Ever wonder why average runners have to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but the elite runners don’t?
Well, for one thing, there is a competitive marketplace for the top athletes and invitations with appearance fees are the means of recruiting them. It’s a holdover from the sport’s shamateur (sic) past but one that has proven resilient to change, despite the introduction of prize money purses in the 1980s.
We have just gone through a small tempest at this year’s Boston Marathon after the Boston Athletic Association separated the “invited” men’s field from the Wave 1 runners for the first time – by two minutes – thereby bringing the invited men’s field into line with the elite women who have started 28-minutes ahead of the men for the last 15 years.
Depending on how you view the sport, this is either a welcomed and needed change or a travesty. Highly regarded scribe Jonathan Beverly in Podium Runner holds to the latter, calling the new separation policy “puzzling” and contrary to the spirit of the sport.
“It’s a seemingly minor change,” writes Beverly, “one that will economically affect only a few sub-elites who might have a breakthrough day. But it ensures that an anonymous runner will never stand on the podium, putting to rest the notion that we’re all competing together in the same race—a notion that is arguably one of the greatest aspects of our sport. Now, if you’re not one of the few pre-selected to be in the first start, you are, quite explicitly, running in a different competition.”
Jonathan has it exactly right except for the notion that we’re all competing together in the same race where the average Doheny is theoretically competing against the best in the world. That has always been a misnomer. The thousands of citizen runners don’t run against or with the pros, they run concurrently. Only a historic weather event like we had in Boston 2018 can wipe enough pros from the field that one or two “regular” runners can end up in the prize money positions from the mass field.
The example Jonathan gave of an uninvited runner winning the March 17th New York City Half Marathon missed the point that Ethiopian Belay Tilahun may not have been invited, but he was definitely elite.
Besides, Boston already makes a distinction between charity joggers, recreational runners, and Boston Qualifiers. That, among other things, is what makes Boston special. But until the sport, in general, makes that same distinction between BQs and professional-class runners, we are going to have this amorphous amalgam that the public doesn’t understand much less take seriously as a sporting event. Instead, they view even major marathons as more like, you know, the Pope’s visit, or the tall ships sailing into Boston harbor, primarily a big civic event. Continue reading