Who stole my Boston marathon spot?
In the past, if a runner could meet or beat the Boston Marathon’s stringent qualifying times, they were guaranteed a spot in the prestigious race. In 2008, however, the race sold out for the first time ever and in 2009 race registration closed in late January. Still, this gave many late fall and winter marathoners a chance to qualify. To the surprise of many (including myself!), the 2010 race filled up unprecedentedly early – November 13th, 2009. Runners hoping to qualify in the Philadelphia, California International, Phoenix, and Houston marathons would have to wait until 2011 to run Boston. Luckily, once you qualify for the beantown race, your time is usually valid for 2 years. However, not being able to participate in the 2010 race as planned has put a damper on many runner’s training schedules and made races such as the “Last Chance for Boston” race all but obsolete.
For a race that has been going strong since 1896, why have the last two years seen such a dramatic increase in interest? The field has remained capped at 25,000 and according to Runner’s World the number of charity runners hasn’t increased beyond the usual 5%. Much of this spike in popularity can be seen over the last 10 years or so. Marathons have moved out of the realm of “extreme sports” to something that the everyman can do. Many runners have the mindset – “If Oprah and P-Diddy can tackle the marathon, so can I!” Combined with the current rise in unemployment (and more time to train), 26.2 mile races have never been more crowded.
So what are Boston-aspiring runners to do? Is it fair that runners who beat the qualifying time be shut out? I think there are three possible solutions: expand the field, eliminate charity runners, or make the qualifying standards more difficult. For logistical reasons, making the race bigger might pose problems (crowded roads, limited amounts of water, etc). And more importantly, wouldn’t making the country’s most prestigious road race larger take away some of its elusiveness? Another option, which I’m in favor of, would be to eliminate charity runners. I understand that these individuals are raising copious amounts of cash for good causes, but can’t they do that for another race? Without their guaranteed charity entry, many would not be able to run the rigorous time standards in order to BQ. Furthermore, many charity runners are looking to enjoy the experience, rather than actually race 26.2 miles. I think there is a place for charity runners in marathoning, but I don’t think it’s at the Boston Marathon.
Ultimately, I think the answer to Boston’s crowding lies in making the qualifying standards harder. Over the years, qualifying standards have changed many times – in the 1980’s men under age 35 had to run 2:50 or faster in order to gain entry to the marathon. As of 2010, that same age group now only needs to run 3:10. In my opinion, the standards for guys are generally tougher. For the 18-34 age-group, men need to run 3:10 while the women’s time cut-off is 3:40. A 30 minute spread seems a bit excessive to me. I propose lowering the women’s 18-34 qualifying standard to 3:30. Sure, it might be tougher, but it’s still doable for many regular (albeit dedicated) runners. And 3:30 doesn’t seem so bad when you consider the automatic entry time required for my age group in the NYC marathon – 3:23! That’s 17 minutes faster than the current BQ standard. I’d like to run Boston again someday and I realize it might not be as easy as the first time I did it (especially if BQ times are lowered!), but the race is prestigious for a reason. It’s not something that can or should be achieved easily. Boston is reserved for the cream of the running crop and I hope it stays that way.