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home > races/results > usa: massachusetts > something about boston: the boston marathon

Something About Boston: The Boston Marathon
As registration opens for the 107th Boston Marathon, the gold standard of the marathon world continues to drive and inspire thousands of runners. Here's why.

Something About Boston: The Boston Marathon

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Related info:
Official Boston Marathon website

Online Registration Opens for Boston Marathon

BAA Adjusts Qualifying Times for Boston Marathon

By Josh Clark
Posted Monday, 9 September, 2002

Some 3000 miles from the Hopkinton starting line of the Boston Marathon, runner Hal Goforth has created a kind of personal shrine to the venerable road race. In one room of his San Diego home, 14 Boston Marathon posters look down on Goforth as he carefully handles a slender, well-worn booklet.

"The 1972 Runner's Monthly Booklet," Goforth reads the title of the pamphlet, which is chock full of articles about Boston Marathon history and lore. It was these articles -- and by extension, the Boston Marathon itself -- that Goforth says inspired him to become a serious runner.

"It's just a little bitty pamphlet, but this was the thing that really got me going," said Goforth, 57, who has run 27 Boston Marathons since picking up that booklet 30 years ago. "This little book had so many little stories about the marathon, so much history. It's still inspiring to thumb through it."

As registration opens this week for the 107th Boston Marathon, the same history, challenging standards and elite reputation that first inspired Goforth continues to drive and inspire thousands of runners around the world. For recreational and competitive runners alike, the prospect of qualifying for Boston represents a rare and elite privilege, a badge of honor and accomplishment.

"I've run 24 marathons, and Boston is by far the best of them all in terms of the tradition, the knowledgeable spectators, the whole aura," said Mike Castle, a nine-time Boston runner and multiple winner in the visually impaired category.

Simply put, there's something special about Boston. It's not the fastest marathon course, nor is it the most difficult, but it is certainly the most storied. Boston is the oldest modern marathon behind the Olympic Marathon, and since 1897, the annual April event has hosted the finest distance runners in the world. The enthusiastic spectators, the roller-coaster ride of Heartbreak Hill and the signature victory laurel are the stuff of legend.

But perhaps what most sets the Boston Marathon apart is that you have to work for it, proving yourself worthy by meeting the race's strict qualification requirements.

"A sport has to have a standard, and for runners it's the Boston Marathon," said Goforth, one of the nation's top masters marathoners.

Chasing a Boston Bib

The Boston Marathon first introduced qualifying standards in 1970 with the relatively mild requirement that runners certify that they could complete the race in less than four hours. Since then, more stringent, age-based qualification standards have evolved, requiring runners to beat a certain time in a previous marathon. This year, for the first time since 1990, the qualifying times have been adjusted, easing the requirements for runners 45 and older (see related article).

New for 2003
Age Men Women
18-34 3:10 3:40
35-39 3:15 3:45
40-44 3:20 3:50
45-49 3:30 4:00
50-54 3:35 4:05
55-59 3:45 4:15
60-64 4:00 4:30
65-69 4:15 4:45
70-74 4:30 5:00
75-79 4:45 5:15
80+ 5:00 5:30
Source: BAA

"When they were first introduced, I was against the qualifying times, because I thought that everyone should be able to run it," recalled four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers. "But as it turned out, the qualifying standard evolved into a successful mechanism for elevating not only the Boston Marathon but the entire sport."

"The initial reason for the qualifying times was to limit the field size," said race director Dave McGillivray. "As time went by, qualifying for Boston became the draw in and of itself . [The qualification requirement] certainly sets Boston apart from any other marathons in the world, and to most marathoners, it represents that Boston is the pinnacle and crown jewel of marathons."

Consider Boston the Olympics of mainstream marathoning. Like the Olympics, qualifying for the Boston Marathon carries a measure of prestige in which simply earning a place in the field is its own satisfaction, quite apart from how the runner performs in the event itself.

"For a lot of runners, the Boston experience is really more about qualifying for it than actually running it," said Jack Fleming, spokesman for the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), the marathon's organizer. "It's not easy to get in, and that's not a bad thing as far as we're concerned. If it takes a runner three or four years to qualify, then that person's Boston experience is so much richer."

And so for many runners, the hunt for an official Boston race number becomes an extended quest, one that can sometimes be as frustrating as it is ultimately rewarding.

"It's always hard, and I always feel like I'm going to make it by the skin of my teeth," said Boston runner Sarah Freeman, 51, who has run the past 14 Boston Marathons. "There have been many years when I tried to qualify, and I didn't quite make it. So much of your image and your self esteem as a runner gets tied up in qualifying for the marathon that it's really hard when you don't make it.

"There were a couple of heart breakers where I missed it by a minute," Freeman added. "Those are the ones where you say, 'If only I had known I would have run it a few seconds faster per mile.' But you can't make it up in the last minute."

Alternate Route

Because of Boston's popularity and high-profile cachet, the event attracts thousands of runners who want to participate but who don't have the race times to qualify. Many of these runners nevertheless have the opportunity to earn an official place at Boston by joining one of 16 charity programs (see below). By raising a threshold amount of donations for these non-profit organizations, any runner can participate in the pageantry of marathoning's premier event.

Freeman, for example, qualified for five of her Boston Marathons but participated in the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's fundraising program to run the rest.

"It was a big mental adjustment to go from being one of the 'real' athletes who make it on a qualifying time to doing it for charity," said Freeman. "But there are real positives to doing it for charity, too. Running and training for a marathon is actually a very self-indulgent activity; if you're doing it for something like cancer research, then it's for a larger purpose."

Although purists sometimes grumble that the entire race field should be reserved solely for those who qualify, BAA officials say they strongly support both the populism and the mission behind the charity effort.

"We can understand how and why [the purists] feel that way," said McGillivray. "However, the BAA began the charity program over ten years ago, and it is here to stay. This year alone over $7 million dollars was raised for very worthwhile causes."

Where few have much sympathy, however, is for the inevitable "bandits," the runners who jump into the race with no qualifying time and no official race number. "If you run Boston, and you didn't qualify, that just dilutes the effect of it for those who did qualify," said Goforth. "It's like cheating on your golf score. You're not playing fair with your own life."

Challenging Course

For a race that puts so much emphasis on running a fast time to get in, there's no small amount of irony in the fact that the Boston course is itself not fast at all. It's not unusual for runners to run much slower times at Boston than they ran their qualifying times. Runners who qualify on flat, fast courses find themselves facing a far more demanding marathon at Boston.

Although Boston is a downhill race with a net drop of 480 feet in elevation from start to finish, there are more than enough climbs in between. Most notably, the Boston suburb of Newton hosts seven hills between miles 16 and 21, culminating in marathoning's most famous uphill climb, Heartbreak Hill. Though most are not particularly steep, the late arrival of the hills in the race is both physically and psychologically draining.

As difficult as the uphill sections may be, however, it's the difficulty of the downhills that takes many runners by surprise as the steep descents of the late miles hammer their quadriceps.

"It's been argued back and forth about whether it's easier or harder because of the downhills," said Goforth, an exercise physiologist who has, over the years, clinched first, second and third in his age group at Boston. "If you can optimize your training for downhills, then the course might be fast for you, but it's not an easy type of training. I include a downhill training pattern to train my quads for Boston."

No matter how challenging the course, though, runners get a decided energy boost from the electric enthusiasm of the Boston spectators, who turn out along every step of the 26.2-mile trek. From the eardrum-piercing screams of the Wellesley College women to the charming offers of ice cubes and orange slices by children along the route, the Boston crowd demonstrates an appreciation of the marathon effort that is difficult to find elsewhere.

"They're the most knowledgeable marathon spectators in the world," said Goforth. "The way that people support you before, during and after the race is amazing. You've never heard a sound like the one you hear when you make the turn from Hereford Street toward the finish."

"I had fun winning Boston, I had a blast winning Boston," chuckled Rodgers. "Yeah, maybe it's one of the most competitive road races, but it's more than that. It's a celebration of Boston as a city. All of the energy and fun of the crowds, that's what I love. I love seeing that."


Official Boston Marathon website

April 21, 2003

Start time
(Wheelchair division at 11:45am; Mobility impaired at 10:00am)

Course type
(Hopkinton to Boston)

Limited to 20,000 runners

490 feet at start; 10 feet at finish

ChampionChip timing and results

Charity Programs
American Liver Foundation
The Brookline Center
Children's Hospital Boston
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism
Healthworks Foundation
Home for Little Wanderers
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (Team in Training)
Massachusetts Amateur Sports Foundation
Massachusetts Spina Bifida Association
Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center
Muscular Dystrophy Association
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans
Vocational Adjustment Center
West End House Boys & Girls Club of Allston-Brighton



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