How to qualify for the Boston Marathon

  • This was printed in June of 2015 in The Madera Tribune, a newspaper in Madera, California. This was the 105th installment of my weekly column, Mind Over Miles.

The Boston Marathon is a dream for many long distance runners, but for

many it is hard to do. One has to run a qualifying time on a certified 26.2-

mile course to register for Boston, the world’s oldest annual marathon. So

many entrants apply that to actually get into the race, one’s BQ (Boston

Qualifying) time must beat the qualifying standard by more than a minute.

It took me three attempts to finally BQ. I trained differently for each

marathon and, based on what worked for me, I offer these tips for BQ-ing:

1. Find out your qualifying time (see chart) subtract 2 minutes, and then

calculate the needed pace per mile. The age group is based on how old

you’ll be on the date of the 2016 Boston Marathon in this qualifying cycle.

For example, a man who will be 45 on April 18, 2016, has to run a 3 hour

and 25 minute marathon. He should aim for a maximum of 3 hours and 23

minutes, a pace of 7:44 per mile.06-11-15BQ times

2. Find a qualifying marathon and begin a training plan 16 weeks prior to

race day. To register for the 2016 Boston Marathon, you must BQ between

Sept. 13, 2014, and early-September of this year (Boston’s registration

dates have not yet been announced).

The nearby Two Cities Marathon held in Fresno/Clovis in November is a

good choice because you can get to know the course well beforehand. The

Modesto Marathon, where I BQ’d, is also fast, flat and nearby. It’s held in

March. April’s downhill Mountains 2 Beach Marathon in Ojai, a four-hour

drive from Madera, is one of the top 25 marathons in the nation used to


3. Train at pace. I trained three different ways for three different marathons.

When I BQ’d, I had been running my long runs every Saturday at BQ pace.

So for the example 45-year-old man, each long run should be done at 7:40

to 7:45 per mile pace. Begin with a 6-mile long run and add one to two

miles each week, up to 20 miles. Once I nailed my 20-mile long run at BQ

pace, I was confident I could hold it for another 6.2 miles on race day.

4. Run hills. Most qualifying marathons are flat, but the actual Boston

Marathon is quite hilly. Go figure. Still, when training for a flat marathon it is

beneficial to train on hills because it strengthens the legs and

cardiovascular system. Run up and down a moderate hill for one hour,

once a week.

5. Run Yasso 800s. Named for Runner’s World editor and famed runner

Bart Yasso, these weekly interval workouts are crucial for gaining speed

and confidence. The goal marathon time in hours and minutes is converted

to the goal 800-meter time in minutes and seconds. (A 4-hour marathon

runner should aim for 4-minute 800s, etc.)

Run 800 meters (twice around a track, or a half-mile) at 95 percent of

maximum effort. For the male 45-year-old BQ hopeful, one 800 should take

3 minutes and 43 seconds or less. Walk or jog a quarter-mile (400 meters)

in about the same amount of time to catch your breath.

Begin with two 800s and two cool-downs on your first training week, and

add one of each until you reach 12 about two weeks before the marathon.

The goal is to run at least 10 Yasso 800s at the same pace — in this

example, 3:43.

6. Train hard on your run days and rest hard on your rest days. My cross

training was practically non-existent, except for minimal core workouts.

Drink lots of water and get plenty of sleep to allow the body to recover.

7. Practice fueling and hydrating for race day. Treat your longest runs, say

your 16-, 18-, and 20-milers, as mock races.

Eat a “pre-race” meal the night before. Set up small tables with cups or

have a friend stand along your route with water and electrolyte beverages.

Practice grabbing the paper cup, pinching it and swallowing as you’re

running. Not being able to do this correctly can cost precious seconds,

chipping away at your BQ window.

Eat energy gels, chews, bars, salt caplets, etc., at the times you plan to eat

during the race. Practice opening the packaging and getting it down

without gagging. These tiny details might not seem important — until you

cross the line 15 seconds past your BQ time and think, “that’s how long I

was struggling with my Gu!”

See how each combination of nutrition and hydration agrees with your

stomach; you don’t want to spend precious minutes in portable toilets. (I

know a woman who crossed a finish line just 30 seconds after her BQ

time. She had spent about 1 minute in a Port-A-Potty mid-race.)

8. Leave it all on the course. On race day, stick to your BQ pace and don’t

budge from it. Use every ounce of willpower and energy that it takes to

make that goal time. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to hurt. But when you

cross that line and know that you’ve BQ’d, it’s going to be worth it.


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