On Monday The Boston Marathon filled up in an unprecedented 8+ hours. 21,000 slots snapped up. Inexplicably, that was and is the only chance that many qualified runners will have to enter this, the oldest and most prestigious of marathons. Many people are trying to paint this positively as a win for the popularity of running. I disagree. This event simply showed the overwhelming weakness of the current qualifying and registration system. Here are a few of my thoughts on how to improve the race. Full disclosure: I qualified and ran Boston in 2009 but did not attempt to register this year as my qualification time had expired.
1) Make a waiting list. This seems almost painfully obvious. Boston is not only incredibly popular but an event that requires an extraordinary amount of commitment and luck to even attempt. Between now and April, tons of people will drop out, for various reasons. And the BAA will say, “OK, great. Thanks for your money, now we have a smaller race.” This is absurd.
As soon as registration fills, people trying to get in should be notified that they have been put on a waiting list. Credit cards would not be charged until they move up the list into an actual racing spot. This one move alone would probably get a few thousand more people into the race.
2) Raise the women’s qualifying standards. Boston is one of the few races that require qualifying standards in order to register. They are far from impossible but stringent nonetheless. You have to be a solid runner and train well to meet them. Right now men aged 18-34 have to run 3:10 to qualify. Women of the same age only have to run 3:40 to qualify. Women athletics continue to improve and as running becomes ever more popular surely even better runners will continue to emerge. Elite women are typically only 15-20 minutes behind men. The BAA should move the women’s standards up at least 10 minutes to 3:30. This would certainly lessen the pool of runners able to qualify and therefore lessen the burden on registration. Will many complain that this makes it harder to qualify? Of course. But guess what, it’s a marathon. It’s supposed to be hard.
3) Lessen charity slots and put a lottery in for those slots. It’s easy to forget with all the well meaning charities out there that a marathon is (and should be) about running. Right now thousands of slots at Boston go to charities. You have to raise a significant amount of money but get to avoid the bothersome task of running a qualifying time. Rich people and big corporations can just pay out of pocket and boom: one less spot for a legitimate hard working runner. Charity runners should be limited, perhaps to about 1,ooo or 2,000 total. Whoever want to do the run as charity should be entered in a lottery. If you’re picked you are in. Charity is great but actual qualified runners should not be penalized for not being a part of an official charity.
I would estimate that each of these changes would allow 2-3,000 more runners a year to enter Boston, at least in the short term. Will people still be left out? Sure, but at least the system will be fairer and make more sense.