This is nothing short of astounding. In 2008 the race didn’t fill until February. In 2009 it was full in January. Last year it took a month to fill up.
This is the Boston Marathon, which has qualifying standards. Not just anyone can get in, you have to run 3:10 (men) or 3:40 (women), with progressive breaks for age past 35. For all but a handful of the 40 or so years since limits were set, you just had to get your entry in before the early-March deadline. Thus the annual Last Chance for Boston race in late February...a race which is obviously a pretty pointless endeavor now.
What’s going on here? The Wall Street Journal decided last week that, like original sin, it’s all women’s fault. I pointed out the fallacy of that argument. To put it simply, even if it’s easier for women to qualify for Boston (and maybe it isn’t, and it certainly isn’t significantly so), they certainly don’t take up more than their share of entries. 41% of US marathoners are women, and 42% of last year’s field were women. A one percent difference does not make a race sell out 20,000 spots in eight hours.
A year and a half ago Amby Burfoot wrote up a history of Boston’s qualifying system, and the issues that created them, but he had no idea how things would turn between then and now.
So why are there so many more people who want to run the Boston Marathon?
More people are running marathons. There were approximately 464,000 marathon finishes in the USA and 1.31 million worldwide in 2009 (“finishes” meaning race results; individual runners could be counted multiple times). The domestic numbers are up nearly 50% since 2002, but the international numbers have more than doubled in the same time period.
Marathon finishers in the US and the world, 2002-2009
Why? That’s anybody’s guess. No one really knows. We do know that gym memberships are down significantly over the last few years, and the conventional wisdom is that the economy is bad and running is growing because it’s cheaper than any other fitness activity. But the growth in marathon numbers has been steady for over a decade, long before the economy imploded. It might be a generational thing, but the growth has been remarkably consistent across both genders and all age groups. It’s just one of those things.
More people are running them faster. Big numbers wouldn’t matter for Boston, with its qualifying times, if everyone ran them slow. But people aren’t. MarathonGuide.com’s time breakdowns only go back to 2005, but in those five years the growth in men running sub-3:00 and women running sub-3:30 has been a lot faster than the overall growth in marathoning.
Sub-3:00 (men) and sub-3:30 (women) recorded in the USA, 2005-2009
2007 was the only setback, probably due in large part to that year’s horridly hot Chicago Marathon. If the trend continues through the end of 2010 – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t – then between 9,000 and 10,000 men and about 8,000 women will run these kinds of times. There weren’t even that many marathoners in the whole country until 1976.
Boston’s limit is about 20,000 runners (plus another 3,000-5,000 for charity runners and sponsor exemptions) and, due to issues of physical space, can go no higher. Looking at the number of US-based runners who beat the toughest standards by 10 or more minutes, plus foreign-based runners, plus older age groups with slower qualifying standards, you can see why there’s a crunch.
Note that overall US marathon numbers have never increased more than 10% in any year since the true boom years of 1974-1984. And that was the time when the Boston Marathon became so overwhelmed that it first required qualifying, and eventually tightened the standard down to 2:50 for men under 40 (since loosened 20 minutes). Consistent double-digit growth in fast marathoning has, apparently, again overwhelmed Boston.
What happens now? Runners World reports that the B.A.A. “will consider re-configuring the qualification and entry process for the 2012 marathon”. Let’s Run is having an unusually productive discussion about it. The only reasonable solution appears to be a time-based one.
There are a lot of options. The standards could be tightened across the board; for example, going back to the early-80s standards of 3:00 for open men and 3:30 for open women. Under this scenario, the race would probably not fill up. The B.A.A. probably doesn’t want this.
Another option would be to have tiered registration openings. In October the race would open to those who have beaten the current standards by ten minutes, and in December to those who have beaten them by five minutes, and in January to everyone else who has met the standard. (This, by the way, is exactly how class registration worked at my university back in the early 90s: academic scholarship students first, athletes and others with time restrictions second, and other tiers after that which I never paid attention to because I was in both of the first two groups.)
Whatever it is, Boston needs to do things differently. The race has always been about qualifications, not timing or luck.