In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, it is undeniable that we are all living in historic times. Mass gatherings the world over have either been postponed or shut down for the foreseeable future.  In the last several days alone the August 2nd TD Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine has been canceled, the August 16th New Balance Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod has become “virtual”, and the July 4th Peachtree Road Race 10K in Atlanta, Georgia has been pushed back to Thanksgiving Day November 26th.

Since its inception in 1897, the only time the Boston Marathon hasn’t been contested as an individual foot race was in 1918 when the Boston Athletic Association conducted a military relay to support the “boys who were about to go over there and fight in World War I,” as Tom Derderian wrote in his Boston Marathon: The History of the World’s Premier Running Event.

Today, already two weeks past the Patriots Day date of its 124th running, the Boston Marathon remains in scheduling limbo. As of this writing, the postponement date of September 14 still holds on the calendar, but it’s a tenuous hold.

Making a mid-September mass race less likely are medical experts saying Americans are underestimating how long the current Coronavirus disruptions will last. They suggest that events like the Marathon with its tens of thousands of participants from all over the world and hundreds of thousands of spectators along the course would be a dangerous proposition in this time when there is not enough widespread testing to determine who amongst the participants or spectators might be infected with Covid-19.

Already in 2020, the 38,000-person strong Tokyo Marathon, a sister Abbott World Marathon Major to Boston, changed from a mass participation event to a 200 person Elite-only competition with public health officials recommending that the public not line the course but instead stay home and watch on television.

“That’s not the Boston Marathon,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said last month to when asked about restricting the Marathon to elite runners. “We’re an inclusive marathon. The Boston Marathon is for everyone.”

While understanding Mayor Walsh’s sentiment in terms of public interest and fan support, from the runners’ perspective, Boston is hardly “inclusive”. As a matter of fact, the defining characteristic of the Boston Marathon over the last half-century has been its strict qualifying standards. 

Begun in 1970 after the field had grown to 1342 in 1969, the original qualifying standard of four hours was meant to limit the size of the race not to challenge its runners. But that’s exactly what it did do, to the point where Boston has become known as “The People’s Olympics” specifically for its stringent qualifying standards.

Boston Marathon old photo
In days of yore

From 1897 when there were 18 starters to 1963 when 285 runners entered, Boston had fewer than 300 runners.  It wasn’t until 1966 when Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run (though unofficially) that the men’s field grew passed 500 for the first time at 540. Two years later 1000 was broached (1014). 1975 saw the first 2000-plus gathering at 2340 entrants.

With the qualifying standard lowered from 3:00 (1977-‘79) to 2:50 (1980-‘86), the fields held steady between 5000 and 7000 in the Boom years. Only when the standard was softened again from 3:00 (1987-1989) to 3:10 in 1990 did the overall field break 9,000 (7669 men, 1743 women).  The 100th running in 1996 exploded to 38,708 entrants as qualifying standards were removed and anyone who wanted to run could celebrate the centennial event.

In its 123 years, the Boston Marathon has never been canceled. Only in 1918 was the annual Patriots’ Day race changed to a military relay due to World War I.

While full participation would always be the first wish of any runner or fan, a field limited to the very best as representatives of us all in this time of crisis would be far more desirable a solution than nothing at all.

One could make the argument that for its first 71 years Boston was, in fact, a (self-selected) Elite-only competition. In that sense, such a limited field in 2020 would be an homage to the earlier days of the great event, while spectators could still watch on television and from front porches and wide lawns.


Looking at historic precedent in a city defined by its rich history, if a military relay was conducted in 1918 to support those who would man the front lines in a world war, rather than an outright cancellation of the 2020 Boston Marathon, would it be feasible/possible to conduct a medical relay to support those on the front lines fighting this worldwide pandemic in 2020?

Boston has always been recognized as one of, if not the top-rated medical city in the USA. Massachusetts is one of the hardest-hit states in terms of coronavirus cases, and the medical community has been a long-time partner of the Marathon, as well as a recipient of his charitable outreach.

Like they did with the military relay in 1918, the BAA could pit 14 ten-person teams representing the areas top hospitals in a relay race with legs of approximately 2.6 miles each.

Boston Marathon 1918 Military Relay Camp Devins Team
1918 Camp Devins Boston Marathon Military Relay Champions

In 1918, a team from Camp Devins won the relay in a time of 2:24:53. Second-place went to the 302nd Infantry in 2:28:10, and third-place went to the Boston Navy Yard in 2:28:45.

According to Tom Derderian‘s book, “few spectators lined the course, and the race did not generate spontaneous public interest.“ But it is my bet that such a medical-team relay in 2020 generating charitable contributions via a telethon, which would be broadcast on the regular Boston Marathon outlets of WBZ-TV in Massachusetts and NBCSN nationally would be of great public interest.

In the world of running, Boston isn’t just another race.  It is The Race.  Yes, New York City’s marathon is larger, and London’s is faster, but without Boston, there might not have ever been a New York City or London Marathon, or any of the other long-distance foot races we celebrate each year and now mourn the cancelation of in this tragic year.

Whenever it may be run, Boston is still the first blade of grass inching up above the white blanket of snow every spring, the expansive view from atop a grandfather’s wide shoulders, the sweet smell of magnolia blossoms on a warm westerly breeze. It’s the crack of the bat upon a horsehide cover, the feeling of running free without leg coverings, the knowledge that there is something ahead worth running after.

And so, whether through an Elite-only competition or a medical relay, holding The Marathon in Boston this year in some form would be important. But not just as a race as such.  Instead, it would be the 2020 version of what it has always been, a metaphoric reminder of how far we have come, and what a distance we still have yet to go.

Regardless, let’s all pray that the whole shebang still lines up in full flower on September 14th. Boston Strong 2020!



  1. This is a very good article describing the history and growth of the Boston Marathon. I believe there is one correction regarding the 1996 100th running. BAA did not remove qualifying standards for that race, most all had to qualify and did. There were no limits as there are now. Additionally there was a random drawing that allowed non-qualifying runners a once in a lifetime opportunity to run Boston (before charity running).

    1. Thanks for the correction, Joe. Yes, I remember, there was qualifying in 1996, but a one-time-only drawing for others to run who didn’t qualify. It proved the BAA could handle such an immense field with proper wave starts. Cold year, too.

  2. If you have to limit it, how about 1) let the top 200 elite start first, 2) followed by the top 50 Male and Female qualifiers in each age group next, 3) followed by the medical worker relay teams, each sponsored by one of your traditional charity organizations?
    That would truly be America’s race!
    The elites race for money, the best ‘average Joe’s and Jane’s still get their shot, and the charities get to honor the medical heroes while still waving their Charity’s banner as a sponsor of medical workers and/or their cause?
    Result: BAA still wins.

  3. Toni – Great ideas. I hope something like this happens. Regarding whether Boston is inclusive, keep in mind that Boston’s qualifying standards are available to any person in the world. The spring marathon just across the pond does not have guaranteed good-for-age entry for non-UK citizens. In that sense, Boston is more inclusive in a most American way….Send us your fast, your fit, your hobby joggers yearning to run free….

  4. Hi Toni, I would probably prefer the elite field keeping it to under 100 runners total and hope that you get the good ones to show up with all the other marathons supposedly taking place this fall as well. Or do you keep it sort of elite to say those who run sub 3:00 or do you allow elite masters age groupers who do it a bit slower. What be the qualifying times that would be accepted or would it be based on invitation only? Lots to think about and lots of questions too.

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