By John Powers, Globe Staff, 2/11/2004
Equal but separate. That's the new byword for the Boston Marathon, which will switch to a distinct (and earlier) start for the elite women in the 108th running of the race April 19.
"It's a major change for us, certainly away from tradition," race director Dave McGillivray said yesterday, after the Boston Athletic Association announced it would follow in the footsteps of London and New York, the world's largest 26-milers. "This may be the biggest advancement in the women's race since 1972, when women were officially allowed to enter and compete."
The elite women, numbering between 25 and 40 competitors, will start in Hopkinton at 11:35 a.m., a few minutes after the wheelchairs start, and will be timed separately.
The elite men and the rest of the 20,000-member field will begin at noon or a few minutes later. Given a rough spread of 12-15 minutes between the male and female victors, overlap between the groups should be minimal.
"The sport of marathoning is moving towards a separate start for elite women," said BAA executive director Guy Morse, whose organization received a thumbs-up from runners, sponsors, and the eight cities and towns along the route. "The US Olympic Trials, the IAAF World Championships, and the Olympic Games are all gender-specific and most, if not all, of the elite women are in favor of a separate start."
The advantages of separate starts are clear. The women, who are obscured amid thickets of second-tier men in mass races, get their own showcase. The tactical quality of the race improves, since the leaders can see and respond to each other. And with the women's contenders well away from the large clusters of 2:20-2:30-level men, the likelihood of a Rosie Ruiz-type impostor coming from nowhere to "win" becomes minimal.
"It's so essential," said Patti (Lyons) Dillon, the Quincy native who was second three straight times (1979-81) in Boston. "I never knew who was where. I didn't know where Jackie Gareau was [in 1980] until I got to Kenmore Square. I thought I was in the lead. Little did I know."
Boston had considered separate starts as long ago as 1995, according to McGillivray, who'll also be co-director of the US Olympic women's trials in St. Louis in early April. "We figured now might be an opportune time," he said. "The benefits for doing it far exceed any reasons for not doing it."
The chief benefits are the elimination of crowding for the top women and confusion for the media and spectators, who frequently have difficulty picking out the leaders from among the swarm of male runners.
"There are no disadvantages," said Allan Steinfeld, race director of the New York City Marathon, which went to a separate women's start two years ago.
The best thing, as the women see it, is having the same privilege the men have: running alongside their rivals, and only their rivals.
"We're finally playing with a full deck," said Dillon, who'll be an invited guest for this year's race. "That's incredible."
As the size of the mixed field soared, the elite women found themselves banged around and boxed in among the middling masses of males, many of whom were using the women as pacers.
"I'd be saying to guys, `Hey, I'm not the race, the race is up there,' " Dillon remembers.
With a 35-minute gap between starts, New York has aimed to minimize overlap between the men's leaders and the elite women stragglers.
"We wanted to make sure that when the 2:35 women come in, the men weren't coming in yet," said Steinfeld.
That could be an issue in Boston, which will have only 25 minutes between starts. So the BAA is considering pushing back the men's start as far as 12:05 p.m.
"We'll do everything within our means to keep the noontime start," said McGillivray. "But we have front-end and back-end issues, so the decision will be based on safety."