Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Boston Marathon Qualifying Standards - Will it work?

Yesterday: 6.2 miles in 51:36
Today: 7.8 miles over hills

Last week the BAA announced revised qualifying standards for both the 2012 and 2013 races.  If you weren't aware, the qualifying standards came under scrutiny after the 2011 Boston Marathon filled in under 8 hours this past October, shutting out hundreds of runners who had met the qualifying standards, and leaving no space for those people making a BQ attempt in the latter months.  The new standards make an effort to resolve this problem, but the million dollar question is simply, will it work?

Registration for the 2012 race will open on September 12, 2011 and remain open for up to two weeks.  The first two days, registration is only open to runners who have exceeded the current BAA standards by 20 min or more.  In the next two days, those who have exceeded the standard by more than 10 minutes may register, and two days later anyone exceeding by five minutes can register.  The following week, starting on the 19th, anyone who has met the qualifying standard may register.  They will accept registrants on a first come basis until the race is filled.

The pros:  With a tiered registration system of this nature, the BAA most likely guarantees registration will stay open beyond just the first day (although we can't be sure...).  They have made the wise decision of keeping the preexisting qualifying times for another year, which is only fair for those people who raced marathons between the October and February, and were shooting for a BQ.  Finally, allowing your faster runners to register first increases the likelihood that the race will have an impressive pool of amateur athletes.

The cons:  With this method in place, plenty of people can achieve the qualifying standard and not ever get an opportunity to run the race.  What does it mean to qualify if you are shut out of actually running the race?  Additionally, the BAA has now moved the registration period to mid-September, long before the majority of increasingly popular fall marathons are held.  We know from last year that the race is sure to fill up in the allotted two weeks, if not sooner, so anyone making a BQ attempt is forced to do it this spring or summer.  Finally, with all of the waiting and lack of disclosure regarding race specifics, the BAA may have scared off a lot of would be runners who would prefer to take themselves elsewhere.

Registration for the 2013 race will open on September 10, 2012.  New qualifying standards will be in place, which are five minutes faster than the current standards in all age groups.  There will no longer be a 59 second grace period.

The pros:  With a tightening of the qualifying standards, the BAA is raising the bar for participation in the event and will likely push many runners to perform even better than they would otherwise.  Furthermore, it should decrease the number of qualified runners for a given year, leaving less people "shut out".

The cons:  There is no guarantee that the 2013 race won't fill up in 8 hours.  Perhaps the BAA has an idea of this likelihood (look at past races and the percentage of participants that were five minutes faster than the qualifying standards), but the general public doesn't know what will happen.  I'm concerned that the BAA has no long term solution that resolves these issues altogether, while upholding the tradition of excellence for this race.  Further, they have not taken into consideration the relative difficulties of the qualifying standards for different age groups.  It has long been argued that it is easier to qualify for some ages and genders than others.    Finally, registration is again opening in September, which negates all 2012 fall races for qualification.  If the BAA is going to keep their registration so early in the year, I really think they should consider lengthening the qualifying time frame beyond the current 18 months.

There are other issues the BAA has either not addressed to the public or has not considered.  For example, there has been no statement regarding increasing the field size for the event.  While I am aware that many of the roads used during the Boston Marathon would not easily accommodate a larger field, the 100th running of the race welcomed 38,000 runners without a wave start.  Compare that to the 23,000 runners divided amongst two waves in the past few years.  Additionally, it is common knowledge that thousands of unregistered, 'bandit' runners participate every year and are utilizing the races' resources including food, water and medical care.  Active discouragement of this could open up a few more spots for runners who meet those qualifying standards, but are shut out from registering.

I grew up in Boston.  I watched this race every year.  I qualified and ran it twice (2006 & 2007).  I love the Boston Marathon, it is a race like no other.  I understand why so many athletes want to run this race and achieving a BQ time is a major accomplishment that deserves to be rewarded with a run on that prestigious and historical course.  And that is why I, like most of the running community, want to see a well thought out qualification plan.  I for one am not convinced that the BAA has come up with a workable solution.  I do commend them for their action (even if it came later than they promised) and I am interested to see the new standards in action...will it work?

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