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Bettering Boston: Qualifying Standards Get Tighter

Starting next year, the world’s oldest annual marathon gets harder to enter.

Starting next year, the world’s oldest annual marathon gets harder to enter.

Professional golf has the Masters, baseball has the World Series and football’s got the Super Bowl. For competitive runners, there’s one race that represents the pinnacle of the sport: the Boston Marathon.

The world’s oldest annual marathon, Boston has always been unlike any other race. Held annually on the third Monday of April (Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts), the undulating course is point-to-point and finishes amongst a raucous gathering of spectators in downtown Boston’s Copley Square. And, perhaps most definitively, Boston is a petty exclusive as far as big city marathons go.

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Not everyone can run the famed 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston. Guaranteed-entry charity runners and a handful of celebrities aside, Boston’s 25,000+ runner field is made up of mostly qualified runners. Where other big city marathons such as New York and Chicago have fields nearing 45,000 participants and selection is mostly lottery-based, Boston is capped at approximately 27,000. Of the 27,000 available bibs, some 20,000 are doled out by merit.

For next year’s marathon, the race’s governing body, the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), made it even more difficult for runners aspiring for one of those 20,000 spots to gain entry into the race. In a universal move across all 11 age groups for both genders, the B.A.A. took all previous standards and reduced them uniformly by five minutes.

Questions expectedly arose: Why was this done? And where did the five minutes come from?

According to B.A.A. spokesman Marc Davis, the reasons for the changes are twofold.

“Part one of redefining entry was to implement a new registration process, allowing the fastest qualifiers to enter first in an orderly process,” he says. Davis was referring to the chaos that ensued after the 2011 edition of the race sold out in a blazing eight hours, making just entering the event a race of who can click their mouse the fastest. Runners with much faster qualifying times were excluded from the marathon due to the simple fact that they were slower to sign up for the race, some seven months before the starter’s pistol were to fire. Message boards such as the one that lives on were full of resentment from impacted runners. They wanted to know how the governing body of this cherished race could allow such a thing to happen. Something had to be done about the entry process, and so the B.A.A. acted quickly.

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Davis contends that the second reason for the changes was to overhaul a qualification system that hadn’t been looked at in 22 years. “Over that time, there have been many more marathons, [more] marathoners running, and many more qualifying performances,” Davis says. “Because the Boston field size is limited and we have reached the maximum number of qualifiers that we can safely accommodate while still preserving the Boston experience, the B.A.A. began examining altering the qualifying times.”

For months following the 2011 race, Davis says the B.A.A. did a lot of research examining the problem. They used their own group of in-house experts and also consulted with statisticians and mathematicians before deciding to make qualifying times more stringent by five minutes across all age groups and for both genders.

For the most part, the change in next year’s qualifying standards have been well received from affected runners. Seven-time Boston veteran Keith Straw, who likes to wear a tutu during his run from Hopkinton to Boylston Street, is very pleased with the B.A.A.’s move. “I love them,” he says of the stricter standards. Straw, a resident of Malvern, Pennsylvania, thinks the tightening of the standards is a reflection of the healthy state of distance running in the U.S. “With easy access to training plans, high quality running shoes and gear, and an abundance of great clubs to join, folks have gotten faster and faster,” he says. “Boston’s new standard is a sign of a better nation of athletes.”

Straw believes the tougher standards won’t put the race too far out of reach for most aspiring runners. “If you are fortunate enough to have the God-given ability to move on two feet, then you can get to Boston with enough determination,” he contends. “And that qualifying standard is your badge of honor for being that determined.”

Sharon Sundin, a 3:30 marathoner, agrees with Straw. “I believe the new standards are completely fair,” she says. “In lieu of the situation with registration in 2010 for the 2011 marathon, this needed to be addressed. I have no problem with the B.A.A. tightening the standards.”

Robin Jefferis, who is on USA Track & Field’s Long Distance Running Committee says the women’s standards had been too easy in the past. “I use to qualify during my Ironmans,” she admits. “I am glad the qualifying standards have been tightened. Men’s qualifying times are still much tougher than women.”

But with more runners taking on the marathon worldwide, and assuming that the overall quality of runners is increasing, how long will it be before the new standards seem too easy? Does the B.A.A. have any plans to revisit the standards again any time soon?

“If the fields get faster, then we will look at changing the standards at that time,” explains Davis. “Until then, we have no concrete plans to improve the qualifying marks at this time other than what we have planned for 2013.”


About The Author:

Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first running book, RUN SIMPLE, will be released in June.