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World Marathon Majors

How the Boston Marathon Qualifying System Fails Runners

The cut-off time muddles the meaning of qualifying and jerks runners around, taking away much of what makes the experience great.

The scene is the final stretch of the 2006 Twin Cities marathon. Like thousands of other runners who have dreamed and trained, tried and failed and tried again, Brian Wean is on his third attempt to qualify for Boston. This time, it is finally going to happen.

A Running Times story from that year about Boston qualifiers describes his exultant finish: “He slows down the last 100 meters. He wants to savor this. He wants to remember it. Tears fill Wean’s eyes as he jogs across the finish line. The clock reads 3:08:01. Brian Wean is headed to Boston.”

It’s an inspiring story, describing one of the sport’s truly great moments — but it couldn’t be written today. For the last 10 years, no one has been able to savor that moment.

Had we been describing a runner in this decade, the story would have to read something like this: “With 100 meters to go, Wean sees the clock. He’s well over a minute under the qualifying time, but will that be enough? He musters a final kick and throws himself across the line. The clock reads 3:08:01. Brian Wean may be headed to Boston — we’ll see in a few months.” 

You see, today, qualifying for Boston no longer really means qualifying.

How we got here

Boston, unique among road races, instigated qualifying times in the 1970s to limit the rapidly-growing field. Getting into Boston quickly became a rite of passage for serious amateur runners, achieving a BQ a life milestone. The standards rose and fell several times, but up until the mid-2000s, everyone who qualified and applied was allowed to run. 

By 2008, demand for entry had grown faster than the race could accommodate, so the organizers, reluctant to lower qualifying times, began  cutting-off applications once the pre-determined field size was full. This worked well enough when it took weeks to reach capacity. But when, in 2011, the race filled up within eight hours of opening, leaving thousands of qualifiers out, something had to be done.

Enter the effective, but problematic “rolling registration” solution. This new method takes faster qualifiers first, then admits ever slower finishers until all qualifiers are accepted — or until the race capacity is full. And it has always filled up, creating maximum-capacity fields, but resulting in “cut-off” times that have ranged from 1 to nearly-8 minutes faster than that year’s standards, and excluding between 2 and 9 thousand qualifiers each year.

So the system works?

Technically, administratively, officially, yes.

The current system works on several levels: It gives organizers a way to control the field size regardless of how many qualify. It allows the maximum number of qualified runners while holding firm to a pre-determined field capacity. It rewards those who run faster times, in effect creating a graded qualifying standard (for better or worse, but it is consistent with the concept of using qualifying times).

And it’s proven useful this year, when, due to COVID-19, the field had to be reduced by a third. While it resulted in a huge (7:47) cut-off time and a record 9,215 out of 23,824 qualified applicants turned away, it provided a fair, transparent method for the necessary drastic reduction of runners.

What’s the problem?

The new system works. It’s fair. It’s clear. It’s flexible. What’s wrong here?

Quite a bit.

Problem 1: It steals the meaning and joy of qualifying for runners

It used to be clear what Boston Qualifier meant. And you knew it the moment you crossed the line: You were going to Boston. You had arrived, you were part of the club, they had to let you in. Now, meeting the standard doesn’t come with any guarantee.

To be fair, there’s still a status around achieving the time standards.  Those who responded to a PodiumRunner social media poll unanimously agreed that you can call yourself a “Boston qualifier” if you run the posted time — even if you don’t make the cut-off. But you haven’t really qualified to run the race until you get an email months later. And that sucks.

It’s like finally growing tall enough to ride the roller coaster, but instead of being allowed to board, the attendant makes you wait in a group off to the side to see if the ride fills up with taller kids. 

Or like an NFL team winning the conference championship, and instead of saying, “We’re going to the Super Bowl!” they have to say, “We’re eligible to advance but we’ll have to wait and see if other teams score more than we did to know if we get to play.”

It replaces the joy of that moment of qualifying — “I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier,” Wean said in 2007 — with ambiguity and anxiety that it might not be enough.

Problem 2: It destroys any semblance of a clear goal for runners

Anyone who has tried to qualify for Boston in the past decade knows that constantly looming over the endeavor is the specter of the unknown cut-off time. You don’t know what time to aim for, and that messes with your mind. 

That unknown BQ becomes a nagging little voice, goading you faster, tempting you to let your legs go when it feels easy in the early miles, convincing you to abandon your planned pace in the hope of gaining another minute or two buffer. Heeding that voice ends badly all too often. Even if you pace appropriately, you have no way of knowing if pushing harder in the final mile and finishing 30 seconds, or 10 seconds, or even 1 second faster will sneak them in. BQ “squeaking” stories of today all start with “little did I know” — that those seconds mattered, that I was so close to the cut-off…

But knowing makes a difference: We can find more in the well when pushing for a known number. Research, for example, shows that there are significant surges in finishers just under the hour marks, as the chance to have a mark with 2, 3 or 4 in front of it compels an extra effort.

Studies also show that having a specific goal increases your ability to achieve it, starting with motivating and directing your training toward that goal. The best we can do as we look toward Boston is set a time that “should” cover the spread, such as five minutes under the stated time, a strategy that has worked until this year (although just barely in 2019, when the cutoff was 4:52). But we can never fully commit to this estimated goal, it is continually undermined by the knowledge that we may need to be faster, or we may get by without pushing so hard.

Problem 3: It replaces an individual’s empowering ability to make something happen with administrative process and ambiguity

That ambiguity not only affects training and pacing, but also removes our ability to choose and make something happen. The final act of Boston qualifying today isn’t charging toward a finish, deciding not to give in to fatigue and pain and willing ourselves across the line under the qualifying time — it is waiting to hear if we got lucky with the cut-off. 

Much of life is like this: We do our best and hope that it is enough to get us the job, the raise, the promotion, the boy or the girl… but the final decision is out of our hands. Running, though, is one time in our lives when “All of my dreams are a heartbeat away, and the answers are all up to me,” in the words of Whitney Houston. 

Yes, running a Boston qualifying time is still a personally fulfilling and satisfying accomplishment. It is enough to motivate months of training, a smart race strategy and a gritty finish, accomplishing a goal. But does it then have to become an anxious waiting game, with, worse case, believing you were in and having it taken away?

Problem 4: It gives and takes back

Even Tom Grilk, BAA’s chief executive officer, said in a 2019 interview that the worst situation would be qualifying and then not getting in. “That would have to be yet more frustrating than trying and failing,” Grilk said.

Nick Tierney has done that twice. As a new master in the spring of 2018, he ran 3:14:24, 36 seconds under the 3:15 needed for 40–44 year olds that year. The cut-off time ended up 3:23.

So Tierney came back and ran nearly 9 minutes faster at the Columbus Marathon in September 2019, posting a PR of 3:05:49 which bettered the new 3:10 qualifying time for his age group by a whopping 4:11. “I thought I was money,” Tierney says. Then the 2020 race was canceled, and he again fell short of the cut-off for the 2021 race. 

“Hitting the time both times felt great, then to be squashed when the cut off comes out,” Tierney says. “I can still use my 2019 time so I’ll resubmit… [but] still not sure if I’m in for 2022.”

Such is life, you may say. There are many delights and disappointments along the way. Having to wait and experiencing some ambiguity isn’t going to hurt anyone. But is it necessary?

How to fix it

Grilk’s comments in 2019 came on the cusp of tightening the qualifying standards to reduce the number of qualifiers left out, which had swollen to 7,248 the previous year. It was a good step, but the cut-off system was left in place, and thousands continue to qualify without being able to run.

If we’re going to make qualifying mean qualifying again, the race has to return to accepting all who meet the qualifying times. To keep under the capacity cap, this will have to mean tightening the standards more and, unfortunately, resulting in fewer runners qualifying. But stricter standards won’t be unprecedented: the open times stood at 2:50 for men/ 3:20 for women from 1980 to 1986. We’ve got two 5-minute increments to use before broaching new ground — and at least another 5 to keep pace with the advances in top times since the 80s. 

There will still, of course, be fluctuations in qualifiers and applicants that the race will have to adjust to if they wish to keep a predetermined, full field size. In non-pandemic years, when emergency measures aren’t necessary, number crunchers are able to provide robust statistical analyses on how tightening qualifying times will reduce the numbers of qualifiers. When those are off, it seems the shortfall, or excess, might be made up from the thousands of partner and charity entries Boston also allows, which appear more discretionary.

When asked about using these entries to compensate for the variability of qualifier numbers, BAA Director of Communications Kendra Butters said, via email: “Every year the B.A.A. strives to achieve a field size that is comprised approximately of 80% qualified athletes.” This ratio of non-qualified entries began with the expanded field size of the 100th running in 1996, and now seems to be set in stone. But is it worth altering the nature of qualifying and the experience of thousands of runners to maintain?

Butters affirmed that the B.A.A. thinks the current system is fair and appropriate, but ended by noting, “the B.A.A. annually reviews the Boston Marathon’s registration procedures and qualifying standards.”

Finding a system that fairly and effectively deals with excess demand is complex and fraught with myriad competing pressures. Regardless of the method, someone will be left out and upset. But the current system jerks runners around, changes the experience of qualifying, and confuses the meaning being a Boston Qualifier — which is a large part of the allure of the Boston Marathon. When B.A.A. reviews the procedures and standards next year, let’s hope they consider making qualifying mean qualifying again.

After qualifying for Boston 15 times over the years, PodiumRunner’s editor Jonathan Beverly missed on his last two attempts. He says he’s fine with that — it should be hard — as long as they let him in when he hits the mark again.