Where does the Boston Marathon go from here?

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.

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  1. #1 by jim on October 19, 2010 - 4:17 pm

    I’ve never run Boston. Given its history, I’d like to. Given the current practical realities of it (and any other high-entry number marathon), I refuse to. I will be more than happy to support a local or regional marathon with 100 or 1000 participants instead.

    Marathons seem to have turned into “bucket list” events, complete with full-scale all-you-can-eat buffet at the end. Sorry, but I don’t find it remarkable that a reasonably healthy human being can cover 26 miles on foot. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if a young or middle aged human can’t do that after a reasonable length of training, there’s something wrong or unhealthy with them or their lifestyle.

  2. #2 by yogibear on October 20, 2010 - 10:42 pm

    From a corporate point of view; if your product is selling out in 8 hours, you are not charging enough. A simply way to cut down on the number of entries is to boost the entry fee by $25.

    Grandma’s used to sell out in 14 days. They raised the price a couple of times and the fill date went to 30 days, then to 90 days, and this year they didn’t sell out. Probably a combination of high price and the bad economy.

    So, either raise the price, or go to a lottery, or find more space at the start.

  3. #3 by kemibe on October 21, 2010 - 5:20 pm

    Yogi–one idea that I like is to have a two-tiered system: an automatic qualifying standard (say, 2:50 for men and 3:15 for women) that guarantees a spot to anyone who registers by a given date, followed by a provisional standard (maybe the current Q-times) involving a lottery.

    The BAA could charge $250 and still fill the field within a few days. People are already dropping hundreds on hotels and airfare–what’s another $100 to them on top of that? And the BAA could give $50 of that to charity, thereby raising well over a million bucks.

    • #4 by Ryan on October 25, 2010 - 4:29 am

      True, and on top of the $250 they can pay for entry fees, someone pointed out on LetsRun that the main sponsors of the Boston Marathon, companies as John Hancock mutual funds, can benefit a lot from this demographic. Could they also consider dividing entrants into many waves and having some around a certain finishing time run the Boston Marathon much later in the day or on a different day -. the next day? That way Boston Marathon could fill up a whole weekend . Hopkinton, from what I’ve heard, just isn’t large enough to accommodate so many people.

  4. #5 by dist justice on October 22, 2010 - 7:15 pm

    In my opinion, Aristotle can apply here. When considering matters of distribution, Aristotle would ask which discrimination is just.? He would argue to answer that question one must consider the goal, the end, the purpose of what is being distributed. For Aristotle , distributive justice was not mainly about money but about honors.

    Suppose you have the best flutes in the world. What is the most just way to distribute them? Aristotle would argue they should go to the best flute players. For Aristotle, justice is a matter of fitting a persons virtues with an appropriate role.

    You could discriminate using economic factors by charging higher entry fees. However, the sponsors might get negatively associated with greedy race organizers. Also implementing economic barriers is not alligned with getting the fastest runners to compete who might otherwise compete with a more reasonable entry price.

    As it stands, I see these alternatives

    1. Do nothing and let luck/fate decide. Let registration be more difficult and more challenging than running a qualifying time for many. Whoever is lucky enough to be near a computer and get lucky enough to have their registration accepted in a couple of hour period is in.
    – Problem this does not ensure the fastest runners will be entered and age group awards and placement overall would be less meaningful.

    2. Implement stricter standards to the point where if one runs the qualifying time they are ensured a number.
    – This is my favorite.

    3. Have a two tier system where there is a guaranteed time and a lottery for all who have run a qualifying time.
    – I don’t like this idea because I like the idea that I can control my own destiny. I want to know that if I run a certain time that I am in. I don’t want to wait and have luck play a role. Others take pride because they feel they earned their way by hitting the qualifying time and winning the lottery would take away from that.

    4. Raise the entry fees as a ecoomic barrier to entry.
    – covered above. If I were hosting a race, I’d want to do my best to ensure the fastest people are given the opportunity to compete. I don’t want to create an economic barrier simply to restrict entry. I’d rather emphasize qualifying standards to do the discrimination.

    5. Increase the size of the marathon.
    – Logitically it might not be to be much bigger and as stated in the essay traditon plays a big part in the event. so the course cannot change too much.

    6. Reduce the window for qualifying times to a shorter period.
    – This would be fine with me.

    7. Eliminate charity runners
    – This isn’t going to happen so no real reason to discuss it.

    I need to get a life.

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