Boston Marathon vs New York Marathon Part 1 which is tougher?

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NYCvsBostonMy friend Christopher and I have had this conversation many times, and it occasionally gets quite heated 🙂 Which is the ultimate US marathon experience Boston or New York? (for those of you who scream neither! Hey perks of blogging, feel free to counter with your own post :)) This year I ran both, so I wanted to take a moment to compare the two and perhaps settle this matter once and for all (if that’s possible). In Part 1 I start by trying to figure out which course is tougher. (if you want to know which is the ultimate race experience check out part 2)

Let’s talk hills…

If I look at the hill profile for each race from my Strava account, it’s very interesting to compare the two races.

New York

NYCHillProfile

Boston
Screenshot_20170430-162846

New York has a higher overall elevation gain: 305 meters vs Boston 166 meters.

Each race has very little that you would truly call flat. You have rolling hills of various difficulty through most of the race.

Each race has three nasty hills in the second half of the race:

  • Boston has the famous Newton hills, 3 solid climbs back to back that start at km 28 (mile 17.5) and end at km 34 (mile 21).
  • New York has the Queensboro bridge at km 25, the Willis bridge at km 33 and the climb to Central Park from km 37 to km 39.

Many runners point out that Boston is a net downhill course, and therefore easier, but I’d like to point out that many first time Boston runners actually regret not training for the downhill. There is a little dip under an overpass just before you reach Beacon street which is a short steep downhill that draws many an expletive from the lips of the runners. Because the Newton hills are so close together many runners either tighten up on the uphill and cannot loosen up and find a downhill stride again, or they run the early downhills in Boston too hard and pay for it later.  Of course, many first time New York runners will tell you the biggest mistake they made was going to fast down the Verrazano bridge at the start and in so doing wrecked their quads and were unable to leverage the downhills later in the race.

What about the weather…

let’s compare the two year over year

YEAR Boston weather Boston Wind NYC weather New York Wind
2008 53-53F Clear W 2 MPH (tailwind) 44-50F Overcast NE 13 MPH (headwind)
2009 47F-51F Parly Cloudy ESE 9-16 MPH (slight headwind) 53-59F Overcast N 14 MPH (slight headwind)
2010 49-55F Partly Cloudy ENE 2-5 MPH (headwind) 46-51F Scattered clouds WNW 12 MPH (slight tailwind)
2011 46-55F Cloudy WSW 16-20 MPH (tailwind) 51-54F Cloudy SW 9 MPH (tailwind)
2012 65-87F Clear WSW 10-12 MPH (tailwind) Cancelled
2013 54-56F Clear E 3MPH (headwind) 51-53F Cloudy N 17 MPH (Slight headwind)
2014 61-62F Clear WSW 2-3 MPH (tailwind) 45-48F Cloudy N 18 MPH (slight headwind)
2015 46-46F Overcast and rain Calm 59-64F Cloudy S 6 MPH (slight tailwind)
2016 61-71F Clear WSW 2-3 MPH (tailwind) 57-59F Scattered clouds NW 15 MPH (slight tailwind)
2017 70-73F Clear WSW 1-3 MPH (tailwind) 55-62F Cloudy ESE 3 MPH (slight headwind)
2018 35-50F Rain NE 14 MPH (headwind) 48-52F Sunny N 4 MPH (slight headwind)

New York has more consistent good race temperatures than Boston year over year.  Boston has a few years where extreme weather would affect your race.

The wind is an interesting factor. Boston is a point to point race that goes pretty much the same direction the entire race, so a tailwind or a headwind can affect the entire race.  Most years the winds in Boston seem fairly negligeable, with only 3 of the last 10 races reaching winds over 5 MPH. Two of those years were tailwinds, one was a headwind. In New York you go North for two thirds of the course and then turn South for the last third of the race. Conditions in New York have generally been noticeably windier than Boston, but the wind switches between headwind and tailwind (in the table above I indicated headwind if it was a headwind for the longer portion of the course).

Out of curiosity I did a little research on the affect of winds on a runner.

“All else being equal, the drag on a runner created by air resistance varies according to the square of the runner’s velocity through the air. That means that the performance hit from a 10 mph headwind is four times greater than that from a 5 mph wind.

A tailwind helps runners, but not quite as much as a headwind hurts them. One estimate says that, when running at a six minute-per-mile pace, a 10 mph tailwind would increase one’s performance by about 6 seconds per mile, while the equivalent headwind (six-minute miles into a 10 mph wind) slows one down by about 12 seconds per mile. That’s a possible swing of almost eight minutes over the course of a marathon.”

All in all it looks like you have better odds of cooler temperatures in New York, but you are less likely to be battling a headwind in Boston.

Which race posts faster times…

We can’t compare average finish times for the everyday runner because the average runner entering Boston has a faster pace than the average runner entering New York. So the best we can do is to compare the times set by the elite runners.

Men’s Race

The Boston Course record of 2:03:02 was set in 2011 by Geoffrey Mutai when it was 46-55F cloudy with a 16-20 Tailwind (near ideal race conditions!)

The New York Course record of 2:05:06 was also set in 2011 by Geoffrey Mutai when it was 51-54F cloudy with a 9 MPH tailwind for the first two thirds of the race (wow he was having an amazing year!)

 

Year Boston Winner Time New York Winner Time Difference Fastest race
2008 Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot 2:07:45 Marílson Gomes dos Santos 2:08:43 0:58 Boston
2009 Deriba Merga 2:08:42 Meb Keflezighi 2:09:15 0:33 Boston
2010 Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot 2:05:52 Gebregziabher Gebremariam 2:08:14 2:22 Boston
2011 Geoffrey Mutai 2:03:02 Geoffrey Mutai 2:05:06 2:04 Boston
2012 Wesley Korir 2:12:40 CANCELLED
2013 Lelisa Desisa Benti 2:10:22 Geoffrey Mutai 2:08:24 1:58 New York
2014 Meb Keflezighi 2:08:37 Wilson Kipsang 2:10:59 1:22 Boston
2015 Lelisa Desisa Benti 2:09:17 Stanley Biwott 2:10:34 1:17 Boston
2016 Lemi Berhanu Hayle 2:12:45 Ghirmay Ghebreslassie 2:07:51 4:54 New York
2017 Geoffrey Kirui 2:09:37 Geoffrey Kamworor 2:10:53 1:16 Boston
2018 Yuri Kawauchi 2:15:58 Lelissa Desisa 2:05:59 9:59 New York

Women’s race

The Boston course record of 2:19:59 was set in 2014 when it was 61-62F with 2-3 MPH tailwind.
The New york course record of 2:22:31 was set in 2003 when it was 57-66F with 5-6 MPH headwind
Year Boston Winner Time New York Winner Time Difference Fastest race
2008 Dire Tune 2:25:25 Paula Radcliffe 2:23:56 1:29 New York
2009 Salina Kosgei 2:32:16 Derartu Tulu 2:28:52 3:24 New York
2010 Teyba Erkesso 2:26:11 Edna Kiplagat 2:28:20 2:09 Boston
2011 Caroline Kilel 2:22:36 Firehiwot Dado 2:23:15 1:21 Boston
2012 Sharon Cherop 2:31:50 CANCELLED
2013 Rita Jeptoo 2:26:25 Priscah Jeptoo 2:25:07 1:18 New York
2014 Rita Jeptoo (Disqualified) 2:18:57 Mary Keitany 2:25:07
2015 Bizunesh Deba 2:19:59 Mary Keitany 2:24:25 4:26 Boston
2016 Caroline Rotich 2:24:55 Mary Keitany 2:24:26 0:29 New York
2017 Atsede Baysa 2:29:19 Shalane Flanagan 2:26:53 2:26 New York
2018 Desiree Linden 2:39:54 Mary Keitany 2:22:48 17:06 New York

The majority of the time the men’s times are faster in Boston than in New York. The women’s times are more evenly split across the two races. But the course records are both faster in Boston than New York.

Setting world records

You may or may not be aware, that Boston race times do not qualify for world records. There are two reasons for this:

  • The elevation change exceeds the IAAF limits.
  • It falls outside the rule requiring the separation between start and finish to be no more than 50 percent of the race distance. As a result runners can benefit unreasonably from tailwinds (which clearly occurred the year Mutai set the Boston course record)

Finding your stride

Based on the numbers, New York looks like the tougher course, but, I was recently reading the book 26 Marathons by Meb Keflezighi.  In his book he states “People often ask me which marathon course is harder, New York City or Boston. Now that I’ve done both several times I can confidently answer “Boston”. He points out that it’s easier to settle into your pace in New York than Boston.  That long downhill with crowds cheering you at the start of Boston has caused many a runner to go out too fast and pay for it later when they hit the Newton Hills.  The Newton Hills don’t seem that brutal when considered on their own, but hit them at mile 17 and you discover where Heartbreak Hill got its name, especially if you went a little fast in the first half.

Boston is a the more technically challenging course. You can run a great race in Boston, but many experienced runners have been caught up in the first half and paid the price later in the race. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you “don’t go out too fast” your rested legs, the downhill, the crowds and the excitement of running your first Boston result make it tough to not to go out fast.

So after all that, which course is tougher?

From the elevation change and elite race results, you would logically conclude that the New York marathon is the tougher course.

Then you have an experienced runner like Meb confidently saying Boston is tougher.  Now keep in mind Meb has a different race experience from most of us. His job is to place. He has to react to the other runners around him, he does not get to choose his pace for most of the race. The rest of us are just out to run our own race. Aside from dodging runners who were in the wrong corral for the first two miles (a problem you avoid in Boston since everyone except the charity runners are assigned a corral based on a verified qualifying time), you are in control of our own pace and destiny.  So *if* you stick to your game plan you can run a great race in Boston.

Let’s not discount the weather. We all tend to obsessively check the forecast leading up to race day. The coldest temp recorded in New York is 44F, the hottest recorded is 64F.  The coldest temp recorded in Boston is 35F and the hottest recorded is 87F. You run a much higher risk of temperature affecting your run in Boston (they had over 2527 runners were treated by medical staff, most of them for hypothermia in the now infamous 2018 race).

So I’d say your odds of running a good race are better in New York. Let’s be clear though, both of these courses will chew you up and spit you out if you don’t do your hill training, and finishing either is of course a huge accomplishment!

Now which race is more exciting to run…. that’s in part 2!

Here the rest of my running related posts and race reports.

One response to this post.

  1. […] is the ultimate US marathon experience Boston or New York?” In Part 1 I asked the question which is tougher now I ask the more controversial question which is more […]

    Reply

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