Thursday, October 21, 2010

Boston Marathon Registration Fills in One Day

On October 18th, 9am EST, registration of qualified runners for the 115th Boston Marathon opened.  At 5:03 pm that same day, registration had filled and closed.  This is by far the fastest filling of a Boston Marathon in the race's history.

In February of 2009, about six months after moving to Texas, I ran the Austin marathon.  I had trained hard and had my eyes on a new PR.  My previous PR was set in 2005 at the Baystate marathon (my first) where I was luck enough to qualify for the Boston marathon, which I ran in 2006 and 2007.  In 2009, I was focused on getting faster.  Of course, a new PR would also mean another Boston qualification.  I was secretly hoping for an excuse to fly back in April 2010 to visit my parents and run my hometown marathon.

Starting line of the Baystate marathon,
October 2005
The Austin marathon came and went and I had a great day and a new PR of 3:35:09.  The 2009 Boston marathon came and went, with some great showings by US athletes.  When the fall arrived and the blazing heat of Texas subsided, I got my butt in gear and increased my mileage.  I started thinking about registering.  Rumors had it that registration would fill earlier than usual.  Previously it had closed out in about February, so I decided to register in November.  Around the middle of November in 2009, I went onto the BAA website, ready to shell out the over $100 and commit to this race...but registration was full!  I had missed out.  In just over two months, the entire field of qualified runners was saturated and my qualifying time wouldn't carry me over for another year.  I was out of luck.

Kenmore square, Boston marathon 2006
Initially, I was pretty disappointed.  I felt somewhat cheated by the whole thing.  But then I reminded myself that I had run that race twice before.  I also reminded myself that flying to Boston was somewhat expensive and grad students are raking in the dough.  Finally I pointed out that if what I love is running long distances (which I do), that there are plenty of marathons in Texas and surrounding areas and there are other types of races I can do.  I signed up for the 3M Half marathon in Austin and got over it.

I told this lengthy, three paragraph personal anecdote to illustrate my own experience of being shut out of Boston registration and to explain why this personally is okay for me.  I started running marathons because I think 26.2 miles is an extraordinary challenge and I feel really great knowing that I can complete the training for that distance and execute on race day.  There are plenty of 26.2 mile courses out there, and I want to try all of them.  Nonetheless, in a larger sense, I am concerned that Boston registration is filling up so fast.  If I had not already had the experience of running this historic and awesome race, I know I would have been devastated to not get in.  Additionally, many qualified runners were completely blind sided by this sudden increase in popularity.  I think the BAA has a serious problem on there hands and I hope they fix it.

People have suggested a variety of things.  The most common suggestions are the following; 1) Increase field size, 2) Do away with charity runners, 3) Tighten qualification standards, 4) Use a lottery system, 5) Delay registration until closer to April.  I want to talk about each of these suggestions and my opinion regarding their ability to solve this problem.

A logical suggestion is to allow more runners in the Boston Marathon.  The field size is typically 20,000-25,000 official runners.  Races like NYC, London, Berlin and Chicago are accommodating ten to twenty thousand more runners.  While I advocate increasing the size of the Boston field, this particular course is simply unable to support as many runners as NYC or even Chicago.  The majority of the Boston race is run through small New England towns on narrow, winding two lane roads.  Furthermore, the cities that are part of the course are consistently reluctant to an increase in participants because of the burden it places on medical and safety staff, volunteers and road closures.  I would like to see Boston bump their registration numbers up a little bit, but I think it is unrealistic to assume this will fix the problem completely.

Many have suggested Boston do away with charity runners, who can make up as much as 20% of the total field.  I think this is a good idea, because I would prefer to see Boston remain prestigious and sought after, but I don't think it is very realistic.  Boston has a long tradition of supporting organizations through charity runners, and these runners bring in thousands of dollars each year to worthy causes.  I think it would be some really bad PR to pull the plug on this program, and I can't see the BAA or John Hancock running that risk.  One option would be to decrease the total number of charity runners from 20 to 10%, but double their expected monetary contribution.  This would free up some more spots for qualified runners without disturbing the charities.

Another thought is that the BAA should tighten the qualifying standards.  To me, this is really the best option.  Historically, Boston qualifying standards have fluctuated a lot and used to be much more stringent than they are now.  Second, stricter qualifying standards would keep with the spirit of a prestigious, world class event worth striving for.  Additionally, a small change in qualifying standards could easily create a lot more availability in the race.  

Many popular races (NYC, London, Houston) are using a lottery system for registration.  I would be really disappointed if Boston adopted this approach. First, I don't want Boston to be like those other marathons, it should continue to set a standard, not follow in the footsteps of other races.  Second, a lot of lottery events are becoming very difficult to get into and appear to be biased based on where you live.  While many may disagree, I think Boston is best as a marathon experienced by those who have achieved a certain time goal rather than achieved a time goal AND got lucky.

The final common suggestion is that the BAA delay their registration process until closer to the event in April.  In previous years, registration has opened in September.  This year it was moved back to mid October to accommodate more fall races and give those runners a fair shot at entering the race.  I think this was a responsible move on the part of the BAA, although it clearly wasn't enough.  Furthermore, there are plenty of fall races run in late October, November and even December.  In the southern part of the country (like Texas), major marathons are in the winter months.  Moving the registration date around might help to include more qualifying races, but there will always be some that are left out, so this is more of a short term, band-aid solution.

Regardless of which approach you think is best (and I would love to hear your thoughts!), clearly the BAA needs to hit this problem head on and come up with a new solution.  It is ridiculous for a qualifying marathon like Boston to sell out in 8 hours and it is unfair to hundreds of runners who met those standards but were unable to register in time or even knew this would be an issue.  If registration for the race takes place in the span of 8 hours, runners are subject to all kinds of ridiculous biases like internet speed, time zones, the site crashing, and slow credit card verification.  Obviously you wouldn't be able to mail in an entry blank, which would impact those runners without an internet connection at home or access at work.  My hope is that the BAA reviews its qualifying standards and revamps them across the board, testing the impact of a modest (<5min) decrease in the requirement.  Additionally, I think they should push the registration back to December and consolidate the charity running spots.  In the meantime, I'll be content with my 2006 and 2007 experiences and work on getting faster by running in other races.


  1. Glad you've weighed-in on this important topic. I too have run Boston in '09 & '10, loved it, and am likely myself to be excluded by virtue of my own opinion to the problem (much tougher qualification standards).

    First, questions. Should the BAA:
    1) Have lots of people qualify but only a fraction who get to run - or fewer qualifiers and everyone can run?
    2) Implement a hybrid qualifying time + lottery, or would that diminish the cachet of the race?
    3) Increase the field, and what does this do to the quality of the Boston experience?
    4) Toughen the qualifying times?

    Pending the BAA's eventual decision regarding almost certain changes for the 2012 race (which I hope to run) I hope that the running community coalesces upon a consensus.

    In that regard, though risking being excluded I feel that in lieu of adopting a hybrid qualification + lottery system that Boston should instead further strengthen its unique position as the only world-class marathon whose tough qualification standards define the most dedicated and strongest of runners. Accordingly, I feel that the qualification standards should be uniformly tightened - though on a more rational basis as outlined in the RW article:,7124,s6-239-506-0-13111-0,00.html

    For sake of fairness individuals who under the current rules have *already* Boston Qualified for the 2012 race (i.e. those who already have - or soon might qualify on or after 10/1/10) should be 'grandfathered' on a one-time only basis, and thus retain their qualification regardless of the new standards which might be adopted.

    Additionally, as regards whether increasing the Boston runner count might diminish the Boston experience I feel that through a much more rigorously enforced exclusion of the ridiculously numerous "bandit runners" (a term that is far too lenient towards their miscreant behavior) the course could safely take-on 5,000 additional runners with absolutely no changes, or 15,000 more through adding a third wave with each wave separated by 45 versus the current 30-minutes. Thoughts?

  2. As someone who runs back of the pack and consequently will never run Boston; AND as someone who has run as a charity runner in other races but thinks it's an inappropriate use of Boston's limited capacity, ... let me put these thoughts out to you.
    1) I agree with cutting back the charity and invitational bibs. 5% of bibs to those who want to run for charity and who can't make a qualifying time.
    2) Tighten up time standards, back to what they were. This is a RUNNER'S RACE - the best of the best. Why are we glad-handling everybody?
    3) Put #1 and #2 together in part 3 of the solution: runners who would have previously made the cutoff, but now won't, get FIRST CRACK at running for charity. In other words, if you're within a certain standard margin of qualifying then you can still enter provided you do some fundraising. There are PLENTY of fast runners who would do this (and already do), so nobody loses. What this does is keep the slower charity runners out.
    4) Just agree that "you snooze, you lose". Registration day is widely published. If you want in, you better be online at the right time. But given the vagaries of connection and that this is likely to lead to massive logjams, dropped entries, etc, I propose that instead we...
    5) Have a discreet pre-registration period, in which you submit your name, qualifying or near-qualifying time (and the charity you'll be running for). This period could last, say, one month, to allow everyone who qualified a chance to say "I want in!". But no lottery. Instead, runners are ranked in order by time and the top 25,000 are given the right of first refusal, plain and simple. In effect, make this an invitational, but one in which you ask for and earn your invite.

    that all probably muddied the waters more than cleared them. Sorry.