The fall marathon season is upon us, and with it the gnashing of teeth and rending of race singlets as some of the world’s best amateur distance runners find out that they failed to qualify for the granddaddy of them all, the Boston Marathon.
This year brings an especially cruel twist to this occasional rite of autumn: Demand for a spot in the 2014 Boston Marathon was so high — the result of last year’s terrorist attack at the race’s finish line — that organizers had to tighten qualifying times by 1 minute 38 seconds to keep the size of the field manageable, even though they expanded it by 9,000 spots.
So a 50-year-old man who normally would gain entry by completing a previous marathon in 3 hours 30 minutes found out, rather suddenly, that he actually needed to run 3:28:22 to get in this year, under the Boston Athletic Association’s system.
“I can’t stop thinking that if I had been a minute and eight seconds faster at last year’s Marine Corps [Marathon], I would be in next year’s Boston,” Michael Newman of Takoma Park, an editor at Bloomberg News, wrote me in an e-mail. “That’s less than three seconds per mile! Nine seconds per water stop! Did I walk through a few of those? . . .
“Yes, I realize this kind of thinking is not productive.”
Newman is still deciding whether to go up to Boston and watch his two brothers run the race. Last year, all three ran together.
Your humble MisFit will never know this kind of pain. Only the best marathoners — 40,000 or 50,000 of the more than half-million people who complete marathons every year — qualify for Boston. At 55, I would struggle to meet the standard for an 80-year-old.
But I did secure a pass from a sponsor of the marathon and ran Boston in 2010, finishing in 4:27, still my best time ever. Completing the historic race on Boylston Street and getting that medal is the highlight of my running career. Imagine yourself taking a few laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or belting out a few lyrics onstage with Springsteen in front of 50,000 of your closest friends at Nats Park. Yeah, it’s like that.
Now imagine Boylston Street next April, with all of Boston and runners from around the world determined to show that the vicious attack that killed three people and wounded 264 others isn’t going to change anything. A lot of us feel we have to be there, one way or another.
So the Boston Athletic Association expanded the field from its normal 27,000 — which in most years is enough to accommodate everyone who qualifies and wants to run — to 36,000. This year, that won’t come close to being sufficient.
First, there are the 5,600 people who were prevented from crossing the line by the bombing. All are invited back to finish what they started in 2013, said Marc Davis, communications director for the BAA. Another 6,000 to 7,000 spots are reserved for runners raising money for a variety of charities. Other spots will go to people injured in the attack and their families, first responders, police, medical personnel at the hospitals that treated the wounded and some major sponsors, he said.
“There’s a huge, huge, obvious interest in next April’s race, and it just makes the pool that much larger,” Davis said.
No one I spoke with finds this unfair.
“It would be great to be part of it, because you know the whole area will come out to support the runners, and I’d like to be part of it,” said Noam Neusner, co-owner of 30 Point Strategies, a communications firm in the District, who fell 61 seconds short of getting in. “But everyone wants to be part of it.” Neusner has applied to run for a charity group.
“I have no issues with the Boston Athletic Association,” agreed Sandra Moncrief-Stuart, a licensed clinical social worker from Vienna who missed by a mere 19 seconds. “I’m disappointed, and I certainly would have liked to see more spots go to qualified runners.” But “there are other things in life more important,” she added.
Moncrief-Stuart has never run Boston, but when she hit age 45 and her qualifying time moved to 3:55, she decided to go for it. She ran a 3:53:41 at the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach in March and knew she was in.
“I was ecstatic. Ecstatic,” she recalled. “The pictures of me at the finish line — I was jumping up and down.”
Then came the bombing, which she knew would complicate matters. And then came the e-mail informing Moncrief-Stuart she was a “squeaker,” one of those runners who just missed. “I cried for about 20 seconds,” she said.
When she told her family, her 9-year-old daughter said: “Mommy, do you remember the first time I tried out for travel soccer and I didn’t get in? But then I tried again and I got in. So maybe you ought to try again.”
Moncrief-Stuart will be running the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, hoping to qualify for Boston in 2015.
Are you tapering for the Marine Corps Marathon? Trying to live with someone who is? How do you, your friends and family handle the stress? Send me your best stories of running withdrawal and I’ll include them in my Oct. 24 column.