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System goes like clockwork

Marathon entries handled well by BAA

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / September 24, 2011

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Jeff Greenlee is a laid-back guy, quick to see the humor in situations. It takes something big - Boston Marathon big - to unnerve him.

After registering for the 2012 Marathon eight days ago, Greenlee, a 48-year-old bank president, became a man obsessed. He spent last weekend checking his BlackBerry with crazed frequency, unable to focus on anything else. He waited impatiently for confirmation of his entry, for what he called “that famous e-mail, the golden ticket.’’

In his most anxious hours, Greenlee questioned his pursuit and half-jokingly asked himself, “And I do this to relax?’’

Last Monday morning at his office in Altus, Okla., Greenlee could finally, truly relax. The e-mail had arrived. His entry had been accepted.

Now, Greenlee - whose time of 3 hours, 24 minutes and 40 seconds is more than five minutes faster than the standard for his age group - is officially one of approximately 21,000 qualifiers granted entry through the new rolling registration system.

“It’s as fair as it can be,’’ said Greenlee of a system that favors the fastest runners. “Boston is a quality run. You want to see those average times across the board improve. You want to see the quality build. If they can do that, then they’ve done their job.’’

When registration closed at 5 p.m. yesterday, the Boston Athletic Association could celebrate a job well done. A total of 23,514 runners sought a Boston Marathon bib number over the two-week registration period, including 14,918 in the first week, when the fastest qualifiers could enter. The second week, which was open to all qualifiers, saw 8,596 apply. Since these numbers represent early returns from the new registration process, the totals may fluctuate slightly as the BAA reviews submissions and eliminates duplicates.

The new system opened smoothly Sept. 12 for runners with qualifying times 20 minutes or faster than gender and age-group standards, and proceeded without any glitches through a second week open to all qualifiers. Like Greenlee, most runners who entered in the first week received confirmation within three or four days of registering, time needed for the BAA to verify qualifying information.

“Our goal was that this process would be orderly and fair out of respect for all the people who work so hard to qualify and enter,’’ said BAA executive director Tom Grilk. “When you opened registration, you ask, ‘What’s going to happen? Will it operate in the manner that you want, that you told people it would operate?’ It started just fine, so there was a good sense it would. It was not a sense we got lucky, not a sense of relief, but a sense of gratification that it played out as planned.’’

And it played out in marked contrast to last year’s registration, a day plagued by a crush of applicants, computer issues, and confusion.

In mid-October last year, when Marathon registration closed in a record 8 hours and 3 minutes and disappointed thousands of qualifiers unable to enter, the BAA knew the process needed to change. The organization crunched numbers, contacted other race directors and running experts, and considered its options. In February, the BAA unveiled a qualifying-time-based, rolling system that effectively returned the Marathon to its roots, rewarding the fastest men and women by age group.

After the BAA confirms another roughly 5,000 qualified entrants in the coming days, the 2012 field should have the fastest average qualifying time since 1989, the year before qualifying standards were relaxed for men and women in all age groups by 5-10 minutes. Of the (14,918) runners accepted in Week 1, 12 percent (1,778) registered with finishes 30 minutes or faster than their qualifying standards.

Although some runners suspected the system would dramatically alter the field in other ways, that does not appear the case. After Week 1, gender percentages - 57 percent men, 43 percent women - were virtually identical to last year. The percentage of first-timers (50 percent) and of foreign runners (17 percent) are also consistent with figures from 2011.

With the first two days of registration restricted to runners 20 minutes or faster than qualifying standards, the BAA received 4,235 entries. On the third and fourth days for runners 10 minutes or faster, there were 5,724 entries. On the fifth and sixth days for runners five minutes or faster, there were 4,959 entries. For would-be entrants registering this week with all qualifiers eligible, the fastest times will be accepted and confirmed first until the spaces allotted qualifiers fill. The total field will swell to approximately 27,000 on Patriots Day with invited and charity runners.

“It was like forecasting the weather,’’ said race director Dave McGillivray. “All the models are telling you something, but you don’t know until that day comes what’s going to happen. So, there’s a little bit of anxiety, but we totally accomplished what we set out to accomplish and that was to eliminate the sense of urgency, to eliminate technology challenges, and to, first and foremost, make it a fair process.

“With our technology people, we were able to estimate what might happen and, within minute percentage points, it worked out exactly as predicted . . . It’s almost like we lined everyone up at the door by ability level and let them in.’’

Actually, as director of registration Barbara Sicuso detailed, there was a spike in entries each time a new group could start registering. The spike in traffic lasted about three hours, then leveled off.

As online entries arrived, Sicuso and a registration staff of fewer than six, including some part-timers and volunteers, worked overtime in Hopkinton to verify information and approve entries as quickly as possible. Then, they sent out the all-important confirmation e-mails.

“There’s no question that this year’s registration went extremely smoothly,’’ said Sicuso. “The communication we did helped people plan accordingly.’’

To help with the anxious wait until confirmation, runners’ forums on various websites offered advice and company. On the Boston Marathon Facebook page, updates from the BAA were followed by comments from worried runners waiting for confirmation and recently accepted runners counseling patience.

Julie Hannah of Melbourne, Fla., took to the Facebook page and described her situation as “Puzzled???’’ She ran 16 minutes faster than her qualifying standard with a 3:29:28, registered as soon as she could, and, at the time, knew the friend she qualified with was already confirmed. In a Facebook comment, she asked, “Anyone still waiting???’’

“I checked that Facebook page constantly,’’ said the 37-year-old Hannah. “That really gave me a sense that everything would work out great, and it did.’’

While readying her twin daughters for school last Monday, Hannah received her confirmation e-mail after a nervous five-day wait. And in some ways, her wait to make her Boston Marathon debut has been even longer.

“I should have run this past April, but the race filled up too quickly,’’ said Hannah. “I thought it was great to give the faster qualifying times the first chance at registration. I screamed and almost started crying when I got the [confirmation] e-mail.’’

Marathoners and the BAA will take screams of registration joy over screams of anger and frustration any day.

Shira Springer can be reached at

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