There Are Two Sides to the Boston Marathon. I’ve Been on Both of Them.

There’s no question that the Boston Marathon is one of the most coveted bibs in U.S. road racing. There are really only two ways to get in: run a qualifying time (and these days, even that doesn’t guarantee you entry) or raise thousands of dollars for charity. The former is the ultimate running goal for many everyday runners and a crowning achievement, while the latter is a hot-button issue.

The race to raise money

In 2013 I ran my first marathon. It was in Boston. I had raised more than $5,000 for the American Liver Foundation. I’d grown up watching the storied race, and when I started running again after college, I knew I had to toe the line in Hopkinton. The hitch? I believed there was no way I’d ever qualify. I could never run a 3:35. I didn’t even entertain the idea. I applied for a charity spot in the fall of 2012.

On April 15, 2013, I ran a 3:56. I told myself that if I were to run Boston again it would be through the qualifying standard. But then the bombs went off, and I knew I had to return in 2014. I just didn’t think I could get there without a charity spot. So for a second year, I raised $5,000. And I ran a 3:42.

The fundraising, I think, is more grueling than the training. For both races, I was paired with two pediatric liver patients. We were pen pals, and I kept the 9 and 11 year olds apprised of my training. They sent me cards, and the 11 year old made me a sign and cheered for me in 2013 at mile 17. We stayed in touch for years. They’re just two faces of those who benefit from the Boston Marathon charity runners.

Did “charity runners” earn their Boston bibs?

I know people who are vehemently against charity runners. They say the charity runners didn’t earn their spot in Hopkinton. Or that the qualified runners who didn’t gain entry because of the time cutoff should get those charity bibs (I know I’d be pissed if I qualified but didn’t make the time cutoff).

But charity runnersย did earn their spot. They poured their heart and soul into fundraisingย and training. They supported causes that are near and dear to them. Last year, charity runners raised $34.2 millionย in Boston. And they’re just as deserving of a Boston Marathon medal when they cross that finish line on Boylston as a qualified runner is.

My pediatric liver patient and her sister cheer runners on at mile 17.

In the fall of 2014 I ran a 3:31 marathon and qualified for the 2016 race (in which I ran a disappointing 3:38, thanks to the heat). Raising $10,000 in less than two years for liver disease research was an accomplishment I am so proud of. But crossing that line more than three minutes under the qualifying standard felt like winning the lottery.

As a qualified runner, I find race weekend more exciting. You’re one of the few who ran fast enough to be there. Even bib pickup with a charity number feels different than with a qualifying number. Both are earned. Both were not easy to come by. But a qualifying bib gets you into a special club. And there’s something magical about that.

I am grateful I’ve had the opportunity to experience both bibs. Both taught me the importance of hard work and dedication. Both brought me through the famed course on tired, screaming legs. Both made me a Boston Marathoner.

Runner's World editor by day, mom by night (and day, let's be honest). Sub-20 5K, seven-time marathoner, track-workout lover. Always in search of a great burger.

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11 comments

  1. I started my Boston journey as a charity runner. I have now run 3 qualifying times, 2 of them not fast enough to get me in (most recent one should be for 2019)…. The first year I had to raise $10K, another year $5K. Subsequent years I have not had to raise $ for the charity, but I always do and always will. It adds another whole dimension to the experience. There is a sense of entitlement about Boston that I don’t get… this is an event that requires massive investment by the community to put on, and wouldn’t be what it is without the community and the fans. The charity program is hugely impactful on this community, and for people to say that charity runners are in some way taking away from what rightfully “belongs” to another runner is ridiculous. Running a qualifying time gives you the opportunity to apply for the # of slots that are put aside for qualified runners. It does not give anyone the right to bash another very important component of what makes the Boston Marathon so great, and look at charity runners as somehow less deserving or important. My 2 cents…..

    1. Jen, I LOVE Boston through and through, the city the race the community all of it. BUT you are so right, the entitlement grinds my gears. You qualify to APPLY. Boston is a privilege, not a right. I struggle when I see people complaining about this, and Boston not being “Fair”.

    2. Agree! I don’t understand the sense of entitlement either. Part of what sets Boston apart from other marathon experiences I’ve had is the INCREDIBLE support and enthusiasm that the city and its residents bring to the event. Whether as a charity or qualifying runner, it’s an honor and privilege to run it!

  2. I appreciate the perspective you have on this, from both sides. I am not against charity spots by any means but with runners now getting shut out it makes me wonder what the best course of action would be. But I can’t quantify who “earned” (I hate the term deserved in relation to running) it more..someone who qualified or someone who raised money. It is definitely a gray area and both ways in are definitely ones that require work. Personally I think that the number of bibs that are just given away(to sponsor companies, running clubs, etc.) should be cut back on. I just remember a conversation I had with a woman at our hotel a few years ago, who seemed surprised that I qualified and talked openly about how she got a bib from her (Boston Area) running club by earning points for a bib raffle by showing up to group runs, store purchases, and running their races. But I understand that at the same time those are how the BAA get more volunteers and sponsorship.

    Having qualified and run Boston a few times, I do plan to run for charity at least one year as well. I don’t need an excuse to raise money for a cause, as I frequently do for our local children’s hospital as well as St. Jude in Memphis…but to be able to do so AND run Boston for it…sounds amazing.

    1. The local running clubs do get bib allocations, but they work for them and they are not guaranteed year to year. My running club mans every single clock on the course (every mile and at kilometer intervals) all day long, does bag stuffing and other events to earn those invitational entries. The towns along the course all get an allocation… they all provide security and logistical support for miles of the course on race day, and most of them require runners to raise $ for local charities in exchange for entry. There are definitely some bibs that get handed out at the pleasure of the local politicians, etc. But the bottom line is… the BAA manages this race, and the BAA decides the entry process. It is the sense of “I earned it and someone else didn’t” that gets me. Yes, there is great history and everyone wants to be a part of it… but this is a road race put on by a private organization, requiring massive support and involvement from the local community. The local community should benefit and the charity program is one way they do.

      1. That’s really true/good point that the community should benefit as a charity would. I appreciate your insight as a Bostonian who has more of that information than the average runner might not. I’m not 100% against any of the ways into the race (aside from banditting) though I do side eye the people given bibs without doing SOMETHING-qualifying, volunteering, raising money etc. My (very) unpopular opinion is that if people keep getting shut out, they’ll have to either learn to deal with it (or run faster, or raise money for charity) or they’ll have to deal with the standards being changed again. Charity program shouldn’t and won’t ever go away and the race needs volunteers and business support which means bibs for them too, it’s the nature of things. We definitely agree on the entitlement being a load of crap and that it’s a privilege to run Boston not a right!

        1. As someone who lives here, has run under all entry avenues (qualified, charity, invitational), raises $ for a charity, manages a local team of fundraising runners who get their entries via waiver from the BAA, has had her bib# flagrantly copied by another runner in 2014…. I have some strong opinions!

  3. Like JenHF (hiiiii Jen!), I have run Boston both as a qualified entrant (my first two times) and as a non-qualified entrant (my third). I only ran for charity the two times I was qualified, and it was a LOT of work! The time I ran non-qualified I got my number though my running club. Some might say I didn’t deserve that number, but I volunteered a lot with my club to received it and I also volunteered at Boston 2005-2009, 2012-2014, and 2016!

    Running as a qualified entrant for charity, I got to see how important Boston Marathon fundraising is for these charity teams. A runner on our team was alive because previous year’s teams had raised funds for research grants which ultimately funded the development of a drug that saved her life!

    The idea that a qualified entrant is “more deserving” of a spot is ridiculous. I agree completely with JenHF, it’s the BAA’s race and theirs to manage. I did hear from a source years ago that the BAA would not increase qualified entrant spots if they decreased invitational entry spots, so unless they change their stance on that, it’s not even a valid argument. The Boston Marathon is what it is partly because of the community that comes out to cheer on & support the charity runners – it would be a very different race without them!