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The Times, They Are A Changin’: New Boston Marathon Qualifying Times Take Effect

New qualifying standards for the Boston Marathon are in effect for the 2013 race.

New qualifying standards for the Boston Marathon are in effect for the 2013 race.

It took Catherine Young 15 attempts over 18 years to earn her first trip to the Boston Marathon. Now, with new, faster qualification standards going into effect for the 117th edition of the race in 2013, it will take at least one more year until she can attempt the road to Boston again.

After running her debut marathon in 4:44 in 2004, Young, a mother of two from Allen, Texas, whittled her PR down to 3:44:34 at the 2009 St. George Marathon in St. George, Utah.

Since 2007, Young, 45, has qualified for the Boston Marathon on three occasions under qualifying times had remained the same since 2003. Her results in Boston were good — and 3:53 in 2008, 3:58 in 2010, 4:16 in 2011 — but running from Hopkinton back to Copley Square was only part of the thrill. It was the journey to get there that mattered most.

“It was the chase,” she says. “It’s the regular-person elite race. You’re toeing the line with the greatest regular runners in the world.”

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Now Young admits she’s going to have to up her game to get back. After the Boston Marathon experienced a stampede sell-out of its more than 26,000 spots in October of 2010 (a record-breaking eight hours and three minutes), it brought such an outcry from the running population—many of whom were shut out of the 115th edition of the race because they simply didn’t get to a computer fast enough to register—that something had to be done.

The Boston Athletic Association, the managing body for the race, examined the qualifying standards—something it does every year, says Jack Fleming, the B.A.A.’s director of marketing and communications—and for the first time since 1980, made its standards more stringent. Times are now five minutes, 59 seconds faster across all age divisions, as the 59-second buffer zone for each age group was also eliminated. So whereas a runner in the men’s 18-34 age group used to have a 3:10:59 qualifying time, a 3:05:00 effort is now required to make the grade.

But even if that same runner can find a way to run a 3:04:59 qualifier that doesn’t mean he’ll get into the race.

While these changes taking effect for the 2013 race were announced in early 2011, one change that was implemented immediately for the 2012 race was a “rolling admission” process, which allowed for runners with a faster time under their standard (in increments of 20, 10, and five minutes faster) to register first. It was designed, Fleming says, to retain the legacy of the marathon for those who run—not type—the fastest.

“The course is not going to be changing to accommodate a whole lot more people, so we really need to rely upon some efficiencies and technological innovations,” he says.

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But the updated standards have meant that many, including Young, who ran 3:57:16 at the Colorado Marathon last May, find themselves in limbo with a time that would have been under the old standard—her time falls under the ages 45-49 previous standard of 4:00:59, but isn’t under the new standard of 3:55:00.

Young admits she was a disappointed when she found out she wouldn’t have the standard. And for those other women she trains with in her running group, especially the young mothers who haven’t yet gone, it is disheartening.

“It almost seems impossible. An extra five minutes? How am I going to do that?” Young says. “But people don’t have the right to run Boston; you have to earn the right to run Boston.”

But to many runners, including Young, that’s what’s inspiring about it.

“We’re out there doing our hill work, out there doing our speed work. We’re out there doing all these things because it doesn’t matter that it’s harder,” she says. “We’re just going to go ahead and do it.”

Luke Humphrey, a 2:14 marathoner, coach, and author of Hansons Marathon Method, says a Boston qualifier is one of the most common goals for the runners who contact him, and that if you think you’ve done everything you can or that dropping an additional 5:59 or more is out of the question, maybe it’s time for a professional opinion.

“I think a lot of them are more willing to take a serious look at what they’re actually doing and deciding if that’s enough,” says Humphrey in regard to seeking a coach’s help. “If not, then they’re a lot more open to doing things that they might have been resistant to in the past.”

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Humphrey says that training volume is the first thing a marathoner should examine. While you may have been content with weekly mileage hovering between 30 and 40 miles, by boosting that amount above 50, cutting five more minutes may be easier than you think. And it’s not just adding miles to those “quality” days; better, Humphrey says, is adding a few miles to the easy days, too.

Interest in the world’s oldest annual marathon is as high as ever, regardless of qualification standards. Six minutes faster may be challenging, but it remains in keeping with the Boston Marathon tradition of exclusivity. After all, Young says, humans adapt. “I’m not afraid to work for it and try to earn it again,” she says. “What’s five more minutes?”

This piece appeared in the September 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.

Top Boston Qualifying Races

Looking to qualify for the iconic Boston Marathon? Try your luck at one of these fast races, where thousands of runners each year earn their sought-after Boston qualifying performance.

California International Marathon

Sacramento, Calif.

Descending almost 400 feet from start to finish, the California International Marathon churns out hundreds of Boston qualifying performances each year. “If you play it smart, it’s definitely a negative split course,” says Mary Coordt, head coach of the Sacramento Running Association. “You just can’t get too greedy at the start.”

New York City Marathon

New York

The course isn’t particularly flat, but the New York City Marathon is one of the biggest marathons in the world, drawing thousands of spectators to line the streets of the city to push you to a Boston qualifying performance.

Marine Corps Marathon

Arlington, Va./Washington D.C.

With just a few rollers over the first few miles, the Marine Corps Marathon course is a smooth sail through many of Washington D.C.’s landmarks, such as the Jefferson Memorial and Georgetown University.

Chicago Marathon


Starting at an elevation of 600 feet above sea level and ending at 601 feet, the Chicago Marathon course is nearly pancake flat, shaken only by a few freeway overpasses. The lakefront course through the windy-city has produced more than 3,773 Boston-qualifying runners in the last three years. “A lot of runners come to Chicago to qualify because of the fast, flat course and because it’s a quality run race year after year,” says Megan Sullivan, training program manager of the Chicago Area Runners Association. “The spectators are unreal and there are typically more than one million of them lining the course. The atmosphere definitely gives runners that extra push they need.”

Philadelphia Marathon


A top contender for churning out the most Boston qualifiers year after year, the Philadelphia Marathon boasts a flat, picturesque course lined with thousands of spectators and mild weather.

Baystate Marathon

Lowell, Ma.

One of the few remaining non-profit, club-supported races, the Baystate Marathon had 25 percent of last year’s participants qualify for Boston.  Never taking on more than 30 feet of elevation at a time, the course is nearly a straight out and back along the Merrimak River.

Twin Cities Marathon

St. Paul, Minn.

Winding around four lakes and across both sides of the Mississippi River, The Twin Cities Marathon is a flat and fast course for the first 20 miles—just make sure to pace yourself for the 100 foot climb between miles 21 and 23.

St. George Marathon

St. George, Utah

Year after year the St. George Marathon yields hundreds of Boston qualifying performances because of the city’s mild weather and downhill course. Beginning at 5,240 feet above sea level and ending at 2,680 feet, the course is a shoe-in for seasoned downhill runners.