On The Running Boom...

"Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?"
- Eminem

From where I sit, I see that we are in the middle of what is quite likely the biggest running "boom" in history. All over the country, the World even, races of all types, distances and purposes are selling like never before. Races that have never sold-out before are suddenly closing registration months ahead of time. Races that always sell-out are getting even harder to get into. Muddy Buddy's, Warrior Dash's, Charity 5k's, odd-distance races, beer, burrito, and even juggling challenges are having their infrastructure's pushed to the limits by a ground swell of running enthusiasts looking for new and interesting races, even just your everyday "run like your hair is on fire" tests of endurance and stamina are in high demand.

So, it should be of no surprise to anyone that the 115th running of the Boston Marathon, April 18, 2011 sold-out in less than 8 hours. After all, Boston isn't just any marathon, it's the marathon! Months ago I read a blog somewhere that was having a "contest" to guess how long it would take for Boston to sell-out this year. My guess was 24 hours. Boy was I wrong! It really was a stroke of marketing genius by the B.A.A. if you think about it. A triumph! One that may eventually backfire unless they respond to the current state of running in the proper manner. I saw this coming (and personally, I have no thoughts of BQ'ing before I turn 50), so why didn't the thousands of disappointed BQ'ers that just let it pass them by?

This is how they did it: The B.A.A. sent out an email and press release in October of last year (after registration had been open for a month, and only about 10k had registered) which said something to the effect of "The Boston Marathon is close to selling out! Get your registration in NOW!" And lo-and-behold, the 114th Boston Marathon was sold-out by November 13, 2009. A whole two months earlier than the 113th running. This year the BAA made several high profile public statements and announcements that should have been a clue to the clueless, starting with the fact that they would not open registration until October 18th (a full month later that the traditional mid-September opening) in order to "give everyone a chance to qualify during the fall marathon season."

This year, every running magazine I picked-up, seemingly every article I read has talked about the current running "boom," and the surge of runner's attempting to BQ. You only have to have half an ear to the ground in the blogosphere, twitterverse, podcastia and around the office water cooler to hear someone, anyone, everyone broadcasting their private quest to BQ publicly. I hate to say it, but running a BQ has become "trendy." Just like the hula hoop, cabbage patch kids and zu-zu pets. So, if you've worked your butt off for two, three or even 5 years to get there and actually run a BQ, only to have your hopes, dreams and hard work dashed because 2500 runner's per hour registered and you didn't even log on for whatever reason, sorry for your loss.

I truly feel sorry for so many runner's who were shut-out of the process, especially the European runners who were probably asleep while registration was open (first the volcano, now this?), but really? Not surprised. Not one iota. So why are you? What I am surprised about is the backlash that subsequently ensued against charity runners. Shocked is more like it. Dismayed, distraught over, flabbergasted, disturbed, insulted, offended, stupefied and outright disgusted is more like it. I don't even know if all of those synonyms adequately describe how statements on facebook, twitter, bulletin boards, and several blogs affected me. It shook me to the core. I wasn't going to get into this in this post because so much has already been said by people far more eloquent and diplomatic than I on the subject (my friend's MattTy and Sam on their blogs), but I can't help myself.

Some of the things that I saw I'm simply not going to re-print, but some of the more tame things that were said by my own friends, in which I entered into debate with, were things like: "They need to decide if this is going to be a race or a charity event!" This, from a friend who said (after just missing a BQ by 23 seconds last year) he would run for charity but he didn't think he could raise the $3500 (he subsequently qualified by running a 3:17). Another friend who's been trying to BQ unsuccessfully for 3 years said "I would never run Boston for charity, it would cheapen the experience for me!" Someone else was discussing the merits of charity runners and relating the fact that many of the charity runner's are running run to conquer their own disabilities (much like my wife Lex and my friends Mary and Donna, for whom every race completed is a victory). And one of my fast friend's (a sub-3 hour marathoner) said "when did the 'everybody wins' mentality creep into our sport?" To which we went into a lengthy debate on what running is, what racing is, and the definition of "winner." And we just ended-up agreeing to disagree.

I'd just like to say that all of these conversations I saw and had were in direct conflict with my experiences to this point in the running community. Which is part of the reason I felt it cut so deep. So far I've found the running community to be incredibly inclusive, supportive and receptive to new runners and encouraging to all those just getting started or conquering disabilities, losing weight, and overcoming addiction to achieve their goals. The running community I know would never say that some are worthy while others just don't cut it. I guess human nature is just that and you see the true soul of a man in how he deals with or reacts to adversity. I have to say my heart broke just a little bit every time I felt I had to defend myself and "charity" runner's as a whole that day.

I think a lot of the backlash was started unwittingly or unknowingly by statements from the race organizer's in a couple of forums and different media. They made statements that there were an average of 2500 runner's per hour registering for the race, so do the math... 2500/hr x 8 hrs = 24,000 runner's. Everyone knows the field is limited to 30,000. So when they were put on the spot and asked about the discrepancy, somebody in the organization said something to the affect of "20% of the entries are reserved for non-qualifying runners." What wasn't said was that somewhere around 5000 of those entries are given out as "invitational" bibs to towns and municipalities, corporations, sponsors, local running clubs and volunteers. Yet, almost immediately, BQ'ers with sour grapes and an axe to grind literally started hammering the charity runners.

Let's just talk about number's for a minute. From my understanding, there are a fixed number of charity slots - 1350. The number hasn't changed for 2011. The BAA accepted more charities this year (24), but cut back on the number of bibs they gave to many "underperforming" charities. Each charity accepted into the program gets a minimum of 15 bibs. Luckily, Children's Hospital, raised $1.1M last year and received the same number of bibs (165) as last year. Each charity runner has to raise a minimum of $3250 + $250 entry fee. Since 1989 when the B.A.A. pioneered the charity program, they've raised over $100 Million for charities. Since then, nearly every marathon in the World had added a charity program to their marathon, but from what I've seen, Boston does it best.

Charity runners have a place in EVERY race, not just the Boston Marathon. Some people have the mistaken impression that charity runner's don't work as hard, or sacrifice as much as the BQ runners. Here's a little perspective- As a charity runner, I put-in over 800 training miles on the road. I ran in snowstorms, sub-zero temperatures, and even ran my 18-miler in a strong Nor'Easter in which I had to perform several stream crossings over the road as all of the rivers, streams and tributaries were overflowing their banks. My family sacrificed time, love and energy to get me to my goal. They were my road support, my pregnant wife and 3 year-old daughter always met me in the middle of my long runs to help me re-fuel. They were my emotional support always encouraging me along the way and cheering me on in my build-up races (I set a lot of PR's too)!

I know that my story isn't unique, in fact the overwhelming majority of charity runners also put-in the miles. How do I know this? The B.A.A. sponsors 2 long-runs and there were somewhere around 800 charity runners at the 17-miler and nearly 1000 charity runners at the 21-miler. I also raised almost $5000 for Children's Hospital in the process. My wife hated this part the most. Not only because of the stress of knowing if I didn't accomplish my goal the balance would be put on my credit card, but because she said the fundraising was "all-consuming." I had my own reason's and inspiration for choosing to run for Children's, and every runner has a story of how their charity has touched their lives. There were many, many runners who raised over $10k and if memory serves me, our top fundraiser raised something like $36k. Insane.

Much to my wife's chagrin I've chosen to do it all over again. Partly because my 4:14:09 finish fell short of my goal, but mostly because doing this for Children's Hospital to honor the memory of my friend's daughter Brenya Elizabeth Sullivan is something I feel called to do. It feels great to be involved in something so much bigger than myself. It has grown into an emotional and passionate mission for me, one that I plan to continue for many years to come. I am absolutely sure that even if I am graced with the ability to run a BQ some day, I will still run for the Children's Hospital "Miles for Miracles" program. Even if I am given an invitational bib from my running club one year, I'll still raise money for Children's. This year I plan on raising $10k. You can help me by going to my fundraising website and donating- https://howtohelp.childrenshospital.org/bostonmarathon/pfp/?ProfileID=WD0030

Again, I really do feel sorry for those who ran a BQ and didn't get in. It sucks. But, such is life. It's not the end of the World, and there are other options available to you. If you ran a BQ and were unable to get in this year, why not run for charity? There are 24 charities you can run for. Many of them still have spots open on their team. And it won't "cheapen" the experience for you since you've already run a BQ! What's holding you back? Let's see what type of commitment you are capable of, huh?

I also hope that the B.A.A. makes note of all that has transpired this year (in fact the past couple of years) and makes the proper adjustments accordingly. I don't think that the answer is to make the BQ time standards stricter. Like I said earlier, we are in the middle of a running boom, and these things are always cyclical. With a few minor adjustments I'm sure the B.A.A. can weather the storm. I know that since they broke-up the start into two waves, they've been working with the towns and municipalities along the course trying to increase the field size limit. I know that would be helpful. but why not also extend the length of time that running a BQ is valid for to say 2, 3 or even 5 years (but, of course, as soon as you use it, you lose it). I think these two adjustments might just solve the problem altogether.

There are a lot of races out there that have stricter qualification standards, but I argue they just aren't the spectacle and prestige of Boston. But, if you're really interested in qualifying for and running a truly "elite" and "World class" event, as many have expressed, then why not shoot for the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan? Think you have it in you? Be my guest! My point is that it's NOT the qualifying times that make Boston what it is. It is in fact Boston itself. Nowhere will you have anywhere near the experience of the Boston Marathon. The course, the fans, the people, the volunteers, the organization, you name it. Everything that encompasses the Boston Marathon is in fact the draw, not the qualifying times. Besides, if you run a BQ does that mean you expect to win the race? Do you even expect to win your age group? Probably not. So, who in fact are you racing against when you run Boston? Yourself? That's what I thought. You're no different than me or any other charity runner in the race. We are all runners. Yet I argue that the charity runner may have a little more invested.

Who does the Boston Marathon belong to after all? It belongs to Boston. It belongs to history. It belongs to tradition. It belongs to stories told for years to come. It does not belong to you just because you happen to be athletically talented, genetically gifted, or well-trained enough to have run a BQ.


  1. It is tough for sure, but geez, that happens in triathlon quite a lot...(races selling out and not everyone who wants to gets to race).

    I think another approach BAA could take would be to maybe change the qualifying times a bit, as it seems that a lot of people are qualifying...Just a thought. (I am a full 1/2 hour out for mine right now, so I am not one of those people, so that would hurt my chances, but...)

    I agree charity spots have a place at Boston, and at every race...to get in you have to bust your butt and raise a whole lot of $$...I have so much respect for folks who are able to raise that kind of cash...we need them!

    I'm just curious if ~24,000 people BQ'd and signed up, and there are ~1400 (rounding) charity spots,where do those other 4600 spots go?

  2. Thanks for the positive feedback! I agree, it happens all the time in other sports, so I don't see why it caused all the negative backlash. I wrote about the "invitational" bibs -

    "What wasn't said was that somewhere around 5000 of those entries are given out as "invitational" bibs to towns and municipalities, corporations, sponsors, local running clubs and volunteers."

  3. Well said Buddy! And you are just as eloquent as the rest of us!

    On a side note, I wonder if this may have been the ultimate goal of the BAA, to create an event for the event? The BAA half closes in 2 hours...

  4. Very well-written. What's the thinking behind capping it at 30K? Saturation on the course? City/municipality concerns? I'm not up on race organization, but why can't they open it to anyone who qualifies and expand the event?

    I think running is for everyone, and you're right, runners who run for a charity have an added level of difficulty, and it's not speed. I ran for the Melanoma Foundation this past year, and the training + concern for getting to that magic number of $3250 is stressful and time-consuming.

    Thanks for sharing your agreed-with opinion on this topic!

  5. as the wife of a firefighter and mom to a child recovering from autism, people willing to do for others and raise money are incredibly selfless and should be praised not admonished. thank-you:)

  6. VERY well written! I love the last 2 paragraphs.

  7. well said.. and I agree with you 110% in YOUR personal mission for Children's Hospital.

    However, just playing devil's advocate.. I think there is a snobbery and arrogance among BQ'ers, who think that many charity runners are not only "unworthy" but also not the least bit interested in their given charity, for the most part.. and are only signing up to run Boston via the "back door". If anything, they are bitter about the $3500 "registration fee" for Boston. Sadly, someone I work with likes to think himself a runner, but clearly can not BQ at his age. Yet, he likes to tell everyone how he runs Boston every year. What charity? Any one he can get on. Obviously, the money is not much of an issue for him I guess.

    Even you, yourself, mention in your post, "If you ran a BQ and were unable to get in this year, why not run for charity? There are 24 charities you can run for. Many of them still have spots open on their team." I truly believe that all these charities are worthy in their own respects; however, frankly.. I'd probably only run for a charity that speaks to me personally in some way. Otherwise, if I BQ, and end up just choosing any random charity so I can run it this year or next, pay $3500 of my own money, then it really is a "backdoor". But, in the end, the charity still benefits from the money. Maybe the ends justify the means?

    My wife, is just a few minutes away from BQ. Her take is that the course is just too narrow and can not handle the load. Your idea about extending the eligibility is probably only a partial fix, unless you assume there will be a cyclical downturn (which may happen.. I'm not sure). She also thinks it's probably time to bring women and men qualifying times in parity, even though that would likely kill her chances of BQing in the next few years, or ever. She knows running, and she says in the last countless major marathons, the women's winner is usually only few minutes behind the men's winner. She says fair is fair. Women want equality, so they can't have it both ways.

    Sorry for the long rambling reply..

  8. Thank you Doug! You know when I was out on the course and walking through the water stop in Framingham runners pushed me and splashed gatorade at my feet telling me that I could not walk through the water stop. That was the only negative experience we had while out on the course. I would love for everyone to watch the documentary about my Boston Marathon run - hey Doug, maybe this is impetus to do a screening - OMG here's an idea -- we do a screening - and we split the proceeds half for Tom's run and half for your run for Miles for Miracles. I want people to see what I went through and what it mean for me and our 'team' to conquer the Boston Marathon course - Boston Marathon is not just about BQ and charity - it is about people - it is about courage and grit and strength and the ability to overcome. And so what if somebody 'gets in the back door' while raising money and awareness for a particular charity? It's all for the good. I wish that everyone would follow my blog and Adam's blog and read our posts about Lexs Run and the higher purpose in running and what running can and does mean to so many. And by the way, training for a marathon and fund raising and then running the marathon is no small feat -- somehow if you 'do' it this way it cheapens the experience? I think not people. Since when have we become so elitist? Where is the heart and compassion? I am so blessed to be in a running community where I am embraced and where a 15 min mile is celebrated and where a PR no matter the time is embraced. I am so grateful you and Lex and all the #NERTS are in my life because I have a lot to teach the running community as does Lex as do so many -- so look out because we are not going anywhere nor are the charity runners. Thanks Doug for letting me share!

  9. Doug - wonderful eloquent post. Thank you for summing this up much better than I did.

  10. Came to the blog via twitter and I have a few thoughts.

    I don't think the recent sellout are due to marketing. There is plenty of interest in the race already and they don't need to goose the numbers. Boston's place in running is established.

    I don't believe a BQ is any more trendy than before. It's always held a certain appeal. What has changed is the ability of people to run it. The social runner community, I reckon, has made more runners better and faster runners.

    I have no problem with the charity slots but I think charity/ invite runners should be in a third Wave with different bibs.

    Overall, I enjoyed the perspective

  11. Matt, we're already placed in the back of the second wave, and as many can attest, our corrals weren't nearly as packed as all of the others. I was in the next to last corral with plenty of room to move around, and the corral behind us didn't even appear to be half-full. No need for a third wave for the 5000 or so invitational bibs and 1350 charity bibs...