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. In recent 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). Although this move raised the bar for BQ hopefuls, the number of qualified applicants for the 2020 race again exceeded the number of available slots, with 3,161 of 27,288 qualified registrants missing the cut (which in this case was one minute, 39 seconds faster than the minimum qualifying standard). Clearly, Boston’s popularity and allure show no signs of waning.
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 every 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. As such, the best Boston Qualifier is largely a matter of personal preference, and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is the key to success.
Here we profile some of the top Boston Marathon Qualifying races in North America by season:
- Winter Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Jan – Mar)
- Spring Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Apr – Jun)
- Summer Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Jul – Sept)
- Fall Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Oct – Dec)
Most of these events (indicated by a *) include one or more shorter distances for runners of all levels.
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 its most popular winter marathons. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022, the Houston Marathon is “fantastic from start to finish,” says 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 for runners who want to add meaning to their miles, since its inception in 1995 the marathon’s Run for a Reason Program has raised more than $32 million to benefit various charitable organizations.
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 just down the road 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 terrific swag. 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.
Surf City Marathon* – Huntington Beach, CA (Feb)
Course profile: flat oceanside route
For a beachin’ good time with high BQ potential, set your sights on Huntington Beach for California’s Classic Oceanfront Marathon. A favorite warm-weather winter tradition, Surf City is the consummate feel-good marathon for BQ hopefuls, 50 Staters and traveling runners looking to escape the cold back home — case in point one reviewer who raves, “I come from MN to run it every year!” The race lives up to its Pacific Coast promise with 19 fast, flat miles a stone’s throw from the ocean along iconic Highway 1 and the paved beachside bike trail. Finishers earn Surf City’s timeless surfboard medal before celebrating their accomplishment at the post-race festival on one of America’s most beautiful beaches. So leave the snow boots, mittens and ice scrapers at home, and get ready to enjoy what one satisfied runner calls a “perfect winter day in Southern California.”
Mesa 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, the Mesa Marathon 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 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 hat to protect against the winter sun — you can replace it with the free hat all Boston Qualifiers receive at the finish to celebrate their accomplishment. All races have sold out in each of the past eight years, so you’ll want to register early to avoid being left out in the cold.
Ventura Marathon* – Ventura, CA (Feb)
Course profile: gently rolling for 8 miles, gradual descent (950 ft) from mile 8 to the finish
Once a flat out-and-back with little shade, Ventura is making waves with a new February date and a reimagined downhill course that offers Southern California runners another strong BQ option. Reminiscent of May’s speedy Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, the 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 County Fairgrounds, a short hobble 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 Belgian waffle breakfast, free race photos and a post-race beer garden. Throw in SoCal’s famously mild climate, and Ventura is poised to become a West Coast BQ favorite.
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 22% of finishers in 2020. 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 even a college campus. 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 Downtown Albany 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 post-race physical therapists and top-notch volunteers who give every finisher a shoulder to lean on. “I felt like a VIP,” raves 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.
Newport News One City Marathon* – Newport News, VA (Mar)
Course profile: flat with “just the right amount of turns and elevation to keep your legs awake”
Get a head start on spring at this flat, point-to-point Boston Qualifier in the heart of Coastal Virginia, just down the road from Colonial Williamsburg. Newport News boasts a charming mix of urban, suburban and waterfront, and the OCM course smartly showcases the city’s diverse industrial, commercial, residential and even academic neighborhoods with a stretch through Christopher Newport University and along the handsomely manicured Avenue of the Arts. Appropriately, mile 26 leads runners past historic Newport News Shipbuilding — a nod to the city’s vital role in the maritime industry — before ending downtown at the Victory Arch. Finisher @mrsjuliephillips applauds OCM’s “superb organization” that includes “warm buses at the start” and “warm tents at the finish” plus “incredible” volunteers. So start spreading the (Newport) News — for an early-season BQ option, One City is 2 good 2 be 4 gotten.
Spring Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Apr – Jun)
REVEL Race Series* – 4 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 5,300 feet of elevation loss starting at 9,700 feet. Events in Colorado (Rockies) and Southern California (Big Bear) round out a dynamic lineup that’s seen both expansion & contraction in recent years. 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/May)
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. 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 spring. Looking for a race that checks all the BQ boxes? Our advice would be to look closely at Eugene and just do it.
Glass City Marathon* – Toledo, OH (Apr)
Course profile: flat with minor rolling hills
“You’ll run faster in Toledo!” promise the organizers of the Glass City Marathon, a claim that’s tough to dispute — just ask the nearly 33% of GCM finishers who earned a BQ in 2021. Named for the city’s long legacy of glass production, the premier event from the Toledo Roadrunners Club celebrates its 45th year in 2022. The flat, sinuous course starts on the University of Toledo campus before returning to finish on the field at spectator-friendly Glass Bowl Stadium. In between, the route traces a figure eight through Central Toledo and adjacent Ottawa Hills including two stretches through Wildwood Preserve MetroPark. Given its meandering nature, notes @KatieD, BQ hopefuls should bear in mind “it may be a bit difficult to run the tangents due to the turns and the number of runners.” That said, Glass City is an increasingly popular destination for runners looking to shatter their personal best and crack the BQ barrier.
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.
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 one-third 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* – Provo, UT (Jun)
Course profile: gradual net drop of 1,450 ft
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 net 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.
Marquette Marathon* – Marquette, MI (Sept)
Course profile: net downhill (814 feet) with most of the down in miles 11–16
If a small-town marathon boasting (Lake) Superior views sounds like Heaven, well, in Marquette’s case it really is. Held Labor Day weekend, the point-to-point course starts in the small iron mining town of Ishpeming (the Ojibwe word for “heaven”) and follows historic railroad corridors along the Iron Ore Heritage Trail. The wooded trail transitions from asphalt to crushed limestone and back before entering urban Marquette, where it hugs the shore of Lake Superior for much of the second half. Most of the route’s 814 feet of net elevation loss arrives in miles 11–16, after which it flattens out but for one last speed bump in Presque Isle Park (not to be confused with Presque Isle State Park, PA). There, a lakeshore loop in the closing miles offers a scenic distraction en route to the newly reimagined finish line inside the Superior Dome, the world’s largest wooden dome located on the campus of Northern Michigan University.
The following four 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 close to 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 20?
Huntsville Marathon* – Huntsville, 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 you 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 (Apr/Sep)
Course profile: flat
As the name suggests, the Last Chance BQ.2 Marathons are designed with one goal in mind: to give 300 speedy runners one last shot to qualify for Boston before registration closes. And Grand Rapids’ 2020 qualifying rate of nearly 63% 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 strict eligibility requirements, everything about these races screams “Boston bound”. For runners seeking a similar opportunity in the spring, the Chicagoland course also hosts a Spring Chance BQ.2 Marathon in April, where almost half of all finishers qualified for Boston in 2019.
(For another last-chance BQ opportunity, the Chasing the Unicorn Marathon in Washington Crossing, PA likewise hosts a double out-and-back with similar eligibility requirements on the Delaware Canal State Park towpath.)
Sundance to Spearfish Marathon – Beulah, WY (Sep)
Course profile: 3,000 ft drop with one climb in mile 3
Set in the stunningly beautiful Black Hills National Forest, Sundance to Spearfish is the only marathon on this list that starts in one state and finishes in another. And it does so in a hurry, with a net drop of nearly 3,000 feet along its 26.2-mile journey from Beulah, WY to Spearfish, SD. The only significant uphill (“tough but very runnable,” reports @manturuk) arrives early in mile 3; from there, though, the course follows a steady downhill trajectory through Spearfish Canyon as it transitions from packed gravel roads to asphalt on one of the nation’s most scenic byways. Count on the canyon’s signature beauty and soaring limestone palisades to distract from the mounting fatigue in your quads, and be sure to keep an eye out for Bridal Veil Falls in mile 19. Sundance to Spearfish hopefuls take note: this is an intimate race geared toward speedier runners, with a field size limited to 100 runners and a 5-hour cutoff.
Fall Boston Marathon Qualifying races (Oct – Dec)
Marathon P’tit Train du Nord* – Val-David, Québec, Canada (Oct)
Course profile: gradual downhill with gentle rolling
For a spectacular hidden gem north of the border, Marathon P’tit Train du Nord delivers high BQ potential on a backdrop of fiery fall colors. Staged in the Laurentians of Québec, a world-class ski destination, the point-to-point marathon runs entirely on the asphalt and crushed limestone rail trail of the P’tit Train du Nord Linear Park, a one-time Canadian Pacific Railway line. The route makes few turns as it travels from the mountain village of Val-David to the suburban town of Saint-Jérôme, a gradual net downhill of 722 feet that in 2021 propelled 27% of finishers to BQ glory. Along the way, you’re likely to hear plenty of encouragement in both English and French. Well-traveled runner @ldoucet calls Marathon P’tit Train du Nord a “MUST DO,” and her compatriots clearly agree; the young race has quickly earned acclaim with Canadian runners, and both distances sell out in short order.
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,” adding that “the post-race food was fantastic.” Other finisher rewards in recent years include a gender-specific quarter-zip pullover 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.
Mohawk Hudson River Marathon* – Albany, 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 Niskayuna 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 20% of the field qualified for Boston in 2021. 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 17% of Steamtown finishers punched their ticket to Boston in 2019. The point-to-point course traverses more than a dozen communities in NE Pennsylvania, dropping 955 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 29% of finishers who qualified in 2021 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.
Indianapolis Monumental Marathon* – Indianapolis, IN (Oct)
Course profile: flat to rolling with one short uphill in mile 16
The hashtag says it all: #BeMonumental. Now in its 15th year, 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 eight 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. Starting and finishing at the State Capitol, the route offers a 26.2-mile urban & residential tour of Indianapolis highlighted by visits to Monument Circle and Butler University. Along the way, runners enjoy monumental support thanks to more than 20 enthusiastically manned aid stations and experienced pace teams that range from sub-three hours to 6½ hours, the course time limit. Factor in Central Indiana’s 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 24% of finishers earning their Boston stripes in 2019. 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.
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. 🙂 “
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, home to the Space Shuttle Orbiter Pathfinder (which as of Feb 2021 is undergoing a multi-year restoration). 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.
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!
And 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!
(Updated Nov 17, 2021; 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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