Marathon qualifying is revised

By Bob Hohler and Shira Springer
Globe Staff / February 17, 2011

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With the Boston Marathon’s tradition as an open showcase for the world’s best runners in jeopardy, organizers yesterday announced plans to overhaul registration for the 2012 marathon and tighten qualifying standards for 2013. The changes will mark the first time in 33 years the Marathon has toughened its qualifying times.

Race organizers, citing “a sense of urgency,’’ unveiled the new rules four months after registration for the 2011 event closed in a record 8 hours and 3 minutes. The registration crisis denied access to the world’s premier marathon for thousands of qualified runners for the first time.

“For us to tell people there was no room for them was a very bitter pill for us,’’ said Thomas Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which manages the event. “We do not ever want to do that again.’’

The new registration policy is aimed at guaranteeing entry to the fastest marathoners through a rolling, online admissions process that permits top qualifiers to register first.

By tightening the qualifying standards — they will drop by five minutes in every age category for men and women — organizers hope to further accommodate the best runners without increasing the overall field or the burden on cities and towns along the 26.2-mile course. The field swelled to 26,736 runners last year, up from 4,904 when the race was commercialized in 1986.

Organizers said they have no plans to significantly address the large number of nonqualifying participants. Last year, the number of nonqualifiers reached 5,740, including 2,515 charity runners and 3,225 others who either bought entry numbers from foreign tour operators or were granted invitations by organizers, sponsors, vendors, licensees, consultants, municipal officials, or marketers peddling entries for profit.

“We feel this registration process will be met with great favor, especially by all the runners who have told us the main thing is to maintain the credibility, integrity, and competitive excellence’’ of the Marathon, Grilk said.

The changes, announced two months after a Globe review of the BAA’s management of the race, were anxiously anticipated by the marathon community and generally well-received.

“The new plan allows the Boston Marathon to remain true to its historical origins as a footrace in the tradition of the Olympic marathon,’’ said Tom Derderian, a former marathoner who has written a history of the Boston race and coaches for the Greater Boston Track Club.

Derderian said the revamped policies satisfy the BAA’s need “to adapt to the contemporary context’’ of the race by limiting the impact on cities and towns along the course.

Under the new rules, registration for the 2012 marathon will open Sept. 12, 2011, only for runners who have beaten the qualifying times for their gender and age groups by at least 20 minutes. On Sept. 14, runners who have bettered their qualifying standards by at least 10 minutes will be allowed to register. Two days later, registration will begin for those who have posted times at least five minutes faster than the qualifying times.

All remaining qualifiers can apply beginning Sept. 19, with registration scheduled to close no later than Sept. 23.

Exceptions will be granted to many veterans of the Boston course. Runners who have qualified and finished the last 10 Boston Marathons — about 500 in total — may enter anytime during the registration period.

In other ways, though, the BAA is cracking down. For instances, organizers no longer will allow runners to exceed their qualifying standards by 59 seconds (i.e., a runner whose qualifying time is 3 hours and 10 minutes may not qualify with a time as high as 3:10.59; he or she must finish by 3:10.00). “A little less than 2,000 qualifiers’’ will be affected by the rule, according to race director Dave McGillivray.

Several runners endorsed the stricter rules.

“They’re trying to keep Boston an elite marathon,’’ said Bob Grant, a marathoner and vice president of the L Street Running Club. “Short of eliminating the charity runners, which I don’t think they should do, and expanding the field, which I don’t think they should do, I think they have come up with an equitable solution.’’

Even with the registration changes, however, the BAA may not be able to restore its proud tradition of accommodating every qualified marathoner. BAA officials estimated last year that as many as 3,000 qualified runners were denied entry for the 2010 race.

“Unfortunately, the same amount of people may not be able to get into the race in 2012,’’ McGillivray said. “We just don’t have the space.’’

The revised qualifying times for 2013 will require men between the ages of 18 to 34 to finish within 3:05, down from 3:10. For women of the same age, the standard will be reduced to 3:35 from 3:40. The highest qualifying times, for runners aged 80 and over, will drop to 4:55 for men and 5:25 for women.

Many qualified runners were livid when they were shut out of the 2011 race because registration closed so rapidly — 64 days faster than the previous record. Some pushed the BAA to tighten the standards, particularly for women, whose running times have generally dropped at a faster rate than men’s in recent years.

“Insulted — that’s how I feel,’’ said Amy Ryberg Doyle, a qualifier who was shut out of the 2011 race. “By not raising the bar to a competitive level, [the BAA] did not acknowledge the fact that women have been running faster. The Boston Marathon is no longer for the best endurance runners in the country.’’

Other runners were not pleased about the September registration dates, which fall before a number of marathons, including Chicago, Hartford, New York, and the Bay State Marathon in Lowell. Those races often serve as qualifying events for Boston the following spring.

Organizers defended the revised procedures and standards as the product of intensive deliberations involving the BAA staff as well as outside consultants and leaders in the marathon community. They described the new rules as the fairest way to sustain the marathon’s legacy.

Organizers said entry fees for qualifiers will increase to $150 from $130 in 2012, while the invitational entry fees for nonqualifiers will increase to $300 from $250.

“I’m really excited to see the BAA make significant changes in the registration procedures,’’ said Laura Hayden, president of the Greater Boston Track Club. “The allure of the Boston Marathon is that it is an exclusive, competitive marathon and the changes the BAA have made are in the spirit of continuing its reputation as the best marathon in the world.’’