Running and cheering at the Boston Marathon
January 12, 2016 12:17 AM   Subscribe

My brother qualified for the Boston Marathon, so I'm looking for practical tips for him on running the track, and for me on supporting someone who is running.

After finishing the Rotterdam Marathon a couple of times, my brother finished it at 2:57 last year. He has since qualified for the Boston Marathon in April this year. My SIL, her cousin and myself are accompanying him on the trip. I'm looking for any tips you might care to share, both for the runner and for us supporters. Plane tickets have been taken care of, we fly out from AMS on friday, the marathon is monday and we arrive home on wednesday. I've arranged for an AirBnB in North End.

So the practical stuff is taken care of. I'm now looking for any practical tips you might care to share. Anything regarding running the Boston marathon, advise on the track or for instance the transport to the start. Also great locations where we supporters might get a great view from the track. We'd prefer to travel to a few different points along the track, so advise on transport between places would be most welcome also.

We'd like to do some sightseeing, perhaps while my brother is resting, or some less intensive excursions with him to accompany us. We've been to various places in New-England, not all of us have been to Boston though.

We're experienced travellers, early to late thirties, fluent in English. Brother & SIL are Paleo/LCHF, SIL is gluten free for medical reasons, so relevant places to eat would also be very welcome.

Thanks in advance!
posted by mirthe to Travel & Transportation around Boston, MA (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if you've ever watched a marathon before, but if you are looking for a runner it is REALLY easy to miss them. So here on some tips for that:

You and brother need to look at race route ahead of time and pick out a place where you guys, as spectators, will be standing. That way he'll know to look for you when he gets to that part of the race (it can be as simple as "the beginning of mile 12" or more complicated, like "the statue outside X building".

That said, the further into the race, the more the runner's brain basically stops functioning. I probably wouldn't have even been able to do basic math after miles 18 or so. So you need to make it SUPER easy for him to find you — posters, intense screaming of his name, etc. On your end, you can use the BAA website or app to track his progress as he runs. (You'll need his bib number.) You can either get text messages or push notifcations. In my experience using similar apps, they are usually kind of far behind (because EVERYONE is using them on race day) but it'll give you a good idea of when to start looking for him as he approaches your sector.

I have a ton of friends running the Houston marathon this weekend. I won't be there to race myself or cheer, and now I'm feeling all nostalgic.
posted by Brittanie at 2:03 AM on January 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Mr. Fig has run Boston a number of times, so I'll see if I can get him to pop in here later. From a marathon-spectating spouse...

-- Two years ago the security at the finish was strong. The finish line area is always a madhouse anyway, but you had to go through checkpoints and get your bag searched, and good luck getting back in if you had to do something like go to the bathroom. And, there's no way he's going to see you anywhere along Boylston, it's packed like 4-5 people deep. Pick a different spot along the course.

--The first year I went out near the top of Heartbreak Hill. Not many people, walkable from the T station, and Mr Fig and I found each other easily. However, the T heading back into Boston was packed, and I ended up taking it the other direction to the end of the line and then hopping on the next train inbound in order to get a spot, and Mr Fig beat me to the finish line.

--There are buses that take runners from Boston Commons out to Hopkington. That's probably the best way for him to get out there. We drove Mr Fig before, but we were staying west of there, so it didn't make sense to drive all the way in for him to get on a bus. Traffic was quite bad.

Congrats to your brother! You guys will have a great time!
posted by Fig at 2:25 AM on January 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

As your brother what his "low" points are. Personally, I like to put my family at mile 19, but every runner is different. And then look at the course and see what works best. You should definitely plan for him to be able to know exactly where you will be, because it's almost impossible for you to spot your runner in any marathon.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:12 AM on January 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Welcome to Boston! I am a longtime Boston (and Boston area) resident, lived and/or worked within a few hundred meters of the course for many many years, and have volunteered at the packet pickup and information booth. I love the Boston marathon, and I love Boston during the marathon.

The BAA buses are going to be his best bet for getting to Hopkinton. They usually leave from the Common, which is a 10-20 minute walk from the North End.

My favorite place to watch is Beacon Street, anywhere between Cleveland Circle and the bridge over the Massachusetts Turnpike (this is around mile 22-25, quite late in the race).

The layout of the Boston course (linear, and on major streets, so that the area is very difficult to navigate during the race) makes it difficult to watch from more than one place. I know people do do it, or at least try, and hopefully some of them will chime in. I think renting bicycles or using Uber/cabs would give you the best chance for success. Public transport is very slow and unreliable on race day. Do not take the C branch of the Green Line; it slows to walking pace. Parking anywhere near the course is also difficult.

A huge area is cordoned off around the finish line, which will make getting to the course from the North End more difficult than it looks on the map.

As for sightseeing, is there anything in particular you're interested in?
posted by mskyle at 5:09 AM on January 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd suggest a spot in Newton just before heartbreak hill, the crowds are somewhat less dense and if you let them know your brother's coming I'm sure they'll make space. Perhaps if you're wearing something distinctive at a clear point he'll be able to pick you out.

A little further on the crowed will probably expect you to hand him a beer... :-)
posted by sammyo at 5:58 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I ran the Boston in 2009 (I'm super slow and got a sponsor's exemption). I don't have good input on transportation as my sponsor gave us buses to get to Hopkinton. One thing to keep in mind is that the general public buses get you to the starting line very early and they expect you to vacate the bus immediately so you'll have to be dressed warmly for all the time you have to wait at the starting line. I would imagine his finishing time means he is in the first general public starting wave which is good because that means less time waiting around getting cold. (As you can imagine I was in the second starting wave and the back of that pack to boot).

I think your brother will be amazed at the fan support all along the race. Mind you with the delay in the second start and the slowness of my running, I finished 4 hours behind the winners and yet there was still crowds 4 and 5 deep in every town square you run through. There were plenty of fans enthusiastically cheering everywhere on the course save for the section between mile 16 and 17 that crosses over a major highway. Granted it was probably only a quarter mile without seeing people and that is pretty typical on other courses but that was a big psychological hit.

Mrs. mmascolino came out to cheer me on by taking the T up to Boston College. We did see each other and we talked briefly but I can imagine that at the pace your brother runs the crowds will be thicker and it will be harder to ensure you see each other. Also as other people mentioned, public transporation is a mess on race day. I was able to finish the race, cool down and walk the 6-8 blocks back to my hotel before my wife got back. In fact I think I beat her by 30 minutes or more.
posted by mmascolino at 6:42 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here already, and I totally agree about how hard it will be to move around the area near the finish line; the crowds will be massive, and the MBTA stations in the area are closed for the day as well.

The BAA does set up a bunch of "meeting point" signs for people to reunite after the finish. I don't have details; I only know about them because I've seen the signs, some of them 4-5 blocks from the finish line.

If you'll have a car, I recommend watching the race at Wellesley College, which is at about mile 12. Enter the Wellesley campus from the south side and park in their garage, which is right next to the route. Quick walk to the route, cheer for your guy, then you can hop back in the car and drive to someplace farther along. Wellesley's also fun because the college students, all women, line the race and cheer *very* loudly; some offer hugs and kisses to the runners.
posted by underthehat at 6:55 AM on January 12, 2016

Oh another thing - if you agree to watch him from a specific place, pick a side of the road as well. I have definitely spied one or two of my friends running past but if they're on the opposite side of the street, they don't see me.

Oh, and I didn't say this in the previous answer because I don't think it's probably a good answer for people who are wanting to meet up with a specific runner, but my absolute favorite place to watch from is Hereford Street, just before the final turn onto Boylston. The runners have just gone through a tiny underpass, then there's a quick right, a short block, and a quick left onto the final straightaway. It is a hugely exciting place to watch! But you usually have to get there very early.

On preview: mmascolino makes a good point about the start line - I think a lot of people leave clothes in Hopkinton. I was actually talking to a woman from Hopkinton the other day and she said everyone in town has official runner jackets because people just throw them away once they get started running. There are volunteers who collect "donated clothing" along the first few kilometers of the race.
posted by mskyle at 6:56 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Speaking of the clothes on the ground, it really looked like a giant crowd of people all decided to go streaking at once. It wasn't too bad for me as I was only in the elements for about 20 minutes before running. I ditched a long sleeved t-shirt and a pair of marathon branded gloves after the first 5km. Speaking of that first 5km, I didn't realize how residential this part of the course was going to be. It is essentially a two lane winding and undulating road that goes past lots of houses. Plenty of people were sitting in chairs in their yards watching all the runners. And yes, there was a torrent of discarded clothes in the yards.
posted by mmascolino at 7:09 AM on January 12, 2016

Congrats to your brother! Holy smokes, that's a fast time!

The BAA tracking system is great, but as others have pointed out, it's not the right tool for tracking a runner in real time. How about a GPS tracking/sharing app like Glympse?. (Do test the app's drain on the phone's battery before race day).
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 8:08 AM on January 12, 2016

I always watch from near the 10 mile mark and I've been able to spot (and high five / hug) several friends. The key is that you will not be able to find your brother. He will need to find you.

If you can, pick out a spot or two the day before the race and find some landmarks shortly before it. Make sure your brother knows what these landmarks are and how they relate to where you'll be. "I'll be on the left side of the road across from Bill's Diner shortly after the 12 mile mark. There's a Honda dealer with a tall blue sign about 100 yards beforehand."

As others have said, this will be easier for him to find if he's not too spent. So if you can see him in the first 10 or 15 miles that would be best.

Also, you should know what his start time will be and when he expects to arrive at whatever mile(s) you're waiting at. Any marathon runner should know these things.

Also, this might be obvious, but if you're driving and especially if you're hoping to advance further down the course during the race, remember the entire Eastern part of the state is basically cut in half for a few hours. Getting around can be tough; you might have to go miles out of your way just to go from the North side of the course to the South side.
posted by bondcliff at 8:08 AM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

The best way to be seen in a marathon is to wear something that is easily recognizable from a distance. I have a bright orange singlet, shorts that almost match, and even a pair of orange shoes that make me stand out like a traffic cone. If your brother doesn't mind having photographs taken on the course that show questionable fashion choices, then this the easiest way to spot him. The identifying garments should not be outerwear, since he will likely remove/adjist these as he warms up.

The easiest way for him to spot you is using simar means. I would recommend making a sign/carrying a not-to-obnoxious prop that will hel him pick you out of the massive crowd. He should know exactly where you will be, and he should be prepared to miss you, since the crowds at this one are very dense. If you want to see him finish and want to be seen, get there super-early, because you won't find a front row seat on Boylston if you do not get there as early as possible (another option is to pay a surcharge at a cafe with outdoor will be behind the crowd, but have a place to sit, and you csn get up when you think he should finish...last I heard it was about $35 to do this, but that was several years ago and--this might be important--this was before the bombing).

As for running the race: the course is very hilly, especially miles 16-21. Tell your bortber thst when he hits to highway overpass that marks the entrance to Newton, he is on for 4 consecutive hills that are challenging to runners who have done a lot of hill training. The last of them, leading to mile 21, "Heartbreak Hill," gets all the press, but the third one is actually steeper, and, I'm pretty sure, longer. Once he hits Boston University (at the tippy-top of "Heartbreak Hill,") the course is quite literally all downhill (a few slight upward grades, but nothing major).

By my count, for a competetive marathoner, Boston's course is aboit 2 minutes slower than a pancake-flat course (like Chicago, for example). Your brother should be surprised to see the amount of crowd suport the race gets...there is a brief section at the beginning where you go through some woods just after the starting line. This is pretty much the only place you won't see people standing shoulder-to-shoulder cheering you on. If he is trying to be competetive in the race, he will need to hold himself back and not get caught up in the easy downhills in miles 1-6, nor let the crowd carry him away. His second half wlll probably be at least a couple of minutes slower than the first. If he manages to run a negstive split (second half faster than the first) then he has probably run the smartest tactical race of his career. If he blows up, him to relax and enjoy it. I've blown up at Boston several times, and each time I had a blast doing it. Also, tell him that he is in for a treat when he teaches the "scream corridor" in Wellesley. There is nothing like it in any other race I've done.

A few final thoughts: I've never spectated at this race, unless you count watching people finish after I have (it might be fun for him to do that, esp since his qualifying time suggests he will be running competetively, and not just to finish)...but I think you night have a hard time seeing him in more than one place on raceday. From my perspective, as someone who has run the race enough times to have lost count of the exact number, you might be better served by picking a spot from 18-20 miles and trying to see him there. This section has a divided road, and--unless the policy has changed--you should be able to spectate from the "island" in the center of the road. This will make it much easier for him to spot you. One more thing: if you let him know where you will be, you should consider asking him to run well to the side of traffic when you should be looking for him (he can run on either the extreme left or extreme right side of the road, since most participants will stay on whichever side the people ahead of them have chosen). Tell him I wish him good luck...but that if he qualified, he doesn't need it!
posted by Mr. Fig at 1:52 PM on January 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great answers!
My brother usually has a list of times he's aiming to hit specific marks, that has worked out quite accurately the past few times in Rotterdam. Time for us to study up on the exact course and look up the points you've mentioned to figure out which one we'll choose to cheer him on from. Maybe we'll try for a second point, but I fear it'll be more realistic to meet up near the finish.
posted by mirthe at 6:53 AM on January 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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