Thursday, October 5, 2023

Boston Marathon Controversies Galore!

Last week the B.A.A. announced that 11,000 qualifiers would not be admitted into the Boston Marathon. The qualifier field was limited to just over 22,000 runners and the race had 33,058 applicants. Anyone who did not run at least 5 minutes and 29 seconds faster than their qualifying standard was denied entry.  A week later, Tracksmith announced that their BQ singlet would only be available to those runners who had been accepted (22,019 runners), not to all qualifiers. 

Everything in the above paragraph caused quite a bit of controversy. I'll provide an overview of the controversies along with my take on each.

Are the women's qualifying standards "softer" than the men's? I've heard this claim quite frequently: It's easier for women to gain entry into the Boston Marathon than it is for men. Support for this argument is that if you compare elite men to elite women, the top men are less than 20 minutes faster than the women. Instead of the women's qualifying standards being 30 minutes slower than the men's times, they should only be 20 minutes slower. 

There's no data to support the claim of the women's times being easier. Most notably, the Boston Marathon accepted 12,535 male qualifiers and 9,440 female qualifiers. If the B.A.A. made it harder for women to get in, there would be even fewer women in the race. 

Further, as the times get slower, the percentage of time difference shrinks. Here's an example. Let's say you have an elite male running a time of 2:05 and an elite female running a time of 2:25. That's a 20-minute difference, and 20 minutes is 16% of 2:05. So the elite female ran 16% slower than the male. Now let's look at an amateur male running a time of 3:10 vs. a woman running 20 minutes slower at 3:30. In this case, the woman has run only 10.5% slower than the man. The gap between a 2:05 and a 2:25 is therefore a larger gap than 3:10 and 3:30. If the percentage difference of 16 were to be maintained, the equivalent amateur woman's time would be. . . 30 minutes slower at 3:40.

So you cannot look at the elite field and say, "the men's and women's times are so much closer together than the 30-minute difference in BQ standards." It's true in terms of actual minutes on the clock. But not in terms of percentage difference. 

All that being said, it does "seem like" the women's times are easier. On a gut instinct level it just seems like it's harder for a man to run a 3:10 than it is for a woman to run a 3:40. And you could potentially say that there would be far more women qualifying for Boston if women trained as hard as men did. And that women, on average, do not train as hard because a certain percentage of them are pregnant or postpartum. But once again, all of this is based on gut feeling and I haven't seen any data to support this claim. 

To sum up, it may "feel like" the women's times are softer, but the data indicates that it is not easier for women to qualify for Boston than it is for men. And I believe the goal of the B.A.A. with their standards is to have a relatively equal number of runners from each group and not to make standards that are equally physically challenging. You'd almost never have an elite male beat the qualifying standard by over an hour, but there are older women who have beat their standards by over an hour.

Is the non-binary category fair?
44 non binary athletes were accepted into the Boston Marathon. I've heard all sorts of perspectives on this one. Before I get into it, the non-binary qualifying standards are the same as the women's standards. The B.A.A. says they do not yet have enough data to determine what the actual standard should be yet, so for 2024 they are going with the women's standards. 

At one extreme you have people saying that the non-binary category makes it easy for men to cheat their way in under the women's standards. And so the race is soon going to be full of men pretending to be non-binary. On the other extreme you have people saying that Boston is still not inclusive enough. I've also heard the argument "why do people care about the non-binary category-- it doesn't affect them." 

My thoughts on this issue are that it all goes back to the B.A.A. and their goals. If everything was 100% "fair" (which would be impossible anyway) then you probably wouldn't have a situation in which a woman in her 60s can beat her BQ time by over an hour but a young elite male cannot. With this non-binary category, their goal is to show inclusivity. The goal isn't necessarily to be fair, and that's their prerogative; it's their race. 

Remember the vaccine mandates from 2022? The goal was not to Covid-proof the race; that would be impossible. (There was no requirements for volunteers, etc.) The goals were to comply with local town ordinances and make runners feel safe. Many runners, myself included, didn't think the mandates were fair. But the B.A.A. is not obligated to be fair. 

To qualify as non-binary you must have qualified in another race in the non-binary category. Will there be runners who take advantage of this? Potentially, but that's really going to an extreme length to cheat your way into the race. What about the non-binary runners who have male genetics who can qualify under the same standards as the women? Yes, those runners have an advantage. The mere act of identifying as non-binary has not changed their physical abilities. 

The problem that the B.A.A. is running into is that they are trying to be as inclusive as possible while also being exclusive. And it's not possible to do both. And it's definitely not possible to do both 100% fairly. Someone is always going to have an unfair advantage.

The notion that they are going to look at non-binary data seems fruitless because identifying as non-binary has nothing to do with one's physical abilities as a runner. I am not sure what they are expecting to find. And even if they did end up making the non-binary standards the same as the men's standards, they would receive backlash for not being inclusive.

Finally, I'll address this position: "The non-binary category doesn't impact you - just focus on your own BQ." For the sake of one's own mental health, it's always best to focus primarily on the things you can control. But if everyone did that all the time on every issue, society would likely collapse. Healthy debate is good for all communities, including the running community. You don't want to be fully entrenched in social media debates about non-binary athletes running a marathon, but you also don't want to be completely blind and isolated from what is happening in the world around you. 

This debate should not be centered around the non-binary athletes themselves, but the policies of the B.A.A.

Should extreme downhill races be allowed as Boston Qualifiers?
Extreme downhill races like those found in the "Revel" series are often blamed for the increase in the number of Boston qualifiers. Are these courses fair?

Having never run one of these courses I am not in a position to weigh in authoritatively. But this is my blog so I will share my non-authoritative thoughts. 

The only marathon I ever ran that had a net downhill greater than Boston was Sugarloaf in 2019. That was not one of my faster marathons, but I was also suffering from hypothermia at the end. CIM might also fall into that camp, but CIM is nothing like the Revel races, which have thousands of feet of elevation loss.

I've heard that extreme downhill races come with their own challenges like beating up the quads. Aerobically it might be a walk in the park, but you still need your legs to carry you to the finish line. All of that being said, the data shows that these courses are notably faster than courses with a net-even elevation. Does that mean they should be excluded as qualifying races?

If it were up to me I would institute a limit on the amount of elevation loss permitted. It might be fair to say the Boston Qualifying race cannot have a net elevation loss that is greater than the Boston Marathon's own elevation loss. Not to discount the achievement of runners who participate in Revel, but to level the playing field for one particular race, which is Boston.

The reality is that these races would have far fewer participants if they were not eligible for Boston. If Boston axed them it would potentially put these races out of business. Are they going to do that? Unlikely. Plus, these races are open to all runners. Anyone who wants the advantage of the downhill can run a Revel race. 

What in the world is up with Tracksmith?
Less than one week after the B.A.A. announced that over 11,000 qualifiers did not gain entry into the Boston Marathon, Trackmith added insult to injury by releasing a BQ singlet only available to confirmed entrants. They would not sell the "BQ" singlet to runners who actually did the thing that the singlet says! 

Now, if the singlet said "BQ - 5:29" then, okay. Or if it said "I was accepted into Boston 2024" then, okay.  But that's not what the singlet says. If it's a BQ singlet it should be available to all qualifiers. I applaud Tracksmith for celebrating the accomplishment of a BQ, but they undermined their own celebration by talking down to those qualifiers that were not accepted into the marathon.

The backlash on Tracksmith was intense because their post on social media was about much more than the singlet. It began with the quote "This isn't a jogging race," as if the 11,000 non-accepted BQers jogged their way to the finish line. The tone of the post was elitist in several ways and Tracksmith finally took the post down and issued an apology post the following day. 

This social media post raised the following question by many - is Tracksmith an inclusive brand? What exactly does it mean to be "inclusive" anyway? I'd argue that it's an ideal which is impossible to attain in reality. Featuring runners of diverse ethnic backgrounds does not automatically make you inclusive. Especially not when you charge $48 for a pair of underwear

Putting on my marketing hat, this is a huge gaffe. You do not post something that feels elitist to a large percentage of your customer base. Especially after these runners worked hard to qualify for Boston, only to be turned away less than one week prior! Issuing the apology was definitely the right thing to do, but it will not be 100% damage control for the brand.

Will I still buy Tracksmith? I have a love/hate relationship with the brand. So sure, I will still buy their stuff from time to time. Thankfully they apologized, but I was never 100% sold on their messaging to begin with. Something about the brand has always rubbed me the wrong way in terms of being borderline pretentious.

I have noticed a decline in their service over the past year. They used to ship their items out immediately and for my last order it took them 5 days to ship the order, plus additional time for it to be delivered. Their prices have increased but their processing speed has decreased. I much prefer rabbit to Tracksmith; rabbit is a feel-good, happy brand with fun colors and styles. California-based rabbit has much better options for summer running, but Boston-based Tracksmith has better options for colder months.

Final Thoughts
The common theme with my take on these controversies is that you cannot be "inclusive" and "exclusive" at the same time; that's a losing battle. The notion of 100% fairness is unrealistic, especially when "fair" isn't necessarily the goal. It seems like the B.A.A. is opting for equal representation across ages and genders instead of making things equally physically challenging across the board. Tracksmith will continue to face backlash. Feel free to disagree. These are, after all, controversies. All I ask is that you keep it respectful!


  1. The Boston Marathon does not disappoint!

    Men vs women - it's really interesting to speculate about this. I guess when the number of women exceeds the number of men then it will be time to shorten the women's standards.

    Non-binary - I know people are obsessed with Boston, but I'm pretty sure that no one is going to fake being non-binary to BQ.

    Downhill races - ha, even though I'm not running right now I really want to run one!

    Tracksmith - ouch. If their processing times have increased, it sounds like they're cutting back on costs. Now they make a move that's going to decrease their sales any way that you look at it - it doesn't make sense to you in marketing or to me in finance. I'll continue to wear my Tracksmith rain jacket that I got used on ThredUp tho.

  2. As I read this, I had the mental image of the RD pulling his hair out. We're living in this time where everyone seems to be outraged about things not being fair. Boston is a victim of their own success--making it a qualifying race has really opened it up to criticism. I have no answers and I do feel bad for people who didn't make the cutoff.

    Interestingly, there's a whole other controversy about the lack of BIPOC runners at the race. At Brooks Hype Fest, Alison Desir spoke about Boston and caused controversy with comments about the race not being 'special'. Aaaayyy.

  3. I don't think I concur with your approach to analyzing the 20-min slower proportional to QT FT. With that said, the issue of the 30-min slower standard for women across all time/age categories does seem overly forgiving, considering elite women have been pushing their records closer and closer to the elite men, and with that recent Berlin 2:11 record, now maybe 6-7 min difference between male and female elite in terms of records.

    Records illustrate the physical potential men and women have to run marathon at maximal effort. Is that similar to more mortal male and female runners? No research into that exists to my knowledge. Maybe way back when BAA first started instituting the male-female age-FT QT standards, perhaps the elite women were running 30-min slower that the elite men. Elite and amateur women runners certainly became much faster over the years since first competing at Boston in 1972 and onward.

    But what was the rationale and analysis BAA did or resorted to when they first instituted the BQ standards based on gender and age categories? And how did they determine across the board 5-min faster QT standards were necessary in last change to BQT standards? The answer to the latter was simply too many applicants were meeting the BQT standards. They likely going to take that approach again with so many runners qualifying and applying for the race and limited number of field size.

    Keep in mind generally over the years about 20% of the field is allocated to Charity runners and 80% goes to Qualified and Invitational runners. You can do the math and quickly see it is Qualified field size that can end up leaving so many qualified runners out of acceptance. Increasing the field size for Qualified runners would seem a logical solution, but with 11,000 left out on the last application for 2024, can't see BAA increasing Qualified fieldsize by 10,000, and unlikely going to reduce Charity field size?.

    So no simple or discreet answers to the controversy exist and all the end result does is keep forcing mortal runners to run faster and faster QT's...until actually reaching what might be construed the actual physical limits based on gender/age. I at 2 months shy of 70, no longer can physically run fast enough to meet the minimum standard for men, Age definitely is a factor both for men and women, never really accounted for in across the board time standards relative to age category.

    It is interesting to note that Boston was the first marathon where the issue of women running marathons was challenged. And they did accommodate the change and it actually back in the 70's into the 80's was a key marathon major race that women consistently became better and faster running. It would be interesting to see BAA compile some form of history of the BQT standards that includes an explanation how the far different men vs women same age category standards were determined? What kind of analysis did they do that supported 30-min or even 20-min slower than men for the same age groups?

    Regarding Net Elevation Loss that is an artifact of how it is calculated as we all know Boston Marathon is a challenging course to run, not only with its Newton Hills, but rollers starting about 3/4 mile out before crest ascent at 1-mi mark. And there are rollers into Boston in the last 10k after out of Newton Hills. The real "downhill" marathons that truly all net loss grade as run in mountains, yes can post a BQT doing it, but not an easy feat to do as it will put extensive force and war on quadricep muscles, and unless you train running downhill, could end up IN jurying yourself. Depending on race and altitude change with downhill marathons, have to acclimate to altitude. So I don't think those races are unfair, but I could see runners resorting more to them if they have to run -5:29 or even faster to be accepted.

    Good post and subject Zebra!