The Boston Question

Ever since the cancellation of the Tokyo Marathon in mid February, marathoners have been deluged with such notices from other races, coupled with plenty of postponements from the spring to the fall season. Second only to the question of when will races return, the nagging thought most on runners minds is, what will all this scuttling and shuffling mean for 2021 Boston Marathon registration? As with most questions regarding the future these days, there are far too many unknowns to make an accurate prediction. But we can use the information we currently have to draw a few conclusions and to refine our questions.

In order to determine the all important Boston cutoff, one must first consider the numbers. Despite the fact that many races from mid-March to June, at this writing, will not occur, the drop in BQs is not as significant as you might assume. According to findmymarathon dot com, a website that tracks BQs earned at American and Canadian races, the total number of BQs for the 2021 year thus far is 28,226. That’s a drop of a little over 3,000 when compared to the prior year. However, the race with the highest number of Boston Qualifiers year after year is the Boston Marathon and in 2019 that race alone earned 8,878 people a BQ. The BAA has already guaranteed that the September 14th race, should it happen, will be eligible for 2021 registration. Meaning it is quite possible that race could largely make up for any absences in other races.

Of races in the top 20 with the highest number of Boston qualifiers, based on data from last year, four have so far been cancelled. Those races are (in order of their total) Grandma’s Marathon (#6 with 1,072), Mountains to Beach Marathon (#10 with 542), Revel Mount Charleston (#16 with 401), and the Eugene Marathon (#19 with 358). Qualifiers combined for all four of those races, again based on last years numbers, total 2,373 – far short of Boston. In fact, all four of those races combined do not equal either of the top two Boston Qualifying races that have already occurred for 2021 registration. Those fall 2019 races are the Chicago Marathon and the NYC Marathon, with 5,787 and 4,934 qualifiers respectively. CIM, third on the list for 2021 qualifiers, comes in just shy with 2,177 Boston qualifiers. That goes to show just how great an impact a single large race can have, particularly those with highly competitive fields, when it comes to Boston Qualifying numbers.

Many large international races have a big impact as well, but their numbers are excluded from the data collected from websites such as findmymarathon. Consider, just one example, the Berlin marathon, which had 44,065 finishers at the September 2019 race. If you assume a mere 5% earned a BQ, that would be 2,200 people. On a flat, fast course with favorable conditions such as Berlin 2019 that’s a very conservative estimate. Indeed comparable fast competitive races such as, the Houston Marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon and the Indianapolis Monumental generate a much larger percentage of their field to Boston qualifiers on a consistent basis. The percentages for these race for the 2021 and 2020 qualifying years are Houston 13.8% – 12.5%, Philadelphia 11.4 – 11.1%, and Indianapolis 18.1 – 18.2%.

Moreover with marathon participation in other countries increasing significantly in recent years and the appeal of runcations for Americans, its clear omitting international qualifications from the known total leaves a large blindspot for cutoff prediction. Particularly as the numbers show that international residents have over the years become a larger pool of Boston Marathon participants. For the year 2014, international residents made up just over 5,000 of the total participants. As of 2019, that number had grown to 7,539 and no doubt 2020 is even larger still, although that data has not been released yet. But you can’t look ahead to 2021 without considering how the corona virus outbreak in the United States, which has effectively shut down its borders, will effect international participants. Will international interest wane due to concerns about traveling abroad? Will other countries, eager to keep the virus at bay on their shores, allow their citizens to travel here even if runners do qualify and intend to apply?

Of course not everyone who qualifies for Boston will decide to register for a spot and there’s no way to know what that number is until registration for the year closes. However, if you look at past data as precedent, you’ll see the numbers steadily increased since 2013, the year of the bombing. It was only last year when the BAA tightened the time standards by 5 minutes, that a slightly smaller number of applicants applied for a qualifier spot. But even with a dip in the applicant numbers, 3,131 runners were shut out for the 2020 race and a cushion of 1:39 was needed. Had the BAA not expanded the field size to stunt some of the blow, the cut off would have been closer to 2 minutes and many more people would have been shut out. That begs the question, will the newly expanded field be the expectation for the upcoming 2021 race?

The 2021 race is supposed to be the 125th anniversary of the Boston Marathon. Anniversary races tend to draw more interest and prior to the multitude of changes brought on by the corona virus, the 2021 race was no different. But again the anniversary date is contingent on the September 14th race occurring. The other question brought on by a possible cancellation of the September race is what the BAA might do with participants who were registered to run, but who opted not to take the refund which is currently being offered. If September 2020 Boston runners are given a deferral that would see openings for new 2021 time qualifiers plummet. Even a large expansion of the field to numbers such as those seen in 2014, would do little to mitigate that conundrum.

So while there are numerous factors that impact the Boston Question, such as whether any other marathons happen this summer, the interest from international runners in the face of pandemic or what the total field size will be. I believe the largest mystery of 2021 Boston Marathon registration, hinges on the 2020 Boston Marathon, currently scheduled for September 14th.

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