How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon: Tips from a Veteran Runner

Content Producer

More than 36,000 runners from 96 countries ran in the 118th Boston Marathon last month, from elite athletes to committed amateurs. But what does it take to qualify for the world’s oldest marathon? Here are tips from veteran runner Jeanette Dumbrell, whose 2014 run was her fourth time in the Boston race. Dumbrell, 45, is the apparel buyer for Potomac River Running and lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

Picture of Jeanette at 2014 Boston Marathon

Jeanette Dumbrell at 2014 Boston Marathon

HealthCentral: How did you get into running, and when did you first decide to try to qualify for Boston?

Jeanette: I started running at age 29 after losing a close co-worker to lung cancer. Like me, she had been a smoker since age 14. I didn't want that to happen to me and I felt that running would help me quit and reverse the damage. I decided I wanted to qualify for Boston after hearing about the race while training with TNT (Team in Training) for my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) in 2000.  My time in that first race was four hours and 20 minutes. At the time, I needed to hit three hours and 40 minutes to qualify for Boston in the 30 to 34 age group.

HealthCentral: How many tries did it take for you to finally qualify?

Jeanette: The first five marathons I ran were very close in time and done six months apart. My times were 4:20 at MCM 2000; 4:26 Nashville Spring 2001; 4:16 MCM Fall 2001; 4:13 Philly Fall 2001 and 4:05 National Spring 2002. I would hit the wall and end up alternating walking and running after approximately 18 miles or so.

HealthCentral: Did you ever feel like giving up?

Jeanette: After the 4:05 when I still wasn’t even breaking four hours, I decided it just wasn't for me. My brother who was also a new runner—he ran MCM 2000 with me—talked me into entering the lottery for the New York City Marathon. He said you can’t quit until you've at least done New York.  I entered thinking he would get in and I wouldn't and could just go watch him. Or I'd get in and he wouldn't, then I would just not do it. But we both got a spot.

HealthCentral: So what did you do differently in your sixth attempt?

Jeanette: I decided I needed to up my game for this final marathon and that I obviously needed to work much harder than most people in order to run well. I downloaded an advanced training schedule from Runners World, and followed it, training solo. I also started using a recovery protein/carb powder after my runs.

I did find I was able to up my mileage and added speed and tempo runs. I didn't get tired or break down. I didn’t run super high mileage, but it was  more than I had previously. I started to run faster times in training then I had in races.

By the time New York Marathon arrived, I knew I was going to do it. My brother had come over from the U.K. to run and planned to pace me. I just tucked in behind him and he fetched me drinks, paced me, encouraged me, got the spectators to cheer for me and when the going got real tough for the last mile he grabbed my hand and basically dragged me across the line in 3:38. It felt like Olympic gold! It came so hard and I never thought I would do it.

HealthCentral: Do you think you could have done anything differently to qualify more quickly?

Jeanette: Looking back, I think I could have done it quicker if I had trained my brain! That's another new thing I did prepping for NY. I would mentally visualize myself on the course running that time. If my training run was tough, I would use it to mentally prepare. I would tell myself, this is how it's going to be in the 20's—you have to suck it up. I don't like my training to go too smoothly to enable me to get inside my head and work through running in pain. The marathon is too far for your body to run—it's all mental will for that last 10K.

HealthCentral: So you ran Boston for the first time in 2003 and again in 2004 and 2005. Would you say it was easier to qualify the second and third time?

Jeanette: It did get easier—much! The accumulation of training, your body’s adaptation, etc. And ever since New York, I started training with Potomac River Running, and I've continued to obtain faster times thanks to their coaching. I think it makes it easier to train when you have guidance and other motivated runners around you. So I maintained my fitness by continuing to train and run marathons. I kept chipping away at my times—that kept it exciting. I qualified to run in the National Championships at London marathon in 2008, which meant I got to go in the early elite start with the world’s fastest women. It was an opportunity that I could never dream of happening to an ordinary runner like me. I had the entire course to myself with all the crowds cheering. I felt like a rock star. Then the elite men catch up in the early 20's so the motorcade, press trucks, etc. all came past. I was on TV for a good 20 seconds.

HealthCentral: You then took a long break after 2005 and didn’t run Boston again until this year. Why was that?

Jeanette: After London 2008 I battled injuries for the first time, and did not run a marathon for five years. I had gone up to 87 miles in prep for that race. It was probably too much for me. During the five-year break I had been watching the Women's Masters Team results at Boston and wanted to go back and run it as a team. I chose 2014 about two years prior and pitched it to my fellow female master runners to qualify for it and run. At the time I was off the road with an injury and not even running. They all came through tough, decided to do it. The Shamrock Marathon in 2013 was where I qualified. I ran the least mileage I'd run in preparing for a marathon with no speed work. I was still working through some leg issues. The race went well though and I did the minimum I needed to get into Boston, but still had the 20-minute maximum cushion required for first day sign up (3:34). It was the first marathon I felt good from start to finish and didn't suffer!

HealthCentral: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout the years when it comes to reaching sometimes seemingly unattainable goals?

Jeanette: If you want it and believe it, it will happen, but you have to do the work. With running, the sky is the limit, and you get out what you put in. I've also learned I don't need as much mileage as I thought I did and doing some all over strength training is key. I do power yoga regularly, and have a good physical therapist. Together, it keeps me on the road. I also use more gels then I did for my earlier marathons, and that has been a big help.

HealthCentral: What’s your best piece of advice for someone at “the back of the pack” who wants to qualify for Boston?

Jeanette: If you want it, you can get there. If I can, anyone can. I couldn't run down the road when I first started. It doesn't feel good during your run when you're new to it, but it feels good after. That makes you want to do it again, and each run gets a little easier. You just can't quit.


Dumbrell's 2014 Boston Marathon swag