Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 27 Dec 2012 06:04:46 -0500

Full Marathons


(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the May 2011 issue.)

Running a “BQ” didn’t qualify you to run the 2011 Boston Marathon. It merely allowed you to sit anxiously at your computer on a Monday in October and hope that 25,000 runners hadn’t already beaten you to the sign-up page. Either that or realize the next day that you’d already waited too long to try entering. Or that your “qualifying” race would come after the Boston entries had already closed.

You know by now, of course, that Boston 2011 reached its capacity in just eight hours. The filling had taken more than two months the year before, which itself had been a record rate. What might it have been for the 2012 race, if the rules and requirements hadn’t changed – eight MINUTES?

Hundreds, maybe thousands of runners who thought they were fast enough to run Boston in 2011, weren’t. They ran fast enough to try entering, yes, but were too slow at their computer or too late in their attempt at running the required time.

One who missed out was a young runner I coached. Sara qualified by time the previous May at the Eugene Marathon, then spent the next several months studying in Germany. Her flight back to Oregon happened to fall on the opening day of Boston registration. She knew this, and knew that she’d be without computer access on the trip. Sara planned to register when she got home, but this was already too late.

Running this race, or any race, shouldn’t be decided by who has the fastest trigger finger on the “send” button of their computer. And, in a related complication, a field probably shouldn’t fill seven months before marathon day, either.

The earlier the cut-off date, the higher the number of no-shows on race day. More than 3600 Boston entrants – 13 percent of the registered field – didn’t pick up their packets on race weekend 2010. This means they paid tens of thousands of dollars in non-refundable fees not to run.

Boston made the easy move for 2012: simply toughening its qualifying times for most entrants. (The practice of issuing passes for thousands of charity runners and members of certain foreign tour groups wouldn’t change.) This easy choice was not necessarily the only or best one.

Another possibility for limiting field size fairly would have been a scaled-down version of Olympic Trials model. Runners in the Marathon Trials with an “A” time go first-class, all expenses paid, while those with a “B” can compete if they pay their own way. (The men eliminated the “B” time for 2012, but the women retained theirs.)

In recent years the New York City Marathon has also gone to a two-track system for entering. Added to the traditional lottery – where no marathon speed or even experience required – is a way to guarantee entry by time. The standards for 2011 were 2:55 for men, 3:23 for women or comparable times for 10-year age groups. (To simplify here, we’ll ignore the fact that both the Trials and New York also allow qualifying at shorter distances.)

New York opened its entry site for 2011 the day after its 2010 race. This allowed a nearly six-month window to enter before remaining spots, after accounting for time-guaranteed entrants, were filled from the lottery pool, where the odds of snagging a starting spot were about one in three. Runners then had another six months to train and make travel plans.

This race, with an initial field of about 45,000, has a cancellation policy that trims the number of no-shows on race day. Chicago, similar in size to New York but with neither qualifying times nor a lottery, had 18 percent of its entrants either not run or not finish in 2010.

If Boston had wanted any outside advice, this would have been mine: Adopt double standards that are both tighter and looser than before. Set an “A” standard of, say, 3:00 for young men and 3:20 for women, with suitable allowances for older ages, that guarantees entry.

Then place runners with “B” times, of perhaps sub-3:30 (men) and sub-4:00 (women) or their age-equivalents, into a lottery pool. Open entries for a fixed period of time – a month, two months or more. On a specified date fill the remaining spots with “B” runners by drawing names randomly.

And if you still miss the cut at Boston (or New York City, Chicago and a growing number of other big events)? Or if you can’t plan your life so far in advance? Or if you don’t run your “BQ” until it’s too late to sign up for Boston? Don’t feel unwanted. Hundreds of smaller marathons would love to have you come and run. Many would even let you sign up the day before, not a season or two earlier. And you might run freer and faster there than amid the masses.

I first ran Boston when it was small, just 600 of us, and last ran it when it had grown large, but less than one-third its current size. My one New York City came when it was already huge, though only two-thirds of today’s field. Those were incredible, indelible experiences. Have them if you can.

But the smaller marathons aren’t booby prizes for runners who aren’t fast enough, on the road or at the keyboard, to get into Boston. The non-Bostons offer a separate set of attractions: the chance sign up later, when you’re more sure you are ready; the chance to go where you feel more wanted and needed, as a bigger part of a smaller field; the chance to run uncrowded from start to finish, without 25,000 people competing for the same space.

UPDATE: I steered one of my Marathon Teams for 2011 to Humboldt Redwoods, a rural event with a field numbering in the hundreds. It had none of the early entry requirements of the big races that fall.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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