010)
  • Boston Athletic Association. "Boston Marathon: Prize Money." (July 23, 2010)
  • Boston Athletic Association. "Boston Marathon: Qualifying." (July 23, 2010)
  • Hill, Andrew. "The Harbus Guide to the Boston Marathon: 26.2 Miles, 114 Years, A Day Off, And You." The Harbus. April 12, 2010. (July 23, 2010)
  • Pave, Marvin. "Resounding Wellesley message: voices carry." The Boston Globe. April 22, 2003. (July 23, 2010)
  • Powers, John. "Evolution of charity involvement in the Boston Marathon." The Boston Globe. April 16, 2010. (July 23, 2010)
  • Running USA. "2010 Marathon, Half-Marathon and State of the Sport Reports: Running USA's Annual Marathon Report." March 28, 2010. (July 23, 2010)
  • The Boston Globe. "Boston Marathon: Where to watch." (July 23, 2010)
  • USA Track & Field. "2010 Competition Rules." 2010. (July 23, 2010)
  • Vigneron, Peter. "Course Record, Out of Shadows for Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot." Runner's World. April 19, 2010. (July 23, 2010)
  • World Marathon Majors. (July 23, 2010)