Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Need for Tougher Boston Marathon Qualifying Standards

The title of this post should have a question mark at the end as I have not fully decided if there really is a need or not.  However, one thing is certain: one must be quick on the registration trigger to be one of the 20,000+ runners traversing the storied road from Hopkinton to Boston.

When I first qualified for Boston in 2005, it was the middle of January.  Hoping to get a slightly better time, I waited until the middle of March when I lowered my time to a 3:07 at the Little Rock Marathon.  I immediately came home and registered.  However, even though that was just five weeks before Boston that year, I don't think I was the last one in.

That is not the case anymore.

Not too many chaps make me look short.  Thanks, Chris!
In 2008, I was just about the last one registered as I waited for a career change and a move across the country to get settled in before I finally submitted my registration.  As I was planning a Boston double that day (running the real marathon and then heading back out to the start to do it again with the race director, Dave McGillivray) I had a few things that needed to be planned in order to do so.  That planning almost kept me from registering which chocked me as it was only near the beginning of February and I had almost missed my window.  Fortunately, I had a wonderful day.

For this year's Boston, registration closed even earlier. Sometime in mid-January the gates closed and hundreds of runners who were shooting for a late January race as their final BQ were shut out.

Now, on November 13th, 2009, Boston closed its doors for the 2010 race, a full two months faster than it ever had before. What exactly is going on?

There is no doubting that the average times for marathon finishers has gotten decidedly slower in the past 20 years. In 1980 the average marathon time was about three and a half hours for men and about four hours for women. Today, the averages are 4:16 for men and 4:43 for women.  This increase in the average time is obviously because so many more marathoners are simply out their running marathons.  However, this rise in marathon runners (first timers and multiple marathoners) has been steadily increasing for over a decade. Why has Boston been filling up so fast in just the past four or five years?

The startline of the 1979 Boston Marathon.
Boston has always been a destination marathon.  A goal race.  When the numbers were getting too "large" a few decades ago, time limits were placed to try and stem the tide of runners.  It had the opposite effect as runners now wanted to be part of an exclusive club and numbers soared.


Over time the qualifying standards have gotten a little softer to where they are now presently. So, have they gotten so soft that the race can close almost as soon as it opens when just a few years ago it took months and months to hit that plateau? If so, should the qualifying standards be changed?  Should they reflect the changing times and be made more challenging?

A great deal of work and thought have gone into the current standards. Revisions have been proposed often and in many differing ways including age-graded tables created by the World Masters Association (WMA), which use world-record times and "age factors" to calculate "equivalent" times for all race distances for every age between 8 and 100.  Regardless, it seems the time has come that something should be done.

If Boston is to remain the race that we all aspire to participate in as runners, shouldn't it be a little more difficult to get into then it currently is?  Perhaps, after all the talk of the death of American long-distance running because of "walk-runners" and charity runners, Americans are once again getting faster.  We have seen the rise of Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein (and to a lesser extent Brian Sell, which is in no way meant to put Sell down) who, while not having won any major races outright, have become good enough that they have to be entered into serious discussions as potential winners.

And maybe the rest of America is following suit. The numbers, especially the most recent ones involving the quick filling of the Boston marathon, seem to be pointing that way. If that is the case, why not make it just that much more difficult to make it to the place where it all starts?

19 comments:

ilovesteaks said...

I think when they started letting in charity runners, they might have started looking at profitability as a motivating factor to change things up. I feel as if they'll eventually move towards the way of how the NYC Marathon is being operated where they have a hybrid system of qualifying times and the lottery. But then again who knows, maybe the BAA wants to continue to try and keep their field small and manageable... can you cram 40,000+ people into Hopkinton?

mas2teach said...

This is a tough call. I qualified for Boston for the first time, and was planning to run the 2010 race. I procrastinated on registering because I figured I had time. Whoops! I was wrong.

I think that *some* of the qualifying times might be too soft. For example, I'm a 35-39 female, and the qualifying time is 3:45. The time for males is 3:15. I don't believe that women are a full half hour slower than men. (I frequently finish runs faster than my husband.) I think that a 3:15 for 35-39 males is fair. But a 3:45 for females is soft--too easy. I say this realizing that should the standards be changed, I will have to work harder to qualify. That's fine by me. (PR to date: 3:41, shooting for a 3:35 next week at Philly Marathon)

Runners' World ran an article on this issue last year (March 2009?) discussing the qualifying standards and how they are softer for females and older age groups. At the time, the article upset me b/c I had just qualified and didn't want to tarnish my accomplishment. Now that I think about it, Burfoot might be right.

But, I'm not 100% convinced that the standards should be changed. Thanks for this interesting post.

Runner NYC said...

Is the race filling more quickly because there are more people qualifying or because more charity slots and invitations are being made available?

Dane said...

steaks and runner,

I can address both of you in one comment here. Supposedly, Boston caps its charity runners at about 20% of the field. As such, perhaps that has nothing to do with the filling up so fast. And maybe they have no desire to change their present model because it is a lot easier and nicer for a race to be filled early so there are no straggling entries and issues arising late in the game with last minute registrants.


Mas2teach,
You make some interesting points that I definitely agree with. I think that the 30 minute difference between times for the open males and open females is almost insulting to females.

Reese said...

I think it's fine the way it is right now. While it filled up faster, people still had more than a month to register. Pikes Peak, Houston, and St. Georges fill up much faster. Also, for those who may not know, you can register, and if you later run a faster time, they will accept that time up until March.

1L said...

I think using the WAVA standards is a good idea. It will still preclude some runners who may have qualified now, but it does drop the standards for runners (at least women) up to the age of 50 and I think the times are valid. I have seen my own times decline faster over the last couple of years than in the past as I approach 50 so there is some validity in the WAVA tables (IMHO).

I think this year might be an anomaly as the weather at the fall races was exceptional and I think that this contributed to the numbers of qualifiers at those races. It will even itself out.

Better question - still coming to Atlanta next week?

Jim said...

I speak as a 51 year old man with a PR of 4:12, far far away from a BQ time of 3:35 in my age/gender group.

Even though I'm not ever going to Boston, as far as I can tell, I still think that the race organizers should do whatever it takes to ensure that the race doesn't get any bigger. It should remain a cherished goal, not just another big run.

I imagine the logistics are tremendous, so having two races (one for elites, one for everyone with a lottery) would probably be a non-starter. Maybe they could do the same thing with wave starts and make being in the "first wave" the premium group, but again, it would stretch out the race and be that much more work for the organizers.

Perhaps the solution is to set a numerical goal and then have people submit qualifying times, and then just go down the list and draw a line under the fastest (say) 1000 male 50-54 times submitted.

jpnairn said...

I'm in favor of tightening the standards, and reducing the percentage of charity runners. I'm one of those runners on the cusp, who can just barely qualify now, so it's not easy for me to say this.
Filling up six months early is not just a matter of not having any "last minute" registrations. Not filling up as fast as Pike's Peak is not a standard to which I want other marathons to aspire.
Boston loosened the standards a few years back, and now it's time to tighten them again. WAVA sounds fair, but I really don't know enough to comment on that.

Ron Marinucci said...

I've run Boston twice. My first qualifying time wasn't anything special, due more, I think, to the increasing laxness of the standards than it being an exceptional time. I ran Boston, loved it, but, in order for it to be "Boston," I wanted to run it again, with a much faster qualifying time. I did and the second Boston was much more meaningful. I think Boston should have the tighter qualifying times of the past and not become "just another marathon," albeit one with a grand tradition.

TFmariokart said...

As a first-time Boston qualifier, as of two weeks ago, I can understand the need to tighten registration. Boston is one of the World Major Marathons and, as such, should strictly control entry. I registered the day after my marathon (on Nov. 8) and am waiting for my registration to be accepted. I'm hoping that everything is still good-to-go for me! :)

I qualified with a 3:06:09 as a 28 y/o male.

Arcane said...

This is tough. I don't mind the charity runners. As you said, they are limited in their numbers and because of the mystique of Boston, charity runners have to raise significanly more than they do at other marathons. It's a good windfall for the charities. I think the standards should remain the same, but people would only be allowed to use a particular qualifier for one Boston. Also, if they did this, they could maybe also push the qualifying window to 24 months or so to spread out when people apply.

Dane said...

Reese,

The races you mentioned may fill up faster but they do not have qualifying standards.

1l,

WAVA may be the way to go.

Yes, the schedule says I will be in ATL next week.

Jim,

It should indeed remain a cherished goal. I like your way of stating that.

JP,

it is noble for you to have the feelings you do when you are on the cusp like that. for someone like myself who is well under the standard, it is easy to say : "Yeah, they should be faster" .

ron,

We agree on much. I think that perhaps if you do not requalify for Boston AT Boston, perhaps you should have to overcome another hurdle?

Mariokart,

I hope you get in!

Arcane,

Well with the race closing so quick, it is hard to know which qualifier should count for what year!

weedyruns said...

Boston is a special goal/event for most runners. As a non-qualifier for Boston I'm torn. If it was easy, it wouldn't be special. For me personally, I see a 10 minute bump into the Men's 55-59 bracket as my best, and maybe only chance to qualify. That's my #1 goal for next year. If the standards change...I'd be disappointed for a few minutes, and then just set my sights on other goals.

Mike said...

As much as I'd hate to see that standard get tougher (I'm REALLY close, but I stink at the marathon), I think that's the only answer. I do know I'd really hate to see a lottery.

If they don't do something, [I'd imagine] it'll have a rather drastic effect on the late marathons. Fewer entries, slower overall times...

momof4 said...

I know that having charity runners for the BOSTON is very important. The amount of money raised each year is substantial.

BUT....I do feel there are too many people 'buying' their way into BOSTON. I think it brings down the integrity of the race itself. I don't think it's too much to ask to have the charity runners also qualify.

I have qualified and am looking forward to my first BOSTON 2010. The standards are a little easier for women. I'm sure we will step up to the challenge if they are raised!

The Tall One said...

Dane -

I forgot about that picture. I still have it on my work computer. We were still looking good at mile 19 back in 2008!

I was reading about those (ilovesteaks) who thought the BAA included charity runners to make more money. Un-qualified entries cost slightly more than a regular qualified entry, but I don't think the BAA has increased the #'s of charity runners to raise more money for themselves. The BAA's entry fee has always been significantly cheaper than Chicago's and New York's fees. If the BAA wanted raise a lot more money, they could charge double what they do, I'm sure they would get it ... because let's face it. This is Boston. There is no first come first serve registration (Chicago) or lottery (New York). There never will be.

I imagine the BAA has charity runners because some people dream about running the marathon but will never qualify. Sad, but true. These same people, however, raise $3000 for a charity and get the opportunity to run un-qulified. For many of these people it's a very special occasion. The BAA recently announced that they are hoping to clear $100million in amounts raised for charity. That's amazing. For those who question the amounts of runners, it's always been 20% of the field, and they have to start in the back (unless they have also qualified - keep in mind there are many charity runners who run BQ's). Usually, it's behind runners who are much slower than they are.

As to whether or not to make the standards tougher. I can see the arguments why they should and should not. More people are running marathons, which means more people will hit the current qualifier. If the BQ is kept at the same percentage performance standard of the national running community, then the times would have to decrease; the same way USATF recently reduced the marathon OTQ from 2:22 to 2:19, because there were so many qualifiers in 2007. I'm sure it's something the BAA will consider, it really doesn't matter to me what they do.

Before people comment though, I recommend they read these two articles:

http://dailyviews.runnersworld.com/2009/04/boston-too-easy.html

http://www.runnersworld.com/cda/microsite/article/0,8029,s6-239-506-0-13111-0,00.html

They should shed some light.

This past year people unexpectedly got shut out in January for the 2009 race. In September they got on the ball and registered immediately when the 2010 race opened up. That's why it filled up even quicker. Next year the race will fill up even sooner due to this year's events. All I can say to anyone who wants to register is good luck qualifying and good luck getting in. Apparently there will now be two challenges to getting to the famous Hopkinton starting line!

Elizabeth said...

From a logistical standpoint, the BAA should be happy that the race is filling sooner. They have no reason to change anything, although they should post their current registration numbers so people know that they need to get on the ball or risk missing registration.

I like the current standards. I believe that anyone who trains hard enough can BQ, and you don't need to have THAT much natural talent. I think that if they made them like 5-10 minutes faster, then they would be unattainable to people who train really, really hard but lack natural ability.

Lila said...

There should be a certain number of entries every year for people who have run 20 marathons but who are turtles and are never going to make the qualifying standard.

They are runners too, and no slower than most of wave 2 at Boston. I say this as an habitual Boston qualifier who simply feels that the Mecca of running should be seen by every marathoner at some point in their life :0)

Lila said...

My big beef with how the race is filling up is that end of year races are going to suffer as many will want to secure a time early in the year now. That's fine if you BQ at Boston every time, but for the people who work a long year to get the time they need in a fall marathon...well it will be too late for registration.

BTW I've seen the historical Boston qualifying times - they were way tougher at one stage and if they go back to the 2:50 to qualify etc. then they certainly won't fill up at all...