Marathon Duel: Boston vs. London

by Paul Thompson

The last two weekends have witnessed two of the world’s greatest marathons – Boston and London. (They are two of the five making up the World Marathon Majors.) Coming so close together makes it hard to do both in any one year. So faced with a choice, which should you do? Here is my assessment based on having spectated live and run both races (London in 2006 and 2007, Boston in 2008).

Running past the Houses of Parliament in the 2006 London Marathon.

Speed of Course
If you are looking for a PR/PB then London wins hands down. Both races descend in the opening few miles but while London is then pancake flat bar the odd bump Boston hits a long gradient in Wellesley (16 miles) and the Newton Hills (17-21 miles), culminating in Heartbreak Hill. The upshot is that London’s men’s race is typically won in around 2:05, the Boston men’s winner typically breasts the tape in around 2:08 – unless of course there is a following wind. (In 2011 when Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02 – the fastest ever but ineligible for WR status according to IAAF rules owing to the net loss in elevation and the wind assist possibility from it being an A to B course).

Verdict: London

Geoffrey Mutai (in green) won the 2011 Boston Marathon,setting a new course record.

Caroline Kilel, winner of the 2011 Boston Marathon, dropped out at mile 25.

London can be relied upon for almost perfect conditions – for runners if not spectators. It’s often overcast with light winds and temperatures in the 50s (F) and 60s. In 2006, my marathon debut in London, we had a fine drizzle throughout. In 2007 temperatures peaked at 70F at the end. In Boston, however, the weather is a lottery. While ideal when I ran in 2008, the 2012 race saw the needle nudging 70F at the start and high 80s at the end. These furnace like conditions took their toll with many dropping out or running Personal Worsts. Many of the world’s best DNF. And this was not the hottest Boston.

Verdict: London

The Boston Marathon has heaps of history compared with its London counterpart. Boston is the world’s oldest city marathon dating back to 1887. Most runners also need to qualify – times matter more than fancy dress or charity when it comes to gaining entry. While London is run on the streets of a city that was once a Roman settlement its marathon is a relative new kid on the bloc, having started out in 1981 to emulate the New York City Marathon.

Verdict: Boston

The London Marathon takes in the London Eye.

The London course takes in some of the world’s most iconic sites – such as the Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the London Eye, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace – and runs along the River Thames. Boston has only some quaint New England churches and the Prudential Tower. (Some might add the Wellesley girls as one of the attractions!) London wins by 26.2 miles on this metric.

Verdict – London

Poster from the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Quality and Depth of Field
London might be won in a faster time and boast more runners (almost 40,000 compared with 27,000) Boston’s qualification system means that just to stand on the start line, let alone cross the tape, is an achievement. Boston is geared more towards the serious runner, London the fundraiser be they Elvis, Batman, or the Pantomime Horse. Never mind the quantity, feel the quality that Boston has to offer.

Verdict: Boston

Heading to meet family and friends after the London Marathon.

Organization and Logistics
The Boston organizers have had time to hone their craft and it shows with impeccable organization. Unfortunately, having to bus 27,000 out to Hopkinton, a small village some 25 miles out of the city centre, makes logistics a stretch. For the 10 a.m. start you have to get on a bus from Boston Common before dawn and then spend almost two hours waiting in a field for the race to start.

London on the other hand you can turn up 30 minutes beforehand. Similarly post race is a breeze. Barely 2 minutes after crossing the finish line in my London races I had my kit bag, medal and goodie bag (the open sided trucks work far better than Boston’s school buses for baggage handing) and after 5 minutes I was telling war stories to family and friends outside Horse Guard’s Parade.

Verdict: London

The London marathon is the UK’s largest marathon, run on the streets of one of the world’s great capital cities, and watched live by hundreds of thousands. It’s more than a marathon. It’s an all singing, all dancing charity extravaganza unequalled in any sport anywhere anytime.

Verdict: London

Supporters in Boston cheering on runners at the finish,

London has a huge and enthusiastic crowd but Boston’s crowd know their marathon and their runners. It’s also a part of the Boston’s history. Train on the course in March and you will find home made refeshment stations set up along the route. At Wellesley College – Hilary Clinton’s old school – you feel like you are the Beatles setting foot for the first time in the USA: hundreds of screaming young women. On the 600m finishing down Boylston Street you are running through a cauldron of noise. In 1982 Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar battled it out in an epic race that entered marathon folklore as the ‘Duel in the Sun’: the crowd was awesome.

Verdict: Boston

Overall Verdict – London edges this. Judge for yourself by either running, watching kerbside or checking out the TV coverage for Boston and London.

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