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5 Reasons why the Boston Marathon sold out in 8 hours

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In the running world, there is no more legendary road race than the Boston Marathon.  But, as anyone who has raced Boston will tell you – it’s not about just the race itself, but rather about the process to get there.  It’s about years of hard work to try and qualify against a specific and exacting time goal.

Without a doubt, for me – both qualifying for and then running Boston are probably my two most memorable sports achievements – even above finishing my first Ironman.  It wasn’t just the fact that I was going to THE Boston Marathon, but rather – the community spirit around the race.  Running through 26.2 miles of never ending crowds is amazing…let alone those last few hundred yards down the stretch to the finish line.

But, a fair number of folks were caught off guard on Monday when entry into next year’s Boston Marathon sold out in a mere 8 hours.  A process that used to drag on for months – often almost right up until the race itself, lasted less than a normal work day.  So, why did it happen?

Sellout hype breeds sellouts

Last year (2009) saw the first time that everyone was surprised by when Boston registration closed in the fall – months prior to when it typically closes.  The prior year it had closed in the February timeframe – that’s just a few months before the race itself in April.  Thus, the jump of some four months from February to November put everyone on immediate notice that things would be different in 2010 for Boston 2011.

However, this only served to hasten the registration sellout time.  First, you now had a segment of the population that missed their opportunity to sign-up for Boston, some of these folks would still have valid BQ times for the following year.  Second, once word spread of last year’s closeout, the buzz started to generate around how fast Boston would sell out in the upcoming year.  Some predicted a few weeks, some days, and some thought it would sell out in minutes.  All of this rumor reverberated through the Boston bound running community – increasing nerves and ensuring folks were lined up to click ‘Register’, just like those seeking a exclusive concert tickets.

See, the hype itself was likely the primary driver.  Via channels like Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and the traditional media – people were being warned that it would be different this year.  So instead of taking a ‘I’ll register when I get around to it’ attitude, everyone was ready at 9AM when it opened.  And thus a mere 8 hours later…it closed.

The ‘I’ll register because it’s not that expensive’ effect

Adding to the hype is the economics of Boston.  From a pricing standpoint – the $130 – is relatively cheap in comparison to the total cost of the trip for someone planning on going to Boston.  Further, it’s also priced such individuals unsure if they really want to train through the winter will still pay the $130 and decide later.  This in turns contributes to the aforementioned sellout effect.  Basically…people going ahead and signing up – unsure if they’ll even run the race.

So while from a running race fee standpoint $130 is a bit high, it’s not quite high enough that folks are afraid of losing the money if they don’t run next spring.  This is especially true of veteran Boston runners who may be on the fence regarding whether or not they’ll actually run in the race next year.  For first timers, there is typically very little doubt.

I’m not advocating changing the price, but rather simply pointing out the reality of the price as it stands today.

There’s simply more people running marathons

However, merely looking at the unquantifiable hype doesn’t tell the whole picture.  Numbers do a much better job.  So the first number you have to start with is just how many people are running and finishing marathons.

In order to make this a bit more stark – I’m going to compare a ‘normal’ Boston registration year (2007), with 2009 data.  2009 data is where the bulk of the runners this year are probably coming from (Fall 2009 running season).  There are certainly marathons in 2010 that folks use to qualify, but the number is much smaller than the large US fall running season.

If we look at the numbers provided by MarathonGuide.com (which is awesome for this stuff) – you’ll see that there’s a significant jump in finishers from 2007 to 2009 – let alone looking at the huge increase over the past 9 years.  The base numbers are from them, but I added quite a bit of analysis in the later tables.

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So, in two years we’ve had a 13% jump in marathon finishers.  Now, that of course doesn’t mean that everyone in that group is Boston bound – but that still means an additional 61,000 US finishers are out there.  Remember – this doesn’t include all of the other marathons run around the world, including some international events that are far larger than any US marathon out there.

One also cannot discount the impact of celebrity runners in the statistics above.  It’s well known the impact that Oprah had on the marathon ranks.  That in turn breeds both first time runners, but eventually faster runners.  That transition may take a few years – but during that timeframe, they continue to run and thus increase the total participation levels.

And thus, here’s the really important item to keep in mind when looking at the above numbers over the past 10 years: A portion of those first time finishers eventually turn into Boston Qualifiers.  So as the number of finishers increases, a certain percentage of those that finished their first marathon earlier (such 2007) have been working for a few years to finally land that Boston Qualifying time – thus the effect of their presence begins to grow the longer they’re in the sport.

People are running marathons faster…a lot faster

As these new runners stay longer in the sport, they run faster.  And no statistic is more clear than the ones below.  Once you start comparing year over year data you see that marathon runners are simply getting faster…a lot faster.

Correction: A heck of a lot faster (I’d use other words, but we’ll keep this family friendly)

Normally, you’d expect to see the swelling of ranks causing the overall times to slow down – but in reality, you’re seeing them increase.

If we compare that same two year span from 2007 to 2009, we see on average the different age/gender groups increasing by about 7 minutes, with some even going significantly more than that.

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And it didn’t seam to matter which gender we were talking about – nor which age group.  It was remarkably consistent.  And in every single age group and gender, folks ran faster – there were no exceptions.

If you’re not a big marathon runner – you may not think 7 minutes is a big deal.  But…it’s huge.  Folks will typically see big time gains in the first few marathons run, but eventually that rate of change decreases.  Most veteran runners would be thrilled to get a 7 minute marathon PR over the course of a two year period.

Qualification times aren’t keeping up with paces

Thus, the faster times runners are throwing down means that in effect, the qualification bar to Boston is getting easier – at least statistically speaking.  And that goes for both men and women.

Let’s look at the 2009 data for a bit of an understanding why.

Now, you’re gonna have to hold on here to understand the chart below, there’s a lot of information there!

On the left side is the US average times for male and females, separated by age groups.  Then moving right into that first green column is the time differential between males and females for each age group (in percentage).  You’ll note is remarkably similar across all age groups.

Next, you move into the middle column – where I have divided up the age groups into the official Boston Qualifying Categories (i.e. M18-34) and given the average times against the BQ cutoff times.  I removed the statistical outlier of folks in the 0-19 AG, because those times are so far off the rocker that they inaccurately show how things would look, especially since you have to be 18 to register for Boston.

Finally, in the far right third, I’ve taken the differential from the standard based on the average US finishers time vs the Boston times.

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Below is the 2007 data – note specifically the two far right pink/blue columns and the change in how close people are getting to the Boston Qualifier (BQ) time.

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But as anyone reading the above charts knows…the real elephant in the room is the far right column – which represents the gender time gap between the finishers times and the BQ times.

What we see is that from ages 18-45, the men have to overall run faster gender-wise than women against the US average in order to qualify.  However, the unexpected twist is that once you’re over age 45, the women actually have to run faster against the average than the men do.

So that brings us to the big question everyone’s asking: Are the women’s qualification times too easy?

Well, in order to answer that – it might be relevant to understand where they came from.  And the answer to that might surprise you: It was pretty much made up out of the blue.  See, back in 1977 when the qualification times were originally put together, they established a simple rule of ‘30-minutes slower than the men’s times’.  And they stuck with it.  Thus the time differences we have today.

Looking at the average female times though there’s also the hidden bit of reality not immediately visible, but which was best captured in a Wall Street Journal article on Tuesday:

“Running USA, a research center based in Colorado, has collected raw data from nearly 500 marathons across the country that show a median gender difference of about 28 minutes in finishing times. But similar data also show that while men tend to finish in a long line from fastest to slowest, women divide into two distinct groups—one that’s fast and another that’s considerably slower.

Running experts say the second grouping, which tends to move as a pack, drags down the median finishing times for all women. “Women are social and tend to tackle new goals with a close friend or group of girlfriends more often than men,” says a report on the Running USA website.”

So if you take that 6% green gender gap above, how much is that in real terms?  In other words, using all of the math above to determine differentials of pace based on the already established men’s qualifying times (given that’s how the women’s qualifying times are in effect baselined off of) – what should they look like?  Well, ask and you shall receive (in purple):

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Now, to me – that doesn’t quite talk to the other end, which is how to adjust the men’s times.  In order to save you even more graphs, math and charts, I’m going to make it simple: About 6 minutes.

Changing the men’s time to about 3:05 for the M18-34 range would likely have the desired effect of making it more difficult, without making in unachievable.  But one shouldn’t look at just the M18-34, but also the ratio’s in between each of the age groups above.  Observant readers will note that in the 30-44 range (chart above), the actual finishers times vary by almost nothing – yet each 5-year increment is allotted an extra 5-minutes for which to qualify.

Options for 2013

Which finally brings me around to looking forward.  See, for Boston 2012 – there’s nothing you can actually do about.  At this point, the qualifications times for that race are already in effect, and you certainly can’t change them after folks have already trained and qualified (or plan to qualify in the coming weeks).  So the real opportunity is 2013.  That’s realistically the first time you can look to change qualifying times.

I also don’t think a NYC-marathon style lottery system really is valid in this scenario.  The challenge with Boston is the qualification time.  Unless you extend the validity period of the qualification time, then a lottery is simply unfair to those who raced in that time period and qualified…but didn’t get to run Boston.  And extending the qualification period only serves to potentially put more people in the pool for signing up.

Expanding the race isn’t an option, as clearly noted by the race director.  The town of Hopkinton simply won’t accept a field any larger – and there are already race waves of nearly an hour today.  And by the same token, reducing the size of the charity and sponsor slots while technically an option, won’t really buy many more BQ-slots as it represents only about 6,000 total entries.  I suspect that adding 6,000 slots would have only served to delay the inevitable a few hours.

Going to an Ironman style on-site registration – while interesting, just isn’t as feasible for a race that large compared to an Ironman of a few thousand folks.  It’s also quite different in that in the case of the Ironman race you register, then train for a year until the race. But in the case of Boston – you train for years to get a qualifying time, then register for Boston.

So – with that all said – how would you change things for the future?  Would you simply let folks battle it out in a few minute long online entry sprint – or is raising the entry bar the way to go?

[Note: Raw data provided via MarathonGuide.com]

31 Comments

  1. There was an interesting post over on ST suggesting staggered registration for various qualifying times.

    eg:
    2:45 can register in October
    2:50 in November
    2:55 in December
    etc...

    Interested to see what people over here think.

    Reply
  2. I've read several blog posts around this topic in the last day or so, but none as well laid out as yours!

    I think raising the entry bar is the way to go.

    Reply
  3. Another awesome post, Ray, and confirmation of why I click on your blog first thing in the morning (the fact that you post at midnight means I have a fresh one to wake up to!).

    I would love to see this kind of analysis for triathlon as well. I'm really interested in the rapid growth trend in endurance sports. I'm sure that there are "old timers" who probably decry the commercialization and expansion of the sport (triathlon, marathon or others). This often comes in the form of discussions over whether racing an IM or marathon just to finish to get the t-shirt/tattoo is worthy of the sport/tradition.

    My take on it is that the growth in these sports inures to the benefit of all in the form of bigger purses for the pros, more events to choose from, wider availability of cheaper gear, and perhaps even a tool to combat the obesity trend.

    As a newbie to the sport (I do compete to win, even though I haven't yet!), I like the fact that I can tap into a large community of participants who share my passion, and still relate to people who don't share the passion, but have seen it on TV or in the Olympics. It must have been a much lonelier world in triathlon or even marathon 20 years ago.

    Reply
  4. I like the idea of staggered registrations.

    It would have to be 2:45 men or 3:15 women in the first wave of registrations in order to keep a balance of men & women entries.

    Problem with that is alienating older racers.

    Only real solution is to make the qualifying standards harder. Is 5 minutes enough?? I say make it 10 minutes and see what happens. If it's true that women's qualifying times are easier than 10 minutes across the board would likely increase the percentage of women qualifiers vs. men.

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  5. Jay

    Though I am unsure of how this would work, but maybe it would be possible to limit or place (additional) requirements on the qualifying races (minimum elevation changes or something like that)? Of course the downside is that it would put pressure on those marathons that would make the "list", but it may make the qualifying times from one race roughly equivalent to ones from another.

    Just another thought to consider...

    Reply
  6. Nice work on the analysis Ray, but I'm not fully convinced anything really needs to be changed. 8 hours to register for a prestigious event seems like par for the course nowadays. I was actually surprised to hear that it used to take a few months to fill up.

    Reply
  7. I think interest in running in general and running marathons ebbs and flows over time. When I started running in 1977 the running boom was just taking off and more and more races where offered. Then things peaked and a number of races disappeared.

    Also, while your comparison of marathon finish times between 2007 and 2009 is interesting, I believe that if a comparison of overall marathon finish time averages over the past thirty years was made, we would see a pretty dramatic increase in times.

    I believe there are many, many more people, as a percentage of race finishers, finishing in five hours and longer compared to a couple of decades ago.

    Keep of the great work - I really enjoy your detailed analysis.

    Reply
  8. One alternative that occurs to me is that they could have a month long preregistration window. Anyone that qualifies and wants to participate preregisters and pays a refundable deposit. Then they set the number of slots per age group and gender and fill those slots in order of qualifying time. If you don't make this second cut you get your money refunded.

    Reply
  9. That's some serious analysis there! But good stuff. I am all about tightening up the women's standards. I also like the suggestion Matthew posted--staggered entry. It will be interesting to see how they change it; clearly they need to!

    Reply
  10. Tighten up women's times and then have people battle it out online to register first. Once it fills up in 8 minutes, we can raise the qualifying bar for all. err.

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    The shorter and shorter sign up periods are an unintended side effect of an online world. 10(+/-) years ago this woudln't have been a problem as registration was predominately a mail in system and any online signup would have been either relatively new or still not possible. If the time for online signup continues to shorten then by default it becomes a "lottery".

    Making Boston a lottery system a la NYC would cause it to loose some of its prestige. Ray, your analysis and logic for lowering the qualifying times is awesome.

    I also like the idea of making a limited # of races spread across the country BQ races. As the number of new races grows so does the number of opportunities to qualify. As it is now with the number of fall races, if there is bad weather one week, you can turn the race into a 16 mile long run and pick up a race in better weather a few weeks later somewhere relativley close. There should be some pressure in having 1 shot to qualify.

    Finally, if you meet the standard at Boston you should be able to "early register" for the next year while in Boston.

    Reply
  12. i'm a female that doesn't race with others, but haven't yet figured out my speed. So I've not plans to qualify until I'm about 80...they can change the times if they want :)

    Reply
  13. I think its interesting to coorelate the increase in number people running faster to more folks running marathons, however I think it's interesting to note this NYT article that shows a more longitudinal study of overall marathon times increasing.

    link to nytimes.com marathon&st=cse

    Brett

    Reply
  14. RWJ

    I think at least registration is going to be pushed out until January 1. With Marine Corps, NYC and Philly among others, there are too many hopeful qualifier that have to wait another year to register. Some of the faster runners won't want to run those if they think it's useless to qualify.

    I also predict that qualifying times will be lowered by five minutes at least across the board for 2013. I think they should be lowered by at least ten for women because women are becoming faster and faster.

    I wonder what kind of organization BAA will prove itself to be: one with integrity or one that is only interested in profits?

    Reply
  15. This is an awesome post! Thank you so much for your thorough breakdown of the issue. I agree that the hype around registration filling up fast was probably the primary driver for this year's craziness -- which then makes me worried about next year!

    I'm not sure how to completely solve the problem, though I have to (reluctantly!) agree that the race organizers should tighten up the women's qualifying times. I think even adjusting them by a mere 5 minutes would make a huge difference. That being said, they should probably look at the men's times on the older end of the spectrum and adjust them accordingly. I also think that they should tighten the qualifying window, or at least only let you use one marathon to qualify for 1 Boston. Last year (if I had been fast enough at signing up!) I had 2 different marathons I could've used -- one of which I had already used to register for the prior year's Boston. Then I think if they do tighten up the qualifying window, they should open registration later in the year. They obviously don't have to worry about it not filling up before race day. So instead of opening weeks before many of the popular fall marathons, they should have registration start in December or even January...around the times runners would actually be starting to train for the marathon.

    Reply
  16. I wonder if there will be sign-up backlash like there was for the Houston to Austin MS 150 ride? The MS Society had hyped a new registration process that kicked off with a party at a major park in town and moved the opening of registration from starting in the summer to October. There was also talk of capping the event at 13,000 participants rather than letting anyone and everyone participate. The fundraising goal that had been $300 was also bumped up to $500.

    All of a sudden, the panic was on. Registration filled up in less than 2 days rather than being open for several months like it had every other year.

    The next year, 2009, the hype was on and registration closed in a matter of hours. However on event weekend, there was bad weather on the first day and everyone had to get themselves to the half-way point somehow to do the second part of the ride the next day. The field of riders who finished was significantly less than the number who had registered.

    In the fall, the registration for the 2010 event opened and was open for several days before it closed. Today the registration opened for 2011 opened and I just got a Tweet that the event is at 30% capacity.

    I just think some people got burned. I don't think this is the same case as Boston for many of the reasons that you mentioned such as having to train and qualify. It will be curious to see what happens

    Reply
  17. Great analysis! Some interesting questions that arise out of this:

    Why are more people running marathons? You mentioned the "Oprah Effect", but surely there is more at play here:

    Maybe, in light of the economy, people are ditching their more expensive sports/gym memberships for a cheaper alternative?

    Maybe Jersey Shore just isn't compelling enough to keep people glued to their TVs?

    How are people getting faster? Sure, more people are running marathons, but qualifying for Boston is no easy feat (in this faux-runner's humble opinion).

    Maybe the mass dissemination of coaching materials via the Internet (youtube,blogs,etc.) is making effective training more accessible for runners?

    Maybe local running/sports stores on small budgets, in an attempt to gain customers/loyalty, are offering free coaching/training sessions?

    Maybe there's a mutant league of giant-lung humans out there, skewing all of the statistics for us?

    You've certainly given me plenty to think about.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  18. Outstanding analysis as usual, Ray. Count me in the camp of toughening qual standards. I'd also like to see fewer free slots given away - when I ran Boston, a huge part of the appeal was that I had earned my way there.

    I'm not sure I agree that people are getting faster on average, though. There's a lot of data to suggest that US marathon runners, from front of pack to the back, are generally slower today than 20 years ago. The number of participants has ballooned, but it's almost all been on the back side of the pack.

    Reply
  19. Ken

    There is really nothing the BAA can do that will keep the race from selling out in a day without going to a lottery which I think would be a mistake.

    With that said, they should consider:
    1. Make the qualifying times tougher across all age groups and especially for women.

    2. Move registration to January/February so the people in the fall marathons have a chance to register.

    3. Make the qualifying time good for only one year.

    4. Double the race fee.

    Reply
  20. Anonymous

    Why are more people running? I believe it has everything to do with the economy.. I think the correct terminology is the "bunker effect". People are losing control of things they once had control over- houses are in foreclosure, jobs are lost, families are falling apart, etc. Your health is the one thing you have control over- so in a helpless situation- fitness is what people grasp at to have some sense of control in their life. Running is one of the most inexpensive ways to do that.

    Reply
  21. @kateshirley

    Ray, I love your blog! More specifically, I love the balance of in-depth analysis and fun stuff.

    So, on to the actual post, I've been thinking about this, especially from a girl perspective, but what I noticed was the number of women joining the sport. I think this is in part b/c we're seeing the women who were positively affected by Title 9. Generally, most in the 45 and younger group were raised with the notion that it was alright to sweat and some were even pushed to succeed in sports. So there's that historical fact.

    But I also wonder if there isn't something else lurking in the background. I'm not sure if you've heard of the guys at the Furman University Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) link to www2.furman.edu. What they've found, mostly from empirical data, is that women are better built to compete in endurance sports, so are older people by the way which might explain that enormous drop in the 60ish age group. What they've found at Furman is that if a male and female have equivalent 5K times, overwhelmingly often the woman will run a faster marathon. Interestingly, they also found the same if you compared a 20-something athlete with a 50-something athlete who had similar 5K times. The older of the athletes will complete the marathon faster. So in addition to gender differnces, they've found that while you slow down as you get older, you're better able to sustain a set pace over a distance.

    I haven't done much digging on that Furman site, but if you're interested, I thought it might be right up your alley to talk to them about women's performance and performance as you age in endurance events. Maybe you all could break ground on helping Boston redefine qualifying times based on science....

    Reply
  22. Morten Fogh

    8 hours is still a big enough window to apply. The BAA will not make a radical change in 2013. I can only see a small tweak, since they want to include as many as they can. The internet has increased the "panic" to sign up, but running does "ebb and flow". The BAA are smart enough to know this. The standards are still not being reached by about 88% of runners. 12% seems pretty close to being right.

    Reply
  23. Excellent analysis Ray.

    I thought I had posted this earlier this week but I can't find my post now! New to your blog and loving it. I found it as I was looking for Garmin 405 reviews and yours was very helpful. Had my 405 for two weeks and I can't believe I ran for 13 years without it! No problems with the bezel either but I have small fingers.

    Running my 14th consecutive MCM next week! See you there?

    Reply
  24. I believe the driving force for the untimely lockout of working class individuals from the opportunity to register for the marathon was the change in the time period for the registration process to begin. It opened over a month later than it traditionally had in years past. This allowed everyone who ran September and October marathons to essentially cut in front of those who have been waiting for the opportunity.

    Reply
  25. Ray - great analysis and data as always. I've got one more theory on faster times that I didn't see you mention.

    Chip timing has become pervasive over the last few years and I think that efficient chip timing has provided more accurate splits that save many a few minutes.

    If I'm in a wave that starts at 8:20, but don;t cross the actual start until 8:23... under the old days I would be 'penalized' those 3 minutes. Now I get an accurate chip time and the recorded time reflects that.

    That could account for a couple minutes of average time overall now that chips are prevalent and 'perfected'.

    Reply
  26. Perhaps another Nor'easter is all Boston needs to calm down the masses. It's been really nice the last two years. And while I do think that the women's times are a touch easier than the men's, they are resulting in about even participation rates. 40% of 2009 marathon finishers were women, 42% of Boston Marathon finishers in 2009 were women, according to the WSJ article. I don't think we need to toughen the standards until the proportions are off.

    Reply
  27. I'm all about the staggered registration, but at the same time, I think that they have to start a new category for 1st timers too! It's just getting a little ridiculous that only the elite can run it where it use to be fun ya know?

    I want to run in sometime before I turn 40 but just achieving my goal of under 4 hours is going to make a it a little tough.

    Reply
  28. Anonymous

    I don't agree that a lottery would be unfair. I think that it would be the most fair, and I think that it could still be made valid for Boston. Perhaps there could be stricter qualification times for a guaranteed entry, and then use the current qualification times as requirements for eligibility into a lottery.

    Reply
  29. Anonymous

    In a typical year, about 10% of Boston registrants don't start. It will be interesting to see if the same pattern holds or if this years rush leads to many unfilled spots - and disqualifications for those caught trading/selling reservations.

    I was told (but have not personally verified) that the qualifying times for Boston used to be much tougher (i.e. sub 3 hours for the under 35 category), and as a result Boston was a much smaller, and justifiably prestigous marathon. Then, on the 100th anniversary of the first running of the marathon, the BAA relaxed entrance requirements in order to get a bigger field to celebrate the event. The larger field produced a lot more money, and the BAA decided that this was a very good thing for themselves and for the sport.

    Now that demographics are starting to choke Boston, I would really like to see the qualifying times cut back. I'd also like to see some way to distinguish between those who qualified, and those are there because they have done excellent work raising money for charity.

    A lottery system, such as the one used for other marathons, is great for a mass participation event. For Boston, though, it would destroy the prestige of the race which was built by those achieving difficult qualifying times. When someone says "I ran the Boston Marathon", it should continue to mean that they're good, not lucky

    Reply
  30. Nice analysis.

    One idea I had regarding the entry fee is to have a non-refundable deposit of say $500 that you only get back if you start the race. Perhaps you can defer for a year if injured but after that you lose your money.

    With all the hype this year, plenty of people surely signed up who were on the fence. Had they had to risk more serious money they may have waited.

    Changing the entry times to something based on age-grading would help too, allowing the BAA to easily and fairly set the likely number of entrants.

    Reply
  31. I would proposed something as simple as letting everyone register (those with a qualifying time) from November through March. Then the marathon would simply fill the the slots from fastest registered runner to the "slowest" (which is still fast for me). That ensures the best field possible and the qualifying times regulate themselves this way.

    I would also consider having a higher refundable deposit that you get back (minus the registration fee) at the race. That way you dissuade those who simply register to hold a spot, and never use it.

    Reply

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