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Easy Entry

The Boston Marathon relaxes its qualifying standards--at least for older runners

By Hal Higdon

Life suddenly became easier for runners wanting to run the Boston Marathon--particularly older runners--as the sponsoring Boston Athletic Association relaxed its qualifying standards for the first time in more than a dozen years. The new standards, posted toward the end of June on the BAA's Website, offer a 5-minute break for men and women over 45, up to an hour for those still running at age 80.

The standards date back to 1970. A record 1,152 runners started Boston the previous year, way too many thought trainer Jock Semple, who shepherded runners each Patriot's Day along with race director Will Cloney, a full-time employee of Keystone Funds. Tired of poseurs, who trained improperly and sometimes appeared dressed as King Kong or smoking cigars, the pair asked runners to certify their ability to finish faster than four hours. "I could walk that fast," claimed Semple, who had placed ninth in 1944 with 2:51:34.

As a writer for Runner's World (then called Distance Running News), I objected, both in print and to Semple personally the next time I saw him. I felt the standards would stifle both Boston's and running's growth. How wrong I was! As the standards were progressively tightened over the next decade, runners accepted them as a challenge and trained harder to make the field.

Tightening standards

For the 1976 race, Cloney and Semple tightened entry standards to an imposing 3:00 for men and 3:30 for women and masters (those over 40). But nothing helped stem the tide. The running boom had begun. The ranks swelled to 7,877 entrants in 1979, with easily a third as many bandits tagging behind. So in 1980, standards came down to 2:50 for men, 3:10 for masters men and 3:20 for women, eventually 3:30 for masters women (defined then as those over age 40). Numbers dipped in 1981, but by 1982 7,439 entered.

By then, the flood had crested. As the running boom continued through the 1980s, every major city had a marathon, siphoning off some of the energy that in previous decades had been focused almost solely on from 3:30 to 3:00 to ultimately 2:50 for men and 3:10 for women Boston. During the 1990s, a new breed of runner arrived more interested in finishing a marathon, rather than finishing it fast. With greater volunteer support, the BAA realized it could tolerate fields near 10,000 and decided to relax its qualifying times to 3:10 and 3:40 for men and women aged 18-34. Every five-year age group after that, runners received a 5-minute qualifying cushion up to maximums of 3:50 and 4:20 for men and women over 70.

Those standards worked for younger runners, but failed to reflect the fact that past age 50, aging runners lose more than they gain. According to one survey posted to my Virtual Training Forum, while 637 men and women aged 35-39 qualified for Boston at the fast 2001 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, only 12 men and 1 woman over 60 made the cut. None over 70 did. Even as gifted an athlete as two-time winner John A. Kelley failed to match the standard after age 72, although he continued to run late into his 80s.

Fair or not?

That imbalance apparently has been remedied. The new standards reward older runners, beginning with an extra 5 minutes at age 45, 10 minutes at age 55, 20 at age 60, 30 at age 65, 40 at age 70, 50 at age 75 and an hour at age 80. But younger runners get no break, and not all posting to Virtual Training seemed pleased. "I still think the disparity between the men's and women's times are grossly unfair," claims Jeff Bennett, age 25. "While I have already solidly beaten 3:40, I'm not sure I possess the athletic talent to run a 3:10. At least not for a couple more years."

Whether the new standards are fair will be subject for debate between now and next April, but as another poster, John Borchers, commented: "In a few years nobody will remember that the Boston qualifying times changed. There will only be those who qualified and those who did not."

Hal Higdon, Senior Writer for Runner's World, placed fifth at Boston in 1964 with 2:21:55.