The Average Runner's Guide to Grabbing that Boston Marathon Qualifier

The challenge I've found in expert books on the topic of qualifying for the Boston Marathon is that most all of them are based on elite athletes trying to explain to the average runner "how to grab that elusive unicorn." With that, I decided to finally write my average guy's (or girl's) guide to qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

In December of 2006, my wife bought me Hal Higdon's book (Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide) on training for a marathon as I'd become more serious about running and mentioned in passing that I'd like to some day run a marathon. We joke that she either takes credit for my "run" as a distance runner by buying that book, or regretting the gift that turned into an obsession (I prefer to call it passion.)

I signed up for my first "Mary" in 2007 at the San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon. I did not have a coach. I did not train with a group. I read a book, and used the plan laid out by Hal. Not knowing any better, I heard of this thing called the Boston Marathon and decided that I wanted to qualify. I didn't know how naive that was in my first ever marathon. I didn't qualify, but I did "break" four hours in that first race. It also set in motion, my journey to eventually get to the Boston.
"Wanting" to run across the finish line in Boston is the 1st big step.

Journey is the right word as I was an unlikely candidate to get to the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Unlikely, in that I was "just okay" as an athlete growing up. In grade school I was a decent little league football defensive end, was a horrible baseball player, and was a below-average skinny kid on the junior varsity wrestling team in Jr. High. The Jr. High years were especially cruel as I was diagnosed with arthritis. I was literally "that kid" who came in last in the mile lap around the baseball field. I put all sports on hold through high school. As a sophomore in college, I played a bit of softball in a recreation league (I could finally hit the ball and field it.) Not until I went through a divorce when I was 39, did I decide to "hit the gym" as I was going through a "life transition." I eventually found the treadmill in the gym, and ran for a year...inside...before I discovered they had races for adults.

My point of my short sports history is that I am not a high school track star, nor am I a running expert, or a running coach, but I have run Boston five times. I do think it gives hope to the "every day runner" that aspires to run the greatest run race in the land; the Boston Marathon. With that, my "baker's dozen" guide to grabbing your first B.Q. (Boston Qualifier.)
Speed work with my local running group


This may seem obvious, but you have to want it. Every book I've read including Meb For Mortals talks about setting goals for yourself as a runner. This starts at the highest (macro) level of wanting to get there, and down to a micro-level view of setting up goals for each race, training period, month, and training day.

Don't go it alone and find fast friends

While I trained for my first marathon 100% on my own, I don't recommend it. At a minimum, find a group of friends to run with. Just above the casual group of friends, is the running group. This could be a run out of the local running store--in Denver, we're fortunate to have one of the best in the country in Runner's Roost. They host group runs out of their stores several days a week. Here, your performance will increase as inevitably there will be faster and more experienced runners to learn from. If you can afford it, get a run coach (more on that below.) Part of not going alone is finding fast friends; otherwise known as "chase the rabbit." One of things I did early on in my run career (no...It's not my career, but I can dream can't I?) is hang out with much faster runners. Runners who have been to Boston, and know what it takes to get there. This not only gives you insight into their experience, but fuels your passion to make it happen. In 2012, my run coach would organize small group runs on Saturdays for technical runs (tempos, intervals, hill repeats, and simulated marathon training runs.) I was one of the slowest of a really fast bunch, but it seriously accelerated my learning and progression in the sport.

Be a sponge

Aside from learning from friends, there's a huge run community out there online; everything from Runner's World and online chat groups such as #Runchat and #Bibchat. Online and in print you can find professional advice, plans, and books on running. I have read several books since reading Hal Higdon's book and "glean" something useful out of each one I read. There are a plethora of plans out there including Higdon, Hanson, Pfitzinger, and Furman to name a few. I've qualified using a variant of all of them. I can't say that I recommend one over the other as it depends on what's prescribed by your run coach, or group you train with. Most recently, my plan most closely resembles Pfitzinger "peaking" at 50-60 training miles in a week with the variants pointed out below.

Running Chicago on a stress fracture getting within two minutes
motivated me to qualify the next time out

Be strong!

The last six miles of a marathon is a mental game, but it also relies on your core strength. I have always incorporated time in the gym along with my running schedule. Over the years, I have realized how important this is. In Meb's book, "Meb for Mortals," he has an entire section on stretch and strength training. Early in my career (there's that word again,) I had no structured plan. My run coach actually puts it into my training schedule, and I now have goals to focus in this area 3-5 days a week (depending on what I'm training for, or if I'm "between" target races) for at least twenty minutes. Planks are a steady part of my diet here along with other core and leg work.

Have a plan and stick to it

There are several plans (mentioned above) out there and I've tried most of them. Once you have a target race identified; lay out your (typical) 16-18 weeks of training and stick to it. Common sense applies. If you are sick (flu vs. cold) or if your body is completely spent, then rest days happen. I don't listen to my body as well as I should (which is another post on injuries.)  What this does require is planning. We all have jobs, families, and other commitments outside running. For me, I travel quite a bit and that throws a curve when you have a seven mile recovery run and you have to fly that day, that means getting up early, or doing the "mill" late at night. My toughest challenges have been global flights with work. My body clock has questioned, "why are we running at Midnight in Barcelona?"

Training in Barcelona for my 3rd Boston Marathon at "crazy" body clock hours.
Slow down

This is what separates the beginner from the experienced...or the "young bull and the old bull." I tried to run everything as fast as I could in my earlier run years. I won't get into the science, but part of it is that your body needs time to recover and you need to train your body to be out on the road for a period of time. My latest run coach, Benita Willis, would "dial down" my slow runs close to 90 seconds slower than my marathon goal-paced miles.

Two hard ones 

Related to the above, my coach would only "push" my body two days a week; typically a tempo run, intervals, progressive intervals, or Fartleks. This post won't lay out your sixteen week plan, but this approach works to build endurance AND the speed you need to get that BQ.


One of the toughest workouts yet another huge advancement in your run performance is the hill work. A typical workout here would be a two mile warm-up and several 5k-10k pace intervals up a decent grade hill, jogging back down, and repeating several times (6-10) depending on where you're at in your training cycle. Unless you're running on a "pancake" route, your body will need to be able to attack an incline at various mileage points in a race, not to mention the hill you're dreaming of; Heartbreak Hill in Boston. If you can run fast up a hill, you can run much more comfortably on a long flat one.

Progressive long runs

Another "staple" of most of my most successful training plans includes progressive long runs. This typically starts out with two to five miles of a comfortable slow pace, then sets of intervals that get progressively faster. The training run finishes with slow recovery miles. Even my shorter tempo runs will start and finish with warm-up and cool-down miles. In arguably my most complete marathon, this was one of those typical long runs two months out from Boston.
  • Long run + first specific marathon workout;
  • (16-18miles);
  • Easy jog 7 miles warm up (slower than 8:45mile pace) then we'll do 3 X 3 miles (2min rest)...First 3 miles will be at 7:40 pace, 2nd 3 miles will be at 7:30 pace and last 3 miles will be 7:10-7:20 pace or so. 
  • No need to kill this. Just some harder running after you have been running quite some time first. Easy jog 1-2 miles cool down. Our first fuel run - just an intro to the longer work to come.
Two weeks later, a similar run starting with a two mile warm-up followed by;

  • 1st 4 miles - 8:00-8:10
  • 2nd 4 miles - 7:50-8:00
  • 3rd 4 miles - 7:40 or so
  • 4th 4 miles - 7:30 or so
Simulated marathon with progressive goal pace miles
The first one was right before a trip to Barcelona and I didn't have much "in the tank." The second long run was fantastic with paces at 8:05, 7:55, 7:35 and 7:25 on the four mile intervals. As they say, this will "put hair on your chest." 

Speed work

This might be my favorite workout. I have been a fan of Yasso 800's (repeats of 800 meters which is also a predictor of marathon finish times.) As I progress in a training period, I will typically increase the pace and number of these half mile intervals. While running a sub (any) minute pace may seem unattainable, adding five to ten seconds a week is less daunting. This speed work also pays huge dividends in my 5K and half marathon distances breaking twenty minutes and 90 minutes respectively in the last two years. I tend to mix in 1-2 shorter races over a marathon training session as well.

Log everything

When I started running, I used a spreadsheet. I have virtually every race training history for all of my thirteen marathons. This not only helps track your current endeavor, but it is also useful as you begin training for a new race, to go back and look at what you did in week four as an example. More recently, I have logged my training in Training Peaks. I have also used Daily Mile over the years, but view that as more of a social and motivational site to log miles. Going forward, I'm evaluating Strava as an alternative as well. All of this is on top of the history I have in Garmin.

Six days and cross train

I have talked about slowing down the majority of the training runs, and the concept of two hard days. The other common question is how many days a week should I train? For me, in my best training periods, I train 6-7 days a week. Up to two of these days, I focus on cross-training; typically either swimming (great core workout,) or cycling. This also prepares me for my typical summer triathlon season.

Set proper calendar expectations

While it's possible to BQ in your first marathon, it's rare. Sorry to put the "buzz kill" in the last paragraph. This does not mean you can't have a fabulous experience and move towards your goal with interim races. You also have to be realistic with yourself and evaluate where you are today relative to the qualifying time you need. As a case in point, my BQ qualifying time when I started racing was 3:30. My first four races were 3:42, 3:39, 3:32 (narrowing missing my BQ in Chicago,) and finally a BQ of 3:21 at Sacramento's California International Marathon. I'd highly recommend this as a BQ race...only issue is that it's in December (outside the window for registration which means you wait for 16 months.

An over-arching theme to my approach is wanting it bad enough and working hard enough each week to get there. I'm hoping you found some inspiration or ideas you hadn't heard of; or perhaps it was explained as a "regular guy" vs. elite extraordinaire. What has worked for you if you've qualified?


  1. Like you, I was never a star runner in high school or college. My debut marathon was 4:29, and after several attempts I finally BQ'd (only to be thwarted by the new registration process - it would be five years and a second BQ before I finally got to run Boston for the first time last spring). All this to say this is one of the best "How to BQ" posts I've ever read. The info here is honest and practical and should be required reading for every average runner going for a BQ. Well done and hope to see you at Boston in 2017!

    1. Going over old posts and realized I never thanked you Scott. Appreciate the read. Glad you finally "joined the club."


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