The Boston Marathon is one of the most prestigious road marathons in the world. Not everyone can meet the tight qualifying times, and those who do must complete a 26.2-mile course that takes them through the Boston suburbs and (finally) into the city. Read on to learn more about the prestigious competition, which is now in its 121st year, whether you’re racing, spectating, or watching from afar.
1. The Boston Athletic Association Hosts the Marathon.
The Boston Athletic Association was founded in 1887 with the declared purpose of “promoting all manly sports and developing physical culture.” It staged a 24.5-mile road race for 15 runners ten years later (only 10 of them made it to the finish line). The unicorn, the symbol of the Athletic Association, is still present at today’s Marathon awards.
2. Those Non-Traditional Mile Markers Have Logic.
Unlike most marathons, which use simple mile markers like “Mile 1” or “Mile 15,” Boston’s early years used seemingly arbitrary numerals. (Running great Amby Burfoot remembers thought the 19 7/8 mile sign he saw during his first Boston Marathon was particularly absurd.) The checkpoints were chosen because they made it easy for race officials to find the conveyance they needed to move from checkpoint to checkpoint.
3. Each Year, Over 500,000 People Cheer on the Runners.
Every year, almost half a million people gather to cheer on 30,000 runners, boosting the local economy significantly. Athletes, their families, and supporters are estimated to spend $192 million in Boston this year, or nearly $311 for every Boston resident.
4. The Infamous Heartbreak Hill on the Course Terrifies Athletes.
When the name Heartbreak Hill, which is located between miles 20 and 21, is mentioned, even non-runners hearts begin to race. After the 1936 event, Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason is credited with coining the name. As runner Johnny Kelley passed his competitor Tarzan Brown during the race, he gave him a slap on the back—a move that enraged Brown and propelled him to first place. Brown “broke Kelley’s heart” at the hill, according to Nason.
According to Runner’s World, the hill itself isn’t as scary as its name suggests: it only rises 91 feet. (The hill that runners face near the start of the Marine Corps Marathon, on the other hand, rises 211 feet.) However, there are a lot of other things that contribute to its good name. For one thing, it’s late in the race, and the rate of elevation change catches even the most experienced runners off guard.
5. Celebs Have to Qualify Too (or Run for Charity).
Unlike other marathons that allow celebrities to participate, celebrities who run Boston must also meet the race’s tough qualification requirements. Alternatively, they must be running for a good cause and must be able to complete the race in fewer than six hours.
Will Ferrell (who ran it in 2003 in 3:56:12), Lisa Ling (who ran it in 2001 in 4:34:18), NKOTB alum Joey McIntyre (who ran it in 2013 and 2014 in 3:57:06 and 3:48:11, respectively), and Christy Turlington Burns (who ran it in 2016 in 4:09:27) are among the prior celebrity participants.
6. Cheating Happens More Often Than You May Believe.
Most marathon runners are sweaty and a touch dazed at the 25-mile mark (at best). Observers were skeptical when a fresh-faced Rosie Ruiz appeared out of nowhere a little over a mile from the finish line and went on to win the 1980 women’s title. Ruiz’s award was taken away after fellow runners reported that they hadn’t seen her at all along the route.
She also admitted to taking the subway for a stretch of the only previous event she’d ever run, the New York City Marathon, and lying to get into the Boston qualifier by stating she had a terminal brain tumor.
Derek Murphy, a blogger and amateur detective who has made it his mission to find marathon cheaters would have beaten Ruiz hands down. Murphy has uncovered roughly 250 cheaters since he launched his blog in mid-2015, many of whom fabricated race timings in order to qualify for Boston.
7. The Marathon Did Not Always Take Place on Monday.
The marathon was held from April 19 until 1969, on the same day as Patriots’ Day, a municipal holiday commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Patriots’ Day was declared on the third Monday in April that year, and the Boston Marathon organizers followed suit. Patriots’ Day is now known as “Marathon Monday” by many.
8. The Red Sox Make a Contribution to the Runners.
On Patriots’ Day, the Red Sox played a home game at 11:05 a.m. for decades. When the game is over, fans and players alike congregate in Kenmore Square to cheer on the runners in the final mile.
9. The Boston Marathon Is Heavily Run Outside of the City.
Runners pass through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Wellesley Hills, Newton, and Brookline before entering Boston proper. The participants do not enter Boston until they have covered 24 miles.
Read more: 42 of the Most Interesting Random Facts!
10. Bib Number 261 Is the Stuff of Legend.
Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to race the Boston Marathon in 1967. (A year before, Bobbi Gibb had been the first woman to finish the marathon, although as an unregistered or “bandit” runner.) Because women were not allowed to participate in the Boston Athletic Association at the time, Switzer registered behind her initials, “K.V. Switzer.”
Runner no. 261 took her place among the other registered runners on April 19, 1967, initially blending in thanks to her grey sweatsuit. However, race organizer Jock Semple saw her after a few miles. He tried to pull her off the track, enraged, but her partner at the time body-checked him, and Switzer continued racing.
Switzer and women’s running was thrust to the forefront of a national discourse about women’s place in athletics as a result of the incident and the horrific images that followed.
Switzer would go on to complete numerous more marathons and become an outspoken supporter of female runners. This year, 50 years after being nearly pushed off the course of her first marathon, the now 70-year-old returns to Boston to do it all over again.
The Boston Athletic Association plans to retire number 261 after she crosses the finish line, marking only the second time in the organization’s history that a bib has been retired.
11. The Marathon Has Come to Embody Hope and Resilience Since 2013.
Three persons were killed and more than 260 participants and spectators were injured when two bombs exploded near the finish line in 2013. Instead of backing down, the city of Boston rallied behind the more than 36,000 runners who returned the following year to take on the renowned course.
Around 1 million people cheered on the competitors, including Meb Keflezighi, who became the first American to win the marathon in 30 years and the oldest champion since 1930 at the age of 38. To pay tribute to the bombing victims, Keflezighi scribbled their names in Sharpie on his bib and pinned it to his singlet.
Keflezighi recalled earlier this month, “I just said this is Boston Strong.” “I’d want to write their names in large letters so that I can gauge their strength. It was huge to have that inner drive.”