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How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon, and one of the most prestigious. Its storied history makes it a must-do for most running enthusiasts and is considered the Mecca for Marathoners.

Unfortunately, a basic problem is one needs to qualify for Boston by running a fast-enough marathon, which less than 10% of all marathon lovers are currently capable of doing. So how to do so?

I feel qualified to answer this question, having went from running five-hour marathons as recently as 2002 to running a 3:03:24 marathon in 2007. In between, I achieved different milestones ranging from finally beating George W. Bush’s best time of 3:44:52, to running a sub-3:30 marathon, to halving my time deficit to Boston each year since 2005. (See complete race log.) This may not have been the quickest progression, but it was a steady one, one that was absolutely injury free and did not require running everyday.

Below are strategies I found effective. Also, see my article in Colorado Runner Magazine on how NOT to train for a fast marathon.

  • Look up your Boston qualifying time. Then, use this race predictor (by Jeff Galloway) to determine roughly how fast you should be able to run a 1 mile, 5k, 10k, and half marathon if you were to be in Boston-qualifying shape.

    Example: If you need to run a 3:10 marathon, you should be able to run a 5:35 mile, 19:01 5k, 39:49 10k, and 1:27 half marathon.

  • Learn good running technique. This requires conscious effort at first, because most people do not run efficiently or “correctly,” especially when wearing most shoes on the market today. I’d highly recommend reading this ebook (PDF, ~1 MB) by the late British champion Gordon Pirie as soon as possible and be conscious about your running form. The Pose Method also teaches similar good running form. This is important not just for speed but for preventing injury.
  • Get a pair of ultra-light, minimally padded running shoes (e.g., racing flats). The weight savings alone will save you several seconds per mile in a race. They also virtually “force” you to run correctly (by mimicking barefoot running). I’d recommend my Puma H-Streets, but they seem to be discontinued. You can look for other running shoes recommended by PoseTech.com. Use these shoes for both training and racing.
  • If you are far away from hitting the “predicted times” for 1 mile, 5k and 10k, you really should work on your speed before doing any long runs. Running long and slow will just ingrain the habit of running slowly into your body. So how to get faster? Work on form and increasing your leg turnover. Do track workouts, intervals, or fartlek once or twice a week. Entering a lot of short, local races also helps since you are likely to push yourself harder than in training.
  • Even when doing easy runs or long runs, I think it is important to vary your pace when training—even if that means just one or two 200-meter sprints to the next sign post and then walking or running easy the rest of the way after that. Again, running a consistent, slow pace only teaches your body how to run slowly—so frequently remind it how to run quickly, even if only for a few seconds!
  • Once you have decent speed and are ready to think about training for a Boston-qualifying marathon, you can start following one of those “expert” training plans 10-13 weeks before the race. Popular ones include ones by Hal Higdon (which entail running 5-6 days a week) or the FIRST plans by the Furman Institute (which entail running just 3 days a week). Some people follow them to the letter, but I would often just look at them to get the basic idea on how to train, which is to have a long run and a fast run each week with easy rest days interspersed in between, and increase mileage each week until the crucial tapering period 2-3 weeks before the race.
  • The long runs are critical! If you have to choose between skipping all of your short/easy runs vs. the one long run each week, I’d skip the short/easy runs. Also, even though most “experts” recommend a longest training run of no more than 20-21 miles, I found doing 23-25 mile runs helpful—if only for psychological reasons.
  • Don’t get injured. Something like 70% of all runners get injured, which is a sad, but believable, statistic. Jeff Galloway says that most injuries he sees are because people are trying to run too fast. Clearly, one needs to push himself if he is to get faster, but an even higher priority should be avoiding injury even if that means skipping or backing off workouts. Listen to your body. Also, take it easy or (maybe better) don’t run at all if your legs are sore or a body part is hurting in any way.
  • Register for a fast course (one that is flat or downhill). Courses renowned for being speedy include Chicago, St. George (UT), Tucson (AZ), Steamtown (PA), Las Vegas (NV) and the California International Marathon (Sacramento). Internationally, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Fukuoka (Japan) are supposed to be good too.
  • Get older. Endurance seems to only increase the older one gets, at least up to 65. Speed doesn’t necessarily drop off too, unless you had already reached your full potential when young (e.g., you were a professional or Olympic-caliber athlete). I know many 40 and 50-year-old people running the best times of their lives. Have faith that as long as you stick with it and don’t get slower, you will eventually qualify for the Boston Marathon since the qualifying times get more lenient as you enter higher age groups.

Good luck! And if you qualify in time for the 2008 Boston Marathon, leave a comment below. I’ve already signed up, and maybe we could meet!

[Mile 17, 2:54 p.m.] Sharon coming through, still lookin' good at this point.
[Mile 17, 2:54 p.m.] Sharon coming through, still lookin' good at this point.