Will Boston’s Solution Prove Problematic?

The separation between the elite men and everyone else at this year’s Boston Marathon won’t look much different that it does here—but the dynamic won’t be quite the same once the starter’s gun goes off. Photo: Boston Marathon

I don’t know about you but it seems crazy to me that the Boston Marathon is a little less than three weeks away. I’m not running it this year but I’ve got four athletes competing so the race has been top of my mind for the past few months. Not to mention all the usual excitement around the men’s and women’s elite races, which, for the first time in history, will see the pro men start two minutes ahead of the open field. The pro women, as they have since 2004, will go off at 9:32, the pro men will leave at 10 AM, and Wave 1 of the open field at 10:02. In past years, the men’s pro field and Wave 1 of the open field have started at the same time (the pro men, however, were roped off at the front of the start line while Wave 1 stood a few meters back), technically meaning open men were eligible to compete for prize money because they started at the same time as the pro men, whereas open women who started nearly 30 minutes after the pro women were not. The race rules stated that to be eligible for prize money, a woman had to be a part of the pro field—more on why that’s significant in a bit.

The reason for this change? To avoid another debacle like the one that occurred at last year’s race, where a few non-pro women in the open field ran faster than some of the pro women who set off earlier, thus creating a debate about who should have gotten what for prize money. There shouldn’t have been a debate, given the the way the rules were written (i.e., you had to be in the women’s pro field to be eligible for prize money), but articles like the one Julia Reinstein wrote for BuzzFeed created enough of an uproar that the B.A.A. eventually matched the prize money for the open women who ran faster than some of the top pro finishers. It was a great gesture but it wasn’t necessary given the way the rules were written at the time—the open women were competing in a different race and thus should not have been eligible for prize money. The Boston Marathon has always been about place, not pace.

But the times, they are a changin’, like it or not (and plenty of people don’t, to be sure), and there will be no debate should someone in the open field run faster than a top finisher in either of the pro fields: You are either part of the pro field and eligible for prize money, or you’re not. And in order to be part of the pro field, you need to have a qualifying time faster than the Olympic Trials standard of 2:45 for women or 2:19 for men (or, according to the B.A.A. website, the B.A.A. has “discretion to add athletes to the Elite Men’s and Elite Women’s Start based on the athlete’s performances”). Similar idea for Masters runners as I understand it: the top 10 or 15 Masters men and women by qualifying time will be invited to the pro field and are thus eligible to compete for Masters-only prize money. You can decline your spot in the pro field, but by doing so, you also forfeit the opportunity to be eligible for prize money. On one hand, this approach seems more equitable and in a way will level out the number of men and women who are eligible for prize money; on the other, it’s upsetting some men like my friend Peter Bromka, the fastest qualifier in the open field at 2:19:40, who was hoping to mix it up against guys with faster qualifying times.

Was this the right solution by the B.A.A.? Will other marathons that already have separate elite women’s starts like New York follow suit? I honestly don’t know the answer to either of these questions but time will tell. My own thinking on the topic has evolved quite a bit over the past week. At first, the B.A.A.’s decision struck me as reactive and short-sighted but now I’m not so sure. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe it’s in line with other tradition-breaking changes that have taken place at the world’s oldest annual marathon over the years and one that was likely bound to happen at some point anyway.

Before I go any further, it’s worth stating that if last year’s Boston Marathon hadn’t played out the way it did, very little (if anything) would have changed and we likely wouldn’t be having this debate right now. But here we are, so let’s start by looking back at a few other significant alterations to the way the race was run that not everyone was happy about at the time:

— The race started in Ashland from 1897 until 1923. It wasn’t until 1924 that it moved to its current starting location of Hopkinton. I’m sure folks weren’t thrilled with the change back then but safe to say, I think it’s worked out OK for everyone.

— It wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon, 76 years into the race’s existence. Last year women made up 45 percent of the field, a healthy improvement.

— As mentioned earlier, the pro women didn’t get a separate start until 2004. Wave starts weren’t implemented until 2006. A third wave was added in 2011. Now there are four. Not everyone loves the separation and the hard cutoffs—heck, I bitched and moaned last year because my qualifying time landed me in Wave 1, Corral 2 for the first time—but they proved necessary and they’re likely here to stay.

— In 2007, the B.A.A. broke an over 100-year Boston Marathon tradition of having a noon start time by moving it up two hours to 10 AM. The pro women, who started at 11:30 from 2004-2006, adopted their current 9:30 send-off. For those of you who forgot, or weren’t running 12 years ago, there was a not-insignificant uproar at the time from folks who felt the earlier start took away one of the elements that made Boston uniquely challenging.

— Qualifying standards and entry procedures have changed numerous times throughout the years. And when this happens—as is the case for the 2020 race—some people won’t be thrilled about it.

Those are just a few examples but I think you get my point: Change is hard. It’s especially uncomfortable when it breaks from years of tradition. And when it happens, not everyone is going to like it. But sometimes change is necessary, perhaps even overdue. Not to mention, it’s the B.A.A.’s race and they can do whatever they want. If runners don’t like the rules, or changes to the rules, no one is forcing them to run the race. There are other options. But I digress.

Aside from establishing a more firm cut-off time for entry—and while we can debate what the exact times should be, there needs to be a cut-off—the rules of the pro women’s race at Boston actually aren’t changing at all. The pro men, however, are finally getting the same treatment 15 years after the fact. It’s not a perfect solution—look no further than the NYC Half Marathon two weekends ago when Ethiopia’s Belay Tilahun, who was not a part of the pro field, won the race because he started right behind the pro men—but I think it’s worth a shot to see how it all shakes out.

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