Everything old is new again …
For 113 years, the world’s oldest annual marathon has prided itself on tradition and innovation.
Posted Sunday, 15 March, 2009
On April 19, 1897, Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, the starter’s gun went off in Ashland and the first running of the Boston Marathon began. There were 15 participants--all male, of course--and the race was only 24.5 miles. The 113th edition of this venerable race will take place on Monday, April 20, 2009.
Other than moving the start from Ashland to Hopkinton in 1924, and lengthening the course to 26 miles, 385 yards to conform to Olympic standards, the only constant change to this beloved race is the weather. It takes place on the third Monday in April and it is New England after all; weather adds a brand new dimension to the race every year. Substantive changes have been introduced gradually; innovation and adjustment have come, and especially in recent years. But the traditions that are Boston continue and stand alone.
For those who have never run Boston, you don’t know what you’re missing. The weather can be unpredictable, but it can also add up to the perfect spring day, a hot summer day, or turn cool like New England fall or winter…you just never know. Participants are treated to a marathon amount of New England hospitality and scenery. It’s something to be experienced first hand at least once, if not for a lifetime of running. It’s a race that’s about more than the runners; it is history and tradition, and about the spectators as well. They are the “emotional sustenance” whose cheers and offers of water, food and encouragement make all the difference to the participants. They line the streets from Hopkinton, Massachusetts to the City of Boston, where the race finishes in front of the Boston Public Library in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.
If you have run it before, especially any of the first 109 races, you didn’t experience an overload of dramatic changes except for the Olympic distance, qualifying standards, and the introduction of the official women’s field in 1972. Except for those monumental changes, most sweeping changes to the race have actually taken place in the last three years, specifically races 110-112.
So, what’s new you ask? Just a few of the significant changes are listed here in order from most recent to those from earlier years which may only be remembered by our oldest generation.
Perhaps the most challenging change to the B.A.A. Boston Marathon from both the administrative and operational perspectives took place last year. While many other marathons are expanding, some upwards of 40,000 participants, Boston is holding steady and limiting the field to 25,000. In fact, in 2008 B.A.A. race officials actually received the maximum 25,000 entrants and had to close the field. That meant turning away qualified runners--a task that was not taken lightly.
2008: The reason for the cap is simple. The race start is in the small, quintessential New England town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, located west of Boston. It’s a setting that conjures up “Norman Rockwell.” For 364 days a year the population of the Town of Hopkinton is 14,980 or so. When Hopkinton signed up to be the start of the race it was a small field, and the town elders could not have known that more than a century later the town’s population would temporarily swell to more than 55,000 people on “Marathon Monday.” (Note, this is just an estimate that includes runners, residents, spectators, media, volunteers, sponsors, and curious passers by.)
2007: The race start time was changed to 10:00 a.m. from the tradition of high noon…and only one disappointed runner didn’t get the memo. So, if you haven’t been in a while, you’re in luck. The two-hour difference has turned out to be better for the runners, and better for towns along the route and the city streets of Boston. The race is finished earlier, roads open sooner, and most importantly, runners’ and spectators’ celebrations with friends and family in Boston’s incredible restaurants and pubs can start earlier too.
2006: The Marathon made waves in Hopkinton…the two wave start was born.
“It was tough for me to swallow that the start gun would fire and that it took 25 minutes for the last person to cross the finish line. That was unacceptable. We needed to do something to correct that before the next year’s race,” said long-time B.A.A. Boston Marathon Race Director, Dave McGillivray.
The two wave start also helped alleviate some of the congestion in Hopkinton and improved some of the logistical challenges that were impacting the small town. The residual affects of the two-part start have reached all the way to the finish in Boston; it makes the entire event run more efficiently; it makes it more fun for everyone. And best of all, the nearly 30 minute lag time between first runner and last runner to cross the start line has diminished to around 10 minutes with the implementation of the wave start.
“We’ve always insisted on the mantra ‘quality over quantity’. However, most people in a naïve way measure success strictly by size. It’s more about the quality of the event in Boston. It’s not our goal to jam in as many people as we can get away with. This number is just right for us and for the eight cities and towns along the route who so graciously act as hosts for the day. This race belongs to the runners, the spectators, the towns, our sponsors; everyone contributes to its success,” says McGillivray. And that success provides one of the best, not to mention most historic, marathons in the world—and the only one outside of the Olympics with qualifying standards.
Are you qualified to run Boston?
One of the biggest factors that sets Boston apart from the rest of the pack is that runners need to “earn the right” to run. It began in 1970 when qualifying standards were introduced. The official B.A.A. entry form stated, "A runner must submit the certification that he has trained sufficiently to finish the course in less than four hours…" The men’s open standard was once 2:50 and women’s open 3:20. Today there are different qualifying times depending upon gender and age. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is an enormous personal accomplishment (and the measuring stick for all other marathons), and it used to be enough to get you a spot at the start line in Hopkinton.
Last year B.A.A. officials experienced the phenomenon of having to turn away qualified runners. The race closed out by the end of February when it reached the field size cap of 25,000. The message to runners is to register as soon as possible. If you wait too long you may experience REAL heartbreak, rather than the exhilarating challenge of running that infamous series of hills and running past the statue depicting Johnny Kelley. It was in 1936 that a Boston Globe reporter dubbed it “Heartbreak Hill.” If you want to know why it’s called that, check out www.baa.org and look under the “Milestones” section. You might be surprised at the answer.
The prize purse this year is $746,000 ($150,000 to both winners). This is incentive for many to start training like the fiercest Olympians. In fact, the biggest news is often about who is actually running in the race, especially with the World Marathon Majors Series competition. The best marathon runners in the world race the B.A.A. Boston Marathon.
The principal sponsor of the B.A.A. Boston Marathon, John Hancock Financial, announced the signing of Olympian and World Championship bronze medalist Kara Goucher for 2009. Accomplished in international competition on the track, Goucher’s 2:25:53 third place performance in New York City set a number of American women’s marathon records: the fastest debut ever, and the fastest time of 2008, and fastest American time in New York. With those credentials, Goucher is poised for a top finish in Boston, where the last American winner was Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985, and before her Joan Benoit in 1983. In a wonderful connection, Boston Champion Alberto Salazar is Goucher’s coach.
Goucher’s participation is exciting for the race and specifically for female athletes. It was only a few years ago (2004) that an Elite Women’s Start was added in order to showcase female runners. Women have had to endure a lot more than training through harsh winters to compete in Boston. They were not allowed to officially enter this most famous of marathons until 1972. This change was thanks to the courage of people like Roberta Gibb and Katherine Switzer who had to sneak in to the race. Change has come. Ironically, the modern day field is more than 50% women. The introduction of any change can be a shock to the traditionalists but change and innovation are usually for the better, and that is especially true in this case. Change can indeed be good.
“For most of its early history, for the most part, Boston was the one and only marathon. We’re not anymore. Runners have a choice of races. Lots of choices. Boston may be on their top 100 things in life to accomplish. My goal is not to have it be ‘one and done.’ My goal is that once a runner experiences Boston, they will want to come and do it again; not simply because of the history and traditions of the race, but because their entire experience from start to finish was a positive and inspiring one,” says McGillivray.
“From where I sit, it’s more about making a better race given today’s conditions and parameters vs. strictly maintaining tradition. You can always start new traditions,” McGillivray continued.
Spectators and those who live along the route or close to it have wonderful traditions too! “Participation” includes hundreds of thousands along the course who are building and maintaining their own traditions, their own history. The B.A.A. Boston Marathon is something very special in the sporting world. Everyone involved finds it rewarding and fascinating, and they are excited to be a part of it.
Perhaps this is your year to make the B.A.A. Boston Marathon a tradition on your annual race calendar! Visit www.baa.org for information on registration, volunteering, course maps, spectator information and a lot more.