When it comes to the sport of running—and really, sports in general—the Boston Marathon is one of the most prestigious events on the planet. It’s the oldest annually held marathon in the world, and as one of six Abbott World Marathon Majors (the largest and most renowned 26.2-mile races across the globe), it regularly attracts the best of the best in long-distance road racing.
It’s also considered by many to be the toughest course of the World Marathon Majors, with its unpredictable, sometimes difficult weather conditions and infamous hills that challenge runners’ quads late in the race. At the same time, it’s one of the most spirited marathons: Spectators line the historic course essentially the entire way and throngs of cheering fans can sometimes be heard from half a mile away. Ever since 2013, when a terrorist attack at the finish line left three dead and hundreds injured, runners and spectators alike have rallied to Boston's side to show solidarity for those directly impacted by the tragedy, the city, and its beloved marathon. The spirit of the Boston Marathon has become stronger than ever.
For those reasons—and many others—the Boston Marathon holds a unique place in the world of competitive sports. And that legacy continues next Monday, April 15, when 30,000 runners from 118 countries and all 50 U.S. states (plus Washington, D.C.) will toe the starting line for the 123rd edition of the race.
In the lead-up to the big day, we chatted with Chris Lotsbom, communications manager for the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), the nonprofit organization that puts on the Boston Marathon, to learn more about what makes this race so unique, the top elite runners to watch this year, how and where to catch all the action, and more.
1. The Boston Marathon is a particularly prestigious race.
Running the Boston Marathon is a challenge in and of itself. But getting entry in the first place is arguably even tougher. That’s because the majority of participants must meet certain qualifying standards based on age and gender in order to secure a spot. These standards are pretty difficult—women ages 18 to 34, for example, had to run a qualifying marathon in about 3 hours, 30 minutes (or less) to snag a 2019 bib—and achieving them is considered a huge accomplishment in the running world.
"Many refer to [Boston] as the 'People’s Olympics,' " Lotsbom tells SELF. “The elites strive to get their Olympic qualifier to get to the Olympic Games, and a lot of [amateur] runners say that Boston is their Olympics.”
Then there’s the course itself, which, as mentioned, is typically considered one of the (if not the) most challenging courses of the World Marathon Majors. According to B.A.A., the course has been unchanged since 1924 and charts through eight different cities and towns in Massachusetts, beginning in rural Hopkinton and finishing in downtown Boston. The first early miles are significantly downhill. When combined with the excitement of beginning the race itself, this makes it easy for runners to start out too fast, explains Lotsbom. That becomes a problem between miles 17.5 and 22, a particularly hilly section through Newton that includes multiple inclines, including the infamous Heartbreak Hill around mile 20. The Newton hills coincide with the time when many marathoners hit the wall, or feel extremely fatigued. It’s “really the tough part physically,” says Lotsbom.
2. It's known for drawing tons of spectators.
Through the difficult hills, and really the entire race, athletes are continually cheered by spectators, which marks another special aspect of this race. “It’s very hard to find a spot where there are no spectators,” says Lotsbom. Though it’s hard to count the exact number, Lotsbom says between 500,000 and about a million people typically watch the event live. It helps that the race is always held on Patriots' Day, a state holiday in Massachusetts when many residents are off work.
“Even in the early miles, through the [less populated] towns of Hopkinton and Ashland and Framingham, there are people lining their front yards cheering the runners.” The closer runners get to the city center, the larger—and louder—the crowds. Around the halfway mark, college students at Wellesley are known to cheer runners so loudly that this point of the course has been dubbed the “Wellesley Scream Tunnel,” says Lotsbom. “I’ve rode the press truck a couple times, and when you’re a good half mile away, you can already hear them cheering.” The final mile of the course is particularly raucous. “It’s three, four, five people deep sometimes," says Lotsbom.
3. Athletes who are especially gritty tend to do well in Boston.
Of course pretty much all marathoners, no matter the course, have impressive levels of fitness and perseverance. After all, they’re tackling 26.2 miles in one straight push, which is no easy feat. But when it comes to doing well at Boston, athletes typically need an additional dose of grit.
“If you were to put all the fastest runners on paper in order, it very, very rarely finishes that way where the fastest person coming in finishes first,” explains Lotsbom. Instead, “I like to say the runners who are grinders, who aren’t afraid to push their limits […] tend to do the best,” he says. The athletes who typically perform best at Boston are not necessarily the fastest, he adds, but “those who can tackle the hills and still have enough left in the last couple miles to bring it home.”
Another challenge for athletes is the fact that New England weather is “very unpredictable,” says Lotsbom. “One year it can be cool and cloudy; the next year it can be hot and sunny.” Last year, for example, was some of the worst weather in the race’s history, with frigid temperatures, pouring rain, and 30-plus mph headwinds. This means that athletes must be prepared to race in a wide range of conditions, and those that can run through heat, wind, rain, and essentially any other type of weather, will fare well.
4. The elite field is stacked for the 2019 race.
According to B.A.A., 17 Boston Marathon champions from all divisions of the race are competing again this year. That includes all four defending champions from last year: American Desiree Linden (whose 2018 victory marked the first American woman to win the race in 33 years), Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi (men’s 2018 open division winner), American Tatyana McFadden (women’s 2018 wheelchair division winner, who is vying for her sixth title this year), and Switzerland’s Marcel Hug (men’s 2018 wheelchair winner, vying for his fifth title).
Other notable athletes include American women Sarah Sellers (second in Boston in 2018), Olympic medalist Sally Kipyego, Jordan Hasay (third at Boston in 2017), and Sara Hall (2017 national champion). They’ll run alongside international competitors including Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat (2017 Boston champion), Kenya’s Caroline Rotich (2015 Boston champion), and Kenya’s Sharon Cherop (2012 Boston champion).
On the men’s side, additional elites include American Shadrack Biwott (third place at Boston in 2018) and American Olympians Dathan Ritzenhein, Abdi Abdirahman, and Jared Ward. They’re joined by Kenya’s Geoffrey Kirui (2017 Boston champion), Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa (two-time Boston champion), and Ethiopia’s Lemi Berhanu (2016 Boston champion).
5. There are a few other special highlights this year.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the race’s official charity program. Though the majority of runners qualify for the race by besting difficult time standards, there are more than a thousand participants who gain entry by raising money for charities and nonprofits. Through this program, which began in 1989, runners typically raise about $30 million a year for various causes, says Lotsbom.
Another highlight of this year’s race is the return of Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic gold medalist in the women’s marathon and two-time Boston Marathon champion. Benoit Samuelson, now 61, first won the Boston Marathon in 1979 as a 21-year-old Bowdoin College student. Forty years laters, she hopes to run within 40 minutes of that winning time, per a statement from B.A.A. That would require her to run under 3 hours, 15 minutes, 35 seconds, a pace of about 7 minutes, 28 seconds per mile.
Also, in the “legends” category is South African athlete Ernst Van Dyk, 10-time Boston Marathon champion in the men’s wheelchair division, who returns this year for his 20th Boston race.
6. You can track runners and watch from wherever you are.
The 2019 Boston Marathon takes place next Monday, April 15, 2019, with the first wave beginning at 9:02 A.M. EST. If you’ll be in Beantown and want to see the race yourself, check out the official Boston Marathon spectator guide to learn the best places to cheer.
Whether you’re in Boston or elsewhere, you can track individual runners through the Boston Marathon app, available through iTunes and Google Play. You can also sign up for “AT&T Athlete Alerts” to receive text message alerts when a specific runner crosses certain points of the course.
If you’re not able to spectate IRL, you can still catch full coverage of the race via CBS Boston (if you’re local) or nationwide on NBC Sports Network. You can also see updates on the Boston Marathon Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, and Vimeo accounts.