Can’t Touch This: Why Change Never Ruins The Boston Marathon

The addition of a third wave to this year's race won't take away from the magic of the marathon that is Boston.

Despite doing new things every year, it will always be the same old race.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Changes are afoot at this year’s Boston Marathon. For the first time, the start will occur in three separate waves (not including the elite women’s wave, which goes first and includes only 50 runners). This innovation comes only five years after the Boston Marathon broke from more than 100 years of tradition and went from a single mass start to a two-wave format. At this rate, they’ll have 10 start waves in 2061.

A second change affects runners in this year’s race only if they hope to participate in next year’s Boston Marathon. The Boston Athletic Association will implement a new rolling admission process that will allow the fastest qualifiers (from any sanctioned Boston qualifier event, not just Boston itself) in each division to register first.

There’s been a predictable amount of bellyaching about both of these changes in the marathon running community. Some runners are convinced that the move from two waves to three will increase congestion and confusion in Hopkinton instead of reducing these problems, as it is intended to do. “We might actually have more people crowded into less space,” concluded one commenter in an online forum thread about the change.

As for the new rolling admission system, as you might expect, the fastest runners in each age group tend to be in favor of it, while the slower qualifiers call it unfair.

Being the world’s oldest marathon by a long shot, the Boston Marathon is a race of many traditions. Ironically, one of its richest traditions is one of breaking from its own traditions and taking heat for each such break from runners who either hate the specific changes or just don’t like broken traditions generally.

Indeed, change is one of few constants in the Boston Marathon. For example, in recent years, the idea of moving the start line to a location with broader streets than East Main Street in Hopkinton to accommodate a larger field has been bandied about. Many traditionalists are horrified by the idea. But Hopkinton itself was not the race’s original start site. The Boston Marathon started in Ashland until 1925. No doubt the traditionalists of that time complained that the race had been ruined by the move to Hopkinton.

What about some of the other great Boston Marathon traditions? As every marathon runner know, Boston is the only marathon that takes place on Monday. But it didn’t always. It used to take place on April 19 each year, which could be any day of the week. Boston is also known as the only major marathon that administers a time-based qualification system. But that tradition didn’t begin until 1970. The noon start time was one of my personal favorite traditions at Boston, but that went away in 2007. Even the distance of the race, 26.2 miles, represents a break from tradition. It was 24.5 to 25 miles long from 1897 to 1924.

None of these changes, nor any of the many other changes the Boston Marathon has undergone in its 115-year history, has ruined the race. In fact, the Boston Athletic Association’s greatest missteps have involved resistance to change. Arguably the lowest moment in the race’s history occurred in 1967, when race director Jock Semple tried to drag Katherine Switzer off the racecourse, because women weren’t allowed to participate. Another five years passed before women were allowed to officially enter the event. That’s a real blight on the event’s history. Where would the Boston Marathon be now if it were still all male?

In the 1980s, the BAA resisted mounting pressure to award prize money to top finishers. Their stubbornness caused a talent drain from the elite fields that eventually forced the BAA to follow the lead of other big city marathons and begin awarding prize money. At the time, many purists whined that the Boston Marathon was no longer “a people’s race”, but in 2011 no one even remembers what the heck that phrase was supposed to mean.

I’m not trying to suggest that continuity means nothing in the Boston Marathon, or that there is no change the BAA could possibly make that would spoil the hallowed event. I’m just suggesting that the race has much more latitude to change and thrive despite it (or for it) than some people think. And the BAA simply never will make any change that really could take it down the tubes, like allowing tigers to compete alongside human runners. The start and finish lines could be moved again and the race would go on. The CITGO sign could be taken down and the race would go on. A half marathon could be added, qualifying times completely done away with, the race date moved to October, a team-based international competition introduced, and it would go on.

All the Boston Marathon really needs to remain the greatest marathon in the world is a certain core continuity. As long as the race happens in and around Boston, and it remains fundamentally a marathon, and it calls itself the Boston Marathon, it will still feel like the same race that 18 men started in Ashland and completed 25 miles away (by dirt roads–that’s right, the Boston Marathon was originally a “trail” run) at Irvington Street Oval.

When asked recently what he found so special about the Boston Marathon, Ryan Hall said, “For me, it’s like putting myself in a history book I read in grade school growing up.” And what is history? Change. No change, no history.

[sgi:MattFitzgerald]


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