If you haven’t already noticed, the Boston Marathon has reached its entry limit and closed (late Friday or early Saturday, it hardly matters which). This is easily two months earlier than the Marathon has ever closed before.
First, hold the panic. There are still “guaranteed” entries floating around out there which were already counted under the entry limit. Those include charity fund-raising entries (e.g. “raise a few thousand dollars for our charity and you can run”) and club entries (the B.A.A. distributes numbers to area clubs in exchange for volunteers on race day, and of course B.A.A. members have their own entry route). If you’re planning to run through the Tufts President’s Marathon Challenge, for example, you probably still have a good shot at standing in a crowd in Hopkinton in April.
Second, though: there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of marathoners with qualifying times who didn’t get their entries in. Most of them haven’t even started training yet; Boston is five months away and four months is an average training cycle for a marathon. There are probably several hundreds of runners who expected to qualify for Boston 2010 in the next few weeks, and now it doesn’t really matter if they do. It used to be the case that a fall qualifying marathon would set you up for Boston in the spring, but if this trend continues qualifiers may have to be run as much as a year in advance.
The question is whether this is something which needs to be addressed or not. If the B.A.A. decides that action needs to be taken for future marathons–and they may not–they have a few options, including expanding the field and tightening the standards. (Ironically, it’s the qualifying standards which were put in place to control the field size which led to Boston becoming as popular as it is today.)
Boston faces constraints unlike any other marathon with regard to its field size. The traditional Hopkinton starting line is relatively narrow (particularly as compared to Chicago and New York City, which start on six- or eight-lane roads) and staging even the current thousands of runners through a small town on a Monday morning is a monumental enterprise which strains the bounds of roads and courtesy. Wave starts, which the B.A.A. has been experimenting with to some success in recent years, ease the congestion but prolong the time the course must be kept open to runners (and, consequently, closed to vehicular traffic).
The other route (not mutually exclusive with expanding the field size) would be tightening the qualifying standards, and that seems likely to be a monumentally unpopular move. Already, times are challenging for many runners; Christopher McDougall, in his recent bestseller Born to Run, referred to qualifying for Boston as “something 99.9 percent of all runners will never do.” Chop off five minutes, or ten minutes, across the board, and the B.A.A. would significantly dent the number of qualified athletes.
But that’s not really what they want to do; the B.A.A. is best off with a standard which is challenging but attainable. Tightening the standards might have to come with a lottery-entry system, not unlike New York’s. Many people are surprised to learn that the New York City Marathon has qualifying standards as well, and they’re actually tougher than Boston’s (starting at 2:55 for men under 40) though they do include a half-marathon standard (1:23 for those same under-40 men).
In New York, however, the standards aren’t for entry; they allow the qualified runner to bypass the entry lottery. Boston might wind up as The Race Where You Have To Qualify Just To Enter The Lottery.