Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Thoughts about Boston

The Boston Marathon has always been a sort of holy grail among marathoners. A friend of mine once told me about a gifted athlete, a woman who had qualified to run in the US Olympic Trials Marathon. This put her in the top 200 marathoners in the nation. She apparently frequently gets asked "but have you run Boston?" -- as if being among the 10,000-plus women entered in that race was somehow a more impressive honor.

Still, outside of special competitions like national championships or the Olympics, Boston remains the only major marathon that requires the vast majority of entrants to meet a challenging qualifying standard. To get a BQ -- a Boston Qualifying time -- is an important goal for many avid runners.

So when this year's marathon filled up in just 8 hours, there was panic in the running community. Many talented runners, including some who had far surpassed their qualifying time, were left out of the mix. Had the qualifying standards become too easy? Some blamed lower qualifying standards for women, others blamed the growing number of tickets allocated to corporate sponsors and charities. But something would have to be done. It didn't make sense to have a qualifying standard for a race, and then have the race slots gobbled up like Justin Bieber tickets, going not to the best runners, but to the fastest and most persistent clickers on the online registration site.

What would the Boston Athletic Association (the BAA), who puts on the race each year, do to address the problem? Yesterday, we got our answer. Next year, registration will be in waves. The runners who beat their qualifying time by 20 minutes or more will be allowed to register first. They'll be followed after two days by runners beating their time by 10 minutes, and in another two days by those qualifying by 5 minutes or more. If there are any spots left after the first week, registration will be opened to all qualifiers, and the fastest runners relative to their age and gender group will be selected to fill out the pool. So effectively, you could run a BQ and not really qualify. In fact, if you BQ by just a few seconds, or possibly even by a few minutes, you almost certainly won't get a spot in the field.

The following year, for the 2013 marathon, they'll follow the same procedure, but with 5-minute faster* qualifying times across the board. Here are the 2013 qualifying times:

So, for example, as a 45-year-old in 2012, my qualifying time for the 2012 race will be 3:30. In 2013, that decreases to 3:25, but if I want to be assured of a spot in 2012, I'd better run at least a 3:25 anyways.

As it happens, my goal for the Big Sur Marathon is a 3:30. I didn't sign up for Big Sur with the intention of using it to qualify for Boston. In fact, Big Sur is such a challenging course that it would be a poor decision on my part to try to qualify there. But what if I do qualify at Big Sur, by the skin of my teeth? It would be awfully tempting to run another, easier marathon, to try to get a better time and improve my chances of getting into Boston. If not for the Boston mystique -- and the new registration procedure -- I'd probably just be content with my Big Sur accomplishment and take it easy over the summer. In the wake of the new registration procedure, I've even had fleeting thoughts of registering for another, easier marathon in mid-April to attempt a Boston Qualifier, then just run-walking Big Sur for fun, turning my months of preparation for that race into somewhat of a mockery.

Frustrating, isn't it?

Still, I think the BAA did about as well as could have in responding to this year's registration crisis. Though obviously it would have been better if they had thought of this a year ago, they were somewhat limited in what they could do. The 2012 qualifying standards had already been announced, so they couldn't very well go back on them. This method assures that the best runners, not the best computer-clickers, have the best shot at getting into the race.

Others, like 1968 Boston winner Amby Burfoot, have suggested scrapping the notion of a "BQ" altogether. Instead, he says the BAA should have all interested runners submit their times, then select the field of 20,000 qualifiers based on the best age- and gender-adjusted times.

I don't like this idea because a crucial part of marathon training is having a goal. Your training runs are all based on an eventual goal pace. A well-run marathon involves the discipline to stay at your goal pace even in the early miles of a race, when it would be easy to run faster. How do you train when your goal is "as fast as you can go"?

Where I do see a problem is if the new 2013 times still end up being too slow. What if more than 20,000 people meet these new qualifying times and want to register for the race? Then the BAA says it will select the best of those who don't beat the qualifying times by 5 minutes or more. That sounds an awful lot like Burfoot's plan. To avoid, this, the BAA should re-evaluate its qualifying standard each year, to make sure that the official BQ times actually guarantee you a slot in the race.

Oh, and if you're interested in my workout today, there's a summary below. I'm feeling much better, thank you very much!

Today I was scheduled to do a 5-mile recovery run, but since I missed Tuesday's 7-mile recovery + strides, I decided to add strides to today's run, for 8 total miles:

*Technically the 2013 qualifying times are 5:59 faster, because the BAA in the past has extended a 59-second grace period to runners: a 3:30:59 is treated as if it was a 3:30:00.


  1. It would be nice to see some numbers on how many -20, -10 and -5 folks there are. Without that data, I would say if you want to know for sure that you will get into Boston, then run BQ -10.

    I qualified last fall by using :13 of the :59 grace. If I wanted to go in 2012 I probably couldn't due to faster applicants. Que sera sera.

    3 hour Ridge to Bridge anyone?

  2. I sincerely hope someone at BAA has made that calculation. It really would be pathetic if they hadn't. Just based on the fact that the 2009 race took weeks to close out, my hunch is that qualifying by 5 minutes would be plenty. Plus, if I'm reading their website correctly, once you're in that group it's first-come-first served, so you can help your cause by registering promptly.

  3. Good analysis, Dave. I'm hoping that because I bested my qualifying time by more than ten minutes (3:30 BQ and I ran 3:19 at R2B) I feel I have a chance to get in for 2012. That's unless there are tens of thousands of those who ran 20 min better than their BQ times. -Chad

  4. veru sensible analysis of a 'touchy' subject- thanks!

  5. Chad and Matt (based on Matt's FB comment), sounds like you're in if you want it. Mainers, I'm positive you're in if you want it!

    I, on the other hand, would be thrilled to run that 3:30 at Big Sur. Technically, that would qualify me, but realistically, I wouldn't have a chance in hell. Depending on how I do and how quick I recover, if I think I have a shot at running a 3:25, I might consider running Grandma's in Duluth to try to qualify.

  6. i'm 'in' by 35 minutes :-) not for me yet though, I'll do it one day