Boston Marathon organizers address qualifying problems

When Tom Grilk attempted to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 1978, the required time of 3 hours was the goal that helped propel him the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Copley Square.

“It was thrilling, and I would never have done it if there had been a higher standard,” said Grilk, who’s now the executive director of the Boston Athletic Association and in charge of the race. “When people speak of having qualified for the Boston Marathon, it’s a sense of accomplishment. It’s kind of fun to know you did something hard.”

The 115th edition of the world’s oldest annual marathon heads for Boston’s Back Bay on Monday, the culmination of years of training for the runners and a tumultuous offseason for organizers forced to scramble after many wouldbe participants got shut out of registration.

The field of 27,000 filled up in eight hours, breaking the previous record of 65 days — by 64 days.

Organizers, who refer to that day in somewhat gloomy tones as “Oct. 18,” heard plenty from runners who got shut out, even after completing what they thought had been the hard part: Running a qualifying marathon in what for many is a time of 3:05 or better. (For women of the same age group, 18-34, it’s 3:35.)

“We knew that this was a new world,” race director Dave McGillivray said Thursday as the BAA prepared for marathon weekend. “We decided: This is unacceptable. We cannot allow this to happen ever again.”

There were a few ways organizers could address the problem.

They could have raised the price from $130, making it a luxury fewer could afford. They could have turned registration into a lottery. They could have expanded the field dramatically. They could make it harder to qualify in the first place. Or they could have left everything the same, which would essentially be as much a gamble for runners as a lottery.

Raising the price seemed contrary to running’s egalitarian roots. A lottery wouldn’t reward the best runners, and leaving everything the same had the same problem. Expanding the field runs into problems, organizers say, because the New England streets and squares covered by the course don’t have space for much more.

“We have no more real estate than they did basically 115 years ago,” especially at the start in Hopkinton town center, McGillivray said. “The fact of the matter is: There’s only so much space.”

Changing the qualifying times raised a different problem: Most of those trying to reach the standard had already run their races with the old times. So while the standards will be lowered by five minutes — meaning faster times — for 2013, organizers came up with a hybrid system for next year that tips the scales for the faster runners while giving the others at least a hypothetical chance of getting in.

Runners who exceed the standards for their age and gender group by at least 20 minutes will be allowed to apply on the first two days, followed by those who surpassed the standard by 10 minutes, and followed on the fifth day by those who were five minutes faster than required.

If spots remain after the first week, any qualifying runner can apply.

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