Big marathon coming up
This blog is about the big marathon with qualifying standards that’s taking place next week on the east coast. The Boston Marathon? No! I’m talking about the Saturday April 17 Exeter Marathon in Rhode Island – the only marathon in the USA, outside of the Olympic Marathon Trials, where qualification is the ONLY means of entry!
The 2010 Boston Marathon filled and registration closed in mid-November, months earlier than it ever had before. In 2008 and 2009, race registration closed in January or February, two to three months before the race. Prior to that Boston almost never reached capacity before race day. The Exeter Marathon race director Mike Tammaro decided to put on this race for people who were unable to register for the Boston Marathon before it closed. Tammaro is president of the Narragansett Running Association and has run a 2:49 marathon. The Exeter Marathon qualifying standards are quite strict; they are five minutes faster than the Boston Marathon’s qualifying standards. Unlike Boston there is no other way to qualify for the race other than to achieve the designated time standard in your age division. As of April 14 there are 57 runners (18 women and 39 men) qualified and registered for Exeter. Among those registered are Jonathan and Kathleen Wendel, who plan to run Exeter on Saturday and Boston on Monday.
Another unique aspect of the Exeter race is the prize money structure. Forty percent of the $40 registration fee (Boston’s registration fee is $130) goes towards prize money. The top five male and female runners will receive 5%, 4%, 3%, 2%, and 1% of the total prize money respectively. The remaining prize money will be used for raffle prizes worth 4%, 3%, 2%, and 1% of the prize pot. If you are one of those runners who is trying to run a marathon in every state, the Exeter Marathon could help you check Rhode Island off your list.
Of the 25,000 entry spots available for the Boston Marathon, 20,000 go to runners who meet the Boston qualifying standards. The remaining 5,000 entries go to runners with a connection to the marathon’s corporate sponsors or who are running in the race’s charity program. It’s a growing trend that runners can gain entry to popular races by a sponsor connection or by running as a charity runner. While at first glance this may seem unfair, races would not happen without the financial support of sponsors and race entries are a way of thanking a sponsor. No matter how you feel about charity runners who may take four, five, or even six hours to run a marathon, they do raise a lot of money for worthy causes.
Races filling to capacity seems to be a new trend in the running community. This is good because it means that more people than ever are participating in the sport. But it’s also not so good because it means that the serious runner can get shut out of a race they had their heart set on participating in. Boston’s executive director Guy Morse has hinted that a changes may be in order for the 2011 race. My reading of his comments suggests that rather than making the qualifying standards more difficult, he is looking for ways to increase Boston’s field to 30,000 runners.
Popular races are not just reaching capacity well before race day, they are filling up in a matter of hours. For example, the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Run in Washington, DC used online registration for the first time in 2006. Race director Phil Stewart said that it took twenty-nine hours for the race to reach race capacity that year. In 2007 it took less than twenty-two hours. In 2008 it took just four hours. And, amazingly, in 2009 the race reached its 12,000 runner capacity and registration closed in just two hours and forty-five minutes. As a result of this, for the 2010 edition of the Cherry Blossom Run, which took place last weekend, race management instituted a lottery system for race registration. There were over 27,000 applications; 15,000 people “won” a spot in the race.
A lottery system to gain entry to an event is not unique. Races like the New York City Marathon, Western States 100 Mile, and Hood to Coast Relay all use some form of a lottery system for at least some of their entries. On one hand, lotteries are a fair system for a race that fills quickly. Someone who has a daytime job that prevents him from being at a computer at the designated time when race registration opens, will never be able to register for a race that only offers online registration and fills within hours.
On the other hand, a lottery system can be rather impersonal when runners have a long history with a race and they do not get in via the lottery. Brian Wright and Paul Vanderwak, after participating on the Naked Love Pretzel team for eighteen straight years, were rejected by the Hood to Coast Relay. They were quite frustrated by this rejection because they supported the Hood to Coast Relay before it became popular. Without teams like Naked Love Pretzel, Hood to Coast never would have become as big and popular as it is today. And what thanks did Naked Love Pretzel get? A “thanks but you didn’t get in, try again next year” rejection. Wright and Vanderwak started a support group (www.H2Crejectedsupportgroup.ning.com) to bring awareness to other relay races that rejected teams might want to run. This is their own form of the Exeter Marathon – to help runners find alternatives to the race they were targeting.
What else can be done besides starting an alternative race or finding new races to run and using a lottery process? The Dipsea Race offers a silent auction for 100 of their 1,500 entries. This system, also commonly known in the running community as “bribe money,” allows potential race applicants to send in funds above and beyond the stated entry fee. The top 100 bribes are accepted into the race. Please don’t get the idea that the Dipsea race is run by the mafia. The money goes to the Dipsea Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that awards scholarships and maintains the trail.
Basic economic theory would suggest that, in this situation with increased demand and limited supply, the obvious solution is to increase race entry fees. Jim Gerweck of Running Times makes a strong case for top tier races to charge higher entry fees. This follows the same principle that high-end concerts or top baseball teams follow, they charge more for their tickets than mid-level concerts or baseball teams do. It is unclear which races are following this economic principle. Some race entry fees nowadays do seem quite high. In response to a suggestion that he raise entry fees, the Cherry Blossom’s Stewart said, “In my mind that’s not the tradition of the sport.” He is not alone. For the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon we on the Pamakid Runners Board of Directors feel strongly, and are proud of our stance, that the half marathon earlybird race entry fee should remain at $40, despite the fact that the race sells out one to two weeks before race day.
I don’t have a simple solution to the growing issue of races selling out. Race courses have a maximum capacity for safety and logistical reasons. A popular race is popular because they are doing something right. They shouldn’t suddenly allow more people into the race just because there is a demand for it. No one wants a once very good race to add more participants but then be a subpar event because race management can’t handle the logistics of putting on a race for more people. Creative people like Mike Tammaro are starting new races with their own shtick like the Exeter Marathon. Over time people will start racing in these new races and the best new races will become popular, old, traditional ones themselves, with their own niche market. The running community will not be hurt by the addition of more good races….so keep them coming!