How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon: Tips from a First-Time Runner

More than 36,000 runners from 96 countries ran in the 118th Boston Marathon last month, from elite athletes to committed amateurs. But what does it take to qualify for the world’s oldest marathon? Here are tips from Maddie Humphrey, whose 2014 run was her first time in the Boston race. Humphrey, 26, is an elementary physical education teacher and currently resides in Reston, Va.

(Maddie with parents and boyfriend in Boston)
When did you first get into running, and why did you first decide you wanted to try to qualify for Boston? 

I grew up playing all kinds of sports, but decided not to try and play at the collegiate level. I never ran cross-country or track and didn’t fall in love with the sport until I found myself looking for a new outlet when I got to college—something that would keep me active, and something that I enjoyed. And I was motivated to stick with it. I ran my first 5k on homecoming weekend, and was just happy to have finished three miles without stopping! But that’s what it was all about when I first started—finishing the race. I couldn’t have cared less about how long it took me. It was such a great atmosphere and there was such a positive energy. I was hooked. Running the Boston marathon was never in my wildest dreams when I started running, let alone was running any marathon.

Fast forward a few years…I got a lot more involved in the sport, had a lot more races under my belt, and found a great network of runners in my community (Reston). I ran the Shamrock Marathon in VA beach with Team in Training (fundraising for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society) in 2011 in 4:09—which was awesome. My goal for my first marathon was to finish, and run the entire 26.2 miles, but I knew I had more in me.

To qualify for Boston, I had to run a 3:35. Boston is the ‘Holy Grail’of marathons. It just sort of goes without saying in the running world that qualifying for Boston is a pretty big deal. I would always pass other runners donning their Boston Marathon jackets on the trail or at other races and wanted so badly to earn a spot at that start line and have the privilege of crossing the finish line. I knew that if I really made the commitment and put in the work, I could get there. After a summer of more specific training, I ran a 3:17 at the Richmond Marathon in 2012, PR’d by almost an hour, and secured a spot to run Boston in 2014.

How did you go about training, and what kind of dietary changes did you make?

With no running background and having had no formal coaching, I knew I was going to need some help with my training if I wanted to shave a significant amount of time off my personal best. I signed up to run with Potomac River Running’s Distance Training Program, which was perfect for me. They provided a detailed 20-week training plan (about 5 months) that served as a guideline for me in determining how many miles a week I should be running, what types of workouts I should be doing, and when it was important to step back for a few days to avoid over training and injury. I also met a ton of new people and worked with three coaches who never hesitated to offer advice, or run next to me for an 18 miler on a super hot day. I can’t say enough good things about the program. It can be as hands-on and or as hands-off as you want it to be. They offered the perfect amount of guidance and support, yet I was able to tweak things and make the plan work for me and my schedule.

The training plan introduced speed work, hill workouts, and tempo runs, and there were of course long runs built in on the weekends. When training for my first marathon, I ran on my own throughout the week, (maybe 5-6 miles 4 days a week) and met up with the Team in Training group on the weekends for a long run. I didn’t do any specific workouts or worry about what pace I was running, what my heart rate was, etc. I stayed at my ‘happy pace’and ran comfortably.

When training for my Boston qualifying time, my weekly mileage increased to about 50-70 miles per week (gradually of course), and I did a lot more speed work. I tried to mix in some ‘race pace’ miles during my long runs, and played around with some hill work as well. Most weeks, my training consisted of one track workout (working on speed), a few easy runs, a tempo or progression run (a faster run, but a pace I could maintain for several miles), and my long run (anywhere from 14-22 miles). Every couple of weeks, I would use part of my long run to try and practice the pace I wanted to maintain for the marathon…almost like throwing in a tempo workout into the long run. I also squeezed in some light strength training when I could. Implementing these changes had a huge impact on my growth as a runner.

As far as my diet…I wouldn’t say I followed a strict eating regimen or tried to avoid eating certain things, but I was definitely more aware of what I was fueling my body with prior to, during, and after a tough workout. I tried to stay away from a lot of empty calorie foods, like potato chips and cookies, and would snack on fruit, or nuts so I was getting the nutrients I needed. Diet is tricky—it’s different for everyone. I love ice cream, so I didn’t give that up, but I was more conscious of when I ate it and how much I ate. I drank chocolate milk after every track workout, and never ate broccoli the night before a long run because I always ended up having to go to the bathroom. You have to play around with some things until you figure out what works for you. Overall, I would say I definitely tried to eat cleaner and I felt better on my runs, but I didn’t make any drastic changes. Going forward, I think tweaking my diet even more would certainly help me improve.

What race did you run when you qualified? 

I was originally signed up to run the NYC marathon, but it was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy. So, with a bunch of other NYC marathoners, I signed up last minute to run the Richmond Marathon a week later. When I started training, I was shooting to run just under 3:35 to earn my qualifying spot. As my training progressed and my running economy improved, I changed my time goal to 3:20 and on race morning, I knew if I had a really good day, I could run sub 3:20. The weather was perfect (mid 40’s at the start, maybe 60 when I finished), my family was there cheering me on, I had run into a couple friends down there, and I felt really really good the entire race. When I passed the 20 mile marker, I was on pace for my sub 3:20 and from that point on, I just gutted it out for the last 10k, and kept telling my legs not to slow down. I was ecstatic when I crossed the finish line. I remember crying because I was so happy, but also because my legs hurt so bad! It was an awesome experience, and it was the first time I felt this wave of accomplishment after seeing how hard work really pays off. All those hours on the track and on the trail were completely worth it.

What was it like being at the Boston Marathon this year for the first time? 

Being in Boston this year for the marathon was just surreal. Not only because it was my first time being there, but also because of what happened last year. The energy up there was like nothing I’ve ever felt. I literally had the time of my life on that course, and tried to embrace every minute of it. I smiled as much as I could, got high fives from the spectators, and threw my hands up when I saw a photographer. My friends and family were posted up between mile 25 and 26, so I knew I had a long way to go before seeing any familiar faces, but it didn’t matter. There were hundreds of spectators lined up along the course the entire way, and every time we entered a different town, I got this surge to run faster because the noise was just out of control. It carried all of us…

Ironically, even though I got to athlete’s village about two hours before my start time, the start of the race felt like it happened so fast. Fortunately for me, I had a lot of friends running, and most of us were in the same corral. We found each other before getting on the buses in Boston Common and stuck together in Hopkinton. We were able to take some pictures, catch up on each other’s personal lives, and use the bathroom a few times all the while, distracting ourselves from the pre-race jitters. It’s kind of a blur, but I just remember feeling giddy—it was like sitting at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning, waiting until you get the ‘ok’to come down. Once they made an announcement for our corral to head towards the start line, we peeled off our layers, walked about a half mile to the line, used the bathroom one more time, and before I knew it, the gun sounded and we were off. There was just this mass of people ahead of me, around me, and behind me. I was completely immersed in the marathon and loving it…I had to keep telling myself to hold back a little.

This marathon is unlike any other. The spectators and support are unrelenting the entire 26.2 miles. The city takes so much pride in putting on the race—it goes on without a hitch. There are people offering oranges, water, cold sponges, beer, motivational posters…every step of the way. I  was exhausted by mile 21 after climbing the Newton Hills, but was having so much fun, my fastest miles were barreling to the finish. My quads were torn up, but I felt so good and so strong crossing that finish line—everybody up there just pushes you to lay it all out there.

It was also amazing to see so many athletes racing in prosthetics. Everybody has their own story and is running for their own reasons, but it always inspires me when I see someone who probably had to work twice as hard as I did to step foot on the course. It just goes to show what type of people marathoners are…and it makes you grateful to be a part of such a powerful group of runners.

What’s the biggest lesson(s) you’ve learned throughout your journey to Boston?

This is going to be a run-on sentence but I don’t know how else to put it…haha

It’s totally cliche, but by far, the biggest lesson I learned throughout my journey to Boston was that when you assert yourself and set your sights on something, make goals for yourself, and put the work in, you can and will blow yourself away and exceed all your expectations. Training for a marathon is definitely physical and takes some dedication and time, but the mind is so powerful, and I think we underestimate that a lot of the time. Believing in yourself is more than half the battle. I realized that I’ve only begun to tap into the potential I have as a runner and a marathoner.

The other lesson I learned, which was a lot tougher to swallow, was to be persistent, but to be smart and honor my body. Between completing the Richmond Marathon and training for Boston, I found out I had a torn labrum in my hip and a stress fracture in the neck of my femur. I had to take months off from running, missed an entire training cycle and had to back out of running a fall marathon in 2013. It was really hard, but I needed the rest and I wanted to get to Boston healthy. Because I took the time to heal and recover, I gradually built my endurance and muscle strength back to where it was and was able to PR on a tough course.

Looking back, do you think you could have done anything differently regarding how you trained?

I’m sure there are things I could have done differently…there always are, but I have no regrets. After each race I run, I try to take away something—good or bad. I decreased my mileage training for Boston and worked in a lot more cross-training because of my injury, and also because of the wicked winter we had. The bad weather also meant I wasn’t able to get the speed work in I would have liked. BUT I had an awesome experience in Boston, I PR’d and got to spend time with friends and family in such a great city—I have no complaints.

The one thing I will be sure to do next time I train for Boston is run a lot more downhill. Going into the race I got the vibe that most runners have angst about the Newton Hills. In my opinion, those hills are a relief. Yes, you slow down because they’re at a point in the marathon where you’re exhausted, but they give your quads a break when you start recruiting different muscles to power up the incline. I would say by mile 10-11 I could already feel my quads, and by the end of the race, they were torn up. The downhills do a number on the legs.

What’s your best piece of advice for someone at “the back of the pack”who wants to qualify for Boston? 

What does it take to qualify for Boston? It takes heart. Like I said before…if we want something  bad enough and we’re willing to fight for it, to put in the time and the work, I have no doubt that we can push ourselves beyond what we think we’re capable of.  It’s not easy. It’s a big time commitment. It will most likely be a lifestyle adjustment—getting up early to fit the workouts in, eating enough, eating the right things, getting enough sleep…on top of everything else you do! But I can tell you first hand, it is so completely worth it, to prove to yourself that you can do something you never thought possible. The sense of accomplishment and pride you feel is indescribable. What helped me the most, was finding some buddies to run with and signing up for a training program, because I had friends and coaches to keep me accountable. I didn’t want to let them down, and we were there for each other, pushing and pulling each other through tough workouts and enjoying each other’s company on the easy runs.

I qualified for Boston the second time I ran a marathon. Others qualify in their 10th marathon. Then there are some who have run a dozen marathons and are still working for that qualifying time. My training partner always reminds me that everybody writes their own story and is on their own journey, which is the coolest thing about runners. There’s no prescription one can write for how much time one should expect before they can qualify…a lot of factors play into it, but I think a large part of it is how self-motivated we are. Some have to really work for it, and others don’t. Believing you can get there is huge.

In your opinion, do you think it is possible for anyone to qualify for Boston? 

This is a tough question…I think Boston holds the caliber it does because not everyone will qualify. It’s a feat that not everyone will be able to accomplish. Part of running and running fast, has to come with some natural ability or athleticism. However, I think there is a large population that probably has that natural ability, they just lack the confidence and mental motivation to push themselves through the training. With the right training plan and the right attitude, the goal becomes much more achievable.

What resources do you recommend for runners who want to qualify for Boston for the first time? 

  • Potomac River Running offers great training programs with specific plans, and classes that focus on running technique. They also provide clinics on nutrition and finding the best types of shoes and apparel for different elements.
  • I’ve never worked with a coach one-on-one but I’ve thumbed through a lot of books…some of my favorite authors include George Sheehan, Greg McMillan, and Matt Fitzgerald.
  • I use as a guideline for what paces I should be hitting during different types of workouts.
  • I don’t have experience with it first-hand but I have friends and know other coaches who’ve used to set up successful training plans.
  • My training partners and I call him the body whisperer…he makes you feel like a million bucks…best sports med doctor in town is Dr. Aleck Wong at United Wellness Center in Herndon, VA

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