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New Boston Marathon Rules Kill the Underdog Story

Boston Marathon 2019's new rules mean we may never see an unknown runner race into history, and that’s a shame for the sport.

When unheralded Bill Rodgers, wearing a hand-lettered shirt and painters’ gloves, ran the race of his life at the 1975 Boston Marathon, lowered his PR by 10 minutes and beat the field in an American Record time, he fulfilled one of the deepest fantasies of every runner who has ever toed a marathon start line. We delight in stories of the unknown underdog coming out of nowhere to take down the pre-race favorites. And they still happen in today’s far more professional context: consider Belay Tilahun, who crossed the line first at the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon last week despite wearing bib #1163 and starting in the open coral behind the invited elites.

But this year, the Boston Marathon is doing away with underdogs in the men’s field. (It already did this to women 15 years ago—we’ll get into that). The BAA quietly revealed this month that instead of a mass start, it will send off a select group of elite men 2 minutes before the first wave of plebes, and only those in the elite field are eligible for prize money. Up to now, the elite men started at the same time as the mass start, so all men from the larger field were awards-eligible (at least the 8,000 or so in the first wave).

It’s a seemingly minor change, one that will economically affect only a few sub-elites who might have a breakthrough day. But it ensures that an anonymous runner will never stand on the podium, putting to rest the notion that we’re all competing together in the same race—a notion that is arguably one of the greatest aspects of our sport. Now, if you’re not one of the few pre-selected to be in the first start, you are, quite explicitly, running in a different competition.

This is how it often works in other sports. If you manage to podium at Ironman Kona, for instance, but were not racing in the elite wave, you are not eligible for prize money. The same for Spartan obstacle course races. Every heat in a track meet is its own race: you don’t win the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games if you run faster in the earlier citizen’s race. For team sports, of course, you’re either competing on the team or watching from the stands.

But egalitarianism, even in the biggest of events, has always been what makes road running special. Nothing prevents us from quietly training our butts off, showing up and taking on the world. Most of us will never compete for a medal at a major event, or even break the top 100, but we could.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that the women’s race at Boston (as at many other major marathons) has been split into two fields for more than a decade, since they instituted an elite start that departs 28 minutes ahead of the first mass start. No one thought about it much until last year’s downpour decimated the elite field and three women in the mass start ran times that would have put them into the top 15 places had they started in the earlier pack. The non-elite-field women weren’t, however, eligible for prize money.

photo: 101 Degrees West

Explaining why, then-BAA communications director, T. K. Skenderian, told BuzzFeed, “These are viewed as two separate competitions.” The uproar that followed demonstrated, however, that the public did not see them as separate races but as one Boston Marathon—eventually leading to the BAA awarding the prize money to the “non-elite” runners in May.

Given different start times for the women’s elite, however, the BAA was right that the two fields are running in different competitions. A marathon isn’t a time trial but a head-to-head race. Awards are based on “gun time”—the clock starts when the gun goes off and your time is recorded when you cross the finish. For women in the mass field to truly “break into” the top 15 they would have to run 28 minutes faster than those who started earlier, pass them, and cross the finish line before them. You can’t give the laurel wreath to the runner who crosses the line first, then take it away and give it to someone with a faster time who finishes 25 minutes later.

Since the elite men take off at the same gun as the 8,000 runners in the first mass wave, there is no logistical hurdle that requires separate fields. And last year’s controversy over the women’s award eligibility makes this year’s decision to continue down the path of separating fields seem more puzzling.

This year’s change does clean up the troubling disparity between men and women in rules and opportunity. The BAA acknowledged this as one of the reasons for the new rules. “It also provides clarity for prize money eligible runners: in both the Men’s and the Women’s competition, only Elite Start entrants are eligible,” they wrote in an email.

They wanted to make clear, however, that this wasn’t the whole reason behind the new rules, leading instead with how the changes will enhance the professional race. “The new elite start structure ensures head-to-head competition amongst the 60–70 top athletes in each elite field,” they wrote.

When pressed to explain how limiting the field would enhance the head-to-head competition among men, Meg Reilly, Director of Communications, said, “We would like the athletes to know their competition. An elite start identifies the 60–70 runners who have the top previous performances and puts them against each other—and makes clear who is racing for prize money and who is not. And yes, this change would mean the men’s race atmosphere is equal to the women’s race: both will allow our elite athletes to race amongst the fastest in the field.”

To runners, that statement smacks of prejudice—quite literally “pre-judging” who is already the fastest in the field. Don’t we run the race to determine that? Do we need to protect the top runners from someone they didn’t expect who might have a breakthrough performance? Will an unknown who goes out fast in the first few miles confuse the favorites and alter their strategy—and if so, isn’t that part of the marathon challenge?

Consider this: If the current sort had been applied in the 1975 Boston, Bill Rodgers would not have been on the elite start line, having a prior best of 2:19:34. I asked him what he thought about it, and he said, “I think I still would have won the race.” It would have at least been close, as Bill finished 1 minute 59 seconds ahead of Steve Hoag in second. In the current system, however, he would be ineligible for the crown and the prize money, since he was running in a different competitive field.

photo: 101 Degrees West

More important than any possible race scenario, however, is that making clear who the competition is before the gun goes off feels like limiting the field to those who have already been approved by the club. Fighting against athletic clubs—with racial, ethnic, gender and class divisions—was part of the impetus that led to the modern road racing movement. “The ‘running boom’ of the 1970’s and 1980’s, which still brings out huge marathon fields [today], can be traced back to the [African American-led] New York Pioneer Club’s democratic approach to athletics,” wrote Pamela Cooper in The American Marathon. “The Pioneers accepted all who wanted to join, and the RRCA [Road Runners Club of America] continued this policy, seeking strength in numbers as well as bringing the marathon to increasing numbers of people.”

Road racing is by nature egalitarian. It opened competition to the masses and took it out of closed stadiums to the city streets. You don’t have to be part of a club or team to participate—everyone who pays their entry fee and shows up on race morning has equal rights and the same chance to win.

I applaud the desire to make the rules and the odds equal for men and women. I also recognize the logistical hurdles the BAA is working to address. “While I understand the desire to have everyone on the same start line, with 30,000 participants that simply isn’t possible for us,” Reilly wrote. The BAA has the unenviable task of trying to balance the needs of wide array of runners with the requirements of a televised, professional sport.

So what’s the solution here? Perhaps they should hold separate men and women’s races: all the women could start in the morning and men later in the day. Or they could hold the men and women’s races on separate days. Whatever it is, the solution should preserve the hope that some run-loving nobody, on a stellar day, could take the Boston Marathon.

Personal addendum:

As someone who was, let’s call it, “ungifted” in other sports (I sucked), I quickly fell in love with running, where we are all treated as varsity and get to start every minute of every day. We’re never relegated to the bench, assigned to the C team that plays on a different day, or, worst, cut from the roster altogether.

That love for running’s egalitarian ethos never waned. Even as a runner, I am not, nor ever was, an elite who would be among the invited few at any start. So I cherish the fact that when I ran my marathon PR, it was also good for 56th place in the 1998 USA Marathon Championship. I lined up for the same start and was in the same race with Keith Brantly that rainy Pittsburgh morning, even if a half hour behind him at the end. Given how far I’d come in the marathon to be running that fast that day, that half hour didn’t feel insurmountable. The distance between me and my heroes wasn’t an unbridgeable gap to a different competitive field, but an open path to inspire me and work towards.

One of my goals as editor of PodiumRunner is to bridge the gap between elite runners and the rest of us. To show that those on the podium train similarly (if faster and longer), face the same struggles and fears, and can serve as models to help us improve. Unlike other sports where you make it or you don’t—where you’re good enough to play or sit on the couch and watch—every road race is a continuum from first to last. We all have the same opportunity to determine our place in that continuum, and we take joy in our progress along it.

Separating the elite field from the masses expands that gap, quite literally. The possibility of an unknown runner coming out of nowhere and surprising the field is more than a fantasy, it is an essential characteristic of the sport, and I mourn its loss.

Unlike the 28 minute divide between women’s fields, the new 2-minute-later start time for the masses still allows hope of a male upset. For the sake of the youth I coach, and all of us dreamers, I’d love to see someone pull a Bill Rodgers, close that 2 minute gap and blow up the system. We’re a revolutionary sport, let’s stay that way.