More than 23,000 of the men and women lined up in Hopkinton for the start of the 2019 Boston Marathon will be there having run under an age-specific time threshold in another marathon, which shows just how unremarkable qualifying for the Boston Marathon really is.
And yet, if you ask any of the 500,000 Americans who will run a marathon this year (and many of the million-plus marathoners in other countries), qualifying for Boston - a ‘BQ’ - can be a bit of an obsession.
(I asked some friends to share their own perspective on the BQ. Find them here.)
Websites and running magazines list the marathons where a BQ is most likely. One marathon series is actually called “Last Chance BQ” and plugs the percentage of participants who qualified for Boston in 2018 (57%). I’ve spent many happy hours discussing the BQ with runners, and have annoyed many friends and family members who don’t run by trying to discuss the BQ with them.
If you’ve not yet abandoned this blog in disgust or apathy, you probably know as much about the BQ process as I do: those who run a marathon faster than an age-based time threshold qualify to run Boston (usually) the next year. What adds uncertainty is that if too many people meet the cutoff, the slowest qualifiers are excluded. Almost any legitimate marathon in the world can be used to qualify, insuring a truly international field of runners.
So why is there such a fascination with the Boston Marathon?
Although it’s not the largest, fastest, or richest marathon, there’s something incredibly special about America’s oldest marathon that draws runners and spectators every Patriot’s Day. I remember walking down to the end of the street I lived on in Brookline as a child in the 1980s, watching the runners flow down Beacon Street at Mile 24. Even then, the crowds were thick with spectators. Most years, I go with my youngest daughter to watch, most recently at mile 25 under the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square. Last year I was on-call, and watched the runners stream by Newton-Wellesley Hospital at Mile 17 in freezing rain and lashing wind.
But the BQ is about more than just the race. I know a lot of people who are driven to BQ, but are meh on actually running Boston.
The BQ thresholds are fast, but they aren’t insurmountable. A lot of runners have finished shorter races at their BQ pace and imagine that, with training, they could hold that pace for 26.1. The obsession sets in.
Marathons are fickle races, and it’s difficult to do more than two per year. The obsessed do “tempo” runs at their race pace and create a training regimen that, they hope, will prepare them to run their BQ pace, then race day comes, and something goes wrong. They lick their wounds, obsess some more, and then start training again.
Many say that a marathon is a metaphor for life. This certainly resonates for those who are BQ obsessed. A BQ time is a definite challenge - one that is attainable for those that are willing to put in the sweat and stay the course. Eliud Kipichoge, the Kenyan who recently broke the world record for the marathon in Berlin (2 hours, 1 minute, 39 seconds), is famous for the mantra “No human is limited.” While the rest of us will not rise to a Kipichoge-like performance, this mantra can remind all of us of our potential. If we work hard and believe in ourselves, we too might cross our individual coveted “finish line” in our own triumph - arms held high overhead.
The first time I tried to “BQ,” my legs cramped at mile 14 and I didn’t come close. In hindsight, I decided, I hadn’t really put in the miles. I turned my attention to the triathlon, failed to complete a 70.3, and then had to do another one to show myself I could do it. I tried again to BQ in May 2018, and trained much more diligently. I crossed the finish line a minute and a half under my age cutoff, and proudly announced my “BQ.” But in my heart, I knew it wasn’t to be. When the Boston Athletic Association announced the qualifying times, I had missed a bib by more than three minutes.
Five months later, I ran six and a half minutes under my cutoff. Look for me on the starting line in Hopkinton in April 2020. I’ll be the one with the ambivalent look on my face.