Boston Marathon chief answers questions about new qualifying standards

boston marathon new qualifying times

Last Thursday, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced the cutoff time for entry into the 2019 Boston Marathon. Runners had to be 4 minutes and 52 seconds faster than their posted qualifying standards in order to gain entry into the event.

At the same time, the BAA announced it was tightening the entry standards for the 2020 race by 5 minutes in every age group. Tom Grilk, BAA Chief Executive officer, spoke with Runner’s World US on Friday about how that decision was made. Here are six takeaways from the conversation:

1. Registration numbers have not been predictable.

The time by which people have needed to beat the qualifying standard—BAA officials refer to this term internally as the “offset” while entrants call it the “cutoff”—has not been on a uniform slope. Although it has gone up the past two years, from 3:23 for the 2018 marathon to 4:52 for the 2019 marathon, there was a decrease in the time from the 2016 race (when it was 2:28) to the 2017 race (when it was 2:09).

Related: Everything you need to know about running the London Marathon 2019

Similarly, the number of people who achieve the qualifying standard and decide to apply to the race is different each year. “For several years, that growth rate, the increase in the number of people with qualifying times who submit entries, was going up at the rate of about 4 percent a year,” Grilk said. “Until last year. And then it went up 7 percent. And it went up 7 percent again this year. It’s very hard to predict those things. Particularly at a time when, at least in some quarters, we see a bit of softness in the market for people entering races.”

In other words, the group of qualifiers who applied was not getting significantly faster—but there were more of them.

The year-to-year unpredictability of entries means that the BAA didn’t decide to change the standards for 2020 until after registration for 2019 had closed and officials could analyse the data. “You don’t really know until you’re done [with registration],” Grilk said.

2. The organisation’s guiding principle is to try to disappoint as few people as possible.

Grilk said he understands the allure of trying to qualify. “At one point in my life I was one of those people who would try and qualify. And fail. And try. And fail,” he said “And finally, I made it. So I understand what it feels like to do both.”

According to Boston.com, Grilk ran the race from 1976–78 and ran his personal best time of 2:54 the last year he ran it.

What he has never done, however, is qualified and then not gotten into the race. “That would have to be yet more frustrating than trying and failing,” he said. “We would like to disappoint as few people as possible. You’d rather set it such that you’re not turning people away who worked very hard.”

As for dejected runners who say that they were training with one time in mind only to find the goalposts have moved, Grilk sympathizes with them, too. “No matter when we make a change, somebody will have had a performance just before or just after where they say, ‘If I’d only known, I’d have done something different,’” he said. “Believe me, we don’t want to disappoint anybody.

“We also never said that the window for next year would open with the same qualifying times as the prior year. As a practical matter, if you look at what it took to get in for next April, somebody who ran a qualifying time had an 8-second window [longer than the new standards]. I say that not in any sort of frivolous way. My respect for people who do this is enormous. We don’t want to defeat people’s expectations, but also want to look at what the realities are.”

3. There’s no guarantee everyone who qualifies for the 2020 race will get in, either.

The field size, which is set at 30,000, seems unlikely to budge anytime soon. That’s because the race travels through eight cities and towns, all of which have a say in the number of runners who can pass over their streets.

Without being able to increase the field size, and without being able to predict entry numbers, it’s impossible to guarantee everyone will get in, even with the tougher standards. “Can’t do it,” Grilk said. He agreed that it’s possible that a lot of of motivated runners could achieve the new standards, enough to more than fill the field, and next year runners would be looking at a cutoff time again.

4. Race officials are considering everything, including downhill marathons.

Grilk hedged when asked if the race would consider dropping marathons with large elevation drops as Boston qualifying races. 

“If you go to the IAAF, they will say that the Boston Marathon has too much of a downhill in it to have records set here count,” he said. “It’s pretty tricky business to get into the evaluation of whether a course provides an unfair advantage to some people. Absolutely, we’re willing to consider anything in the interests of being as fair as we can to as many people as we can. But also respecting the people who put on events.”

5. No, it’s not really easier for women to qualify, but statisticians keep crunching the numbers every year.

Runners who have been shut out of Boston registration often claim that women have an advantage over men. Grilk said that the BAA is aware of those claims, but they’re not true, at least not by a statistically significant amount.

It does help to be older than 55, Grilk said. But of course, there are fewer runners in those age groups, so tightening the standards for older runners wouldn’t do much to change the supply-and-demand problem the race has.

Race statisticians do not rely heavily on age-grading (how times stack up against the current age-group world records) when looking at the fairness of qualifying times. Instead, they look at how various age groups perform at Boston itself—the average margins by which they beat their qualifying standards.

For both men and women, between ages 18 and 44, they tend to better their qualifying in the 11 and a half to 13-minute range. “It’s not all that different by gender,” Grilk said. “It’s quite close together.”

6. Once people get to Boston, they work like crazy to qualify again.

Many years, the race that produces the most qualifiers for the Boston Marathon is...the Boston Marathon.

Last year, even with crazy conditions, was no exception. In fact, 30 percent more people requalified for Boston in the 2018 race than they did at the 2017 race.

Grilk thinks the weather helped people pace better. “Maybe because it was so ghastly, they started off slowly and kept going. That first mile, if you run too fast down that first mile, it causes these teeny little insults to the quadriceps, which become massive pains later in the race. With people slowing down a little bit, maybe that was a factor.”

A version of this article appeared on Runner's World US