The little blue-and-golden tickets that get a runner into the world’s most famous marathon just became a lot harder to come by.
I first heard it from Caitlin at Healthy Tipping Point. Having had my head in the sand for the past few weeks, my first thought was that it was an early April Fool’s joke (which actually happened last year when someone set up a fake Boston Athletic Association page announcing new qualifying times).
But a look at the real BAA page confirmed it: Across the board, qualifying times for the 2013 Boston Marathon have officially been lowered by 5 minutes and 59 seconds.
The worst part
They had to do something. Registration for this year’s race was open for all of eight hours before the race filled. (I set about 30 alarms to make sure I didn’t miss it, and I was lucky enough to get a spot.)
The natural response, of course, is to make it harder to qualify. I get that. Amby Burfoot, who has a great article about why he doesn’t like the new requirements, cites an estimate that the new requirements will lower the number of qualifiers from about 57,000 down to 41,000. (Thanks to Tim from Midpack Runner for pointing me to this article.)
Mission mostly accomplished. But here’s what I hate about it.
Since this won’t completely alleviate the problem of too many people trying to register for too few spots, the BAA went one step further: Registration will now take place on a rolling basis, so that the fastest qualifiers in each group will have the chance to register first. Only after they’ve had their chance will slower qualifiers be able to register, if spots remain open.
See the problem?
What this means is that a “qualifying time” doesn’t necessarily qualify you.
As someone who tried for nearly eight years before I finally ran a marathon fast enough to get into Boston, its clear to me that one crucial aspect of the Boston Marathon has been taken away here — the “journey” to qualify has lost a lot of its appeal.
If you haven’t been reading this blog for long, you might not know that its first six months were dominated by my mission to qualify for Boston on my new vegetarian diet. Looking back, that journey was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever taken part in. And the culmination, the rush of emotion I felt when I knew I had done it, when I first caught sight of the finish line as I entered the final “.2” with two minutes to spare, is something that still gives me chills to think about and which I’ll never, ever forget.
For anyone still looking to qualify for Boston, a moment like that will never happen.
Oh, they’ll know when they’ve run a qualifying time. But they won’t know if it’s good enough to get in until months later, as they sit in front of their computers waiting for an email notification to tell them whether they can register or whether their “qualifying time” wasn’t good enough. (True, in the past a qualifying time didn’t necessarily get you in if you weren’t quick to register. But even in my case, when the registration was open for only 8 hours, I knew I’d get in if I made it a point to be at the computer when it opened.)
What else is wrong?
Well, putting aside the fact that the celebration of qualifying will happen at a keyboard rather than a finish line, the new scheme will go so far as to affect the way runners run their qualifying races. Here’s how.
The fact that I qualified by only one minute (3:09:59, when I needed a 3:10:50) is no coincidence. I paced myself to run as close to a 3:10 as possible, because I knew that’s what it would take to get in. Any faster wouldn’t matter, but any slower would mean failure. When I felt great in the first half of the race and had the urge to really push it, it was easy to talk myself out of it, because there was nothing to gain by going much below 3:10.
Not so anymore. Now, a runner who is right on pace for their qualifying time halfway through the race has got to wonder: Will that even be enough?
And so she”ll speed up. She’ll feel good for a few miles at the new pace, but within a half hour or so she’ll crash. I know because I’ve done it plenty of times.
And in some cases, that initial pace probably would have been enough. Yet because this poor runner didn’t know exactly what time it would take to get in, she won’t even run a qualifying time at all.
What they should do instead
I understand that this was a hard thing to do. When more people want to run a race than that race can handle, somebody has to be left out in the cold. So I sympathize with the BAA for being faced with such a difficult decision. (And I can admit that I’m probably being naive here, as I’ve thought about this for an hour while they’ve thought about it for months or years.)
So I apologize for complaining, when it’s easy to complain and criticize when you’re not the one on the hot seat. So at the very least, I’ll offer my own solution, naive or not.
Raise the price.
Make it really expensive. Maybe 250 dollars. Maybe more, maybe less — certainly with some testing and research they could get it right, so that if running Boston is really what you want to do, you can almost certainly get a spot if you qualify and you buck up and pay for it.
What would this do? From my perspective, it’d make Boston a one-time thing. Something that I could justify paying for a single time, as the reward for eight years of sweat and determination.
But then I wouldn’t do it again, because it wouldn’t be worth it to pay that much a second or third or fourth time. And then — wait for it — someone else gets a chance. Magic.
The race wouldn’t lose its prestige, as the current qualifying standards would still give it that. They’d still have plenty of first-time qualifiers eager to pay the inflated rate to run it once. And they’d have a lot more money, which, if they were really worried about how the price hike would affect the public perception of the race, they could give away to help financially-disadvantaged runners afford decent shoes and equipment.
Would this exclude some people who can’t afford it, even once? Probably. But making it harder and harder to get in excludes people who aren’t fast enough, so either way, somebody’s getting excluded. At least the higher price wouldn’t detract from the journey the way the new system does.
Cliche time: It’s the journey, not the destination
Less than two months from now, I’ll be running Boston for the first time in my life. For me, it’ll be a celebration of what I accomplished, and I’m really looking forward to it. (I didn’t run it last year because my son was born two days before the race.)
But it will probably be the only time I get to run Boston. Yes, I know that with some considerable effort I could get my marathon time down to 3:05 or maybe even sub-three hours. But if my only motivation to run that fast a race is to get into Boston again, I have a hard time imagining that I’ll find the drive that’s required without knowing that I’ll qualify if I run a certain time.
But once will be enough for me. As the cliche goes, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” and that’s absolutely the way I’ve felt about this whole mission to get to Boston.
I just hope that for runners who haven’t yet qualified, the magic of that mission isn’t gone.
What do you think? Do you like the new system? Have a better one?
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