Several runners cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon
(Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty)

Running the Boston Marathon for the First Time

What’s it like to train for the world’s oldest marathon for the first time? We reached out to six Boston Marathon newbies, both elite and non-elite, to find out.

Several runners cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon
Alex Trautwig/Getty

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

We hear so much about what it’s like to run the Boston Marathon for the first time—The hills, brutal! The crowds, deafening! The finish line, euphoric!—but what’s it like to actually get to the starting line of the most iconic foot race on the planet?

We checked in with six first-time participants preparing for the Monday, April 17 event—both elite and non-elite—to take the pulse on how they are feeling less than two weeks out from race day. Here’s what came up.

Erika Kemp | The First-Time Marathoner

Erika Kemp is a 28-year-old professional runner who resides in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, where she’s lived for the last five years. Born in New Jersey, Kemp ran track and cross-country at North Carolina State and became a six-time NCAA All-American. She’s racked up many running accolades during her career—including winning U.S. titles at 15K and 20K—and has already qualified for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, with a 1:10:14 finish at the Houston Half Marathon this past January.

This will not only be her first time running Boston; it’ll be her first time ever taking aim at the marathon distance. However, she thinks that being a local, and the inevitable crowd support, may balance out an otherwise tough race.

“The course is challenging, and the field is absolutely incredible, but having lived here for a few years and being part of the event for so long, it just feels more like home.” said Kemp, the Brooks-sponsored pro.

The Boston Marathon is infamous for its unpredictable weather and relentless hills, which play a role in Kemp’s approach, expectations, and goal-setting. “Boston is such a curveball, so having too specific of a goal would hinder me more than help me,” she said. “My number one goal? Not to break myself.”

“I’m really looking forward to those last six miles because they’re the ones I run casually all the time,” she said. “Even though I’m expecting to feel physically terrible at that point, I think the familiarity of it—literally having lived at mile 24 in Brookline—is going to make the last 10K pretty good.”

As for Kemp’s training, her marathon build-up has been smooth. For her, Boston will be a test race before taking another crack at the distance this fall. “My agent and coaches all said that it’s better to be undertrained than overtrained for Boston. I’m going to stay true to what’s worked for me and just dial it up a tiny bit.”

For this, Kemp doesn’t use Strava, and she admits to being terrible at keeping a log. “I would say 80 percent of my training is literally: we’re doing this on effort, we’re running by feel. Very intuitive, which is a super non-stressful way to train.”

But her real secret weapon? A favorite pair of quarter-length socks. “If I crush Boston,” she said. “I’m going to wear these socks around for the rest of my life.”

Davis Cutter | The Homecoming Ultrarunner

Davis Cutter, 30, lives in Amsterdam and works in the tech sector. Originally from Boston, he is an avid runner who carries with him distinct memories of going to the race on Patriots’ Day (Marathon Monday is a state holiday in Massachusetts) and cheering on the runners.

“I would play games with my siblings as to who could hand out the most water cups,” he said. “The louder we cheered, the more water the runners would grab.”

For Cutter, running Boston feels like a homecoming, a return home to a course he’s so familiar with, forward and backward. “I once ran the full course in reverse the morning of the race in 2015,” he shared. “I’ve run Heartbreak Hill dozens of times, but there aren’t many hills to train on in the Netherlands, so we’ll see how the hills go.”

Cutter prefers ultramarathons to road racing, having previously completed four 100-mile races, but he’s no stranger to the 26.2-mile distance. In 2020, he completed 52 solo marathons in one year. Boston, however, will be his second “official” marathon.

His training plan consisted of a 16-week build with a one-week taper. Starting with five days of running per week, Cutter ramped up to six, logging 40-70 miles per week. As someone with an endurance base, Cutter had to relearn workouts and strides with the guidance of a coach. Late in the training block, he incorporated lactate threshold runs (workouts that push faster than marathon pace) and, in the final weeks, it was all about simulating race-day, from nutrition and hydration to distance and pace.

“What I’m most excited about is to see my six nieces and nephews cheering me on at Wellesley [mile 15.4],” he said. “Rumor has it they will be wearing custom shirts with my face on it!”

Laura Thweatt | The Colorado Grinder

Laura Thweatt, 34, lives in Boulder, Colorado, and is a professional runner for Saucony. This will be her first attempt at Boston, though she is very familiar with the marathon distance.

Born and raised in Durango, Thweatt would go on to run at the University of Colorado Boulder alongside teammates like Emma Coburn, Jenny Simpson, and others. After a successful college career, she won the post-collegiate USATF Club Championships in 2013 and 2014, and her debut marathon was the TCS New York City in 2015, where she finished sub-2:30 and placed seventh. In 2017, she ran a personal best 2:25:38 at the London Marathon, and placed fifth in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. Most recently, in 2021, Thweat ran a 2:27:00 for eighth place at the New York City Marathon.

One thing Thweatt loves about Boston is just how many people know about the race, how it helps her connect with so many people. “I recently got a wedding dress, and my consultant had run Boston. What are the odds?!”  Thweatt said. “The race just has a different aura around it for a lot of people in the running community. No matter what level you’re at, no matter what type of runner you believe yourself to be, Boston is an equalizer for all of us.”

Thweatt identified the downhill portions as potentially the most challenging. “I’m great over hills, but downhill and I don’t always get along,” she said. Good thing she has Kara Goucher in her corner to offer sage advice: “Kara told me, ‘Sure, it’s net downhill, but don’t obsess about it; you’re always kind of rolling. Overall, it’s a grinder’s course.”

Fortunately, Thweatt thrives on keeping things raw and elemental, and that’s part of why she loves the idea of this race. “With Boston, there are no pacers,” she said. “You’re just battling the course. You’re battling the competitors. You grind.”

Thweatt’s best tip for those training for a first-time marathon? “Find what works best for you and stay with it,” she said. Don’t get too swept up in other people’s strategies, other plans, other runners posting their workouts. A lot of it is about building confidence and awareness around what works for your body and your life. “There are 1,000 different ways to get somewhere,” she added. “It’s really about finding the right system for you and taking confidence in that.”

Chris Mancini | The Water Rights Nonprofit Leader

Chris Mancini, 42, is the executive director for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a Boston nonprofit focused on clean water and equitable access to water resources.

“I always say after a marathon: this is my last one,” he said, laughing. “This will be my fifth, so clearly something’s wrong with me.”

Mancini has spent the better half of the last decade trying to qualify for Boston, and this year, he’s done it. Mancini lived in the Boston area for 20 years and understands the important role the Boston Marathon plays in the community, but he’s a bit anxious about how it will play out. “It’s such a big cultural thing here,” he said. “I like marathons because they’re adventures into the unknown; I don’t know what’s going to happen!”

“My main tip? Ask yourself: Why Boston?” he said. “There are so many marathons to run. Why Boston? For me, it’s special for many reasons, but this is the one you have to qualify for. They even call it the ‘People’s Olympics.’” Other marathons you can get in with just an entry fee, or, for large ones like the New York City Marathon, entering a lottery system, but Boston is unique in requiring a qualifying time.

Next year, Mancini plans to run both Boston and the 26.True marathon, an unsanctioned and inclusive race organized by the Pioneers Run Crew that happens on the Saturday before Marathon Monday and available for anyone interested.

But this year, April 17, he is most excited about running past the Wellesley “scream tunnel” of coeds vociferously supporting runners, which is famous for being audible from a mile away. (No kissing for him though, he says.)

Grant Ritter | The Local Race Director

Grant Ritter, 43, lives in Whatley, Massachusetts, two hours west of Boston. He is a marketing manager, hot sauce entrepreneur, and co-owner of Impact Racing Events.

For years, Ritter avoided the hullabaloo of the Boston Marathon in favor of low-key trail races, the kind where “the race director draws a line in the dirt to mark the starting line right before the race, and where the winner goes home with a cookie.” But Ritter was fortunate to receive a bib from The Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club, for his volunteer service, and, on April 17, he’ll be toeing the line for the first time.

“Boston just has this energy that just draws you in,” he said. “It’s the marathon that all others are compared to. I tried to resist, but it got through my defenses.”

Ritter organizes the Fort Hill Brewery Half Marathon a day before Boston, so training has been less than optimal, but he’s headed to Boylston purely for the experience.

He’s spent eight hours a week training by feel, incorporating a mix of easy efforts, tempo runs, and long steady trail runs. “I maintained balance by getting enough rest, engaging in strength work, and working on my mobility to avoid injury,” he said. “Though this approach might not result in a marathon PR, it has kept me motivated, engaged, and grateful for every run.”

Jessica Bozek | The Poet 

“I’m fairly new to running,” said Jessica Bozek, 45, a poet and lecturer at Boston University who is currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I picked it up at the start of the pandemic. It was a good way to get away from my desk and out of the house, and to feel like I was going somewhere, even if that was only a few miles away.”

Rozek found herself pushing into longer training runs and, eventually, the marathon distance came within range. “I’d been to running club watch parties on Heartbreak Hill and seen lots of suffering marathoners halfway up the hill,” she said. “Which didn’t make me more eager to run a marathon, though I loved cheering for the people who were crazy enough to attempt it.”

She trained alone for her first marathon last November, in Philadelphia, but now Bozek is now a member of the Cambridge Running Club, and her training block for Boston was the first she’d ever trained with a group. Running with a club has been a transformative experience for Rozek.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to train with a small group of women, aged 25-50,” she said. “Doing key workouts with other women has given me the confidence to believe I will finish. Even if someone isn’t up for one more hill rep, if one of us suggests it, we’re all going to do it and end up stronger together.”

Lead Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty

Trending on Outside Online