What You Need To Know About the 2021 Boston Marathon

The lawn chairs are set up and the signs are prepped. Ready, set, race!

Photo by Jeff Porter/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/Getty Images

The Basics

History: It all began in 1896, when the first U.S. Olympic team manager, John Graham, traced a route for the Boston Marathon 24.5 miles from Ashland into the city. In 1924, the course length was extended to 26.2 miles, pushing the starting line back to Hopkinton.

Who: With a smaller field size this year due to COVID precautions, the Boston Athletic Association expects some 20,000 athletes. The event has been known to draw about 500,000 spectators.

When and Where: The race begins on Monday, October 11, at 8 a.m., with professional athletes concluding around 11 a.m. and final runners crossing the finish line around 5:30 p.m.

Parking: Watching in Boston? Your best bet is to take the T. Outside the city, look for parking in Ashland, West Natick, or just before Wellesley.

Road closures: Beacon Street from Cleveland Circle to Audubon Circle from 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Audubon Circle through Kenmore Square and down Comm. Ave., Hereford Street, and Boylston Street from morning to 7 p.m. Expect closures in the ’burbs, too.

How To Be a Good Spectator

Keep an eye on the clock. This October, Boston Marathon events are starting an hour earlier than in previous years. That means if you set out your lawn chair at 10 a.m. in 2019 to watch the first wave of runners speed by, you’ll want to get there at 9 a.m. for the same experience this year.

Don’t confuse the runners. It might be tempting to shout out little white lies like “One more mile to go!” as the runners fly by. But Boston Marathon legend Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the race, in 1967, says encouragement like that—especially when competitors are much farther than a mile out—can confuse and discourage. Instead, stick to fun, general cheers like “You’ve got this!” or “Imagine how great that beer will taste at the finish!” she says. And if you’re planning on holding up a sign, Tracksmith community manager and elite runner Louis Serafini suggests writing something that will make the athletes laugh. “It can be a nice distraction from the race,” he says.

Have a plan in place. If you’re watching this year to support a loved one, find time to sit down and prepare a plan of action with them in advance. If your runner needs you to pass food or drink to them on the route, for example, avoid crowded town centers and mile markers and pick a place where he or she can easily spot you, Serafini says: “I’ve always found the part of Natick just before Wellesley to be slightly more quiet spots on the course.”

Where to Watch

0 miles
The Starting Line

You can’t beat the anticipation and excitement where it all begins in Hopkinton. Just be prepared to crane your neck and jostle with the crowd for a good view—it can get nearly as crowded here as it does on Boylston Street.

6 miles
The Framingham Train Depot

In 1907, the marathon was interrupted by a train switching tracks across the course, halting all but the leading six runners that day. Today, you can watch the athletes complete the first leg of their journey here, then hop on an inbound train to Boston just in time to get in on the action at the finish line in Copley Square.

13 miles
The Wellesley Scream Tunnel

Pack some throat lozenges—after a few hours here, you’ll need them. The halfway point of the race winds through Wellesley College, where a venerable crowd of screaming students gather to enthusiastically cheer on the athletes as they reach the milestone.

20 miles
Heartbreak Hill

On this infamous uphill stretch, crowds can sometimes build up to three people deep, especially at the summit just before Boston College. But it’s here that runners need your cheers and support the most as they navigate the grueling make-or-break climb approaching the city.

26 miles
Boylston Street

If you can brave the mob scene, this is the most memorable place to set up. Once the runners turn the corner at Hereford Street and the finish line comes into view, you’ll witness the whole gamut of emotions—from joy and relief to superhuman determination. Best of all? There are dozens of bars and restaurants you can pop in and out of between waves of runners.

3 Competitors to Watch

The Favorite: Molly Huddle
The two-time Olympian and Rhode Islander is ranked among the top 50 female road runners in the world. Look for her upcoming book, How She Did It, in March 2022.

The Local: Chaz Davis
This Grafton native holds the T12 American marathon record for visually impaired athletes. He’s a top contender for one of the BAA’s newly launched Para Athletics Divisions, which offer prize money to competitors with impairments.

The Dark Horse: Jake Robertson
The twin brother to New Zealand Olympian Zane Robertson, Jake is “tough as old boots and hungry for a big win,” Switzer says. The brothers began training in Kenya when they were 17, and since Jake missed Olympic selections in New Zealand this year, he’s overdue for a big sweep.

Where to Celebrate

The good news is there’s plenty of partying to be had before and after the big event: From Friday to Sunday, don’t miss the Boston Marathon Fan Fest in Copley Square, featuring two live music stages, fitness classes, and chats with former champions. The Boston Marathon Expo in Hynes Convention Center, meanwhile, offers plenty of official Adidas-brand merch to scoop up. Come race day, secure a lane at Kings Dining & Entertainment on Dalton Street, where you can score specials on bowling and pizza while you watch a livestream of the action. Runners and beer lovers alike can party at Tracksmith Trackhouse with a special beer from local brand Night Shift Brewing, as well as non-alcoholic craft brews from Athletic Brewing Co. Hungry for a full meal? Join the BAA’s Mile 27 Post-Race Celebration at Back Bay Social right on Boylston Street, or OAK Long Bar + Kitchen for marathon-themed food and drink specials and plenty of revelry.