Posted by: pointlenana | April 7, 2012

Marathon pacing for Boston

I’ve spent the last hour reading, thinking about, and replying to Jamie’s question about pacing

Here’s a brain dump of what I know about pacing from my “deep” study of Boston pacing (and 2 runs there).  This is really meant for someone doing it for the first time, and possibly running their first or second marathon.

Pacing in Boston is hard.  There are downhills at the beginning, everyone around you is a good, fast runner, you are excited to be there, and after a whole lot of waiting you finally get to run.  So it’s easy to go fast out of the start line.  Too fast.  That is a killer in the last five, downhill miles when the quads are trashed and life becomes very painful.  We (my wife, my friend Paul, and I) will probably aim for a 3:50 time which is an 8:46 pace.  But… we’ll aim for somewhere around 9:15 in the first mile and 9:00 in the second mile.  That way hopefully we feel good and can go fast(er) during the last 5 downhill miles instead. 

First time marathoners who got in via a charity will be mixed into corrals with people who qualified.  From what I know the qualifying time in those corrals will be about 4 hours or longer.  So someone like Jamie, who might be able to run a 3:40, is going to be held back by congestion/slower runners in the first couple miles.  That’s ok though – it ensures a slow, smart start.  Don’t do the dumb thing that I did the first year – weave a lot around people who are going slightly slower.  That burns too much energy.  Just relax and know that the extra energy will be useful later.

In the third mile, you’ll hopefully have room to run at your pace.  In these miles, maybe miles 3 to 8, run slightly faster than your goal pace.  So if our goal is 8:46, we’ll probably be in the 8:40 range here.  Gotta make up for the start, and for the hills to come.  Do this in flat sections for the rest of the run.  Maybe even go a little faster in the middle miles – in our case maybe 8:35 in miles 12-16.

The hills are not particularly steep or long.  They are just hills but they come when you start to feel tired.  Heartbreak Hill is not named that because it’s hard, it’s named that because in 1936 Tarzan Brown “broke John Kelley’s heart” at the top of the hill.  (See the Heartbreak Hill section on this page:  So don’t fear it, it’s just a hill and it’s only about 5 minutes long.  Anyway, you’ll slow down in the hills but hopefully not by a lot.  With our 8:46 goal, we’ll probably slow down to mile paces in the 8:50-9:00 range (slower on the uphill, faster on the flats and downhills) for miles 16-21.

If you have a great race and everything has gone right, open it up on the last 5 downhill miles.  But you’ll be tired so there won’t be a lot left in the tank.  So in our case we’ll probably be in the 8:40 to 8:50 range. 

Be careful with spectators.  Tons of opportunity to celebrate with people cheering you on, kids who love high fives.  It’s Boston so do a little of that, but maybe not as much as I did the first year, and maybe not all in the first mile. 

If you want to get geeky, there are good resources out there. 

Amby Burfoot and Jack Daniel’s topography adjusted pacing guide:

The ultimate tool for people who want to do this in detail – Greg Maclin is an incredible resource in the Runners World forums and $5.75 is a bargain for the info:

Lastly, be careful about spending so much time thinking about pacing that you miss the race.  Making it simple is ok – maybe pick 3 paces for downhill, uphill and flat.  Greg Maclin’s thing is really detailed but unless you can run paces by feel, it would be easy to spend the whole time looking at a watch.  I use this mostly to get a sense for how I’m doing relative to the theoretical plan and to adjust if necessary if conditions – congestion, weather, how I feel – dictate.  For most people, the exact time doesn’t matter. 

If you are running Boston, good luck!  It’s a pretty incredible thing to get to do.  Some people spend years trying to get there.  And some try but never make it.  Enjoy it.


  1. Thank you SOOO much for writing this post. I felt like it was a special post to first-timers like me!!! I am a little worried about getting caught up with seeing the spectators. I know a lot of people are watching and I am tempted that I will want to use energy up smiling, waiving, and chatting! Another thing I was worried about before I read your post was that I would go out too fast, but your post assured me to take the crowds to my advantage in the beginning to conserve some energy. Good luck on your marathon! I appreciate you spending time to write this, I got a lot out of it!

  2. Reblogged this on jamievictoriatomc and commented:
    Please check out this blog post on marathon pacing from my fellow Dana-Farber team member. It helped me a lot with trying to figure out my pacing for Monday, so I thought it might help you too! Thanks so much for your expertise Mark! (PS – Can we give him KUDOS for raising over $55,000 in donations to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute!…WOW)

  3. Thanks Jamie. I’m glad if this is helpful, especially to anyone who might try to run hard. Congratulations on your own successful fundraising and have a great time this weekend/Monday. I’ll look for you as you blow by us somewhere in the middle of the race. I’m sure you’ll be easy to spot among the other 27,000 people out there (well, most of them will be starting ahead of us so maybe it’s down to only 9000).

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