Five Things Every New Boston Marathon Runner Needs to Know

There have been thousands of books, magazine articles and blog posts written about running The Boston Marathon. I’ve written a few of those blog posts my self!

I’m not an elite runner, famous or a certified running coach. But I have run The Boston Marathon eight times and seventeen marathons all together.

I ran Boston in 2018 in the middle of a storm and I ran Boston in 2012 when it was over 80 degrees.

This advice is from my own personal experience and is written for first time Boston Marathon runners.

Five Things Every New Boston Marathon Runner Needs to Know

Train for the Boston Marathon

If this is your first marathon, I hope you’ve been training for quite a few months. Most running plans will advise new runners to train for eight or ten months.

Going from your couch to 26.2 miles is a long process that should not be short changed.

This may seem obvious, but there are people who have never run a marathon or any race and decide to run Boston. If you are able to complete the 26.2 miles, you may cause harm to your self in the process.

I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2003 with only about four months of training. I advise against this!

Read My First Marathon Experience

Running a marathon is unlike any other running event you may have participated in. The level of fatigue and pain that you may feel is unlike anything that you have ever experienced.

Proper training is the best way to minimize fatigue and pain and enjoy your Boston Marathon Experience. Boston truly is a special race weather it is your first marathon or your first running of The Boston Marathon. You want to enjoy it as much as possible.

My advice is to pick a training plan that matches your goal and stick to it as closely as possible. There are plans out there for all levels of runners.

To pick a training plan you need to pick a goal finish time. The Boston Marathon has a six-hour cut off. So you should pick a plan that will set you up to meet this time at the least.

If you have run a race in the past month you can use The McMillan Running Calculator to calculate your estimated finish time. This calculator is fairly accurate.

As a first time marathoner I would use the finish time provided as my goal.

If you have yet to run even a 5K, I highly encourage you to run one soon. Then use your finish time in the McMillan Running Calculator.

Running a race is different than training. Almost everyone starts a race too fast sometimes. It is best to have this experience at a local 5K and not a few miles into The Boston Marathon.

It takes a lot of experience to avoid a fast start. After all these years, even I go out too fast sometimes. A 5K melt down will give you a taste of what going out too fast feels like and what The Wall feels like. You wont soon forget that burning feeling in your legs!

Get a plan. Follow the plan. Run the plan. It’s simple.

Welcome to Boston now meet The Wall

As a first timer, your body has never experienced the fatigue and pain of a 26.2 mile long run.

All training plans will take you from short runs up to a long run in the 20 mile range. This is why training over many months is required. It takes that long to build yourself up to running those long runs.

Long runs teach your body how to run for a long time. Long runs teach you how to fuel and hydrate properly so you can avoid The Wall or Bonk.

Def. Bonk: To hit the wall, to run out of juice. The point beyond which your body does not want to move.

Basically your body will have run out of energy producing glycogen. Once this happens you cannot replenish your stores. It will take your body hours to replenish the spent glycogen and by that time the street lights will be on!

It is a very unpleasant experience both physically and mentally. For some people it has been fatal.

Replacing glycogen while you run is vital to avoiding The Wall. You may have seen World Class marathoners grabbing sport bottles during a marathon. These bottles have sports drink and possibly a custom mix just for that athlete. They are fine tuned machines.

An Elite Marathoner is conditioned to run 26.2 miles and they are on the course for about half the time that you will be. They can get away with a few swigs of sport beverage.

You will need much more and you need to learn what works for you and when to take it.

Read Glucose and the Endurance athlete

gel, running food, glucoseLong runs are when you want to learn which food and beverage works for you. This is a process of trial and error. I’ve been doing this over 15 years and I’m still tweaking and trying new things.

When you discover a food that works for you, stick with it. For your first marathon you just need to find one sport drink and one gel that you can tolerate.

Most people use gels for convenient, quick energy. For some people gels bother their stomach. That’s runner speak for throwing up and/or diarrhea.

There are many brands of gels to try. Each has their own formula and some will work for you and some wont. Figure this out during your long runs.

fig newtons, glycemic indexYou can also eat common food items for energy. During a marathon, I’ve used Fig Newtons several times and Snickers bars twice. These are cheaper than gels and they will probably agree with your system. I still eat Snickers bars during Sunday Long Runs.

Gels are packaged for running. If you use cookies or candy bars you will need to package them for easy access. Candy bars do not work well in warm temperatures.

I’ve been eating Fig Newtons and Snickers bars my entire life. They may have added some pounds and cavities, but they never made me sick. Try some of your favorites if you like.

One draw back to common food items is that they probably do not have the electrolytes your body needs during a marathon. So if you go with Snickers, make sure you drink sports beverage during the race.

Read Fig Newtons and the Glycemic Index

Fuel Early and Often

Don’t wait until you feel tired to fuel. Once your body becomes depleted you cannot get ahead of it. It’s the beginning of the downward spiral towards The Bonk.

You need to start consuming calories early in the marathon. I advise taking your first gel at 5K or 5 miles at the latest. If you consume something every 5K you should be alright.

A well conditioned athlete’s muscles and liver can hold up to about 2,400 calories in the form of glycogen. As you run, your body turns glycogen into glucose and burns about 125 calories a mile. As a new runner you will not have 2,400 calories stored at the beginning of the race.

Your calorie burn depends on several factors such as conditioning and effort.

As an example: Assuming you consume no calories during a race, have 2,400 calories stored and burn 125 calories per mile you will bonk around mile 20.

You will have way less than 2,400 calories on board, but you will consume some. You just need to pay attention and make sure you consume enough.

Managing energy has to be part of your race plan. You have to be on top of this.

Heartbreak Hill meet The Wall

One of the beautiful things (irony) about The Boston Marathon is that mile 20 is just before Heartbreak Hill.

Just when a poorly fueled body will bonk. You don’t want this to happen to you and it doesn’t have to.

When you make the right hand turn just after Mile 17 and the Newton Fire Station, you hit a series of hills that continue until Cleveland Circle at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. You’ll know why it’s called the Chestnut HILL Reservoir as you run up the hill to the turn at Cleveland Circle.

Heartbreak Hill is the last hill. I always see people walking on these hills. Some are just tired or in pain. Others have hit the wall and have that far away look in their eye.

Once your body has depleted it’s store of glycogen during a marathon, it is impossible to recover. You cannot replenish glycogen faster than your body is consuming it. If you bonk, your goal finish time vaporizes before your glazed eyes. There is no way to recover. Once you bonk it’s  about survival and trying to get to the finish. It’s not pretty and it never feels good.

When you bonk you probably have depleted electrolytes also. Your body will feel exhausted. This is the standard combination of misery. Your body has run out of energy to move and the electrolytes necessary to prevent cramping.

Depleted glucose and electrolytes can be dangerous. You can loose the ability to maintain your body temperature and your heart and other organs can fail. Glucose is the only energy source that your brain uses. I’ve seen people hauled off the course wrapped in blankets in a gurney!

This is not how you want your Boston Marathon Experience to end.

Read about one of my bonk experiences

This is why it is so important to fuel early in the race. If Gatorade and Clif Shot Energy Gels upset your stomach, bring your own fuel. Even if you like Clif Shot Energy Gels, they don’t hand them out until mile 11.8.

I advise taking some calories at 5K,10K and around mile 10. Just one gel or fig bar at each marker should do. The BAA will have digital clocks at every 5K and mile marker, so you can’t miss your marks.

I also carry bottles in my belt and have carried a 500ml bottle of sports drink mix. It’s better to carry what you know works for you.

The BAA will provide Poland Spring Water and Lemon Lime Gatorade Endurance Formula each mile starting at mile two.

You can use these water stops as a walk break if you need it, but get off to the side and out of everyone’s way. If you do walk the water stops start early in the race before your muscle tighten up. Don’t wait until you are in trouble.

If you like Clif Shot Energy Gels  you can get them at miles 11.8, 17 and 21.5.

You will need three gels for the 5k, 10K and 10 mile refueling. I would bring a 4th for late in the race, just in case. If you’re having a rough day you may need that extra gel after the mile 21.5 Clif Energy Zone.

If Clif Shots tie your guts into knots, then bring six or seven of what ever works for you. If Lemon Lime Gatorade makes you hurl, then bring your own beverage and just take water as needed.

A belt full of seven gels and a few drink bottles may seem like a lot. But if you fuel properly, by the half-marathon mark half your supplies should be gone. And if you are struggling late in the race that last gel will seem like Lembas.

Don’t Eat That!

The pasta dinner the night before Boston is a big tradition. I’ve never gone.

If you don’t like pasta or pasta sauce upsets your stomach, don’t go. Don’t go to a restaurant and have pasta just because it’s a pre-race tradition.

Don’t stuff yourself because you are carbo-loading. Eat what you normally eat just maybe a little more than usual. Your body can only carry 1,800 to 2,400 calories. Anything extra will just make you feel fat on Marathon Monday.

I also avoid alcohol. Well, too much alcohol. Alcohol accelerates dehydration and in the days before the race you want to stay well hydrated. I would stick to one or two beverages. You can party after the race.

Free Food at Hopkinton

When you get to Hopkinton there will be all kinds of food. Dunkin Donuts will have coffee and bagels. If coffee and bagels work for you, go for it. I always have coffee before a race and a plain bagel always settles well in my stomach. It’s a good way to top off your energy store just before the race.

Cliff, PowerBar and other vendors may be giving out free product. It will be tempting to take a bunch of them. But if you packed your belt properly, you don’t have room to take that stuff with you.

If you’ve never had what ever product is being given away, don’t take one. This is not the time to try anything new.

You don’t want to eat anything new the day before your race. In the hours before the start you absolutely do not want to eat anything new. Nothing.

Your bowels will be jumping around like a basket of snakes all ready. You do not want to put anything unknown into that pit of vipers!

Just because there are gallons of coffee and thousands of bagels, power bars and gels, even if you have had them all before, don’t be a glutton.  If you normally eat one bagel and have one 8 oz coffee, stick with that.

What goes in…

Honolulu Marathon 2017, Porta PottiesPlease read this carefully if this is your first Boston. I cannot stress this enough. When you get off the bus head strait for the porta potties. Your bowels are sure to be churning and you must pee before the race starts. Just the excitement of the race is enough to get things moving for most runners.

When you walk onto one of the two fields behind Hopkinton High School you will see more porta potties than you have ever seen in your life! Each one will have 100 people lined up laser-focused on their door. I’m not kidding and neither are they. There are no cuts in one of these lines.

It can take 30 minutes to over an hour to get through the line. Get through the line at least once and then walk around.

After you have checked things out and found your friends, get back into line. I guarantee that when you hear your corral called to the start you will instantly need to relieve yourself.

Boston Marathon 2018 Hydration

Proper hydration is essential for you to finish the race. As I mentioned earlier, even the elite runners have something to drink during the race. They are only out there for about two hours, so they don’t need as much as you and I do.

Much like training, hydration is a balancing act. You want to get enough hydration but not too much. During your training runs you should be able to figure out what you need.

At The Runners Village you may be bored and you will be nervous. This often causes people to drink more than they should. Weather it is coffee, Gatorade or water it all has to come back out eventually. This is why I advise standing in the porta potty line: it gives you something to do and you can talk to people and ease your nerves. Oh, and you’ll need to pee.

Boston Marathon Water Stop, Andy Nagelin, HPHydration during the race is different for everyone. It’s important to get to the start line hydrated but not over hydrated. I usually stop drinking anything the hour before my start time, then I get in line for the porta potty. This hour gives my body time to process what I have consumed and helps me avoid a porta potty or woods stop during the race.

During the race I normally take sips from one of my bottles of sports mix. Just enough to keep my mouth and throat wet.

My rule of thumb is that if I’m sweating than I’m properly hydrated. If I start to notice that my face is dry then it’s time to get more water or Gatorade. Usually by the half-marathon mark I start grabbing a cup of something at the water stops.

You have to pay attention to your body. Most of the fluid you consume during the race will be sweat out and you won’t have to make a stop. If you feel dizzy or your mouth is dry, take some fluid.

Dehydration is as big of an issue as bonking. If you run out of water or energy, your race is done. There will be race officials and medical assistance all along the course. If you start hallucinating or feel like you are about to die, ask for help.

You also don’t want to over hydrate. This starts at the Runners Village, as mentioned above. Early in the race only drink what you feel you need. It may be half a cup of water or it may be a cup of Gatorade and water.

If you drink too much you will need to make a stop. Over-hydration can also cause exercise-induced hyponatremia. This is when you have consumed so much water that the sodium levels in your blood fall below safe levels. This is a very serious condition.

The best way to avoid this is don’t drink more than you need and drink some of that Gatorade since it contains sodium.

Advice from the BAA

Pay attention to your body.

Don’t get hurt

If this is your first marathon, or one of your first, you probably have few aches and pains. You probably feel great and energized after a run. This is normal. But it doesn’t last.

Talk to anyone who’s been running for a while and they will tell you about their latest injury. It happens to everyone, but you don’t want it to happen to you.

There are so many ways to get hurt running. It seems like a safe sport, no one is trying to tackle you or slam you into the boards. But you are your own worse enemy.

Many runners dive into training before they are prepared. Or they miss a day and add the miles to their next run. Or they don’t get enough rest or don’t eat right. They don’t stretch or do cross training.

It can all seem to be too much. But when you get an injury, that few minutes of stretching after a run or time in the gym doesn’t sound so boring anymore. It’s no fun recalling that run when you got that injury.

I feel that getting to the start line healthy but under trained is better than getting to the start line in great shape but with an injury. You just don’t want to do that.

How to avoid injury?

Pay attention to your body. Some runs just don’t feel right. This happens a lot but often goes away after a few miles. With experience you learn when you are just feeling lazy and when you really should cut your run short or stop.

Training is a balance between pushing your self and knowing when you need to take a break.

Running is about adapting. Sometimes you need to adapt your plans based on the situation.

Pay attention to your weekly miles

If you follow a professionally designed plan you should be okay. Otherwise, the general rule of thumb is to increase your miles by no more than 10% per week.

Running all of your miles in one day does not count! Increase mileage gradually over time and perhaps add days to your running week. Having at least one rest day is a very good idea.

If this is your first marathon you should use a professionally designed plan.

When I ramp up for a marathon I start by adding a day or two to my regular running schedule. Then I gradually add distance to each run. I find it easier on my body to run four or five shorter runs than running two short and one long run.

You do need long runs in your training plan, but they should come only after you have trained for a few months. Most training plans will ease you into longer runs.

Running a half-marathon a month or so before Boston is a good idea for any runner.

As a first-timer I think this is a very important part of your training. You need a long race to see how your body will feel and to gauge where you are with your training. It can be quite humbling!

Keep track of the miles on your shoes

lacing techniques, Five Things Every New Boston Marathon Runner Needs to KnowThis may seem silly to you, especially when your running shoes still look brand new. While the uppers may still be clean and bright, the sole of your shoe degrades significantly by 500 miles.

The cushion and support you had for the first few hundred miles begins to dissipate. It happens so slowly that you won’t even notice it. Then one day your knee or hip will get a twinge. You’ll know it when you feel it. You may start to get blisters all of a sudden.

If you are tracking your weekly miles, pay attention when you get around 500 miles. This is the time to get a new pair of running shoes.

Often I keep the older pair for shorter runs or walking around. Even though running shoes can look good for years, I generally get rid of any shoe that is more than three years old. Even for walking, your feet are not getting proper support from old shoes.

Your a runner, you need to take care of your feet.

Don’t over due the stretching

Runners need to stretch and strength train as part of their marathon training.

If you get to Hopkinton early, you may have a long wait for your start time. You may get bored sitting around. Looking around you will see runners stretching everywhere you look. It may look like people are stretching for hours. You are actually seeing people doing there normal routine and it isn’t an hour long.

stretching, yoga, clarity through pain

My advice is to only stretch as much as you normally do. Don’t try a cool stretch you see someone else doing. Hopkinton is not the place to learn yoga either!

You are going to be bored and nervous. The best thing to do is to stand in line for the porta potties and talk to other runners. Sit when you can to rest your legs and feet.

When you are ready, do your normal stretching routine. You may want to do it when you get to the field or you may want to do it just before you head for your corral. Just don’t over do it.

Don’t go out too fast

This happens to almost everyone at their first Boston. Your adrenaline will be surging and the crowds will make you feel like a rock star.

When you have that BAA bib pinned to your shirt, you are a VIP for the day. It is your show and all of the volunteers, staff and security are there to make sure things go as smoothly and safely for you as possible. Be sure to thank everyone in sight!

All of this VIP treatment contributes to your excitement. These folks are just doing their job. You need to do yours and keep your shit together.

If you have arrived at the start line uninjured and totally pumped up by the environment, you are likely to run one of your fastest miles.

The first five miles are mostly down hill or flat. The first time I ran Boston in 2003, I didn’t notice a hill until just after Mile 5 at the Framingham border. Looking at the elevation map, you can see that there are bigger hills before that. But I was so pumped up I didn’t even notice them.

Boston Marathon Course Map
BAA map

Because you are so pumped up and there is so much going on around you, it is easy to go out too fast. It is very important to focus on your pace as quickly as you can.

If you run the first mile 30 seconds or a minute below your goal pace, that’s okay. Not great but it shouldn’t hurt you. If you run the first five miles way under your goal pace it can come back to bite you in the ass.

And if you are so unfocused those first five miles you will probably also forget to fuel at 5K. That’s two strikes against you right there.

On many long runs I use the first mile or two as my warm up. The idea is to take it easy and see how my body feels. If something hurts I can stop and stretch.

The first mile or two is when you need to enjoy the euphoria of the start of the race, take in the sights and sounds of the crowd and relax.

This is the time to do a systems check and see what is bothering you today. It’s time to make sure you double tied your laces and that your running belt isn’t digging into your side, that your watch is started. Things like that.

So follow your training plan, don’t over do it. On race day run your plan. Hit the port potties often and don’t eat or drink anything new.

Run well my friends and I’ll be looking for you in Hopkinton!

Andy