Readers Roundtable: How About Those Boston Standards?

As long as you exceed your qualifier enough, that is.
As long as you exceed your qualifier enough, that is.

Last Monday, registration for the 2017 Boston Marathon began, first for those who exceeded their qualifying standard by more than 20 minutes, then a few days later by 10 minutes, and then five minutes and so forth. This week marks the end of the rolling registration process for runners who have run less than five minutes faster than their qualifying times. For these runners the week will be filled with angst and crossed fingers, hoping their times will be fast enough to get in.

You see, simply running a qualifying time is not enough anymore. Running a time only qualifies you to APPLY for registration, with the fastest applicants getting accepted. After the 2011 registration period, qualifying times were tightened by five minutes for each age group and for the 2016 race, marathoners needed a qualifier that was at least two minutes and 28 seconds faster than their qualifying time to actually race in Boston. Wow!

We want to know what you think! 

  • Is the current system fine?
  • Or should the BAA increase the field size so all qualifiers can compete or tighten the standards?
  • If the BAA tightens the standards should they do so for both men and women or, as some argue, are the standards too soft for women as compared to men?

A new mom and Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Maneuvering through motherhood and postpartum running!

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  1. I’ll throw it out there- I think the women’s standard is too lenient compared to the men’s, particularly for the under 40. The men’s time is pretty intense- 3:05 for under 35. Women’s time is 3:35. I understand when they came up with the standards there was an attempt to balance the the entires, but it just doesn’t feel like equivalent effort. Not that 3:35 doesn’t take effort, but the sort of effort required for a 3:05 is on another level. My vote is the women’s time should drop by 5-10 minutes for the under 40.

    As for waived entry, I think it is a valid solution. The course is too narrow for an unlimited size. One tweak I would propose, however, is allowing first time entrants to register first. After working hard for a qualifier, it’s a shame to be timed out.

    1. I’ll save my thoughts on whether the standards are soft, but I wanted to say I really like the idea of allowing first-time qualifiers to register first.

    2. I actually agree with you, and I realize we are probably in the minority among women with this opinion. Last year the Boston Marathon winners posted times of 2:12 (men) and 2:29 (women). A female qualifying standard of 20-25 minutes slower than the men would be a little more appropriate. In my opinion!

    3. I think letting first time qualifiers register first is an interesting idea- and I don’t think it’s a bad one (definitely heard this thrown out there in conversation before). But I also wonder if that would take away from the whole “Boston feeling” of Boston. You get the excitement of qualifying and earning a chance, you submit registration in hopes that you are fast enough to get in. And then you get in, and it’s almost like some validation for all of your work that you got in on own merits and maybe it sounds bad- but me personally I wouldn’t want to feel like I got a boost in any way. If we say 1st time qualifiers get in first, does that take away from the prestige of being one of the most elite races in the world? As much as many people might not like it, I think the fastest getting in to run is the best way to preserve Boston’s Elite status. After all, that is one of the reasons everyone wants to run it, right?

      1. Hmm, I think maybe I have a different perspective coming from the far side (very, very far side) of 3:35, but ‘3:35 and under’ means just that to me: you met the standard. 2 minutes under, 30 minutes under – you’re a qualifier! That’s difficult enough for the average runner, and still preserves the elite mystique. To me, anyway.

        1. PS – Maybe if I came in under the cutoff by 30 minutes I’d be a bit miffed that a ‘slower’ first-time qualifier would get to register ahead of me, but…I’m trying to imagine ever feeling that way, and it feels just a tad out of touch and 1%.

          1. I think that for those of us who never have to worry about exceeding the standard enough that it can be hard to fully understand your feelings about this one. But I’m not sure this is an elitist opinion either and that one can have it while appreciating all sides.

          2. Grace, I understand your frustration as from the outside it may seem as though it’s easy for me to say XYZ because it currently doesn’t affect me. As someone who worked for a few years to qualify, and then drop my time by 48 minutes over the course of 14 marathons- I’d like to think that I have a pretty good idea of the work it takes, and the difference between griping about standards when it isn’t an issue and when it is. I’ve been on both sides of the standards, and yes currently don’t have to “worry” but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know that “so close yet so far away” feeling trying to qualify and get in. I shed many tears and struggled to keep confidence while trying to qualify for the first time a few years ago. It also doesn’t mean that as I gain more knowledge and experience that my opinions and viewpoints might change- as they would for anyone. But I still personally believe that faster people getting in is the way that is most fair, I’d rather get shut out of a race I worked to qualify for because other people were faster than because of some stroke of luck or rule that stopped me because I’d already run it before.

      2. But as recently as just a few years ago, if you qualified, you got in. There was no extra level involved, and now there is. Now you can qualify but not get in, which is really a very new thing in terms of Boston history.

    4. I agree. Women’s qualifying time is too cushy compared to the men’s time. So your options are:
      -make the women’s qualifying time equally difficult.
      -set the qualifying time to manipulate race demographics and tweak/repeat every year.
      -Everyone applies, then the fastest ___ entries in both men and women get in.
      -write an essay about why you should run Boston for the selection committee.
      -charge more… supply and demand baby!
      -Entry based on points/rankings/classification like in cycling.
      -use a selection subset group to run an experiment to choose qualifying times based on the race’s target training average criteria.

      Boston doesn’t interest me, and I don’t really care. However, if the goal is equivalent difficulty, I propose 3:25 young women’s qualifying time. I’ll support that number with some analysis at some point.

  2. I think it’s possible that some of the times in some of the categories could be tweaked, but, on the whole, I don’t think the Boston standards are too lenient for women. If you check out the BAA’s statistics, the only category where women outnumber the men is the 18-39 group, and not by that much: In the other groups the men outnumber the women. So I suppose, if we’re looking for something close to equilibrium in each age group, the younger women’s standards could be tightened by a few minutes, but then we’d also need to be talking about tightening the standards for men in most of the other age groups, which is something that almost never gets discussed. I also don’t agree that a 3:05 for a man is necessarily “on another level” from a 3:35 effort from a woman of equivalent age. A 3:05 performance by a woman is certainly on another level from a 3:35 performance by another woman, but I just don’t agree that those times from a man and a woman, respectively, are that far off from each other effort-wise.

    1. This is where it gets messy- some of the standards favor men and some favor women. In order to make it more equal (but by whose standards?) it would mean an entire overhaul and heavy research into each age group and gender category. It would mean times wouldn’t be as simple as, age up and get 5 more minutes. Not saying that is a bad thing, but I’m not sure the BAA is going to take on that task which would make things very complicated.

      1. Yeah, totally – like you gotta remember who you’re dealing with. MAYBE I could see a more corporate-style organization like NYRR getting into all that if it meant they could raise the financial output of their race, but BAA being a nonprofit whose goal isn’t necessarily to do research, ehhhh…

  3. I feel the standards should be tightened for every age group. 5 minutes again. I was able to register in December of 2009 for the 2010 race. Perhaps tightening the standard again would make it more challenging, but would allow a better chance for people to qualify with a fall marathon.

    1. Yeah, when I ran it (*cough* 10 years ago *cough*) I qualified at the end of the previous October and registered around Christmas. There was a race in February called “Last Chance for Boston” that people used to qualify for the same year’s race!

      1. YES! My mother-in-law ran one of those last-chance races to get in for 2009 too. I ran Boston in 2008 and 2009 and registered AFTER running Memphis in December.

  4. I completely get the race director’s practical considerations: you can’t have a race with an infinite number of participants. It’s just not going to happen. So, standards.
    I think it’s great that the repute of Boston has grown to the point that many many more runners are willing to train to qualify. (If I ever do qualify I’ll be a ‘squeaker’ – it’ll be by a margin of minutes, maybe seconds.) And those numbers parallel the growth in the popularity of running. All good things.
    On the other hand, every runner who qualifies should have the chance to run Boston at least once. They put in the work, they should get to enjoy the experience. And when you tighten standards, you are going to make it harder for certain people. An absolute tightening by 5 minutes could make it harder for the youngest men, for example, because 5 minutes is a bigger proportion of 3:05 than of 3:35. Why not a lottery for qualifiers? You could roll over your lottery ticket from year to year, like the big trail ultras, if you don’t get in one year. That addresses the problem of the ‘gap’ between the cutoff and the actual race filling up. Or maybe they should just make it a virtual race… ha ha ha.

    1. Devil’s advocate time! There are many other marathons to enjoy – some big marathons, some with high standards that are auto-qualifiers like NYC. Boston is the only big marathon that caters to the fastest recreational runners. It’s specialness is in this uniqueness. No matter what the system is, some people will not be able to make it. That’s not an indictment on those people – it just is. With a capped field there will be haves and have-nots and I’m not sure that in this case that is an injustice.

      And I’m back! So, I’m really not sure where I stand on this. But this is a side I could consider taking. I’m open to your counterpoints 😉

  5. When I was first trying to qualify a few years ago, I would have never thought I’d say the women’s time wasn’t equal. But, admittedly I now to believe that the women’s open division time is a bit soft. I can’t say with certainty just how much, but I do thing the time would be better suited starting with a 3:2X than 3:3X. Women’s running, especially competitively is far beyond what it was and I think the open time could reflect that more. With that said though, I don’t think ALL standards should be tightened by 5 minutes. As Zest said, some times favor men and some favor women- and even the age groups are skewed. I think the 3:05 is a fair standard for open men, and I don’t think it should be cut down to breaking 3 hours.

    As for the registration process, I do like the fastest get in concept. I believe that is what makes Boston, Boston. I believe that is one of the things that makes it different from every other marathon, and that keeps the traditions alive. I understand that is tough, and means some people might be left out- but Boston is a privilege and not a right. Qualifying has never meant you automatically get in, it simply means you qualify to be able to apply for registration. If we want to eliminate the issue of people getting shut out, I think the answer is make times faster and encourage runners to do the same….run faster. (I say this, as someone who had to work and try multiple times to qualify and understand just how taxing that can be- but it made my Boston experience that much better because I knew everything I personally put into that process).

  6. I dont know. I’m curious to see what the cutoff is this year. If the cutoff continues to grow, then yes tighten the standards. I can’t jump on the women’s standard is too lenient bandwagon. It took me so long to meet those standards, that I naturally get a bit defensive when people say it’s too easy, so I have trouble looking at that objectively.

    1. I get frustrated (and have to remind myself how I word things at times too), when people say ANY marathon time is easy. A marathon is a lot of work and the product of months and years, not just those 26.2 miles. I would never say a 3:35 marathon time is easy- the way I see it though is that when looking at it for Boston specifically and looking at it in comparison to the men’s open time it doesn’t seem equal. That doesn’t mean that the time is easy, but simply that it isn’t in line with the other time. I absolutely can understand why people would get defensive when it’s called easy…no marathon time is easy!

    1. Well, I have not run Boston and is not good enough to even consider that. Early on, it always toys in my head that if I cannot run by qualifying, then I will “donate” or “buy” my way into the race. But after my first marathon race this year, I will not consider that as an option (for my pride). I do understand the important of charity donation in events. However, they do have a large quota on that… If I am trying to qualify, this will irritate me a little bit. Not sure, on the fence on this one (“I will duck on this one, too”).

      1. Louisa, that is really interesting that you changed your mind after running a race. I have seen many people change their perspective as they either run a marathon, get faster and get closer to times, or get further away from standards. I know people who said they would do charity if they couldn’t qualify but as they got closer to qualifying realized they wanted to have the pride of getting in through regular registration. I also know a few people who said they would never run for charity at Boston because of same thing above, but then realized that they wanted to run sooner rather than later and opted to raise a ton of money for a good cause and still get the Boston experience.

        One option I haven’t seen much chatter about, is….what if everyone who applied got in, and then the number of charity entries was determined after that with what was left in the field size. This doesn’t remove charities all together but does create a more fair playing field for those who qualified by time.

        1. Barley – I like your idea!

          And the BAA could save face on the hit their fundraising would take (with fewer charity entries) by raising the fundraising requirement to make up for the difference.

          1. Totally agree with this suggestion. Also raising the fundraising minimum will make it harder for someone to simply buy his/her way in versus promoting a real cause.

        2. People might feel differently if they saw first hand the impact that the charity program has on race day and the greater Boston community.It is a huge part of the impact of the event – it is the Boston Marathon (emphasis on location) and not just a bucket list event for fast runners from around the world…. the community that hosts it is important, and some of these charities rely heavily on marathon fundraising for their annual operating budgets. And although the minimum charity commitment is $5,000, most charity runners have to commit to raising much more than that to get a bib. That provides powerful motivation and connection to the event, the city and causes! I think the issue with qualifying standards and squeakers who are left out can be addressed without decimating the charity program.

          1. I’m not sure what you mean. I have participated on a charity team in Boston and there’s no requirement for sponsorship. You just have to find a way to raise the $ you commit to raising. Many of the charities are very small and it is a big deal for them to participate.

  7. I will be running my first marathon this weekend in an attempt to qualify for Boston. I am nearing the end of the youngest age group for men and my goal is to qualify while I’m still under 35. I think 3:05 is fair. It presents a challenge but I think good runners can achieve it. I have thought that if I made the qualifying time and didn’t get past the cut off, I would just take a charity entry, knowing full well I met the standard set out by the BAA. As for the women, I feel it’s a bit soft. HOWEVER, as someone pointed out, last year the winner for the men was 2:12 and women were 2:29. That means the winning male was 13% faster than the winning female. If you apply that to the qualifying standards, 3:05 for men should mean around 3:30 for women, so 3:35 really isn’t that off base.

    1. If you think about it in terms of how much work the average male or female runner must work to meet those standards, it’s pretty similar. I personally think to be truly fair the women’s standards would need to be changed from increasing by 5:00 each age group with increasing by 5:00 +1 or more for each age group. So if the standard for 18-34 is decreased to 3:30, then for 35 – 39 it should be 3:36, then 40 – 44 3:43, then 45 – 49 3:51, 50 – 54 3:59. This would increase the women’s times over the current standard over 50, but decrease the rest slightly and would have the best chance of achieving gender parity. But it’s complicated and the current system is probably close enough.

      1. Yeah, exactly. Like I mentioned, it only “feels” soft, but if you look at it based on percentages, it’s really not. If you apply that logic to other age groups, then you hit the nail on the head, the increase for women should be more than for men. Either way, it takes an honest effort to qualify for either gender and we’re not pros, at the end of the day, it’s a recreational activity and the BAA owes us nothing. Thankful for the opportunity and appreciate the fact that there’s a challenge I can work towards.

    1. Why isn’t the focus on the fact that the men’s time for the vast majority of the other age groups might be too soft? That’s where the real disparity is, and no one ever talks about it. Last year, roughly 3000 more men than women in total qualified — if we apply the same reasoning that is being applied to the 18-34 age group, doesn’t that mean that the older men’s times are too “soft”? I think this is an interesting discussion as a general matter, but it always bothers me that the conversation focuses on the small sliver of the overall field where women have a perceived advantage. I also find it frustrating because sometimes this argument is used as a way of minimizing women’s achievements while saving face for certain men who couldn’t hit their standards. “Oh, you qualified for Boston? Well, your standard is soft. Oh, you qualified by 20 minutes? Proof that it’s soft.”

  8. I can’t even render an opinion on this after qualifying 2x for the 2016 race and not getting in with either time (by seconds). I think I would prefer that they tighten the standards across the board so all qualifiers have a legit shot of getting in, vs. having so many squeakers get bumped. Of course if what I’m seeing is correct, I probably would have gotten in with BOTH of my BQs if it had been for this year. So who knows….. can’t please everyone I guess.

      1. Thanks guys. By “I can’t even render an opinion” I meant “I just can’t even……!” I’m still a little bummed about the whole thing especially now with the 2017 registration going on. I am a local, and it was a huge achievement for me to get those BQs, so the whole thing was disappointing. Anyway, moving on… will just need to run faster and get it again. I guess my official position on this is, if we keep seeing a thousands of qualifiers not getting in each year, I would tighten the standards, probably across the board. I do think it is interesting to see the ups and downs – supposedly with the super hot conditions this spring all across the country, # of qualifiers is down so maybe there will be little or no cutoff during registration. But it does seem the overall trend is towards many qualifiers getting left out.

  9. When I first started running marathons, the open women’s time was 3:40:59 which seemed far away but possibly achievable. When I started to inch closer, they cut of 5:59 and my time became 3:35 plus whatever buffer. That extra challenge certainly pushed me an I went on to run a 3:35:52 and then a 3:29:18 to finally qualify on my 6th marathon. Not fast in the grand scheme of things, but 45 minutes faster than my first marathon – and probably times I might not have achieved had I not had that BQ motivator.

    I wonder more about the times for older runners. When you hit 45, you get an extra 10 minutes. At least around here, most of the local runners who go down to Boston are those in their late 40s and into their 50s. They seem to have have the time and money to train and travel.

    1. Jesse I totally agree about BQ motivator! That really encouraged me to keep training, trying to qualify and get faster. Sometimes we need that external motivator to keep us going even when it’s hard. I’m grateful the Boston helped me push myself, and even struggled a bit after I ran Boston because it was almost like a “what now” feeling and then I learned to find internal motivation to work towards other goals…..I also found that I was looking at a BQ as a limit for myself as MANY people do. I realized that I let someone else dictate my goals for me, and I was happier when I started running faster times for ME and not to prove it to someone else or a race. I think SO many people are capable of qualifying and even running far faster than their times but the BQ is almost looked at like a limit. The BQ was a huge step for me (and obviously mannyyyyy others), but it’s just a step and there is still so much room for growth beyond the times an organization sets for you. (Yes this is something that took me years to come to, and the experience of being on both sides of the BAA standards)

      1. I love this post! I think it leads back to the discussion we had here about goal setting – for me, I saw that 3:30 barrier as a hopefully sure ticket into Boston, but now I think “why go through the suffering to run 3:27”? Sometimes I think I need that external push to help me break through the mental barriers.

  10. I feel the same way. So my next goal is a sub 3:30. I haven’t done it yet, but I haven’t really gone after it on race day very aggressively. i can tell you with out a doubt if my bq was a 3:30 I would have gotten it by now!

  11. I am in the camp that women’s standards are too easy and men’s may be too hard as evidenced by the disparity in the 18-39 entrants. But it goes beyond that.

    I am not sure why there is a 30 minute difference that gets preserved as you age. I realize for many women, it’s hard to BQ, but the same applies for many men. Last year more than 4000 BQ registrants did not make the cut. Charity runners numbered over 7000. There is no way that the BAA will cut the charity field to allow those entrants in. Add in the other bibs for towns, cities along the course and sponsors and you have another 500-1000 non BQ runners.

    I’m no sure whether the goal is to balance the field or to reflect the top X% in each age bracket. As someone who recently aged into 45 plus, I was shocked to see the standards go up by 10 minutes (3:55 vs.a men’s 3:25). Am I really losing that much fitness in 1 year? No, what it meant was that I BQ’d by a lot more. However, I realize that as a pre-Title IX child, there are fewer competitive female runners over 45. I see this in local races as well. I don’t think I am fast but suddenly I am placing top 3 or top in my age group. Why does the field need to be equalized? Shouldn’t it be proportional? Technology makes determining top in age group pretty easy.

    I like the Boston mystique and the competitive draw of the race. I don’t think everyone deserves to run Boston. As Salty and others said, there are so many great marathons. I think charities are great but they have diluted the field and reduced the elitism of achieving a BQ. Right now, I am registered for 2017 Boston, but I am waiting to see about my entry into the London Marathon — because I still have no idea why it takes them 6 months to run a “lottery” process. If I get into London, my entry (and fees) go unused. Hence, someone else doesn’t get to run because I had to pay for the option in case I don’t get into London. As a runner and knowing what it takes to get into Boston, I feel awful, but I had to buy the 2017 Boston option because its my “local marathon” and the easiest Spring one for me to race.. With the increased attention on bib selling/sharing, I don’t think I can let someone use my number because I may forgo future entry. Why isn’t there a wait list? Why can’t I cancel my entry so someone else can run? Is it really that hard to maintain a database of runners that missed the cut and allow BQ’s to cancel officially by a certain date.

    Personally, I really want to run more marathons in more places. Boston is great, but there are so many great locales to run 26.2. And many where logistics and course are not as challenging as Boston.

    1. I really like the idea of a wait list. Setting a reasonable cancel by date – something like January 15 that would still allow plenty of time for a waitlist runner to train (assuming anyone with a BQ could get into reasonable marathon shape in 3 months) would probably have allowed many of last year’s 4000 (I was one of them) the chance to run.

      1. I agree on wait list idea- I think that is something that makes Boston so tough right now is you have to plan everything so far in advance, and sometimes things simply change. Like you said Jen, a January cutoff would allow someone on the waitlist still time to train but also the BAA plenty of time to update anything they may need to for the exchange.

  12. Hey any thoughts on treating US nationals different from international entrants? Other marathons bias their citizens or have a separate entry for international entrants? Any thoughts? Any one know how many international BQ entrants and how that compares to the 4000+ BQ registrants that missed the cut last year?

    I love that its international but as someone trying to run the majors, its not the same process when you are international in many other races.

  13. Barley, maybe you know this being the resident data nerd (this is NOT a jab – I love it!) but is there a database anywhere that records marathon entrants and results with demographic information? I would be very curious to see percentiles of finish times by gender and age group for a bunch of the marathons in the US all compiled together. I am of the belief that the women’s standard is way more attainable than the men’s, but never sure whether that’s simply because I haven’t yet run the men’s standard and so my perception is a bit skewed. I’ve always assumed that the standards were established during a time when less people in general were running marathons and WAY less women were running marathons, so the top X% of the female contingent simply weren’t as fast as they are now. Who knows.

    1. I am looking into this! I would love to know if there was such a site/database. I know there are sites that compare some stats but usually only the top 20ish feeder marathons for Boston, not ALL of the official marathons.

    2. I was curious about this to, so just as a very small pilot, I pulled up the results from the marathon where I BQ’d this past spring and looked at two age groups (25-29 and 30-34) for both men and women – so 3:05 and 3:35 qualifying times. There were more men than women who ran the race, and proportionately more men who qualified. In all four of the age groups, the percentage of Boston Qualifiers ranged from 9.8 to 11%, so pretty consistent between men and women.

  14. I ran the Boston Marathon last year and was lucky to run 5 minutes faster than the qualifying time (I wasn’t planning to, but I wouldn’t have made the cut otherwise). As the qualifying times are becoming so far from the times actually required to register and run the Boston race, I believe they should adjust the qualifying times to reflect that. There’s nothing more disappointing than being so excited that you qualified and then realizing that you can’t sign up for the race. As a runner and author who writes about goals, it seems to upset the whole goal setting and achievement process to tell runners that their qualifying times actually aren’t good enough.

    1. I agree that it’s changed the whole “BQ excitement” aspect for many. It’s like, oh so and so beat the standard by 20 seconds- but won’t necessarily get in with that….soooooo did it really matter? (it does matter, but definitely takes away from it I think).

  15. last year, this blogger did a detailed analysis estimating what it would take to get in — s/he came pretty close

    But the data is not presented gender specific.
    Scrapping the data from web site results is not that easy — but it could be done and it arguably should be easier to export results for analysis from any race.

    I think the blogger missed some key races and the impact of international runners (and probably didn’t realize the amount of charity and other bibs they designate.

    Barley, do you know of an easier way to scrape data from 100+ marathons?


    1. Susan I want to dig into this and find more data and HOW we can get our hands on that. I mentioned above in another comment that I know of sites that do information for the most common Boston feeder races but not ALL races….I think it would be really interesting to see that data. I have a few friends who are very good at data mining and may be able to offer some insight!