What do we know about the 2021 Boston Marathon?

Sarah Lorge Butler
Photo credit: Maddie Meyer - Getty Images

From Runner's World

On May 28, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced the cancellation of the 2020 Boston Marathon due to the coronavirus. The event had first been postponed from April to September; now, only a virtual version of the event exists. The marathon is offering full refunds to all participants.

With the door closed on the 2020 race—the first time since 1897 that it hasn’t been held in some form physically—runners turned their attention to 2021. Unfortunately for them, the picture for that race remains unclear. Here’s what we know about the race schedule for April 19, 2021:

Will the 2021 race even be held?

It’s uncertain. As it was for 2020, that decision will be left to government and public health officials, and it depends on the course of the disease that has so far infected more than 4 million people worldwide and killed more than 113,000 people in the United States as of June 10.

'We can’t make predictions about what the next year will be, because we don’t know,' Tom Grilk, CEO of the BAA, told Runner’s World. 'Or even the year after that. We are at the mercy of a wretched disease.'

The BAA can only hold the race with the agreement of the eight towns and cities the course passes through. The conditions at the Boston Marathon, especially at the starting area in the small town of Hopkinton, make social distancing nearly impossible if the field size were to remain at 31,500, as it was in 2020.

One possibility: The race will go on in some form in 2021, but the field size will be smaller. How much smaller than 31,500? That’s also unknowable right now.

'What if public officials say, yes, we want to bring back the Boston Marathon, but it can’t look like what it did before?' Grilk said. 'It can only be X thousand people, and they have to be spaced out over many hours of time. If that’s true, you’ve got a smaller field.'

Probably the single most-asked question he gets is, 'Can’t I be deferred to next year?' His answer: 'It’s just kind of a lost year, and we can’t make predictions about what the next year will be, because we don’t know. Or even the year after that.'

If you qualified to enter registration last September, you can enter again this September.

Runners know that it’s not enough to run a qualifying time for Boston. They have to run faster than their qualifying time to actually gain entry to the race, because of the way the Boston registration system works—letting the fastest runners enter first for the limited number of qualifier bibs.

How much faster they have to be is a moving target every year. To enter the 2020 race, runners had to be 1 minute and 39 seconds faster than their qualifying time.

Last September, 27,288 runners applied for entry, and 3,161 were left out—they had qualified, but not by 1:39 or more.

Now, all those 27,288 runners will be eligible to apply again in September for the 2021 race. They’ll have additional runners trying to get in, too, athletes who ran qualifying times last autumn at races in Berlin, Chicago and New York, Philadelphia, as well as other marathons that took place internationally before racing came to an abrupt halt in March this year. Anyone who has run a qualifying marathon since September 15, 2018 can apply to run in 2021.

Another quirk of the system might grow the ranks of qualifiers even more: According to a BAA spokesperson, you apply for the age group that you will be on race day, regardless of how old you were during the qualifying race. If you have a birthday before race day that bumps you up to a new (slower) age group, you only have to run the slower time in qualifying. Because the BAA is moving the qualification period for 2021 back to September 2018, people who previously wouldn’t have qualified now have. And people who qualified by just a few seconds might have qualified by 5 minutes or more.

Let’s look at an example: a woman with a birthday of January 1. She is 42 when she runs the 2018 Chicago Marathon in October, and she runs a time of 3:45. She wouldn’t have qualified for the 2020 Boston Marathon (when she would have been 44) because her time was too slow. Women in the 40–44 age group need to be faster than 3:40.

Now, however, with this change of rules, she can apply for the 2021 Boston Marathon. She’ll be 45 on race day, and she will have bettered the 3:50 she needs by 5 minutes.

While it seems like the applicant pool will swell (for a race with an uncertain field size), it’s also possible that some runners will decide against entering, especially those who might have to travel a long distance to run the race or those who decide they find the health risks too great.

Charity runners are in a tough spot.

For those runners who are not fast enough to run a qualifying time, running for charity has been a reliable way of gaining entry. But for the past several years, fundraising minimums have been growing—runners often have to promise to raise at least $10,000 to be accepted by a charity to run for those teams. For many, the experience is out of reach—or a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Every charity is in a tough position. Some are requiring that runners still raise the amount they promised in a signed contract. The 33 members of Team Brookline, for instance, who fundraise for five different town charities, were asked to raise the $6,000 minimum they agreed to before the race. Some had already far exceeded that total before April 1, when the race was initially postponed. Others had some work left to do.

Many charities are releasing runners from their fundraising obligations. Organisers of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team announced on June 9 that the team’s 500 runners will not have their credit cards billed if they don’t meet their $7,500 commitment ($4,000 for runners who entered on their own). Runners who do meet the 2020 number by September 30 will be granted 'guaranteed acceptance' for the Dana-Farber team in 2021, but they will have to fundraise again. In other words, fundraising money from 2020 will not roll over to 2021.

The reality remains, however, that charities don’t know if there will be a race in 2021 and if it does, how many bibs they’ll have.

Frustrations are rising, and some charity runners have lambasted the BAA and the charities on social media. Yes, runners promised to fundraise—in exchange for a race experience. If they have to hold up their end of the bargain, what are they getting in return?

'There have been individual charity runners who have said, "That’s just not fair. This has been my dream to run the Boston Marathon. I’ve worked hard, I’ve raised money,"' Grilk said. 'And they have. It’s not fair. We can’t introduce certainty into an environment where there’s nothing but uncertainty, an uncertainty that’s beyond all of our control.'

Charities, meanwhile, have lost a chunk of their 2020 revenue. For many smaller charities, however, the Boston Marathon is a primary event for fundraising each year. And they’re facing a second hit if they don’t secure the same number of bibs in 2021.

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.

SIGN UP

You Might Also Like