When It Comes to the Boston Marathon, Each Few Miles Are Different From the Next

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When It Comes to the Boston Marathon, Each Few Miles Are Different From the Next
© David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images We broke down each stretch of the 26.2 mile race from Hopkinton to Boston so you can prepare for your best race.

The words“Boston Marathon” conjure up feelings and experiences that can’t quite be expressed with words. The infamous course, which goes along the train tracks—making it easy in 1896 for officials to get to the finish before the runners—has a special place in the hearts of vets, newbies, BQs-to-be, and spectators.

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The quirky, point-to-point route consisting of fast downhills and soul-crushing inclines passes through eight cities and towns, starting in Hopkinton and ending on Boylston Street in Boston.

Whether you’re lining up for the race in 2022 for the first time or you have more Celebration Jackets than you can count, here’s how to tackle each part of the Boston course. (You can view the official Boston Marathon course map here.)

The Start

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You’ve been sitting in Athlete’s Village at Hopkinton Middle and High School for hours, possibly in the early-morning chill, possibly in the rain, or maybe in the heat. When your wave is summoned to make its way to the start, the butterflies go into a full-blown flutter.

You’ll walk about a half-mile from the school to the corrals on Main Street and wait until the gun goes off, and when it does, hang onto your hat and your feelings. Running Boston can be very emotional, and the buildup comes to a head when you cross that start line.

Mile 1

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The saving grace of the narrow streets in Hopkinton and Ashland (the race’s second town) is that the bottleneck prevents you from sprinting the first mile, which is a very fast downhill. There is plenty of time to make up for a slower first mile, and that will be easier than trying to make your legs feel better at mile 19 if you went out way too fast.

Take in the sights: Mostly men a half-inch to your right, peeing. Spectators are few and far between at this early part of the race because of the narrow roads.

Miles 2 through 6

While there are a few rolling hills, you’re still heading down, which will take a toll on your legs later, especially if you haven’t practiced running hard downhill.

You’ll run through Ashland and Framingham, where the roads start to widen and the crowd of runners thins out, giving you more breathing room. Spectators start to pick up around the 10K mark in Framingham, and it can be easy to accelerate. Try to maintain your practiced pace. There’s plenty of race left.

Miles 7 through 11

This part of the race, which covers Framingham and Natick, is pretty flat, with a little climb in mile 11. While it’s not a dead zone when it comes to fans, it’s not hugely populated, especially as you run by Fisk Pond in Natick. (On hot days, it takes everything not to take a quick dip.)

These miles can be a little monotonous as you check your splits, anticipating what’s coming. Now’s a good time to tap into some motivational mantras—not because the race hurts (yet), but because you don’t have as many spectators as you will later on.

In the heat, this stretch is especially brutal, with no tree cover. Just past mile 10.5, on your right, be on the lookout for freezer pops in a sleeve—already opened for convenience. If it’s a hot day, these will help cool you down and give you a quick hit of sugar.

Miles 12 through 13.1

You’ll hear it well before you see it: the women of Wellesley College and their famous Scream Tunnel. As you make your way over the rolling hills along Route 135, the college students, on your right, will pull you toward the halfway mark with signs like “Kiss me, I don’t run!” (However in 2021, the BAA is strongly discouraging kisses to prevent the spread of COVID-19.)

The Scream Tunnel will give you a surge of energy, but don’t sprint ahead. The hills of Newton are coming.

Miles 14 through 16

Congratulations! You’re officially more than halfway to the famed finish line on Boylston Street. Just after mile 15, you’ll experience a big downhill. Reel it in to try to protect your quads because as you enter mile 16, there is a steep, unpleasant 0.75 mile climb as you head toward the Route 128 overpass. Listen closely: The cars beep for encouragement.

Just past the overpass, on which there are no spectators, is a downhill and a very crowded hydration stop. Newton-Wellesley Hospital is to your right, as is Woodland T station, which makes this straightaway loud and encouraging.

Miles 17 through 21, including Heartbreak Hill

At about 17.5 miles, you’ll make a sharp right turn onto Commonwealth Avenue—Comm Ave., as the locals call it. You can’t miss the Newton firehouse on your right, with its huge “Boston Strong” sign hanging out front. Turn the corner, and you’re starting the most notorious part of the Boston Marathon: the Newton hills, the series of climbs that end with Heartbreak Hill.

The crowds in miles 17 through 21 fluctuate. Spectators, like runners, know the lore of Heartbreak and often try to line up there; it can be four-people deep. And because of that, the hills leading up to Heartbreak aren’t always teeming with support.

Before you get to the most famous bump, you’ll have to tackle a steep 1,200-yard climb. The crowds are really packed here, and it can be easy to get carried away on the first uphill. Don’t. Then you’ll hit the second hill, about a quarter-mile climb. You’ll even out for about a mile before you get to the third hill, a steep 800 yards. And then, just past mile 20: Heartbreak Hill.

But it’s not the incline itself—91 feet—that gives the hill its famed name: In 1936 defending Boston Marathon champ Johnny “Elder” Kelley passed leader Ellison “Tarzan” Brown while giving him a pat on the back on that fourth Newton hill. The condescending pat fueled Brown’s drive to win, which he did. And that, legend says, broke Kelley’s heart. On the left of the base of the hill today, there’s a statue of a young Johnny “Elder” Kelley grasping the hand of his older self, titled “Young at Heart.”

Heartbreak Hill is by no means easy—it has a 3.3 percent grade. But where it falls may be why it’s most feared. Your legs have been chewed up by the generous downhill for the first part of the race, and then Newton asks you to keep climbing. Relax, take short steps, and breathe.

Miles 22 through 25

Once you crest Heartbreak Hill, you’re greeted with the drunken cries of Boston College students, and then it’s (mostly) downhill from here. (Which, let’s be honest, is no fun for your screaming quads.) Some prefer the BC crowds to the Wellesley Scream tunnel. Depending on your race goals, you may stop for a quick shot of alcoholic libations, which are handed out in abundance by the college students.

There is a slight crowd lull as you leave Boston College, making the mind-over-destroyed-muscles battle more challenging. But soon, you’ll get into Cleveland Circle, the heart of Brookline, where the crowds are pressed up against the barriers on both sides. Watch your footing, as the trolley tracks are not forgiving.

Approaching mile 24, you’ll head downhill. The crowds have thinned, making this part of the course a physical and mental battle. Once you crawl out, you’ll head uphill. Ahead of you: the Citgo sign.

Just past mile 25 is Kenmore Square. As a spectator, you can barely move. Per tradition, the Red Sox play an 11 a.m. game at Fenway Park, and fans spill out onto the sidewalks to catch the middle pack of runners.

Perhaps one of the most emotional and motivational points of the race is at mile 25.2. You’ll know when you reach it because there’s a sign that says, “One mile to go.”

Mile 26 through 26.2

Here comes the famous right turn onto Hereford Street. Yes, there is a small hill. Yes, people talk about how no one talks about that hill. But the adrenaline should be surging at this point. Everything hurts, but you’re almost at the finish line. Chances are, you won’t even feel it. And besides, there’s nothing to save yourself for anymore. This is it. Push.

Left onto Boylston Street, which is extremely flat. (Boston owes you that, right?) Be prepared: It is a long way to the finish line, even though you can see it, and you can hear it. The sidewalks are packed with screaming spectators. If you look up and to your right, you’ll see the Lenox Hotel sign. Run toward that.

While you want to just cross that finish line—everything hurts—soak up Boylston Street. Running Boston is a privilege, and before you know it, it will be over.

The Finish Chute

Once you cross the finish line, volunteers will tell you to keep moving. It sounds cruel, but the finish chute has to be cleared so there is no bottleneck of runners. Plus, it’ll help clear your legs of lactic acid buildup.

You’ll collect your blanket, water, medal, and before you exit, your recovery bag. While you’re working your way out of the crowd, refuel with the items in your recovery bag.

And then, of course, find somewhere to enjoy that celebratory meal and beer.

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