Boston by the Numbers

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, you’ve already heard the news regarding the Boston Marathon field size, due to return to its normal Patriot’s Day date in April of 2022. With registration happening this week and notification of acceptances much further out, thousands of nervous runners begin that time honored tradition of fretting over making the cut.

In keeping with how the pandemic has thrown even the mundane and ordinary into disarray for a year plus, only one thing is certain, there will be more curve balls in our future. Presently there are major questions with possible outsize influence that can only be guessed at. Will proof of vaccination be a boost or a bust for applicants? Will international participants, who were largely prevented from traveling in 2021, be willing to take the risk given the travel ban has finally been lifted? Will demand spike from participants who were kept away due to the pandemic? Will a Fall Boston minimize the applicant pool for a second race a mere 6 months later? We are still very much in unprecedented times and as such I will not pretend to know the answers to the unknown. After all the biggest wild card here comes down to personal choice.

Because I can not predict human behavior, I do not know who will choose to apply and who will sit it out. But what I can do is give you a look at the numbers. It’s not a crystal ball predicting the future so much as a magnifying glass examining the past. Let’s dive in.

The best place to start I think, is with the 3 most recent registrations we have on record. Of course there were many anomalies for the October 2021 race, so the postponed and later cancelled April 2020 race is perhaps more informative as to a “normal” Boston registration. For these most recent registrations, the BAA saw the following:

Total Time Qualifier Applicants then going back 3 years:

  • 2021 – 14,609 accepted from 23,824* applicants with 9,215 rejected (cut off 7:47)
    • -> * International Travel Ban in effect due to the Covid Pandemic
  • 2020 – 24,127 accepted from 27,288* applicants with 3,161 rejected (cut off 1:39)
    • -> * With newly tightened standards, 5 minutes faster than the prior year
  • 2019 – 23,074 accepted from 30,458 applicants with 7,384 rejected (cut off 4:52)

The newly announced field size for the upcoming April race is a total of 30,000 participants. But that number includes what will be roughly 20-25% of charity, sponsor and tour bibs. As I’m strictly concerned with time qualifier bibs for this post, from here forward I will only reference a field of 24,000. That’s 80% of the announced total. The BAA has never devoted the entire field to qualifiers and in fact over the years has gradually increased the split in favor of more charity, sponsor, and tour bibs. The field may then be slightly less than 24,000 but it is highly unlikely to be much more.

As you can see for the April 2022 race we will be much closer to the 2020 and 2019 number of accepted runners. That’s certainly good news for the cut off. The question then remains will the applicant numbers rebound similarly.

I think, in terms of the vaccination stipulation, there will definitely be some who will opt out of applying as a result of this policy. However I believe in the end the number will have a negligible affect and be more than compensated for by an increase in the international applicant pool, as well as, those who have aged up over a prolonged qualifying window. This is based on the small number of unvaccinated runners who participated in the 2021 race. The BAA reported that 93% of the field for the October iteration were voluntarily vaccinated. That leaves some 1,400 participants who for one reason or another have not had a covid shot.

The BAA does not report the breakdown for international applicants so we don’t know exactly how many have submitted an application in the past, but we do know how many have made the cut and completed the race because that is outlined in the results.

Take the 2021 race where there were significant obstacles to travel, the results list includes 1,790 finishers that were a residents of another country. That number is greater than the unvaccinated contingency for the same race (1,790 > 1,400). But again, nearly everything about that race was an outlier. Let’s look at 2019 numbers.

For the 2019 race, the most recent race to occur with a normal field and no international travel ban, there were approximately 6,837 finishers listed who were a resident of another country. That is out of 26,761 total finishers that year. International finishers then made up roughly 26% of the field. These numbers are an important piece of the 2022 puzzle because foreigners will all be required to be vaccinated to enter the United States, so they will assuredly be able to provide that same documentation to run the Boston Marathon.

Again, this does not take into account how many international applicants there are, only the number of finishers. But even so a 26% field of international residents far outweighs some 7% unvaccinated participants if those percentages remain relatively steady for this coming registration period.

Without taking into account any pent up demand there might be for the upcoming year, international participation has been growing steadily. Several countries send a large contingency to Boston and that number has been consistent or increasing over the years. Countries with the largest number of finishers are:

1. Canada1,6831,8291,873
2. Great Britain681521428
3. China429353242
4. Mexico345310284
5. Brazil282201205
6. Germany256198225
7. Japan242231175
8. Australia242171193
9. Spain236154134
10. Italy170175165
11. France169148115
12. Korea1423988
Total for Top 12 Nationalities:4,7354,3304,127

With an extended qualifying window stretching back to September 1, 2019, allowing many large and small marathons to occur before and after any covid cancellations, there seem to be no shortage of qualifiers. For comparison, the website FindMyMarathon dot com lists 50,445 qualifiers run within the Boston 2019 window, 46,333 qualifiers run within the Boston 2020 window, and 54,744 qualifiers run within the Boston 2022 window. But there are some caveats to those numbers:

  1. People who’ve earned multiple BQs can only use one per application. So for instance, I have 7 Boston Qualifiers within the extended qualifying window which would all be counted individually in this tally, but I can only use one BQ to apply. Even if you took all of 2020 off, which I did not, then there’s still a chance you have more than 1 BQ for the April 2022 race.
  2. The numbers compiled here are only for US races, however, you can apply with a time from an international race. International races occurred in the fall of 2019 and 2021, as well as early spring 2020, all of which are applicable for 2022 registration. This includes the big city races, London, Athens, Rome and Paris Marathons. There are 2 Berlin Marathons in this qualifying window. Plus hundreds of smaller races, all of which are not included in that tally.

Without knowing every detail, however, we can use the information we have to identify trends. The numbers so far indicate movement towards normalcy. In those so called normal times, before the covid pandemic completely turned on everything on its head, we would see a steady but gradually increasing cut off year after year. After the huge cut in 2021, a resumption of normalcy would come as a relief to thousands of runners and so I hope the days of needing to be more than 5 minutes under your standard are – at least for the time being – a thing of the past. In a few week’s we will have our answer. For now we can only speculate then wait and see.

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