Everything You Need to Know About the Boston Marathon

Ashley Mateo

Photo: RYAN MCBRIDE/AFP/Getty Images

The Boston Marathon is the oldest marathon in the United States. It's also one of the World Marathon Majors, a series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world. That should be enough to land it on any runner's bucket list. The fact that Marathon Monday is one of the biggest, rowdiest block parties in the running world, whether you're racing or not? Well, that's just an added bonus.

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Thinking about running? Curious what the 123-year-old course is like? Here's everything you need to know about the prestigious race, from its storied history to what to expect on the course this year. (Related: 6 Boston Marathon Runners Share Their Tips for Making Long Runs More Enjoyable)

When Is the Boston Marathon?

The Boston Marathon has always been held on Patriot's Day, a holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War (it's only recognized in Massachusetts and Maine, which is why you've probably never heard of it and definitely don't have the day off work if you don't live in those states).

When the race was first founded, Patriot's Day was always celebrated on April 19, so that's when the race was held (unless the 19th fell on a Sunday; then, the race was held Monday the 20th). But in 1969, the holiday—and the race—was officially moved to the third Monday in April. Hence, every Bostonian's favorite holiday: #MarathonMonday.

In 2019, the race will take place on April 15.

How Many People Run the Boston Marathon?

In 1897, there were just 15 runners; by the Centennial Boston Marathon in 1996, the race established a record as the world's largest marathon with 35,868 finishers.

While the number of runners has remained within within the 20,000 to 30,000 range since 2003, one year was an outlier: Marathon entries jumped from 26,839 to 35,671 in 2014—the year after two bombs detonated just before the finish line and killed three people while injuring hundreds of others. (You'll still see #BostonStrong signs along the course, as well as plastered on the overpass spanning Commonwealth Avenue just before the end of the race.)

Photo: Kevin Morris/Getty Images

But in 2015, the B.A.A. set the field size at 30,000 official entrants and has maintained that cap since. So while it's one of the most prestigious marathons, it isn't the largest. (For comparison's sake, the New York City Marathon set a new world record with 52,812 finishers in 2018).

Besides the runners, though, around 500,000 spectators line the streets of Boston and its suburbs (especially near colleges like Wellesley, Boston College, and Boston University) each year, making it New England's most widely viewed sporting event. Sorry, Tom Brady.

FYI, spectators: The Boston Marathon even has its own beer. 26.2 Brew—a golden, hazy ale brewed with Himalayan sea salt and coriander—was created by Advanced Cicerone Shelley Smith with running champs Meb Keflezighi and Desiree Linden (who will defend her Boston Marathon title on April 15). The beer, which has been available for the past seven years during the Boston Marathon, is now on sale nationwide.

How to Register for the Boston Marathon

The majority of people who run the marathon have qualified to be there. Qualifying standards were introduced in 1970, with the official B.A.A. entry form stating, "A runner must submit the certification...that he has trained sufficiently to finish the course in less than four hours."

Today, Boston qualifying times (or BQs) range between three and five and a half hours, depending on your age group and gender. To qualify to enter the race, you have to run a BQ time at a race that's been certified by USA Track and Field, the Association for International Marathons and Distance, or another national governing body. The times are a stretch for most runners—and that's to keep the field as elite as possible. (Related: Shalane Flannagan Shares How Her Dream of Winning the Boston Marathon Changed to Just Surviving It)

People have been getting significantly faster in recent years, though, and more people have qualified than there are spots available. While there are 30,000 bibs up for grabs, just 80 percent of those are for qualifiers; the other 20 percent are reserved for charity entrants (more on that in a sec).

Due to the increased number of qualifiers in the past few years, the B.A.A. recently announced qualifying standards will be five minutes faster for all age groups, starting with the 2020 Boston Marathon.

But a BQ time still doesn't guarantee entry—you actually have to run faster than the specified qualifying time for your age group and gender given the fact that so many other people are out there qualifying.

You can typically register in mid-September for the following April's marathon, but you'll have to have run your BQ time before then. (To register for the 2020 race, for example, you would have had to run your qualifying race before September 15, 2018.) Registration is on a rolling schedule; people who qualified by 20 minutes or more go first, then people who qualified by 10 minutes or more, and so on—as long as there's space left.

What If I Can't Qualify for the Boston Marathon?

You can still run it! The B.A.A. saves 20 percent of race bibs for charities, sponsors, vendors, municipal officials, local running clubs, and so on. But the easiest way to get in is through one of the organization's charity partners, like Back On My Feet, 261 Fearless, or the American Red Cross.

To register as a charity runner, you have to go through the charity versus the B.A.A., and each runner must raise around $5,000. It's a lot of money, but it goes a long way: In 2018, charity runners raised a whopping $36.6 million. (Related: What Signing Up for the Boston Marathon Taught Me About Goal-Setting)

What's the Boston Marathon Course Like?

The Boston Marathon course runs from Hopkinton in southern Middlesex County to Copley Square in Boston—so, technically, you aren't actually running in Boston proper until around mile 24. The point to point route passes through eight cities and towns, including Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston.

The best runners in the world race the Boston Marathon course, but it's actually not officially a world record-qualifying course. The International Association of Athletic Federations sets standards for these kind of races, and the Boston Marathon misses the mark for a couple reasons: 1) It's a race from point A to point B, which could give runners a wind advantage, since they're only running in one direction, and 2) its elevation changes are too steep.

It's those elevation changes that make the Boston Marathon one of the most difficult of the World Marathon Majors. The first half of the course is mostly downhill (any BM veteran will warn you not to go out too fast), and runners actually drop 459 feet over the whole course.

But the second half is where the course will crush you: The four "Newton hills" start at the 16-mile mark, and those back-to-back climbs can feel brutal on tired legs. Not to mention, those hills culminate in the infamous Heartbreak Hill, a 0.4-mile climb between the 20- and 21-mile marks. It's only an 88-foot vertical change, but it comes right as many marathoners hit the dreaded "wall."

The last five miles are mostly downhill again, and Boston proper is home to the most famous turn in running—a right on Hereford out of Kenmore Square followed by a quick left on Boylston Street to run the final four blocks to the finish line at Copley Plaza, right next to the Boston Public Library.

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Boston Marathon has actually had four finish lines over the years: the Irvington Oval, a track in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood; Exeter Street between Boylston and St. James Streets; Ring Road, a service road parallel to Boylston Street in front of the Prudential Center; and its current location on Boylston between Exeter and Dartmouth streets. Today's finish line—at Copley Plaza, right next to the Boston Public Library—was chosen in 1985, when John Hancock Financial Services started sponsoring the race.

Besides the moving finish line, the rest of the course has pretty much stayed exactly the same for nearly 100 years. In 1897, though, the course was actually only 24.5 miles long—from Metcalf's Mill in Ashland to the Irvington Oval in Boston. That was based on the 1896 Olympic marathon distance of 24.8 miles; it wasn't until 1924 that the distance was standardized for all future Olympic marathons at 42 kilometers (26 miles, 385 yards) and the start line moved back to Hopkinton.

How Can I Watch the Boston Marathon?

The race kicks off with the wheelchair competitors at 9:02 a.m. ET on Monday, April 15. The elite runners hit the pavement at 9:32 a.m., followed by wave one at 10:02 a.m., wave two at 10:25 a.m., wave three at 10:50 a.m., and wave four at 11:15 a.m. (Related: This Woman Ran 26.2 Miles Along the Boston Marathon Route While Pushing Her Quadriplegic Boyfriend)

Even if you're not in Boston, you can still catch all the action. NBCSN and NBCSN Gold will start airing race day coverage on Monday at 8:30 a.m. through 1 p.m. ET.

Spectators watching live or on TV can track runners through the B.A.A.'s mobile app, which is free for iPhone users in the Apple app store and for Android users in Google Play. The app sends out push notifications with updates for your runners every 5K.

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