The Christmas Holidays are no sooner out of the way each year than people begin thinking of the Boston Marathon. New Year's resolutions, income tax deadlines, and all else is in the back of the mind of the marathoner as Boston approaches. No other race in the world says marathoning as well. It says it so well, in fact, that the word marathon is not even attached to the word Boston; it is simply understood.
Even before I became a runner, I was very aware of Boston. Newspapers, even the small one in my little hometown, always carried news of the Boston Marathon. When we read the news of the hundreds of runners making their way from Hopkinton to Boston each April, we took it as the official sign of spring.
The more one gets into running, the more Boston becomes a symbol of the sport. It is the goal many runners seek; even runners who don't seek it know exactly what drives those who do. To qualify for the Boston Marathon is like getting your driver's license, like turning 21, like calling the prom queen for a date and having her tell you she hoped you'd call. It's like all those things - and for some runners - it is more than all those things combined. And maybe it's even better. Your driver's license carries with it the right to get traffic tickets; turning 21 carries with it the assurance that some day you'll also turn 30 and the prom queen almost always turns out to be less in the flesh than she seemed in your dreams. But Boston always has been Boston and always will be Boston.
There are some insidious forces that would knock the foundation out from under the Boston Marathon. They contend that Boston should drop its qualification standards and open itself to anyone who wants to enter.
At one time, Boston had no qualification standards. But in those days, only runners who were extremely serious entered marathons. Only very serious marathoners entered the Boston. There were fields in those days that numbered in the hundreds. Boston was for the serious marathoner.
There is certainly nothing wrong with people entering marathons merely for the purpose of finishing them. To them, finishing is the challenge.
However, Boston remains something special. It remains something special because not everyone can run it and receive a time. One must earn his or her right to receive a Boston number.
I feel strongly that Boston will remain Boston by maintaining its exalted position as the special marathon - as the marathon that one earns the right to run. Because of this feeling, I've been told I'm an elitist; in this, I would have to admit that I am. It seems to me that in a country with more than 270 marathons, we can afford one marathon (our most tradition-laden marathon, at that) that is an elite one.
Perhaps I am viewing it from a unique angle, in that I have not been back into running for very long. But I have found that many runners who have come back into running within the last few years share my view. Ask them if they have run a marathon or if they hope to, and if they answer "Yes," it is almost a foregone conclusion what their answer will be when you ask them about their goals. "To run Boston," they'll say. Not, "To run a sub-3:00." That is merely a step on the way to Boston. But: "To run Boston."
When the winter brings the cold and the rains to the area where I live, I know that at least a part of my motivation for getting out into it day-after-day is shared by thousands of other runners like myself. To make Boston, I've got to get out there and run through whatever weather is being lashed about, I tell myself. In the shower later, I can't help but feel an affinity with the spirit of Boston, with the arcane feeling that it instills in runners who want to be part of it.
One values more what one works for hardest. Boston is worth working for. It gives back in inspiration more than it takes from a runner in exertion.
When I qualify for Boston, I want it to mean that I've earned it. That I've done more than filled out an entry form and sent a check. If that's being elitist, viva elitism! Boston is the elite American marathon. And it should remain so.
1968 Boston winner Amby Burfoot takes a different view in this issue's "Amby's Ramblings" column. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Dear Will and Jock [Will Cloney and Jock Semple, directors of the Boston Marathon],
Don't you think it's time to open up the Boston Maraton?
I do. I'll tell you why.
Boston is the classic marathon. We all know that. For many years the Boston Marathon was unique in the world of sport because it was the premier event of its kind, yet it was open to everyone. It wasn't a Super Bowl for super goliaths or Masters for the country-cub set. In an era of burgeoning spectatorship, the Boston Marathon was an invitation to the common man to take part in an athletic event of championship caliber.
Up until 1975 you didn't have to be a three-hour marathoner to toe the line among Olympic champions and the top runners from a dozen foreign countries. All you had to do was send in a couple of bucks and make the pilgrimage to Hopkinton. The running elite, the mileage freaks, and those who hadn't worked out since the previous Patriots Day were free to run together in what could truly be termed a "melting pot" marathon. It bore a bit of a ragtag appearance, this Boston Marathon, but along with its funkiness this old race probably had more heart and soul than any other sporting event. Heart and soul that thrived on an unmatched egalitarianism and openness.
But of course the two of you, Will and Jock, grew disturbed by the growing numbers of starters at Hopkinton. It was easy to understand why. You both went through hell and back (total distance: well over 26 miles) trying to put the race together. The Boston Athletic Association was neither big nor rich and the lion's share of the thankless organizational work was left to you. So you decided qualification times were necessary: 3:00 for men under 40, 3:30 for women and men over 40.
Now the time has come to change that. You should admit that the Boston Marathon is much bigger than the BAA, and incorporate a separate, nonprofit Boston Marathon Association. You're already receiving help from Prudential and Honeywell, and it's clear that you could get more financial aid from other sponsors or from the people of Boston who love the marathon as much as the runners do.
Anyway, get some money together - there's nothing unethical about it - and then hire a small staff to take the burden off your backs. Wouldn't it be nice? No more of those crazy letters. ("Should I wear spikes or flats?") No more of those maddening phone calls. ("Listen, you've got to let me in. I ran 2:57 at Chicago but my kid threw my certificate in the garbage disposal.") Let your staff take care of day-to-day problems so you can concentrate on more important policy-making decisions.
As a matter of fact, you can avoid a lot of hassles simply be eliminating the qualifying times.
"Insanity," you scream.
It won't be easy, I agree. But it will be well worth it.
To begin with, I'd say it's reasonable to require entrants to offer proof of having completed a previous marathon. No time cutoffs, just completion. This would accomplish two important goals. It would support the many local marathons where first-timers would get their start, and it would also weed out those who have no serious marathoning intentions at all.
Secondly, you should establish an early entry date, maybe March 1. This would enable you to handle all registration materials by mail.
Let's assume you get 20,000 entrants. Obviously you have to do something about the start. Chicago, New York and other races have already shown the way - multiple starting lines. In Hopkinton, it would make sense to have starting lines on two sides of the town green and a third one farther back on Rt. 135. Then, using previous marathon times, you could divide the field into packs of 1000 (much like you did last year).
Next comes the interesting part. You line up these packs on the three starting lines and start each of them at a different time. For example, the sub-2:30 marathoners would start at the gun. Thirty seconds later, and from the second starting line, you would send off the pack of 2:30-2:40 runners. In another 30 seconds, and from the third line, you start the 2:40-2:50 pack. Then you return to the first starting line for the 2:50-3:00 runners. And so on.
Using this method you could start 20,000 runners in about the same time it took to start the 5000 in last year's race. Moreover, it would be fair to everyone at every ability level. Computers at the finish line would make automatic time adjustments as the numbers were recorded. No one would lose a second from his or her time for being held up at the start.
The finish would be no more difficult to deal with than it has been, since the 15,000 runners who don't run a sub-3:00 would be spread across several hours. Actually, the finish density would be lower than many big 10-kilometer races.
Ah yes, the beef stew. Forget it. It's a nice, bur unnecessary, touch. It does bring up an important point though. An open Boston Marathon would be a changed Boston Marathon. It would lose some things. Like the beef stew. A race of 20,000 or more runners would require the setting of some hard and strict priorities. Expanded medical facilities at the finish, for example, would rank much higher than beef stew. Traffic in and around Hopkinton would have to be carefully controlled.
But what the race would gain by once again becoming an open event would far outweigh the drawbacks. It would signify that the sport of long distance running stands for open, democratic participation. It would enable thousands upon thousands of serious runners who will never see a 3:00 or 3:30 to enter Boston. To them, at this point, the qualifying standards have become more a barrier than an incentive. They might just as well petition Bowie Kuhn to let them pitch the first game of the World Series.
No one will ever be able to take anything away from the Boston Marathon. It will always be the classic, the oldest, the tradition-laden marathon. The marathon on the tip of everyone's tongue, in the back of every runner's mind. The city itself is the birthplace, the home town, the focal point of the American revolution in marathoning.
For all these reasons, the Boston Marathon should be open to everyone.