What’s the key to running well in the Boston Marathon? Our expects scoped out important advice for runners:
GETTING OFF TO A GOOD START:
Imagine several thousand people running through an opening 39 feet wide. OK, if you’ve seen the start of a Boston Marathon, you don’t have to imagine it. The race that begins on rural Hopkinton roads was never intended for such a stampede.
This year, with the addition of a third wave, swells of roughly 9,000 runners, instead of the 13,500 in recent years, will squeeze down Main Street/Route 135. Still, space will be tight for the first quarter-mile or so.
According to race director Dave McGillivray, the starting corrals are built so each runner has 3 square feet of space, with 1,000 runners per corral. The narrowest corral is 25 feet wide, so there’s something of a reverse funnel heading to the starting line. That’s the main reason you don’t see pushing and stumbling at the start. Still, a few tips can make surviving the start a little easier.
Prepare for the big squeeze: The Boston Marathon start is among the narrowest for major marathons. Then there’s the little-known fact that the road narrows to 22 feet about a quarter-mile into the race. Add the momentum of runners heading downhill - almost a 150-foot decline in the first 1,000 yards - and it’s a jostling mess of adrenaline-fueled bodies. Now that you know what to expect, you’re a step ahead. The fewer surprises on race day, the better.
Go with the flow: Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated - it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Why waste energy fighting the crowds early on? Runners who weave their way through early traffic probably regret the decision around Mile 20, if not sooner. A slow start shouldn’t be cause for concern, especially in the Boston Marathon. It might even work to your advantage. Since the course includes several significant drops in elevation leading up Mile 4, it can be hard to hold back. Starting out too fast is the greatest threat to a good marathon time. If a crowd helps you exercise restraint amid all the excitement, even for just the first mile or so, it may save your body for a strong finish.
Make a dash for the sidelines: If you’re feeling a little claustrophobic or can’t contain the urge to weave past other runners, head to the far sides of the road. It may give you a little more room to maneuver. A few quick strides off the pavement can help you duck around a slower runner without wasting much energy.
PREPARING THE COURSE FOR THE MARATHON
When houseguests visit, you tidy the rooms. But what happens when nearly 30,000 runners and roughly 500,000 spectators gather along 26.2 miles? How do you clean up for them? That is the challenge facing the eight communities along the Boston Marathon course and race organizers every spring.
“Not only are we responsible for making sure everything is safe for the runners, the spectators, everybody that comes to town, but we’re on camera worldwide,” said Mike Mansir, Highway Manager for the Hopkinton Department of Public Works. “We want to make sure things look the best that they possibly can, so everybody has a good impression. We want to be a good host to everybody.”
Hopkinton officials keep awfully busy prerace, from sweeping streets to polishing the “The Doughboy” statue near the start to repainting traffic lines to hanging American flags along Main Street. Other communities also want to be ready for race day and their close-ups.
Coming off a long, harsh winter, town and race officials had to deal with sand-covered roads, pesky potholes, and other inconveniences. But with years of experience and constant planning, they have spring cleaning down to an efficient routine that generally ramps up a few weeks before the runners arrive.
Around April 1, town officials start inspecting the portion of the course within their jurisdiction. As the officer in charge of Brookline marathon planning, police Captain Michael Gropman and representatives from the Brookline DPW undertake multiple inspections of its roughly 2 miles of racecourse. Public safety officials also review worst-case scenarios.
“I go over the course at least four times,” said Gropman. “The first time we look for defects in the roadway. The next time we look for anything that might cause confusion. The third time we go over the entire barricade and rope plan - how many barricades will be used, how much rope will be used. Then, there’s a fourth time where I go over the course with commanding officers and we decide what is the appropriate deployment plan based on our after-action report from last year. Every year, we look at what we can do better.”
Other communities have similar inspections, race-day plan reviews, and repair work, ensuring the route is smooth for all competitors, especially the wheelchair athletes.
“It’s a big day,” said Wellesley Police Lieutenant Jack Pilecki, whose town oversees about 4 miles of the course. “The last thing you want is a wheelchair going out of control because they hit a pothole. And you don’t want it happening in your town.”
DEALING WITH MEDICAL PROBLEMS
Dealing with Heartbreak Hill is challenging enough without having to worry about the marathoner’s two eternal stumbling blocks - cramps and blisters. Hydration and electrolyte balance are vital for fending off cramps and race organizers will have water and Gatorade Endurance Formula at every aid station along the course. But take care to monitor your intake. Drinking too much fluid can cause hyponatremia, which can lead to organ failure.
“If a cramp does occur, the best thing is to stop for a minute and stretch it out and massage the area,” says Dr. Pierre d’Hemecourt, the marathon’s co-medical director. “Side stitches” from diaphragm spasms, while painful, often can be remedied by breathing deeply and exhaling through pursed lips. “They’ll generally go away,” says Michael Pieroni, the BAA Running Club coach. “They do tend to work themselves out.”
Preventing blisters is all about suitable footwear, which should be neither too snug nor too loose nor just out of the box. “Don’t wear that brand-new pair of shoes your parents bought you,” Pieroni advises. “Make sure you’re racing in a pair of shoes that you’ve been training in.” A 50-mile break-in period should be adequate. And spend a bit extra for socks. “Get a good pair of breathable socks that wick away moisture,” says d’Hemecourt. There’ll be bandages and petroleum jelly available at the medical tents in the Athletes’ Village at the starting line. If blisters do pop up, pull over and have them treated at one of the 26 Red Cross stations along the route.
RUNNING DOWNHILL SUCCESSFULLY
While it’s true that Boston has the hilliest course of the five World Marathon Majors, the arrow generally points downward, with the elevation dwindling from 475 feet above sea level at the start to 16 feet at the finish. The secret to success here is not so much in the ascending as in the descending. “I tried to attack on the downhills,” says four-time champion Bill Rodgers. “I used them like crazy.”
The trick is to keep enough in reserve to be able to maximize the downslopes, all of which occur in the second half of the race. That means not being seduced into dashing down into Ashland after the gun is fired. “Start off at a very easy, relaxed pace and wait until after 3 miles to go into a racing pace,” says BAA Running Club coach Michael Pieroni.
The first significant hill appears coming down out of Wellesley Hills into Newton Lower Falls, where the elevation drops more than 110 feet in a mile. It’s quickly followed by the Route 128 overpass, which essentially is the first Newton hill. That’s the first of several gear changes that ultimately can turn quadriceps to stone.
“You’ve got to control yourself on the hills,” says Bill Squires, the former Greater Boston Track Club coach who had his runners work the hills routinely during practice.
“Go steady on the ups and then push it on the downs,” says Rodgers. “Use the gravity and take advantage of it - but don’t go too hard.”
HANDLING CHANGING NEW ENGLAND WEATHER CONDITIONS
How do you dress for an event where the weather can range from snow squalls to driving rain to searing heat? ‘‘We recommend that people bring a variety of outer garments with them,’’ advises Michael Pieroni, who coaches the BAA Running Club. ‘‘You don’t know what to expect on any given Monday around here. You’d rather be overdressed and peel layers off.’’
A disposable T-shirt can be worn over your racing gear and discarded as the temperature rises. If you bring more coldweather clothes than you need, you can stash them on the baggage bus at the Hopkinton start. On a cold day, keeping extremities warm is a must. ‘‘Wear a woolen cap and gloves or mittens,’’ says Bill Rodgers, whose trademark was a pair of white painter’s gloves on brisk days.
If the morning comes up warm, go minimal. ‘‘Light clothes, a hat, and sunblock is the order of the day,’’ says Pieroni. A mesh singlet is the best idea. ‘‘You don’t want to wear the race T-shirt made of cotton,’’ says Rodgers. ‘‘You need to perspire to cool your body down.’’
Watch for signs of heat stroke, including weakness, lightheadedness, confusion, blurred vision, shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting. Staying hydrated is a must. ‘‘The professional runners have their own bottles,’’ says Rodgers. ‘‘If you don’t get your drinks, you can struggle.’’
The BAA provides ample ﬂuids along the course. But if the weather is hot and humid, discretion is paramount. ‘‘If you have any medical concerns, consider not running the race or running it at a slower pace,’’ advises Dr. Pierre d’Hemecourt, the race’s co-medical director. ‘‘Running a pace that’s appropriate to the weather and your physical condition is extremely important.’’