Why Boston Matters

As yesterday’s tragedy is reviewed in excruciating detail, I wanted to try to give my non-running friends some perspective. Yes, the Boston Marathon is run on “Patriots Day”. Yes, yesterday was “Tax Day”. Yes, the marathon was a worldwide event with lots of spectators. For people who have no concept of what it is like to run a marathon, they must all seem the same. I’m sure you realize Boston is important the same way you know the Masters, Wimbledon, and the Daytona 500 are important. But the Boston Marathon is different.

On March 27 I registered for the Marine Corps Marathon. It will be my second marathon. The first was the 2011 Disney Marathon. I had only been running a few years and I knew nothing about the sport. I just knew I could run that race as long as I paid my money and registered before it was full.

Every year, more and more people are running marathons. The Marine Corps Marathon filled up in less than 3 hours last year. That’s how I remember the exact date when I registered – the only day you can register. I sat at my computer at 11:59 watching the second hand and poised to click refresh on my web browser. I battled an overloaded web site for an hour and fifteen minutes before I finally got in. That still doesn’t come close to what it takes to get to run Boston. It doesn’t even scratch the surface.

You see, running is a very inclusive sport. To run in most races, you usually just have to pay your money and sign up in time. For most marathons, you have about 6 hours to finish (14 minute per mile pace which is really a brisk walk).

Boston is different. It is THE marathon. Unlike other Marathons, there is a “qualifying standard”. That means to even have a chance to enter, you must complete a qualifying marathon under the required time within 18 months of the race. If you are a woman and over the age of 80, that means 5 hours and 25 minutes. I am in the second fastest group – men 35-39. My Boston qualifying time (BQ time) is 3:10. That is a 7:14 per mile pace. To put that in perspective, 1,675 men in the 34-39 age range started the 2013 Disney marathon – a certified BQ course. 26 finished under the official BQ limit of 3:10:59. Stephane Boehm of Nice, France finished 27th – ahead of 1,648 men his age, 153rd of 20,734 total finishers and failed to qualify for Boston by 50 seconds (less than 2 seconds per mile). My fastest 5k (3.1 mile) race to date was 22:37 or a 7:16 pace. If I could run that pace for 26.2 miles (which I cannot) I would have finished just behind Stephane and still would not have qualified for Boston.

I don’t know if Stephane Boehm had any intention of entering the 2014 Boston Marathon but I guarantee that countless others who failed to finish the Disney and many other races around the world within the BQ standard were devastated. To complete a marathon takes months of training. Most training plans last 16-18 weeks and assume you can run 10 miles or so before you even start. To qualify for Boston can take YEARS of running 40-50 miles a week including running 20 miles or more at least once before each race. You will wear out countless pairs of shoes, run through minor injuries, and rehab major ones. You will be chased by dogs, taunted by teenagers in passing cars, get rained on, trip and fall over a crack in the sidewalk, spend a fortune on Gatorade and gel (semi-liquid sugar packets), convince your closest family members and friends that you are a lunatic, and strain your relationship with your significant other. And you still might not get in. You see starting in 2013 it wasn’t enough to just meet the BQ standard and then be one of the first to sign up. The faster you ran the better your chance of getting a spot. 

THAT is what is particularly disturbing to runners about the bombing in Boston. This was not just a sporting event. The spectators killed and injured were not just fans. They were also family members and friends. They were the people who supported the runners through what is probably the toughest amateur qualification process in the world. Many people dream of running a marathon, but many of those who have dream of running Boston. They put post-its with their BQ time on their mirror and memorize their mile split times and get a “BQ” tattoo when they qualify. It is a lifelong pursuit. THAT is what was attacked for runners – the living embodiment of a dream.

So I will apologize collectively for us if we seem to be taking this very personally. We are a bit “off” to begin with, you know. However, hopefully you have a little bit better view into our crazy world and how it is now particularly crazy, sad, and broken.