A Journey in Teaching
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How to fix Boston.

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.

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7 Responses to “How to fix Boston.”

  1. I agree that the process needs improvement but disagree with all three of your fixes:

    1. The BAA knows full well that not everyone who signs up will run. However, they have determined how many actually runners the infrastructure can support, have a solid idea of what the Net Number of runners will actually be (Entered – can not run = Net) and so take enough entry to get to the correct net number of runners.

    2. So keep more women out and replace them with men is your solution? Please, when women are more than 55% of the Field then perhaps we should worry about this one. Or maybe, just go back to the good old days – no women?

    3. The charities do a great deal of good for a great number of people. They are part of the give back to the communities which support The Marathon and continue to be a relatively small part of the entries. We as “legitimate” runners should be thrill at what our sport and the BAA is doing for the common good.

    Not one of your ideas would allow one more runner to run. The number is fixed; the system today can only support so many runners. Should the process be revised so everyone has an equal chance at one of the sport – that is a topic for serious discussion.

    Just like a popular sporting events, concerts or Broadway shows the good one sell out – Fast. So too did the best marathon in the world – The Marathon.

  2. There is a problem with charity runners – they should still be required to meet the qualifying times. Since there are many qualified runners that don’t have entry right now, everyone accepted by a charity organization should have to meet that qualifying time. It’s only fair to people that have earned their way to Boston.

  3. I think that they should lower the standards for both men and women. I’m sure that records have been lowered since the current standards were introduced. If you want to be elite, make it hard to get in. Think of the Dipsea race, but with 20 times the numbers. And no letters.

    And I like your suggestion of a waiting list, but I’m not how effective it will be. I envision it as parallel to a college’s acceptance of new applicants every year. The school accepts a thousand kids, wait lists another 100 and has a class enrollment of 500-600. Nevertheless, the waiting list does offer hope and joy to a select few. Let me tell you.

    What about doing a staggered enrollment, only allowing so many people to sign up initially and then allowing more people in that qualify in races closer to Boston. I’d bet that there are a lot of people out there who have signed up for a race in the upcoming months with the hopes of dropping under the BQ line but now may feel discouraged or that they’ve wasted their time and money.

    I like Ben’s idea about charity runners having to qualify as well. That would make the race more competitive and may result in the allowance of more applicants, as the city wouldn’t have to wait as long to begin to clear the course, thus saving them money (theoretically. Or MA could just implement a special tax on running shoes, cause really there aren’t many other taxes in the state.)

  4. If charity runners should be required to meet the qualifying times, then it stands to reason that qualifying runners should be required to meet the fundraising goals.

    My fundraising goal is $5K. What’s yours? 😉

  5. I think the earlier suggestion to require charity entrants to have qualifying times strikes a good balance between the ‘good’ that charities provide and rewarding those that have put in the work to run the marathon. However, I also think that this should be restricted to <10% of the overall field. If the remaining 90% of runners were given the opportunity to also participate with the same designated charities (without the onerous $3250 minimum), I am sure that a huge amount of additional money could be raised.

    As far as the rest of the field goes, I think that a process can be put in place to reflect that Boston is the pre-eminent marathon in the world and that only those that are most worthy are the ones that are allowed to participate each year. (This year I had a time that qualified by over 37 minutes but was traveling on the first registration day only to find that I'd been locked out!)

    Here's my recommendation : Start with an open enrollment window of two months (mid-Sep thru mid-Nov) where anyone can post their times and register to run. Once registrations exceed the size limit of the field, age-graded scores at existing age intervals can be used to determine which runners are included…As more people with fast times register, the minimum age graded score will creep upwards. Very easy to institute in near real-time, so people could have a good feel for the times required and year on year comparisons should be fairly predictable. This also gets around any age or gender biases which others have mentioned as concerns.

    Boston is unique because of its history, exclusivity, and speed of its field. With the growth of the sport there are many other quality marathons in which runners can compete where 'participation' and inclusivity are pre-eminent concerns. Let's keep Boston the most prestigious marathon in the world by keeping true to its roots.

    To put this in perspective, just because someone wants to play center field for the Yankees (probably should have said LF for the Sox!) doesn't mean they'll get a turn to play!…They have to earn it!

  6. […] The busiest day of the year was October 20th with 146 views. The most popular post that day was How to fix Boston.. […]

  7. I agree that the women’s standard should be as difficult as the men’s with one exception. Women who were 35 or over when the first women’s olympic marathon was run, 1984. Younger women have less excuse for not being able to perform at the same level as men. However, these women, and even women my age had very limited opportunities to take part in track and field. There were very few track teams for girls, no track scholarships . . . women could not run in the Boston marathon. My point, that somehow allowances should be made for the vacuum of opportunity and role models.

    I got shut out this year because of my plan to run a late fall race, but am happy to know I’ll get in for 2012 in the first wave of registration. Even if this system results in more men than women, I would like to see this newest wave of young female marathoners push themselves a little harder.


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