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  103rd BOSTON MARATHON

Most accept the need to qualify

By Allen Lessels, Globe Staff, 16/04/99

These are the times that try men's soles.

Three hours 10 minutes. Three hours 15 minutes. Three hours 20 minutes. And on. And on.

And these are the times that try women's soles.

Three hours 40 minutes. Three hours 45 minutes. And so forth.

They are numbers and times that many runners live by. Times that are posted on bulletin boards. Entered in notebooks. Etched in memories.

They are earn-a-number numbers. Qualifying times. Finish a sanctioned marathon in the approved time for your age and you, too, can run the Boston Marathon with an official number.

You're a 45-year-old male? Better be able to cover the 26.2 miles in 3 hours 25 minutes. You're a female, age 53? Four hours, even, is the target.

Qualifying times, unique to Boston, have served the Marathon well for nearly three decades now. Since 1990 they have remained unchanged - starting with 3 hours 10 minutes for men ages 18 to 34 and 3 hours 40 minutes for women in the same age group - and should stay the same through at least next year, said race director Guy Morse.

''These will continue to be the standard. We have no plans to change the qualifying times, especially for the year 2000,'' Morse said. ''They'll stay the same. We haven't looked beyond that, nor do I believe we will. We get a fair amount of feedback all over the board. Some people can't attain them and think they're too strict. Others can, and think they should be tighter. By and large, people are happy. It's a standard they're able to aspire to. It's a barometer, a good way to test yourself.''

Runner's World magazine ran an on-line poll on Boston Marathon qualifying standards in February and received 650 responses. Of those, 270, or 41.5 percent, voted to leave them where they are. Another 131, 20.2 percent, wanted to make the standards tougher. And only 28, or 4.3 percent, wanted to make them easier. Other options listed were to eliminate charity and club entries (17.5 percent), first-come, first-serve entry (8.3), and bring back the lottery for additional entries (8.2).

The consensus: Keep the times. ''The opinion you hear most often is they have a standard that is attainable, but not easy,'' said Parker Morse, on-line editor at Runner's World and no relation to the race director. ''It actually makes the event something bigger. It's not like a race where you drop an entry check in the mail and line up. It means something to do the race. I think a lot of runners see it that way. For a lot of people, this is their Olympics. They go through the trials at whatever race they choose to qualify in, and then Boston is their big show.''

Parker Morse is shooting for The Show. New to marathoning, he tried to qualify twice last fall. He didn't finish the first race after becoming dehydrated. In the second, he was 11 1/2 minutes off his qualifying mark of 3 hours 10 minutes.

''At about 23 miles, I was figuring out there was no way I was going to make the qualifying standard,'' Morse said. ''I was also thinking, about five seconds later, `Why would I want to do this again?'''

Now he is thinking he will try again this fall.

''I feel like by getting a qualifying time, I'll be valid,'' Morse said. ''It's almost like a validation that you're actually capable of doing a marathon well. There is a lot of pride to it. But then you start throwing in that there are a lot of people who probably aren't ever going to qualify. It's like you're closing the door on half the congregation and saying this is one service you just can't attend. That's a hard thing to do, especially with a sport as inclusive as running is.''

That's what bothers Dave Sargent of Hollis, N.H., a four-time qualifier and longtime member of the Gate City Striders running club. ''Before I was able to qualify, I thought, `Gee, it was something special,''' said Sargent, who figures he may have run Boston for the last time. ''Now that I've done it four times, I see people who want to run it and have never run a marathon before and it changes their perspective. It becomes all-encompassing. Some feel like they haven't become a runner unless they qualify for Boston, and that can set people back. If they don't make it, it's like they failed. That's not what running is all about in my book. In my book, running is about a lot of accomplishments and not about standards.''

Tom Raiche of Nashua, N.H., is a runner who believes in the standards, though he is excited about running Boston Monday and has never run a marathon and thus never qualified. He received one of the 10 Boston numbers handed out to the Gate City Striders for his work with the club. ''It's part of the tradition with Boston,'' he said of qualifying. ''It's been one of their rules for a long time and they've held on to it.''

The Boston Athletic Association initiated qualifying rules in 1970 to help control the size of the field. ''A runner must submit the certification of either the Long Distance Running chairman of the AAU of this district or his college coach that he has trained sufficiently to finish the course in less than four hours: This is not a jogging race,'' read the official entry form for 1970.

Through the '70s and '80s, qualifying standards changed every few years until the current numbers were settled upon in 1990. The race field has grown in recent years, and this year 1,200 more runners are expected than a year ago, pushing the field to about 12,700, expected to be the second-biggest field behind the 38,708 that ran the 100th.

''Twelve, 13, or 14 thousand is very manageable,'' Guy Morse said. ''We know we can do it; we did the 38,000 and more in the 100th. We're not looking to do that again, at least in my lifetime, but it's certainly something we proved we can do. Anything in the mid-teens is exactly where this race should be.''

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