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4 Things You Need to Know About the Boston Marathon Hills

 Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Boston Marathon is held on a famously rolling course. The hills are part of the lore, embedded in the long history of the great race. Of course, the Boston Marathon can also be a very fast course... if you run it right.

1. The early downhills

Everyone talks about how the first 5 miles of downhill running can ruin your race. It can, but it doesn’t have to. Focus on cruising down the hills at a comfortable pace. It will likely be 10-15 seconds per mile faster than your average goal race pace. That’s OK, if you’re focused on gliding down the hills rather than pushing down them. Your pace should feel easier than usual at that speed, as if you were running slightly slower than race pace. If it feels any harder than that, slow down. The goal is to run down with as little effort as possible. Starting slower than your goal pace (as some would recommend) can be more work, as you end up braking and stressing your quads more than you want. The hills are a gift, and you can take advantage of a little boost to your pace, but don’t get greedy.

2. The up-hills

There are more of them than you think! Nearly every mile on the course has some degree of climbing in it, even the early miles. Focus on maintaining a steady effort level on the climbs. If you’re running them right, you may be passed often on the up-hills by runners who don’t want to see their pace drop. You’ll catch many of them later. Focus on your mile splits, not your pace at any given moment. Get into a rhythm on the mostly flat middle miles. By the time you reach the Newton Fire Station (mile 17), you should be ready for the real work to begin. If you ran smart early, you’ll have energy in the bank and will be ready to tackle them. Run with confidence, but don’t push the hills just yet. Your goal is to keep from red-lining (going over your anaerobic threshold), to the point where you couldn’t speak more than a few words between breaths. Each climb is followed by a nice downhill, so you’ll always have a chance to recover and get back into your groove. 

3. Heartbreak Hill (mile 20)

It looks huge, but it's the last of the big hills. At 0.4 miles long and an 88’ rise, it is historic (and painful) only because it comes so late in the race. Everyone else will be hurting too, so your only goal at this point needs to be getting to the top of it, whatever it takes. Ignore your pace for this stretch, and just keep moving, soaking in the cheers from the crowds that pack the course. You might not even know it was Heartbreak until you’ve completed it and see the T line at Boston College at the top. Once you’re there, you’ll head downhill again! Revel in the fact that you’ve finished Heartbreak, but prepare for some quad-crushing declines.

4. The late downhills

The drop from Boston College will feel much different than the initial drop. By now your quads are tired, but you’re filled with hope as you have a 200’ elevation drop before the finish. Again, focus on cruising down the hills as gently as possible, sparing your quads from too much pounding. Resist the urge to lean back and apply the brakes, as that puts even more stress on your already shaking quads. If you have energy left in the tank you can pick up the pace here, and run strong into the finish. If you’re fading, look around, try to enjoy the crowds, and watch for the Citgo Sign. You can see it for a long time, but once you reach it, there is just a mile to go!

Rebekah Mayer is the National Run Training Manager at Life Time Fitness. She ran a 15-minute PR at the 2008 Boston Marathon to finish as the 50th female in 2:59:05. She returned to Boston in 2014 and again ran a 2:59, her second fastest marathon. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @rebekah_mayer. Follow Life Time Run on Instagram, on Twitter @lifetimerun or at