Running the Boston & London Marathons... In a Week


, by Howard Calvert

Runners at the 2024 London Marathon. Photography by: mikecphoto

Two of the world’s biggest marathons take place just six days apart. What’s it like to run both of them in the same week? Howard Calvert finds out

London Marathon is not easy to get into. With a world record 578,374 people vying for 17,000 ballot places for the 2024 edition, the chances are gaining a coveted slot are slim (3%, to be precise).

But with a total of only 30,000 places in the Boston Marathon, getting a spot in that historic race is even trickier, because to gain a place you have to have run another marathon faster than the qualifying time in your age category, which is easier said than done.

The two World Major marathons take place only six days apart, but a number of runners take part in both, often because they’ve achieved a qualifying time for Boston, which gives them a 'Good For Age' time in London.

This was how I gained places in both races this year. All that was left was to complete both, within a week…

So how do two of the world’s most famous marathons compare?

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The start

The start line at Boston is unlike any other marathon start line in the world, partly due to the method of transportation to Hopkinton, 26.2 miles west of Boston city center.

Rows and rows of yellow school buses trundle runners out, so you can run back in. As a Brit, it’s a huge thrill simply traveling on one of these buses seen onscreen in films and TV programs.

Howard Calvert at the Boston Marathon. Photography by: Marathonfoto

We’re lucky in that the 128th edition of the race sees warm weather. Well, at this stage, we think we’re lucky. The sun cascades down from cloudless skies onto nervous runners, warming our exposed skin as we rest on the grass.

This warmth, however, will be the downfall of most runners over the next few hours, with the unrelenting heat, lack of cloud cover, and temperatures climbing to 78 degrees triggering debilitating cramps, dehydration, heatstroke and even collapse for many participants.

London, meanwhile, begins on the expansive Blackheath common, with most runners arriving by train. It’s huge, with four different start areas, and the queue for the urinals in my pen is almost as long as the marathon itself.

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The weather, thankfully, is cool, some would say cold, and most runners in vests are shivering waiting for the start gun to fire.

The route

Route 135, merging into Route 16 at Wellesley. That’s essentially Boston’s route. There are only about five sharp turns, including the ‘firehouse turn’ at mile 17 onto Commonwealth Avenue (where many say the race really starts), and the final two turns (right onto Hereford, left onto Boylston Street), taking you to the finish line, which seems near but feels so far away.

Like London, the first few miles are downhill. This spells danger for runners, as the loss in elevation mixed with adrenaline makes you feel unstoppable. Meanwhile, your quads are gradually being tenderized, so they lose all strength and power when you hit the hills.

Ah, those hills. Everyone’s heard about the Boston Marathon’s hills. Specifically the four in Newton, culminating in Heartbreak Hill. If you were tackling them on a training run, you’d find them challenging but not spectacularly difficult.

But seeing the first rise upwards at mile 16, with the heat permeating my skin, it appears to be an insurmountable mountain pass. I shuffle upwards, many around me choose to walk, and all of us bow to those who effortlessly glide up like superhumans.

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London’s route has highs and lows. Most runners would agree that the slog around Canary Wharf is not their highlight – at mile 13, the route snakes out in a loop passing through wind tunnels created by skyscrapers, around roundabouts, and through quiet tunnels.

But this is countered but the capital’s history, revealed in numerous landmarks and historic sites — like your first view of the Shard, running along the River Thames for two miles, Big Ben rising up in front of you in the last mile, and to top it all, on the final corner, Buckingham Palace, as if the King himself is spurring you on to the finish.

The crowds

The support for both races is humbling. You can only appreciate the sheer scale of it as a participant by running from start to finish. It’s estimated that 500,000 people turn out to support at Boston, and 750,000 watch London, but these figures feel like vast miscalculations when you’re out there, being cheered and encouraged to keep going.

Boston is noisy, the towns of Ashland, Framingham and Natick are partying, with children lining the streets, arms outstretched tallying high-fives, waving witty banners, the smell of grilled meat smokes over the course as spectators chug beers and offer them to parched runners.

But at the halfway point, all that morphs into something that sears itself into the memory of every runner: Wellesley’s famous ‘Scream Tunnel’. This is an annual tradition dating back to the start of the marathon in 1897 when students from Wellesley College show their support by screeching as loudly as possible, flapping handmade banners, and offering kisses to boost flagging runners. As a first-time Bostoner, the sheer scale and volume of the Scream Tunnel is astounding — the noise and energy make you feel like you can achieve anything.

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London’s support, meanwhile, starts low-key and builds. Most runners would agree that the party truly gets started at Cutty Sark, which marks 10km. As you round the ship, the banks of cheering crowds raise the hairs on your neck. From there, it’s almost a constant wall of noise to the finish.

Along the way you run past all genres of bands and DJs: jazz, brass, steel drum, reggae, choirs, rock, DJs playing house music from pubs, morris dancers, church bells clanging. It’s all there. And, like Boston, generous spectators hand out sweets/orange segments, your arms ache from high-fiving and hitting ‘Press here for power boost’ signs and your cheeks ache from grinning at the spectacle of it all.

The unforgettable moments

For Boston, aside from the Scream Tunnel, it’s the final turn onto Boylston. Despite my tunnel vision, dizziness, stumbling gait, and ragged breathing, and with every ounce of effort focused on putting one foot in front of the other, the deafening support around that corner and to the finish makes me well up just thinking of it now.

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For London, it’s another turn, this time from Tooley Street onto Tower Bridge. That first view of the famous bridge in front of you is electric. Not only is it a historic sight, but it also marks halfway, as well as the point where you leave the south of the river behind and enter the north. The crowds on both sides of the bridge go wild and you feel like you can achieve anything.

Howard Calvert at the finish lines of Boston (L) and London (R). Photography courtesy of: Howard Calvert

A rare double

Both marathons are different beasts, yet have much in common. Would I recommend doing both in a week? That’s up to each individual. But a runner in a Boston vest at the 31km mark of London summed it up well when he informed me his legs had just departed him. The pure joy and buzz from the crowd somehow negates the pain and keeps you moving.

Most non-runners look at me like my mid-life crisis has truly spiraled out of control when I tell them I’ve done two marathons in a week. Maybe it has. But those of us who’ve completed the Boston/London double have achieved something that’ll live in our memories – and our quads – for many years to come.

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