Originally inspired by the first Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896, the Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest and most prestigious annual marathon. Held each year on Patriots’ Day (the third Monday in April), the race features top-notch production, raucous crowd support and its iconic blue-and-yellow unicorn medal waiting to celebrate your achievement at the finish.
Boston is also a member of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a competitive series comprising six celebrated marathons in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City plus the biennial IAAF World Championships Marathon and the quadrennial Olympic Games Marathon.
Why you need a Boston Marathon Qualifying race
All that said, Boston’s mystique derives in large part from its distinction as the only marathon in the country with strict age- and gender-adjusted qualifying standards. Established by the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), these standards earn Boston Marathon runners their reputation as the best of the best. And along with its storied history, they rocket Boston to the top of every serious marathoner’s wish list.
Straightforward though these standards may seem, however, there’s a catch. For each of the past six years, the number of qualified applicants has exceeded the number of available slots, such that simply beating the minimum qualifying standard for one’s age group and gender hasn’t been enough to guarantee a spot in the field of ~30,000. Rather, runners who beat their qualifying standard by a larger margin have enjoyed a greater likelihood of having their applications accepted. In other words the faster the runner, the better their chances (no surprise there!).
With this in mind and with application numbers increasing year over year, the B.A.A. tightened its qualifying standards by five minutes across all age groups starting with the 2020 Boston Marathon (see above). While this move clearly raises the BQ bar, it also promises to raise dramatically the percentage of applications accepted and instill a greater sense of confidence in runners who beat their minimum qualifying standard. That said, if the number of qualified applicants continues to exceed the number of available slots, the fastest runners will still be the first selected.
Top races to run a Boston Marathon Qualifying time
How do you judge whether a marathon is a valid Boston Marathon Qualifying race? While the B.A.A. does not designate which races meet its qualifying standards, it does accept qualifying times from USATF, AIMS or foreign equivalent certified courses (marathon distance only). Many road racing events clearly affirm themselves as Boston Marathon Qualifiers on their official website; however, we’d recommend you contact the race organizer directly if there’s any doubt as to whether a particular event meets the criteria for a Boston Qualifier (BQ).
Boston’s perennial popularity among runners has prompted an increasing number of race directors to tailor their own events to BQ hopefuls. Those events that attract Boston hopefuls and which boast the highest percentage of qualifiers among their finishers tend to feature top-notch production and wicked fast courses with a flat, slightly rolling or even downhill profile, in locations where cooler weather lends itself to speedy finish times.
Be aware that each course profile presents distinct physical and mental challenges. Extended downhill running, for instance, requires a focus on eccentric quad strengthening to withstand the pounding of 26.2 miles.
Here we profile the top Boston Marathon Qualifying races in North America by season:
- Spring Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Apr – Jun)
- Summer Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Jul – Sept)
- Fall Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Oct – Dec)
- Winter Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Jan – Mar)
Most of these events (indicated by a *) also include shorter distances to cater to runners of all levels.
If you’ve run one or more of these races, we’d love for you to post your review to help other runners and give the race director a well-deserved shout-out!
Spring Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Apr – Jun)
REVEL Race Series* – 8 events year round
Course profiles: severely downhill, a REVEL hallmark
“Fast & Beautiful” is how REVEL describes its race series — and they ain’t kidding. The company’s calling card is its downhill, BQ-friendly courses that test both your mettle and your quads. With a net elevation loss of 5,100 feet and an average finish time of 3:57:26, REVEL’s most popular event on Mt Charleston in Nevada annually boasts one of the highest percentage of Boston Qualifiers in the country. For 11th-hour BQ hopefuls, Big Cottonwood in Utah offers a similarly fast & scenic downhill course in September, with nearly 5,400 feet of elevation loss starting at 9,700 feet. REVEL continues to expand across the West with eight current locations, including recent arrivals in Southern California (Big Bear) and Hawaii (Kūlia). And REVEL goes the extra mile by offering free race photos & personalized videos, plus a generous transfer/withdrawal/deferral policy for runners who can’t answer the bell. Because BQ training doesn’t always go according to plan!
Eugene Marathon* – Eugene, OR (Apr)
Course profile: flat with the occasional short hill
What better place to run fast than TrackTown, USA? It’s no exaggeration to say Eugene may be to running what Washington D.C. is to government. After all, not only was Nike founded here in 1964, but former University of Oregon running stars Steve Prefontaine, Galen Rupp and Alexi Pappas spent untold hours sharpening their skills on Historic Hayward Field, where you’ll finish your own 26.2-mile tour of the city. (Note: Due to ongoing construction at Hayward Field, the 2019 finish has moved to Autzen Stadium.) Eugene’s predominantly flat course, friendly spectators, calming views of the Willamette River and ideal running weather (with typical starting temperatures in the 40s) are the stuff of BQ dreams — and it shows in the fast group of hopefuls who make the pilgrimage to Central Oregon every May. Looking for a race that checks all the BQ boxes? Our advice would be to look closely at Eugene and just do it.
Shiprock Marathon* – Shiprock, NM (May)
Course profile: 3-mile uphill followed by gradual 23-mile downhill
The Navajo Nation hosts and organizes the Shiprock Marathon, which is held entirely on sacred Navajo grounds. Shiprock exemplifies the Southwestern United States with its high desert expanses dotted with mesas, the most prominent being Shiprock itself. Race day begins with a bit of gamesmanship: buses carrying runners to the start line follow the marathon course in reverse, teasing runners with a preview of the very course they’re about to run. The race then begins at roughly 5,900 feet, the course climbing gradually to 6,100 feet in the first 3+ miles before beginning a long, gradual descent to its final resting place at 5,000 feet. “Thin” and “dry” describes the New Mexico air at this altitude — and as with other high-altitude races on this list, runners who succumb to the siren call of Shiprock’s fast downhill are likely to be dashed on its rocks.
(Thanks to RaceRaves Chief Lunatic Dan Solera, whose Shiprock Marathon blog post we referenced)
Wisconsin Marathon* – Kenosha, WI (May)
Course profile: flat
Wisconsin may not be the fastest or even the most scenic marathon on this list, but its organizers do bill it as the “cheesiest“. True to their word, a separate All Cheese Corral is provided for registered runners “willing to don the dairy that makes Wisconsin famous”. Held just up the road from Chicago and across the state border, Wisconsin’s figure-eight course varies by only 35 feet from its highest to lowest points, while offering runners panoramic views of Lake Michigan. And all runners receive a ticket for a free bratwurst and beer at the post-race party. One piece of non-cheesy local flavor for prospective runners: the largest and most complete woolly mammoth skeleton ever discovered was excavated in Kenosha County in 1994. Didn’t know that bit of archaeological trivia? Tusk, tusk.
Fargo Marathon*– Fargo, ND (May)
Course profile: flat
Mention Fargo to anyone who’s run it, and you’re likely to be greeted with wide-eyed enthusiasm and regaled with stories of why you have to run this race. Marathon Maniacs, Half Fanatics and those aspiring to race in all 50 States know all about Fargo, with its Midwestern hospitality and cool May temperatures. At the same time, Fargo caters to runners of all levels with distances ranging from 5K to the marathon, plenty of on-course entertainment and a start and finish inside the Fargodome where screaming friends, family and spectators await. The course, among the flattest in the nation, leads runners on a tour of its host town plus seven miles of Minnesota, including three college campuses. Not convinced? Check out the rave reviews that have earned Fargo a current 4.7/5.0 rating and recognition as the best little marathon in Nort Dakoota.
Sugarloaf Marathon & 15K* – Carrabassett Valley, ME (May)
Course profile: flat in miles 1–5, rolling/uphill in miles 6–10, downhill in miles 11–26.2
Within a stone’s (strong) throw of Canada lies Sugarloaf Mountain, eponym of Maine’s oldest continuously run marathon. Runners looking for an Eastern point-to-point alternative to the fast downhill courses of Colorado and Utah will find it in Sugarloaf. Unlike its high-altitude counterparts, however, Sugarloaf’s course tops out at 1,500 feet. The route follows Maine’s scenic Route 27 for its entirety, offering a flat profile for the first five miles before beginning a gradual uphill trajectory that culminates with a 300-foot climb from miles 8-10. From there gravity takes over, with a 980-foot elevation loss over the final 16 miles. Sugarloaf is a smaller (558 marathon finishers in 2018), no-frills affair with a comfortable vibe and post-race food lauded by its runners. At the same time it’s a BQ powerhouse, with over 30% of finishers qualifying for Boston in 2018. And adding to the ambience — for better or worse — is the shotgun blast used to start the race.
Mountains 2 Beach Marathon & Half* – Ojai, CA (May)
Course profile: gentle uphill for 3 miles, gradual descent (920 ft) from miles 4–24 with a last-minute bump in mile 25
For runners, by runners — that’s the vibe at this popular SoCal Boston Qualifier, held annually on Memorial Day weekend. And the formula works, as each year up to 35% of the M2B field qualifies for Boston. Despite changing slightly each year, the course typically starts with nine rolling miles through Ojai at the foot of the Topatopa mountains, followed by a gentle 700-foot descent over 14 miles before finishing with three flat miles along the Ventura beach boardwalk, steps from the Pacific Ocean. And the spectators here may be faster than the runners, as the number of Boston Marathon shirts & jackets seen along the course makes M2B feel like Boston West. If you favor low-frills, high-quality events that finish next to the ocean, M2B is your kind of race. On the other hand, if you prefer screaming crowds and raucous entertainment, you’re likely to be Ojai-ly disappointed.
Utah Valley Marathon* – Wallsburg, UT (Jun)
Course profile: gradual net downhill
Utah is ski country, and with an abundance of accessible peaks and valleys the state also hosts its share of fast, downhill Boston Qualifying races. For those seeking high BQ potential in a summer race, Utah Valley promises “26.2 miles of the pain you enjoy” in the form of a 1,459-foot elevation loss from start (5,963 feet) to finish (4,504 feet). The course follows the Provo River as it winds through Provo Canyon, distracting from the aforepromised pain with seemingly endless views of, well, Utah — Bridal Veil Falls to your left, sheer rock strata to your right and another soaring mountain peak seemingly always just ahead of you. And as an added incentive, all runners who qualify for Boston here receive a Utah Valley Marathon shirt with “Boston Qualifier” printed on front.
Tunnel Marathons – Snoqualmie Pass, WA
Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon (Jun)
Tunnel Vision Marathon (Aug)
Tunnel Light Marathon (Sep)
Course profile: 3 miles of flat, followed by 23 miles of steady downhill
With a smooth downhill grade that doesn’t hammer the quads, the Tunnel Marathons have earned a reputation as popular Boston Qualifiers. All three races utilize the same smooth unpaved course, though road runners needn’t worry: the footing consists mainly of hard-packed gravel on non-technical terrain. Each race begins on Snoqualmie Pass (elevation 3,000 feet) with three flat miles, 2.4 of them inside a damp unlit tunnel — so unless you’re a bat you’ll want to bring a headlamp or flashlight. Once out of the tunnel, the course begins its steady descent of 2,050 feet over the next 23 miles, with sunscreen, insect repellent and other first-aid supplies available at aid stations along the course. Runners interested in the series will want to commit quickly, as each race has a limit of ~700 runners and does sell out. In fact, the Tunnel Marathons sparked such intense demand that two other race series — the Cascade Super Series as well as Jack & Jill’s Downhill Marathon & Half — have followed their lead and now run on essentially the same course.
Summer Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Jul – Sep)
Santa Rosa Marathon* – Santa Rosa, CA (Aug)
Course profile: flat
Conveniently situated an hour north of San Francisco and an hour west of Napa Valley lies the longtime home of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. Santa Rosa’s predominantly flat course (300 feet of elevation gain/loss) features a few modest rolling hills typical of wine country, while its usual morning fog and 6:00am start time help to keep the California sun in check. And despite the city’s close ties to Charlie Brown and friends, its runners don’t race for peanuts: finisher swag in recent years has included a full-zip hooded running jacket, long sleeve tech tee, custom spinner medal and bottle of “Runner’s Red” from DeLoach Vineyards. Not to mention a complimentary tasting in the DeLoach barrel room and two free tastings at the post-race beer festival. So if you do qualify for Boston in Santa Rosa, you’ll have no trouble toasting your accomplishment.
(Thanks to RaceRaves member Angela Knotts, whose Santa Rosa Marathon blog post we referenced)
The following three BQ options offer strategic last-minute timing — depending on Boston’s registration window for that particular year, these could qualify you for two years:
Erie Marathon at Presque Isle – Erie, PA (Sep)
Course profile: flat
The Erie Marathon at Presque Isle is among the last opportunities for runners to qualify for the next year’s Boston Marathon. Erie offers a confluence of the factors that BQ hopefuls crave — a flat, paved course with plenty of shade and moderate late-summer temperatures. Clearly this is a winning combination as over 30% of Erie’s marathon finishers annually qualify for Boston, with that number reaching 46% in 2018. The course takes full advantage of the 13 miles of roads within Presque Isle State Park, circumnavigating the sandy peninsula in two loops. Along the way runners enjoy sweeping views of Lake Erie to the north and Presque Isle Bay to the south, as well as the park’s numerous ponds and inlets. And while its name derives from the winter hardships endured there in the early 1800s, what runner can’t appreciate the irony of passing Misery Bay at mile 22?
Huntsville Marathon* – Woodruff, UT (Sep)
Course profile: consistent downhill
Billed by the organizers as “one of the most pristine marathons” in the state, Huntsville follows the tried-and-true Utah formula of beautiful scenery + a fast downhill course = BQ success. Starting at 8,700 feet on an immediate downward trajectory, the course loses a net 3,800 feet before finishing in Huntsville Town Park. And its start line altitude isn’t all that’s breathtaking, with marathoners enjoying unspoiled views of the surrounding peaks, Ogden Canyon and vibrant autumn hues. Still need a reason to run? Huntsville offers an audacious “Boston qualification or your money back!” guarantee — yes, you read that right — to runners who have never run Boston and who have run within ten minutes of their qualifying time in the past two years. So even if don’t qualify for Boston, at least your wallet will go home happy.
Last Chance BQ.2 Marathon Grand Rapids – Grand Rapids, MI (Sep)
Last Chance BQ.2 Marathon Chicagoland – Geneva, IL (Sep)
Course profile: flat
As the name suggests, the Last Chance BQ.2 Marathons are designed with one goal in mind: to give speedy runners one last shot to qualify for Boston before registration closes. And Grand Rapids’ 2018 qualifying rate of 65% lends credence to the website’s bold claim of “America’s #1 Boston Qualifier”. Held on the final or penultimate qualifying weekend in September, both races may leave you feeling loopy with courses comprising eight (Chicagoland) or six (Grand Rapids) identical loops within local parks. But from the flat, fast courses to the “elite” water bottle tables to the no-nonsense time limit of 4 hours 30 minutes, everything about these races screams “Boston bound”. Plus, a field size capped at 300 runners ensures a low-key, high-quality experience. For runners seeking a similar opportunity in the spring, the Chicagoland course now hosts a Spring Chance BQ.2 Marathon in April, which boasted a whopping 63% BQ rate in its inaugural 2017 campaign.
Fall Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Oct – Dec)
Wineglass Marathon* – Bath, NY (Oct)
Course profile: flat with gentle rolling
Staged in the spectacular Finger Lakes region in the heart of East Coast wine country, Wineglass is one of the nation’s most popular destination marathons. It also happens to be an excellent Boston Qualifier. The flat point-to-point course from Bath to Corning drops ~200 feet as it winds along quiet country roads awash in an explosion of fall colors. Here the locals — both the two-legged and four-legged variety, including goats and horses — turn out to greet and support the runners. Repeat finisher @Lorelei calls the handcrafted glass finisher medal “just way too cool for words” and adds that “the post-race food was fantastic.” Additional finisher rewards include a gender-specific tech tee and small bottle of sparkling wine with wineglass, plus gift certificates compliments of the local businesses so you can shop ‘til your drop — which after 26.2 speedy miles and a celebratory glass (or two) of wine, may not take long.
General registration sells out several months in advance.
Mohawk Hudson River Marathon* – Schenectady, NY (Oct)
Course profile: rolling; net downhill for first 14 miles, 175 ft drop in miles 15–18, flat to the finish
The Mohawk Hudson River Marathon is a small-town race with a big-city appreciation for the key details that runners appreciate. The gently rolling course parallels the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers en route from Schenectady to Albany, with relatively few turns and a downhill section that provides momentum early in the second half. Along the way, on-course signs call out upcoming aid stations to help runners plan their nutritional intake. Cool fall temperatures, vibrant foliage and pleasant distractions like the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge — aka the Twin Bridges — put runners in the right frame of mind to dig deep and put their best foot forward. And this formula is clearly a success, as 26% of the field qualified for Boston in 2016. With the calming waters of two rivers to keep you company, the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon is the ideal venue to go with the flow and chase your BQ dreams.
Steamtown Marathon* – Forest City, PA (Oct)
Course profile: rolling for first 3 miles, gradual descent (900 ft) in miles 4–23, rolling to the finish
With a name that recalls Scranton’s once-prominent role in the railroad industry, it’s fitting that 21% of Steamtown finishers punched their ticket to Boston in 2016. The point-to-point course traverses more than a dozen communities in NE Pennsylvania, dropping 933 feet from its start in Forest City to its finish in Scranton at the Lackawanna County Courthouse Square, under the watchful eye of the historic Electric City sign. Despite the net downhill, a potentially wicked surprise awaits unsuspecting runners in the form of rolling hills in the last three miles. As @ShellyL frames it: “None of the hills would make you blink an eye if it were a training day. However, they come at the end of the race, when your legs can be tired. Respect them, plan for them and run hills on fatigued legs during your training.” Luckily the low-key, easily navigated expo will keep your legs fresh for race day. When it comes to getting its runners to Boston, there’s no “Lackawanna” in Steamtown.
Baystate Marathon* – Lowell, MA (Oct)
Course profile: mostly flat with gentle rolling throughout
If being treated to the Northeast’s changing autumn colors on a course celebrated for its Boston Qualifying potential sounds appealing, then Massachusetts’ other marathon is for you. Starting and finishing at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, Baystate’s two-loop course along the Merrimack River is optimized for speed: mostly flat (the bridges over the river being the only “hills”) but with enough variation to avoid overworking specific muscle groups. Throw in crisp fall temperatures and you have a recipe for BQ success, as the nearly 33% of finishers who qualified in 2018 can attest. And thanks to title sponsor Ashworth Awards, you can trust the finisher medal will look good hanging around your neck and on your wall. From its silky smooth organization to its “beautiful course scenery” to the “amazing” volunteers who “answer all the questions you could possibly have”, Baystate is a proven winnah.
Ventura Marathon* – Ventura, CA (Oct)
Course profile: gentle rolling for 8 miles, gradual descent (950 ft) from mile 9 to the finish
Now part of the Lexus LaceUp Series, Ventura returns with an all-new downhill course that offers Southern California runners a strong autumn BQ option. Reminiscent of May’s speedy Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, the new point-to-point course starts with two rolling loops in Ojai before dropping down the paved Ojai Valley/Ventura River Trail to finish near the Ventura Pier, steps from the Pacific Ocean and the ultimate foot soak. With a net descent of nearly 1,000 feet and pace groups smartly organized to account for tightening BQ standards (i.e. five minutes faster than B.A.A. standards), Ventura is focused on getting you from beach to Boston. At the same time the race doesn’t skimp on the swag, which includes a waffle breakfast, free race photos and a two-day beach party held in conjunction with the marathon. With a fast new course and popular Race Director Josh Spiker still at the helm, Ventura is poised to become SoCal’s BQ fall favorite.
Peak to Creek Marathon – Jonas Ridge, NC (Oct)
Course profile: rolling for 6 miles, fast downhill (2,300ft) for 9 miles, gradual descent (500ft) to the finish
With its seductive blend of speedy and scenic, Peak to Creek has quietly earned a reputation as one of the nation’s premier Boston Qualifying events. Staged in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the largely unpaved course on hard-packed gravel roads owes its speedy BQ potential to a net elevation loss of 2,800 feet (2,300 of those in the first 15 miles), while the vibrant fall colors of Pisgah National Forest and a finish alongside the mountain-fed waters of Wilson Creek showcase its scenic side. That said, don’t be fooled by the route’s net downhill profile, as a couple of uphill stretches in the early miles will make you appreciate all the more the downhills to come. Keep in mind that with great appeal comes great popularity, and Peak to Creek hopefuls should be ready to register on opening day, May 1 — the race has an official cap of 400 participants and sells out quickly, with a wait list available for folks who miss the boat.
Indianapolis Monumental Marathon* – Indianapolis, IN (Nov)
Course profile: flat to rolling with one short uphill in mile 16
The hashtag says it all: #BeMonumental. Celebrating its 12th anniversary in 2019, the Hoosier State’s largest marathon continues to grow in popularity among novice and seasoned runners alike, having sold out in each of the past seven years. As such its percentage of Boston qualifiers may not be as gaudy as some other races, but don’t be fooled — this is a fast, BQ-friendly course. And a new wave start introduced in 2017 have only improved its BQ potential. Starting and finishing at the State Capitol, the race is a 26.2-mile urban tour of Indianapolis with more than 20 aid stations and experienced pace teams ranging from three hours to 6½ hours, the course time limit. Factor in Central Indiana’s normally brisk (i.e. optimal) early November weather, and Indy Monumental may very well answer the question of “Hoosier favorite Boston Qualifier?”
Hamilton Marathon Road2Hope* – Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (Nov)
Course profile: rolling for first 14 miles, 380 ft descent in miles 15–17, flat to the finish
For Canadian runners looking to qualify for North America’s most prestigious marathon, the Hamilton Marathon Road2Hope is an autumn best bet, with 28% of finishers earning their Boston stripes in 2018. The diverse course starts with a rolling first half through scenic Ontario countryside, before joining the Red Hill Valley Pkwy and dropping nearly 400 feet over the next two miles. The unpaved Red Dirt Trail provides a brief reprieve for the legs in mile 19, after which a flat waterfront out-and-back along Lake Ontario leads to the finish line celebration in Confederate Beach Park. Being north of the border, the only potential downside to Road2Hope is its unpredictable November weather — and with that in mind, the ArcelorMittal Dofasco Centre adjacent to the start line provides a heated indoor gathering spot before the race. Searching for a speedy Canadian marathon? The Road2Hope is paved with Boston qualifiers.
VCU Health Richmond Marathon* – Richmond, VA (Nov)
Course profile: rolling with a downhill finish
Boston hopefuls will be thrilled to learn that “America’s Friendliest Marathon” is also one of its fastest. Richmond’s rolling course blends scenery with history, passing through diverse neighborhoods and along the James River in the full flush of fall. And while the fast course with its downhill finish is a perennial BQ favorite, the ultimate compliment may be that Richmond “feels like a much larger event than it really is” (@RunnerMeg) thanks to enthusiastic volunteers and outstanding community support, not to mention several Party Zones and frequent live music. “I have never seen so many locals come out to cheer on a race,” agrees @portlandrunner. And personalized bib numbers mean many of those cheers will be directed at you by name. A custom fleece blanket awaits all finishers, plus a “special gift” for those who realize their BQ potential. If you’re looking for a fall Boston Qualifier that goes the extra mile and has fun doing it, look no further than Richmond.
California International Marathon (CIM)* – Folsom, CA (Dec)
Course profile: net downhill (340 ft) with gentle rolling throughout
If you’re looking for a low-key Boston Qualifier that checks all the boxes, CIM may just be your new BRF. Billed by the organizers as the “Fastest Course in the West,” the net downhill route through the Sacramento suburbs is PR- and BQ-friendly while offering just enough variety (i.e. hills) in the first half to keep the legs guessing. And early December weather in Northern California tends toward ideal. From its readily navigated expo to its cowbell-toting spectators to its celebratory BQ Bell at the finish, CIM is a first-class marathon that doesn’t sacrifice its relaxed, small-town vibe. And though the race typically sells out by September, a limited number of late entries (with no fundraising!) benefit local charities like the American River Parkway Foundation, the UC Davis Children’s Hospital and SRA Kids. All of which prompts three-time CIM finisher and 2016 Boston Qualifer @Angela to conclude that “CIM is the only marathon anyone in the western US really needs. 🙂 “
General registration sells out by Sept.
Rocket City Marathon* – Huntsville, AL (Dec)
Course profile: flat with gentle rolling
Nicknamed “Rocket City” for its affiliation with the aerospace industry, Huntsville is a stellar venue from which to launch your personal BQ mission. The winding course provides a scenic tour of the city’s historical neighborhoods as well as the Botanical Gardens and the US Space and Rocket Center, where runners pass directly under the Space Shuttle Orbiter Pathfinder. Impeccable course markings along with exceptional support ensure your focus remains on running, and every detail from start to finish is smartly choreographed with the runners in mind, as appreciative 50 Stater @RunnerMeg points out: “The start/finish at the Von Braun Center was awesome. [H]aving a place to stay warm was a great perk!” So if you’re eyeing one last run at Boston before the ho-ho-holidays, Rocket City may just give you the boost(er) you need to get over the BQ hump.
Winter Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Jan – Mar)
Chevron Houston Marathon* – Houston, TX (Jan)
Course profile: flat with the occasional urban overpass/underpass
Deep in the heart of Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city hosts one of the country’s most popular winter marathons. Now in its 48th year, the Houston Marathon is “fantastic from start to finish,” says 2017 finisher @dsbland. The point-to-point urban course boasts a flat, fast profile interrupted only by the occasional overpass or underpass, and highlighted by a peaceful, tree-lined mile 9 that borders Rice University. Houston rolls out the red carpet for its runners with efficient start corrals, on-course “Hoopla” stations that feature marching bands, belly dancers and Elvis impersonators, and one of the best post-race breakfasts in the business. Winter temperatures tend to be mild, though keep in mind Texas humidity can still be an issue, even in January. And given that race weekend generates over $50 million in spending impact annually for the Houston economy, your BQ pursuit provides much-needed financial support for recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Town of Celebration Marathon* – Celebration, FL (Jan)
Course profile: the flattest course on this list
What better place to plan your next BQ than one of the nation’s foremost planned communities? Named one of “America’s prettiest neighborhoods” by Forbes, Celebration is a Disney-developed community located a stone’s throw from the Magic Kingdom. “It’s Norman Rockwell in the gator swamps, and the houses are beautiful!” says Mark Sedenquest, founder of RoadTripAmerica.com. As are your chances for a Boston Qualifier on its marathon course, which ranks as the flattest on this list and seems designed specifically to get you to the after party as fast as possible. With street names like Celebration Ave, Celebration Blvd and Celebration Place, the two-loop course gives its runners plenty to smile about, as will the post-race food and massages. And because it’s Central Florida, you can count on mild winter weather. Like eating chocolate in Hershey, we like the karma of chasing BQ glory in a town called Celebration.
Mesa–Phoenix Marathon* – Mesa, AZ (Feb)
Course profile: gradual descent (900 ft) with one uphill in miles 5–6
For an early season Boston Qualifier or an easy excuse to escape the dead of winter, Mesa-Phoenix is tough to beat. The point-to-point course starts below the whitewashed Phoenix sign on Usery Mountain and descends gradually (with one uphill jag in mile 6) through low desert terrain where saguaro cacti, cholla and brittlebush are ubiquitous spectators. With its net elevation loss of 900 feet, Mesa-Phoenix is kinder on the quads than some of the steeper downhill marathons. Nonetheless, the organizers go the extra mile to take care of their finishers with post-race massages, cool towels and soak tubs plus assorted snacks. Don’t underestimate the dry desert air, and do wear a visor to protect against the winter sun — you can replace it with the free visor all Boston Qualifiers receive at the finish to celebrate their accomplishment. All races have sold out in each of the past five years, so you’ll want to register early to avoid being left out in the cold.
Snickers Marathon* – Albany, GA (Mar)
Course profile: flat with gentle rolling
With its chocolate-coated title sponsor, flat fast course and mild winter weather, the Snickers Marathon may just make your sweetest BQ dreams come true, as it did for 26% of finishers in 2018. Striving to be the “Best Small Town Race in America,” the marathon leads its runners on a scenic tour of Albany with its all-American formula of tree-lined residential neighborhoods, grittier commercial/industrial areas and two college campuses. From the start near Ray Charles Plaza to the festive finish in Riverfront Park, ample on-course support and entertainment together with experienced pace teams ensure runners have everything they need every step of the way. And after the race, celebrate in Southern style with free admission to the annual Mardi Gras Street Festival, included with your race entry. Hungry for that elusive BQ? The Snickers Marathon satisfies.
Fun fact: The Snickers bar was marketed under the name “Marathon” in the UK and Ireland until July 1990 — imagine running the “Marathon Marathon”!
Napa Valley Marathon* – Calistoga, CA (Mar)
Course profile: net downhill (270 ft) with gentle rolling, mostly in first half
Don’t let its idyllic location fool you — America’s premier wine country also boasts one of its premier Boston Qualifiers. With its first 23 miles along the famed Silverado Trail, this “superfast” course features a grand total of four turns from its start in Calistoga to its finish in Napa, all in the final four miles. Along the way, the gradual downhill route rolls past mile after mile of “bucolic vineyards” and “soul satisfying scenery,” prompting first-time marathoner @Justin_Liang to admit, “I almost entirely forgot I was running 26.2 miles.” But NVM isn’t just easy on the eyes; the race also scores high marks for production with perks like personal bottle service at select aid stations and top-notch volunteers who give every finisher a shoulder to lean on. “I felt like a VIP,” raves 2016 finisher @rcjacobson. And the region’s mild late-winter weather further adds to the course’s PR potential. For a BQ option that lives up to your “grape” expectations, NVM will give you a “riesling” to rejoice.
Are you ready to chase your BQ dreams?
For any runner who’s ever conquered the 26.2-mile distance, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is the Holy Grail. And there’s never been a better time to do it than right now, with more and more races going the extra mile to help runners realize their potential and achieve their unicorn dreams. No matter what you look for in a Boston qualifying race, RaceRaves can help you choose the best one for your personality and running style. So then what are you waiting for? Commit to the dream, get out the door and start training — that Boston Qualifier isn’t going to run itself!
(Updated April 18, 2019; originally published in two parts on May 25, 2017 and Sept 26, 2017; photo credit Loving Life On The Run)
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Author: Mike Sohaskey
Mike Sohaskey is the co-founder of RaceRaves, the premier online reviews community for runners to share their race experiences and find their next challenge. Mike honed his creative and critical thinking skills as a research scientist, earning a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford. He’s also completed over 100 races — including 50+ marathons and ultras — in locations ranging from Antarctica to Zimbabwe.
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And for more helpful articles, check out our blog!
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