Considering that the 115th running of this race isn’t for another six months, this probably seems like an odd question. But today’s online feeding frenzy–which saw general registration for the 2011 race open and close within just over eight hours–moved Boston into the same league, in a not-so-desirable respects, as other Americans mass marathons such as Marine Corps that manage to fill tens of thousands of slots in less time than it takes most people to cover 26 miles 385 yards on foot.
This will have the Boston Athletic Association, the muscle and mind behind perhaps the most famous footrace in the world, with some decisions to make. One of the things that has historically made Boston a colossal draw is that it is one of the few non-championship-level road races with meaningful qualifying standards. These start at 3 hours, 10 minutes for men under 35 and 3:45 for women in this age group and are adjusted accordingly in five-year age increments for more “mature” “athletes.” Arguments over whether these standards are too permissive or not permissive enough are endless death-spirals, but I will say only two things: that the open men’s standard used to be 2:50, and that both standards are in excess of 50% slower than the world records for men and women. Also know that some 5,000 or so runners–about one-fifth of the field–now represent charitable organizations and thus evade the qualifying requirement. It is not an event set aside for greats by any measure, and I will leave the shoulds and buts about times and charity runners and such to people who give a rip about such judgments.
Apart from Boston being a race almost all marathoners want to run–it’s the only one I’ve lined up for four times, although this is as much the result of geography (I’ve lived most of my life within 75 miles or so of the finish line) as allure–it lacks something that other big-name races have: room. The race begins on a standard two-lane highway in the several-stoplight burg of Hopkinton, Mass., and when the race was opened to an unprecedented 38,000 or so runners for the 100th running in 1996 (my first shot at the beast) only the wizardry of longtime technical director Dave McGillvray kept things from exploding into a wild bottleneck frigabout. I am not sure how big the largest-ever Boston field was before this, but I’m pretty sure it was under 15,000. But the fact that 1996 want off well with the expanded corral system guaranteed that the BAA would forever keep the field much larger than in pre-centennial editions, if not close to the 1996 leviathan that at the time boasted the highest number of marathon finishers in history. In any event, while races such as Bank of America Chicago and ING New York can accommodate in the range 40,000 to 45,000 runners, Boston is unlikely to ever again reach much above half of that. (If you are curious as to whether the BAA might change the starting location to permit bloating without chaos, recognize that you might just as sensibly expect Bostonians to unanimously approve burning Fenway Park to the ground with a giant papier-mâché statues of Larry Bird, Paul Revere and Bobby Orr inside.)
Yet this is an event which, taking into account revenue not only from entry fees (which does not exceed administrative costs by all that much, BAA insiders say) but the two-day expo beforehand, would allow the BAA to operate more or less at a loss the rest of the year if desired and still end up in the black. It is therefore completely in the BAA’s interest to increase the number of runners, jack up entry fees, or both. Given the aforementioned course constraints and the laws of supply and demand, it seems likely that the current entry fee could easily be raised from its present $130 ($175 for foreigners) to around $180 without making a dent in not only the field size but the speed with which it fills up under the present system. Sound crazy? After the 1996 running, the BAA raised the entry fee by 50%, from $50 to $75, with nary a blip in applications. I don’t know just how much the American dollar is worth now compared to 1997, but I do know that $130 is 160% more than $50 and that inflation hasn’t whirled that far out of control in the past 13 years. So expect a price hike before next year, 2013 at the latest.
What else? Well, that leaves limiting the field in ways that actually relate to running as options. As Scott Rowe, who has run this race in 2 hours and 24 minutes, wrote on my Facebook page, “[q]ualifying for Boston has turned into a competition of who can access the registration site first.” He’s right; I’m quite sure that today a number of people with qualifying times of X were shut out by people in their age and sex categories with times of X plus 5, 10 or more minutes. (As you may know or assume, sufficiently fast entrants do not have to endure the calamitous process that unfolded today and can get bib numbers by more direct channels; the last three times I entered, I was a 2:24 guy and not only didn’t have to pay, but didn’t have to serve notice of entering until relatively late in the game.) So the BAA could in theory initiate a gentle stranglehold on the current slate of Q-times, perhaps easing them down by 10 minutes per age category over a period of maybe two or three years. I don’t anticipate this happening just yet, and not because the BAA has stated that it has no immediate plans to make any changes.
Perhaps more likely is the BAA shortening the duration of the qualifying window. At the moment, anyone who runs a qualifying time in a certified marathon from mid-September of a given year is eligible to enter the Boston Marathon that occurs not only seven months from that point, but also the one the following year. Merely pushing that forward by three and a half months to January 1st would wipe out any chance to qualify for a Boston two years distant at any of the numerous fall U.S. megathons and macrothons (Boston, New York, Twin Cities, California International, Dallas White Rock, etc.) and constrain entries on that basis. Moving it forward even further–to, say, March 1 or just over a year in advance–would eliminate big marathons in Houston, Miami, Austin, Orlando (a marathon that should be eliminated, period) and elsewhere from the far-in-advance list as well, while preserving them for the eleventh-hour crowd if Boston space permits.
Anyway, as they say, I have no horse in this race. I ran my fastest lifetime marathon finishing on Boylston Street near Boston Common in one of the most emotionally charged days of my life, and 25% of my serious marathon finishes (I jogged one with a friend in 2008 but haven’t raced one since 2005) have unfolded at this event. But I’m curious as to what the miasma of economics, population dynamics, and desire to maintain top athletic standards will produce in the next several years.