When do we stop increasing qualifying times – I mean, really, how far can they go? And the world expects athletes to not use performance-enhancing drugs. Twisted, if you ask me.
It’s Time for Women to Run Faster
Boston’s Crowded Marathon Prompts a Gender War; Why Females Get an Extra 30 Minutes
By KEVIN HELLIKER And DAVID BIDERMAN
If you’re interested in running next year’s Boston Marathon, you’d better get set.
Race officials say the marathon’s 21,000 prized slots, which used to take six months to distribute, could be filled in a matter of days after registration opens on Monday. In fact, every spot could be taken before the ING New York City Marathon—the nation’s largest—takes place on Nov. 7. If that happens, New York’s race would effectively be eliminated for the first time as a qualifier for next year’s Boston.
The record demand for Boston slots has much to do with the exploding popularity of marathons in the U.S.: The 10% growth in participation last year was the largest spurt in 25 years. The number of runners who qualify for Boston now far exceeds the available places (excluding about 5,000 spots reserved for charity runners).
But there’s another possible reason for the surging demand—one that has the potential to kick up a fair amount of controversy. It’s the notion that the qualifying standards for women are too soft.
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.
Runners cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the start of last year’s New York Marathon.
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.
Some running experts say that one way to reduce excess demand for Boston slots would be to stop treating women like the gentler sex. When the 30-minute qualifying gap was implemented in 1977, “the mentality was, ‘frailty, thy name is woman,’ ” said Tom Derderian, a Boston-area running coach and author of a history on the Boston Marathon. “People don’t realize many women today run faster than the men who won the Boston Marathon in the past.”
Compare the Boston, New York and Chicago marathons. See elevation profiles, last year’s fastest times, recent race-day temperatures and other details.
“The women’s times should probably be tougher,” said Maria Simone, a 36-year-old New Jersey professor who has qualified for Boston. Last November, Ms. Simone and her husband, John Jenkins, who is also 36, ran the Philadelphia Marathon in pursuit of a Boston qualifying time. He finished in 3:25, 13 minutes ahead of her. But she qualified for Boston with seven minutes to spare while he remains 10 minutes short of the 3:15 that he needed to qualify. “The strange thing is, I used to be faster than him,” Ms. Simone said.
Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which oversees the marathon, called grading for gender “an inexact science.” He said no tightening of standards is imminent for either men or women. Mr. Morse added that the marathon’s legendary course is too narrow to accommodate any expansion of the field. “Exclusivity is part of the allure,” he said.
The 30-minute head start for women was enacted only five years after the event began allowing women to register and fully seven years before the Olympic Games introduced a women’s marathon.
Narrowing the gender gap would align Boston more nearly with its counterpart in the world of ultramarathon racing, the Western States 100—a 100-mile race whose slots are highly coveted by men and women alike. Qualifying requirements for the Western States have always been identical for men and women, says a historian of that race, Antonio Rossmann.
A veteran himself of the Boston Marathon, Mr. Rossmann said the women’s qualifying times for Boston “are much softer than empiricism should suggest.” Mr. Rossmann said he believes Boston officials have kept the wide gap as a way of compensating for all the earlier years of “keeping women out of the race.”
Teyba Erkesso winning the women’s division of this year’s Boston Marathon.
With physiological advantages such as larger hearts and greater lung capacity, men will probably always run faster than women. But elite women aren’t that far behind. The women’s world marathon record 40 years ago stood about 54 minutes behind the male record; today it’s only about 11 minutes slower.
The female winner at last Sunday’s Chicago Marathon crossed the finish line about 14 minutes after the male winner. At the nation’s five largest marathons—all certified as Boston Marathon qualifying races—the gender differential among top runners in 2009 stood closer to 20 minutes than 30.
Running USA, a research center based in Colorado, has collected raw data from nearly 500 marathons across the country that show a median gender difference of about 28 minutes in finishing times. But similar data also show that while men tend to finish in a long line from fastest to slowest, women divide into two distinct groups—one that’s fast and another that’s considerably slower.
Running experts say the second grouping, which tends to move as a pack, drags down the median finishing times for all women. “Women are social and tend to tackle new goals with a close friend or group of girlfriends more often than men,” says a report on the Running USA website.
If Boston raised its qualifying standards, it’s possible that more women would fail to qualify. But many others would likely pick up the pace. At a marathon in Oregon in May, Julie Fingar of Sacramento, Calif., a pro runner who works as a pacesetter, led several hundred runners, mostly women, at a pace designed to finish just under 3:40, the Boston qualifying time for women 34 and under. “If they tightened the standards, I think most of those women would just run faster,” she said.
In any event, runners who’ve already qualified and who hope to register for next spring’s Boston marathon won’t be taking any chances on Monday.
“Everybody’s worried that it might fill up the first day,” said Boston veteran Jennifer Lashua of San Francisco.