The Mystery of the Boston Marathon

Several weeks ago, all 21,000 participants in next year’s Boston Marathon registered for the race in just eight hours — 65 times faster than last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Five years ago, “it took almost seven months to fill the same number of spots.” Interestingly, the development was not unexpected — race officials warned in advance that registration could fill up rapidly this year.

Mark Remy of Runners World Daily certainly?wasn’t surprised:

I wish I could say I was surprised when I heard this. I was not.

Instead, my first reaction upon hearing that Boston had filled up in RECORD TIME was this:

Well, duh.

I don’t know who started this “filled in one day” rumor, or even when, exactly. All I know is that I heard whispers as far back as Wednesday (“Boston might fill in one day”) which became murmurs by Thursday and Friday (“They say Boston will close in one day!”) and exploded into full-blown frenzy by Sunday (“OMG! BOSTON IS GOING TO CLOSE HOURS AFTER IT OPENS!”)

Which, of course, it did.

Various other explanations have been offered. One interesting thought: too many eligible participants because of?outdated qualifying times, particularly for women. As?Kevin Helliker and David Biderman point out:

By all accounts, the running boom is being fueled by women more than men. Women made up 42% of finishers in the 2010 Boston race-a proportion that is higher than the percentage of all U.S. marathoners who are women. But according to gender rules instituted in 1977, the marathon times women need to post to qualify for Boston are 30 minutes slower than the times the men in the same age group have to run. The problem: There’s no evidence that women really need that much extra time.

The typical gap in major 2009 marathons between the world’s elite male and female runners was closer to 20 minutes than 30-and has been shrinking over time. For less-than-elite runners, these gaps have created some questionable benchmarks. To qualify for Boston, for instance, a man aged 50 to 54 has to have posted a time of 3:35 or better. But that time is five minutes faster than the time required for women 34 and younger. In a nutshell, to make Boston, a 54-year old man has to run faster than the nation’s youngest and fastest women

Guy Morse, the executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, has promised to review the qualifying and registration process. “We’re pleased with the interest, but not pleased when qualified runners are shut out,” Morse said.

What say you, readers? Does anyone have any good information as to why the Boston Marathon filled up so quickly? Or what can be done to avoid the same situation next year?

Rebecca the Runner

I suspect the chatter about how it would fill up in one day forced it to fill up in one day. The running world tends to be very well connected and when qualified runners learned if they were going to get in they needed to plan on registering on the first available day, they all did, fulfilling the expectation that it would fill quickly.


Doesn't it stand to reason that if people think it will fill quickly they will be more motivated to register instantly. Thus filling the marathon near instantly? (self fulfilling prophecy)

Why don't they just break down the age ranges and genders separate and have times for each group. Then give each group a quota of how many people will race in each group (equal amounts or a percentage based on any number of factors) then only allow the top X number of athletes for each group regardless of the day they register only the top 100 (or whatever number) will compete.


I don't think number of qualifiers is the biggest factor (unless the number of qualifiers has increased exponentially in the last couple years).

A big issue is how people respond to the knowledge that the race will fill up. Two years ago, roughly the same number of racers signed up after registration was open for 4 months. Unfortunately, some people didn't get in on time, so they (and their friends) agreed to sign up a little earlier. Last year, registration filled up before the fall marathon season was even over, prompting more people to sign up even earlier. This snowballed into this years sign-up.

Slightly more qualifiers + Jilted runners from previous years + People trying to be proactive = Instant registration issues.

Some possible solutions:
1. Stricter standards
2. Stricter standards for some and a lottery for everyone else (like the NYC marathon)
3. Going by place at qualifying races (like the Hawaii Ironman)


Laurent Hodges

No, a 54-year-old man doesn't have "to run faster than the nation's youngest and fastest women."

It's only that his maximum allowable time is greater than theirs.


I think the math here is wrong. The sign-up rate this year is about 630 times faster than last year. 7 months x 30 days x 24 hours / 8 hours = 630


The entry fee must not be high enough. They just need to charge more money.


This guy has a pretty good analysis:


One of the things unfair was you had to register on a Monday. If you work for a living and can't get to a computer for 2 or 3 hours to keep trying to log on you were shut out before you even started. I am OK with charity runners and the Qual times and all the other BS I have been hearing, but make the playing field level for the working class stiff.

Rodolfo Araujo

They are runners. They always try to do things faster...


Add another race day so more people could participate. Demand has exceeded supply!


Create a demand by announcing a limited availability of supply and step back! Black Friday shoppers show up on the parking lots of stores right after Thanksgiving dinner to await the doors being thrown open the following morning. The monthly Pepsi Refresh Project fills slots at such breakneck speed that my friend asked to use my computer because I have a faster internet connection than she does. Lines wrapped around city blocks for the first iPads and iPhones.

Shannon, you just need to reread the wording. Last year's rate wasn't specified. FIVE years ago, it took 7 months. But, hey, you were paying attention in math class! :)


I agree with the self-fulfilling prophesy hypothesis. However I do believe the finishing times should be shaved for future events purely to reduce the amount of competitors!


Proper internet percolation, and awareness, I've run a few races and I now get a consistent flow of emails about other races that the event coordinators also operate. Some of these people who know about the Boston Marathon, may not have been fully aware, of when and requirements.
As for the differential in sex and age, let's really be non-discrimatory and blind to all factors, set one time, you meet it , you're in, regardless of sex or age, but I have a feeling somebody would say this is discimatory.


It's scalpers and automated software.
Stub Hub is already seeling starting spots for a a tremendous markup.


There are a few reasons why the Boston Marathon filled up so quickly (I actually warned of this and wrote about it back in September:

1. Since it filled up faster then usual last year, there were many marathons running late fall and winter marathons that didn't have a chance to sign up. You can bet there were at their computers when registration opened.

2. People saw the race fill up fairly quickly last year and weren't about to take any chances. Then the BAA kept encouraging runners to sign up before the race filled, which made everyone nervous and sign up right away. Much of this was through Facebook and Twitter, which further pushed everyone's stress level.

3. More people are running marathons, which means more people are qualifying for Boston. Since the qualifying time for women 18-34 is a *slow* 3:40, it's adding a lot of additional qualified runners that have just recently started running marathons, which explains why races are filling up faster these days.



The implicit topic of this article is gender bias in pursuit of financial maximization. But before I "go there," as the kids say these days, some preliminaries are in order. The Boston Marathon (BM) has become a business, albeit one with a laudable goal, which is to raise money for a couple of dozen charities, including the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Dana Farber operates an aggressive bib-selling business, soliciting people willing to pay a lot of money for the thrill of running the BM for cancer research. Credit cards are accepted, and delinquent payments are pursued in the same manner in which, say, Exxon Mobil pursues them.

It's my belief that the social phenomenon of paying money to physically exert oneself in public for a cause is profoundly distaff. Simply sending a check to Dana Farber would not fulfill the modern woman's need for the intense social experience offered by the BM. It would thus make complete sense for the BM to weight its qualification rules in favor of women.

If you're wondering, I ran 2:55 when I was 17, on a much harder course than Boston, and have never stopped running.


john cuthbert

Have a morning heat and an afternoon heat and double the field!


It's kind of sad. People buy into this marketing mentality. Gotta run Boston. Gotta climb Everest. Gotta swim from Long Beach to Catalina. Why not decide for YOURSELF what some meaningful accomplishments would be for you instead of following the herd. There are probably a hundred marathons in the US that are more aesthetically pleasing than Boston.


I think Ben @ 11:58 hit the nail on the head.

There were a lot of people who had qualifying times for 2010 that didn't get to register because 2010 sold out, they were queued up and ready to go when registration for 2011 opened.

Tom G

The self-fulfilling prophecy is a distant second to too low entry fees

Having so much interest is actually strong evidence that the standards are very good. Any qualifying requirements will decrease the number of eligible participants. But in this case, making people think they are part of a selective group greatly increases demand among those who are eligible. That's true even with qualifying times that aren't too demanding for most dedicated runners (and there are plenty of spots that go to anyone who raises money for charity no matter how slow)

The best path for 2012 and beyond is to keep relatively easy standards -- go ahead and make the times for men even slower, rather than the times for women faster -- while greatly increasing the entry fee. That's a huge benefit to those who really want to run, as they have a much better chance of entering, while still having an easy enough chance to run a qualifying time. The increased revenue means the race organizers can put out an even better product