The Complete Guide To The Boston Marathon

Since its inception in 1897, The Boston Marathon is held annually and hosted by several cities in the Boston area of eastern Massachusetts.  The Boston Athletic Association (BAA) organizes the Boston Marathon. This race is always held the third Monday of April, which is also Patriot’s Day – a holiday celebrated in Maine and Massachusetts to commemorate the famous battles of Lexington and Concord.

It is one of the world’s oldest marathons and ranks as one of the best-known racing events in the world.  There are six World Marathon Majors and the Boston Marathon is one of them.

There are four major annual events held in the United States through the years of both World Wars.  These events include The Boston Marathon, Kentucky Derby, Rose Parade and Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

About a half million people are expected to show up to watch this event each year.  This event is easily the most viewed sporting event in New England.  Amateur and professional runners from all over the world compete each year.  About 1,000 media members from more than 100 outlets are also present to report on the race. [Ed: If you’re looking at staying in Boston during the race make sure you check out our guide on the best Boston Marathon Hotels which includes an overview on where to stay depending on cost and location].

These spectators line the streets of the course to yell for and support the runners and provide them with free water and snacks.

Wellesley College, a women’s college, has a tradition of students cheering for the runners in an area called the Scream Tunnel.  For about a quarter of a mile, the students stand by the course screaming and some even offering a smooch to the runners. Some runners claim to be able to hear the Scream Tunnel from about a mile away as the students are so loud.  This tunnel is almost half way of the course (only about a half mile before the designated halfway mark of the course).

Another tradition of the Boston Marathon is completed by the city’s beloved Boston Red Sox.  Each year the Boston Red Sox play a home game at Fenway park around 11:05 a.m.  When the game is over, the crowd then goes to Kenmore Square to cheer on runners in their final mile.  This was a tradition that stared in 1903.  Even though baseball games do occasionally experience weather delays, the Boston Marathon runs as planned in a wide variety of weather conditions.

In addition to other traditions, a number of participants choose to wear costumes for the race.  Boston Marathon does tolerate bandits and not a bandit costume.  These are runners who did not register or pay the entry fee.  They are not allowed to begin until after all registered participants have started, so they are an unofficial fourth wave.   They are allowed to cross the finish line.

History Of The Race

Inspired by the marathon revival in the 1896 Summer Olympics of Athens, the Boston Marathon was first run in April 1897.   The BAA officials designed the current course to match the original in Greece, with a 25-mile hilly course concluding at a stadium (the Irvington Street Oval which is the closest thing Boston had to a stadium).  It is the oldest marathon that is still held repeatedly on an annual basis

Ten years after the BAA was formed, the association held a 24.5 mile marathon to conclude its competition.  The competing field consisted of a mere 15 runners and the inaugural winner was John “JJ” McDermott, who ran the course in 2:55:10.  The event was then linked to Patriot’s Day, showing a relationship between the Americans and Athenian struggles for liberty.  The now Boston Marathon as been run yearly since this first race and is now the oldest marathon in the world.

In 1924, the course was lengthened to 26 miles when the starting line was moved to Hopkinton Green from Metcalf’s Mill.  This was done to follow the standards set by the 1908 Summer Olympics.

This marathon was just a local event when it began, but it gained fame and started to attract runners worldwide. When the marathon first began, it was a free event and the winner received a wreath made from olive branches.  Cash prizes were started in the 1980s when corporations began the sponsorships of these prizes.  This was due to the runners beginning to refuse participating in the race without cash prizes being awarded to the winners. The first cash prize was awarded in 1986, which was $30,000 for first place. Today, the top two finishers, both male and female, each receive $150,000.

For the 100th anniversary of this event in 1996, the Boston Marathon drew the largest field ever with 38,708 starters and 35,865 finishers.

Women were not allowed to enter the Boston Marathon officially until 1972.  Although there were some women who ran the marathon including Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb who was the first woman to run the entire marathon in 1966 and Kathrine Switzer, registered only under K.V. Switzer, was the first to run and finish the marathon with a number.  There, however, was a famous confrontation with Switzer and Jock Semple, the race official, where Semple tried to rip off her numbers and remove her from the race.  Recognizing these and other females who participated in the race from 1966 through 1971, the BAA officially acknowledged these champions in 1996.  Today, nearly 46 percent of the participants in the marathon are female.

Females weren’t the only ones denied in this race in its past.  During the pinnacle of the Korean War in 1951, President of the BAA Walter Brown denied Koreans entry to the Boston Marathon.  He felt that since American soldiers were fighting and dying in Korea, Koreans, should be fighting for their own country and not participating in the US marathon.

The Boston Marathon has not been without scandal over the years.  Back in 1980, and amateur runner named Rosie Ruiz won the race out of nowhere.  After reviewing race videotapes, officials discovered Ruiz did not appear in these videos near the end of the race.  After an investigation, it was discovered Ruiz skipped the ending and blended in with the crowd about a mile from the finish line.  She then took off for her apparent victory at the appropriate time.  She was disqualified and another woman, Canadian Jacqueline Gareau, was named the rightful winner.

Unfortunately, today someone can hardly think of the Boston Marathon without remember the 2013 bombings.  On April 15, 2013, the unthinkable happened.  Around 2:49 p.m. (about three hours after the winners crossed the finish line), two explosions occurred nearly 200 years apart on Boylston Street.  This is about the last 225 yards of the course.  The race was immediately ended, and more than 5,600 people are not permitted to finish.  Sadly, three were killed and 260 were injured.  There was an increased number of participants the following year and more than 36,000 people ran the marathon.  Meb Keflezighi gave the US its first win since 1985, making this even more special.

The Course

The Boston Marathon course is now 26 miles 385 miles of winding roads through Massachusetts cities and the towns including Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and, of course, Boston.  The finish line is housed at Copley Square parallel to the Boston Public Library.

The up hills and down hills of this course have proven more than challenging for many, which is why the Boston Marathon is considered to be more than one of hardest of marathon courses.  The Newton hills features Heartbreak Hill, which is  close to Boston College.  There are also three infamous hills on Commonwealth Avenue.  A hill that follows on Washington Street that climbs the Charles River crossing at the 16th mile is known as even harder than the famous hills to some.  This challenge features a 150-foot drop in a ½ mile stretch, causing untrained runners to have to slow down considerably.

Heartbreak Hill is between the 20th and 21st mile and features a climb of more than .4 mile.  It is the last of the four Newton hills, starting at the 16th mile mark.  This is late in the race as many runners are beginning extreme fatigue, even though it really only rises about 88 feet vertically.  Many runners are said to have “hit the wall” as muscle glycogen stores are diminished.

The Records

On April 18, 2011, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the fastest marathon ever at the 2011 Boston Marathon, at an alarming time of 2:03:02. This was passed by Dennis Kipruto Kimetto’s time of 2:02:57 in a Berlin marathon.  On April 21, 2014, Rita Jeptoo from Kenya set the women’s course record at 2:18:57.

Here are some other records at the Boston Marathon:

  • Men’s Masters: John Campbell (New Zealand), 2:11:04 (set in 1990)
  • Women’s Masters: Mary Hannah (United States), 2:27:58 (set in 2012)
  • Men’s Push Rim Wheelchair: Joshua Cassidy (Canada), 1:18:25 (set in 2012)
  • Women’s Push Rim Wheelchair: Jean Driscoll (United States), 1:34:22 (set in 1994)


Since the course is a point-to-point downhill course, times are not recognized if a world record is run.  The course drops 459 feet from start to finish and the start is west of the finish.  This is said to allow an aiding tailwind, so the Boston Marathon does not satisfy criteria necessary for world or American records.

Qualifying Guide

Not just anyone can run the Boston Marathon – there are qualifying standards that need to be met.  These standards were started in 1970 and have been updated regularly. The field size is about 30,000, with 80 percent reserved for time qualifiers. To qualify, a runner has to complete a standard marathon course certified by a national governing body affiliated with the International Association of Athletics Federations within a timeframe, typically 18 months before the Boston Marathon.  Here is a breakdown of the required times by age category and gender:

  • Age Group 18 – 24
    • Men’s – 3:05
    • Women’s – 3:35
  • Age Group 35-39
    • Men’s – 3:10
    • Women’s 3:40
  • Age Group 40-44
    • Men’s – 3:15
    • Women’s – 3:45
  • Age Group 45 – 49
    • Men’s – 3:25
    • Women’s – 3:55
  • Age Group 50-54
    • Men’s – 3:30
    • Women’s – 4:00
  • Age Group 60-64
    • Men’s – 3:40
    • Women’s – 4:10
  • Age Group 65-69
    • Men’s – 4:10
    • Women’s – 4:40
  • Age Group 70-74
    • Men’s – 4:25
    • Women’s – 4:55
  • Age Group 75 – 79
    • Men’s –  4:40
    • Women’s –  5:10
  • Age Group 80+
    • Men’s – 4:55
    • Women’s – 5:25

There is an exception to qualification times for runners who receive entries from partners.  Around 22 percent of the marathon’s spots are given each year to charities, sponsors, vendors, licenses, consultants, municipal officials, local running clubs and marketers.  In 2010, this equaled about 5,470 additional runners that received these spots through partners, including 2,515 charity runners.

Previously in the 1980s and 1990s, runners also had to be members of the USA Track & Field in order to participate in the Boston Marathon.  This requirement has been lifted and is not necessary in today’s qualifications.

Just because a runner meets the qualifying time does not mean he or she will be able to participate in the marathon.  Since there are only so many spots available and this is a popular event worldwide, registration is a rolling application process that gives the fastest runners priority.  This is done by giving the fastest qualifiers in each age category and gender the chance to register that have met their times by more than 20 minutes.  Next priority is given to those who qualified within 10 minutes of stated time.  This keeps going until the spots are filled.  Some runners who met their qualifying standard by 62 seconds or more have been shut out.

To find a qualifying course, U.S. marathons must be run on a course certified by USA Track & Field. That country’s athletic federation must certify marathons in other countries in order to be considered. A list of top qualifying U.S. marathons can be found here. A list of certified courses in the U.S. can be found here.