The Best Boston Qualifier: the BayState Marathon
What began as a small local marathon has earned a rep as the world's best race to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Posted Tuesday, 6 August, 2002
For runners bitten by the Boston bug, the fall marathon season is the make-or-break test for whether they have the chops to qualify for the Boston Marathon. For the singly-focused, the hunt for the best Boston qualifier -- the fastest fall marathon -- becomes a near obsession.
Look no further. The jury is in, and the verdict is the BayState Marathon.
With a pancake-flat course through the flats of Massachusetts' Merrimack Valley, this small October marathon consistently delivers a higher percentage of Boston-qualifying finish times than any other marathon on the planet. Every year since the BayState Marathon began 13 years ago, at least a quarter of the runners have finished in Boston-qualifying times. In 1994, a remarkable 49 percent qualified.
BayState holds a special place in the hearts of the Cool Running gang for other reasons, too. The event was founded in 1990 by our editor-in-chief Don Allison and our CFO Dave Camire. When they designed the course, they did it with a single overriding goal: speed, speed, speed.
"From day one, our mission was to have a Boston qualifier that was really, really fast," said race director Camire. "We said, 'Let's design a marathon course for speed, let's put on a race that the average runner can use to qualify for Boston.'"
In its first years, BayState was a resolutely local event, a fast marathon for less than 200 local runners. As word spread of the fast times to be had, BayState began to draw runners from farther abroad. While it remains a relatively intimate marathon of less than 1000 runners, they share the course with 1500 half-marathoners and, new this year, several hundred 10K runners.
"Lately, runners have been coming from all over the country who have heard this is the fastest Boston qualifier out there," said local runner John Byrne, who has run the BayState Marathon twice and the half marathon several other times. "A lot of people at BayState are very focused on qualifying for Boston, and that gives the race a special atmosphere."
An Autumn River Run
The course consists of two 13.1-mile loops, which creates an undeniable sense of deja vu as runners cover the same ground in the second half. But for those primarily interested in running their fastest race, the double loop offers predictability in its preview of the miles ahead.
"I like the double loop," said Dave Dunham, a six-time veteran of BayState who set the 2:21:36 course record in 1998. "You get an idea of what to expect for the second half, so there aren't any surprises."
In a change from previous years, the course starts and finishes in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, a historic mill city that has enjoyed an urban renaissance in recent years, recasting its silenced mills and factories as airy restaurants, historic monuments and loft spaces.
The birthplace of America's industrial revolution, Lowell nevertheless enjoys scenic surroundings. Straddling the Merrimack and Concord rivers, Lowell was dubbed "the Venice of America" in the 19th century, and its river views still hold up. The course takes full advantage of these views, hugging the Merrimack River for much of the route as it travels through Chelmsford and Tyngsboro, leaving the river only for detours through tree-lined roads alive with bright fall colors.
"It's the perfect time of year, really ideal," Byrne said. "The foliage over the river is gorgeous -- if you have the time in the middle of a marathon to look over at it."
From the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, the course winds among lumbering brick mill buildings and heads for the river, running west along the Merrimack to the Tyngsboro Bridge at mile 4. "The only elevation on the entire course is the bridge, which has an elevation of 15 feet," said Camire, "and that's the highest point in the entire race."
Crossing the river into Tyngsboro, runners soon find themselves in rural New England, passing by horse farms and headed for the turnaround at Pawtucket Falls, the waterworks that provided the power to run Lowell's mills and that continue to provide dramatic views.
The half marathoners complete their race upon the return to Lowell, and their finish line creates an unusual halfway-point transition for BayState's marathoners. There's a rush of cheering spectators, immediately followed by a dramatically reduced field of runners. It's a palpable sign that it's time for the marathoners' work to begin, time to earn that Boston bib.
After repeating the loop and returning to downtown Lowell, the course finishes with a new flourish in LeLacheur Park, a 4700-seat stadium that hosts the minor league baseball games of the Lowell Spinners. Organizers anticipate that the stadium will be full of spectators, creating a dramatic finish to the marathon.
"It'll be fantastic," Byrne said. "It can't get much more exciting than that, to have people there waiting for you and cheering. It's going to make it even more of an event race, and it also gives a real Lowell flavor."
A Local Race Grows Up
The community spirit of the ballfield finish is typical of the friendly, smalltown atmosphere that enables BayState to give a fun glow to the seriousness of the marathon endeavor.
"It's a fun race," Byrne said. "It definitely has a local feel, with everyone talking at the starting line. It's just really friendly."
All the same, BayState is no longer merely a local race, and organizers have gracefully adjusted to cope with the growth that has come with the marathon's growing reputation as an ideal Boston qualifier. BayState has evolved into a fine-tuned event that has overcome early growing pains including traffic control and, yes, even a freight train that cut off the course in 1990.
"They do a really good job," Dunham said. "The Greater Lowell Road Runners know how to put on a race. I know the mile markers are going to be accurate. I know there's going to be water and gel where they say it's going to be. Those little things are so important to a good race."
And of course BayState provides the thing that is most important to would-be Boston marathoners: fast times.
"If someone wants to run a prettier marathon," Camire said, "they might want to check out Mount Desert Island or the Cape Cod Marathon. But I'll tell you one thing: you're going to run your fastest time at BayState."
BayState Marathon website
Online race registration
Oct. 20, 2002
1000 marathoners, sharing the course with 1500 half-marathoners and 500 10K runners
Typically in the 50s
Men: Dave Dunham, 2:21:36
Women: Mary Ellen Kelly, 2:45:53
BayState Half Marathon
Lowell Sun 10K