Everything You Need to Know About the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon, considered by many to be the pinnacle of running competitions, has become a premier sporting event that thousands of people — both racers and spectators alike — earnestly look forward to each year. 

Originally called “the American Marathon,” the Boston Marathon continues to appeal to a global community who turn to the annual big race not only for its display of athleticism but also for its inspirational stories. 

Here are a few things you might not know about the world’s oldest and most prestigious road racing event. 

When Did the Boston Marathon Start?

As the world’s oldest marathon, the Boston Marathon enjoys a vibrant and long history dating back to 1897.

In fact, it’s older than some pretty useful (and delicious) inventions, including the teddy bear and air conditioning (1902), the banana split (1904), and even traffic cones (1914). 

So, when did the first racers take their mark, get set, and go?

In 1887, organizers in Boston created the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) to provide people with opportunities to become as fit and as healthy as they wanted. And in 1890, the association held its first organized track and field competition. 

A few years later, after witnessing the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, U.S. Olympic coach team manager John Graham had an idea:

Why not bring a marathon back to the United States and closer to his hometown?

Upon his return, Graham worked with the BAA to coordinate a similar marathon that would take place as the final event of the BAA games. 

Staying true to his goal, Graham orchestrated for the start of the race to be near his hometown of Ashland, MA and the finish line at the Irvington Street Oval near Copley Square.

And the rest, as they say, is history. 

When is the Boston Marathon?

At its inception in 1897 and until 1968, the Boston Marathon took place on April 19 Patriots’ Day. In some years, when April 19 happened to fall on a Sunday, organizers pushed the race back one day to April 20.

However, in 1969, when state officials voted to move Patriots’ Day to the third Monday in April, race organizers scheduled the Boston Marathon to coincide, guaranteeing the race a consistent schedule.

2020 was the first year in the race’s existence that organizers had to cancel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The BAA attempted to postpone from April 20 to September 14 but ultimately had to cancel in-person races.

Recently, the BAA announced that the 2021 Boston Marathon has been rescheduled for the fall, but no official date has been announced.

The 2020 Virtual Boston Marathon

Despite cancelling its in-person race in 2020 for the first time in its 124-year illustrious history, the BAA brainstormed alternatives for its racers to have a chance to take part in the storied tradition of the race.

In a high-tech shift, the BAA released a plan for a “virtual” marathon to give runners a chance to compete in a postponed version of the real race.

All racers originally registered for the April 20, 2020 race could participate. Any time from September 5 to September 14, racers could run 26.2 miles anywhere they chose. However, to qualify, they had to run all 26.2 miles in one outing.

With the release of its Boston Marathon Virtual Experience mobile app and web platform, the BAA hopes to give racers the same joy and excitement as they celebrate Patriots’ Day. 

The app includes features that simulate many of the race’s familiar elements:

  1. Real-time GPS tracking to show your approximate location on the actual Boston Marathon race route
  2. Audio cues that play marathon-related sounds at various mile markers along the way, including:
  • A recording of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “Star Spangled Banner”
  • The official marathon start sound
  • Wellesley College students’ cheers at the halfway mark 
  • The roar of the crowd on Boylston Street as you approach your finish line 
  • Inspirational messages from former Boston Marathon champions
  • Post-run photo booth to share photos on social media

Additionally, all racers who finish will get a participant t-shirt, a Sam Adams 124th Boston Marathon bottle opener, and, of course, the prized unicorn finisher medal.

How Long Is the Boston Marathon?

In the first modern Olympic events of 1896, marathon racers ran a total of 24.8 miles.

This distance was based on the Greek legend of the distance travelled by the foot soldier, Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek defeat of the Persian army. 

Between its inaugural year in 1897 and 1923, the Boston Marathon used a measured distance of 24.5 miles, spanning from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland to the Irvington Oval in Boston.

However, in the early 1920s, the distance for a marathon became standardized at 26 miles 385 feet. 

Accordingly, in 1924, to conform to the new Olympic standard, the BAA lengthened the Boston Marathon’s course to 26 miles 385 yards. The distance and route have remained the same ever since.

Where Does the Boston Marathon Start?

Even though Graham sought to establish the original starting point to be near his hometown of Ashland, organizers eventually had to update the route to account for the new standardized distance of 26 miles 385 yards.

As a result, race organizers shifted the starting line west from Ashland to Hopkinton, MA.

With a population of only about 18,000 people, Hopkinton almost triples in size overnight, as it hosts over 30,000 participants and countless more volunteers and fans. 

Where Is the Boston Marathon Finish Line?

Runners cross the finish line on historic Boylston Street in Boston, MA.

Organizers set up bleachers and grandstands directly in front of the historic Boston Public Library, and as runners pass the finish line, they continue for another two blocks, passing Copley Square, ultimately reaching a designated Family Meeting Area space.

Along this post-finish trek, runners will receive some very much needed hydration and supplements — and, of course, their medals. 

How Many People Run the Boston Marathon?

In 1897, the Boston Marathon had only 18 participants. 

In 2019, the race hosted 30,234 runners. The marathon has ballooned into one of the country’s largest footraces, with participation now at 167,867% what it was during the original race. 

That’s a lot of runners.

Despite this huge jump, the Boston Marathon is by no means the largest marathon in the world — or even the United States. For instance, in 2018, the New York City Marathon set a new world record with 52,812 finishers.

And in 2010, with 116,086 out of 160,000 registered runners, Manilla now holds the Guinness World Record for having the most participants in a racing event called “A Run for the Pasig River.”

Since 2003, the number of Boston Marathon runners has remained within the 20,000 to 30,000 range. However, since 2015, the BAA has capped the size of official entrants at 30,000.

In addition to the runners, the BAA estimates that around 500,000 spectators, fans, and volunteers fill the streets of Boston and its surrounding suburbs. That’s more people than the entire population of Iceland, Greenland, Cayman Islands, and British Virgin Islandscombined! 

Many students of nearby colleges, like Wellesley, Boston College, and Boston University set up cheer stations. With such a large wave of supporters, the Boston Marathon is by far New England’s most watched sporting event. 

How Do You Qualify for the Boston Marathon?

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is no easy feat (especially for your feet...alright, sorry). 

Only the best in the world have a chance to take part in one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world. 

In general, the BAA accepts qualifying times from USA Track and Field (USATF), the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS), and foreign-equivalent certified courses, but it does not designate which races meet qualifying standards. 

Racers have several chances to qualify for the race, but there is never a guarantee that their best time will be enough for the Boston Marathon.

This is because every year, the BAA reevaluates its registration data and the appropriateness of its qualifying standards.

Tom Grilk, BAA chief executive officer explains, “We forecast the interest in running Boston as continuing. We know that the running community pays close attention to our qualifying times for their age group because they are important factors in their training, racing and race selection.”

As such, had the 2020 race occurred, Grilk announced that “adjustments to all age group qualifying standards will be five minutes (5:00) faster than previous standards.”

Knowing the running world looks to it as a standard for racing times, the BAA has stipulated a few more specifications: 

  1. Runners can post a qualifying time up until the end of registration. Once the field size has been reached, however, it might not matter for some. 
  2. The BAA only accepts a certified full marathon distance. Anything shorter than a full marathon will not be considered. 
  3. Runners are responsible for verifying the race’s certification before they run it.
  4. The BAA does not accept indoor marathon times. 
  5. The BAA will review and verify all qualifying times.
  6. Runners must be at least 18 years of age on race day in order to run.

Unfortunately, just because a runner qualifies for the race, the BAA cannot accept all applicants - especially with its most recent 31,500 cap.

For the 2019 race, about 80% of the runners were time qualifiers, but the rest of the field gained entry by running for charities or some other connection to the race. 

Running for Charity

For those who want to run the race but do not have a qualifying time, they can run on behalf of a member of one of the Boston Marathon’s Official Charity Program. 

Each runner must raise at least $5,000 for one of the current 43 charities the BAA has approved. 

However, runners who have a qualifying time can run on behalf of the nonprofit organization of their choice. 

When Does Boston Marathon Registration Open?

The BAA usually opens registration for the marathon in September to prepare for the marathon in April, helping organizers plan for their established field size.

In general, registration occurs on a “rolling admission” schedule that spans a little over two weeks — a system the BAA has used since 2012.

As a perk, the fastest qualifiers get first dibs on the registration process. 

Week One Registration Schedule

  • Runners who meet their qualifying standard for their age and gender by 20 minutes or more may register. 
  • Runners who have met their qualifying standard by 10 minutes or more may register. 
  • Runners who have met their qualifying standard by 5 minutes or more may register. 

Week Two Registration Schedule

  • If space remains, all qualifiers can begin registering. Again, those with the fastest qualifying times by gender and age group will be approved (as space allows) 

Week Three Registration Schedule

  • If space remains, registration reopens for all runners who meet the qualifying standards. 
  • Admittance will be determined on a first-come, first-served basis. 

What Is the Qualifying Time for the Boston Marathon?

The qualifying time for the Boston Marathon varies from year to year because of field size limitations and heightened interest in participation.

In the event that the total number of submissions goes beyond the preselected field size, then the fastest runners will be accepted. 

Generally, if a runner records a time below the minimum qualifying standard for their age and gender, they qualify for the tournament. However, achieving a qualifying standard does not guarantee entry into the event. At the minimum, runners have a chance to submit a registration form. 

The 2021 Boston Marathon will accept qualifying times run on or after September 15, 2018.

Ranging from 3 hours to a little over 5 hours, here’s a quick look at all of the current qualifying standards from the BAA website:

How Much Does It Cost to Register for the Boston Marathon?

Once the BAA confirms a racer’s qualifying time, he or she can officially register for the tournament. 

For the 2020 Boston Marathon, the registration fee is $205 for United States residents and $255 for international residents.

For some who do not qualify for the race, they can still run for a pre-approved charity. The typical minimum to raise (or donate) to be eligible to run is around $5,000. 

How Much Prize Money Do You Get for Winning the Boston Marathon?

In her memoir “To Boston With Love,” Bobbi Gibb (the first female to finish the race in 1966) reflects, “I ran the Boston Marathon out of love. I believe that love is the basis of all meaningful human endeavor. Yet it was a love that was incomplete until it was shared with others.”

Like Gibb, most runners participate for something far beyond a paycheck. Whether it’s raising money for charity or fulfilling a life’s goal to participate in the granddaddy of all marathons, the overwhelming majority of runners will never see any financial prize.

In fact, before 1986, winners received nothing more than a medal and winner’s laurel around their head - and a pretty awesome memory, of course.

Since 1986, John Hancock has served as the principal sponsor and continues to provide prize money for top finishers. Collectively, top finishers have earned more than $20 million in prize money and course-record bonuses.

Winners for both men and women in the Open, Masters, and Wheelchair Division receive prize money. However, only those starting in the Elite waves are eligible to earn this cash prize. 

Prize Money for the Marathon

Amongst the three main divisions, the top 15 in the men’s and women’s open division, the top 10 men and wheelchair division winners, and the top 5 in the masters division will split a jackpot of $868,000.

The top place man and woman in the Open Division will earn $150,000. Not a bad paycheck for a day’s work - granted a long and grueling one.

Here’s a look at the total payout for winners from the BAA website:

Bonus Prize Money

In addition to prize money, participants have an opportunity to earn bonuses for setting records. 

  • World Best: $50,000
  • Course Record: $25,000
  • Masters World Best: $10,000
  • Masters Course Record: $7,500
  • Wheelchair World Best: $10,000
  • Wheelchair Course Record: $7,500

Prizes (Other than Money)

Anyone who finishes the race will walk away with a bag of goodies, a medal, and pretty impressive bragging rights. 

Once racers cross the finish line, they will walk for close to two blocks, collecting an assortment of goodies at the finish line that includes some spring water, a heated blanket, some Gatorade Endurance Formula, a Clif Bar, and other various food items. 

And technically, since runners do not have to return their bibs or timing devices, they keep those, too.

Each finisher also receives a medal showcasing the marathon’s mythical mascot: the unicorn. Throughout history, unicorns have been portrayed as ferocious, swift, and impossible to capture - making this creature a fitting representation of the race. 

The Finish Line

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon — the Holy Grail of races — is a lifetime achievement for many racers. 

Some compete to win their particular race division.

Others run to raise funds for a charity.

And thousands more line the streets with homemade signs of support.

The Boston Marathon has become a sporting event that transcends athletics for runners and fans.

And it shows no signs of slowing down.

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