The Times, They Are A Changin’: New Boston Marathon Qualifying Times Take Effect

It's now tougher to earn a spot on the starting line in Hopkinton. Photo: MarathonFoto.com

New qualifying standards for the Boston Marathon are in effect for the 2013 race.

It took Catherine Young 15 attempts over 18 years to earn her first trip to the Boston Marathon. Now, with new, faster qualification standards going into effect for the 117th edition of the race in 2013, it will take at least one more year until she can attempt the road to Boston again.

After running her debut marathon in 4:44 in 2004, Young, a mother of two from Allen, Texas, whittled her PR down to 3:44:34 at the 2009 St. George Marathon in St. George, Utah.

Since 2007, Young, 45, has qualified for the Boston Marathon on three occasions under qualifying times had remained the same since 2003. Her results in Boston were good — and 3:53 in 2008, 3:58 in 2010, 4:16 in 2011 — but running from Hopkinton back to Copley Square was only part of the thrill. It was the journey to get there that mattered most.

“It was the chase,” she says. “It’s the regular-person elite race. You’re toeing the line with the greatest regular runners in the world.”

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Now Young admits she’s going to have to up her game to get back. After the Boston Marathon experienced a stampede sell-out of its more than 26,000 spots in October of 2010 (a record-breaking eight hours and three minutes), it brought such an outcry from the running population—many of whom were shut out of the 115th edition of the race because they simply didn’t get to a computer fast enough to register—that something had to be done.

The Boston Athletic Association, the managing body for the race, examined the qualifying standards—something it does every year, says Jack Fleming, the B.A.A.’s director of marketing and communications—and for the first time since 1980, made its standards more stringent. Times are now five minutes, 59 seconds faster across all age divisions, as the 59-second buffer zone for each age group was also eliminated. So whereas a runner in the men’s 18-34 age group used to have a 3:10:59 qualifying time, a 3:05:00 effort is now required to make the grade.

But even if that same runner can find a way to run a 3:04:59 qualifier that doesn’t mean he’ll get into the race.

While these changes taking effect for the 2013 race were announced in early 2011, one change that was implemented immediately for the 2012 race was a “rolling admission” process, which allowed for runners with a faster time under their standard (in increments of 20, 10, and five minutes faster) to register first. It was designed, Fleming says, to retain the legacy of the marathon for those who run—not type—the fastest.

“The course is not going to be changing to accommodate a whole lot more people, so we really need to rely upon some efficiencies and technological innovations,” he says.

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But the updated standards have meant that many, including Young, who ran 3:57:16 at the Colorado Marathon last May, find themselves in limbo with a time that would have been under the old standard—her time falls under the ages 45-49 previous standard of 4:00:59, but isn’t under the new standard of 3:55:00.

Young admits she was a disappointed when she found out she wouldn’t have the standard. And for those other women she trains with in her running group, especially the young mothers who haven’t yet gone, it is disheartening.

“It almost seems impossible. An extra five minutes? How am I going to do that?” Young says. “But people don’t have the right to run Boston; you have to earn the right to run Boston.”

But to many runners, including Young, that’s what’s inspiring about it.

“We’re out there doing our hill work, out there doing our speed work. We’re out there doing all these things because it doesn’t matter that it’s harder,” she says. “We’re just going to go ahead and do it.”

Luke Humphrey, a 2:14 marathoner, coach, and author of Hansons Marathon Method, says a Boston qualifier is one of the most common goals for the runners who contact him, and that if you think you’ve done everything you can or that dropping an additional 5:59 or more is out of the question, maybe it’s time for a professional opinion.

“I think a lot of them are more willing to take a serious look at what they’re actually doing and deciding if that’s enough,” says Humphrey in regard to seeking a coach’s help. “If not, then they’re a lot more open to doing things that they might have been resistant to in the past.”

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Humphrey says that training volume is the first thing a marathoner should examine. While you may have been content with weekly mileage hovering between 30 and 40 miles, by boosting that amount above 50, cutting five more minutes may be easier than you think. And it’s not just adding miles to those “quality” days; better, Humphrey says, is adding a few miles to the easy days, too.

Interest in the world’s oldest annual marathon is as high as ever, regardless of qualification standards. Six minutes faster may be challenging, but it remains in keeping with the Boston Marathon tradition of exclusivity. After all, Young says, humans adapt. “I’m not afraid to work for it and try to earn it again,” she says. “What’s five more minutes?”

This piece appeared in the September 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.

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