For runners worldwide, 22 finish times ranging from 3 hours 10 minutes to 5:30 hold special significance. They are the Boston Marathon qualifying standards, the measure of serious, amateur long-distance runners. But when race organizers introduced a 4-hour qualifying time in 1970, they had no idea what they were starting.
“The whole concept of qualifying times falls under the heading of unintended consequences,’’ said BAA executive director Guy Morse. “The people who made that [original] decision didn’t realize how important qualifying times would become and how much of a franchise they would be to this race. It was a way to control the number of runners who participated. From that, it’s grown into a very important part of who we are.’’
After 1,342 runners competed in the 1969 race, BAA officials worried similarly sized fields would overcrowd the course and ruin the experience. The 1970 Boston Marathon application required runners submit certification they could finish in under four hours and warned: “This is not a jogging race.’’
Since 1970, qualifying times for Boston have been adjusted nine times to achieve field-size goals, yet ensure male and female runners of all ages can participate. To determine qualifying standards, organizers eye race results from around the world and listen to runner feedback.
In 1971, the qualifying time dropped to 3:30, as organizers attempted to limit the field size to 1,000. The 3:30 standard remained through 1976; the next year women received a separate qualifying time. From 1980-86, while qualifying standards took women and older runners into greater account, men under 40 faced the toughest qualifying time ever instituted, 2:50.
Sponsorship by John Hancock, starting in 1986, allowed the race to grow, and qualifying times began to look more like today’s standards. The last qualifying adjustments came in 2003, when times were eased for runners 45 and older.
“You can’t aimlessly train and not have a goal,’’ said race director Dave McGillivray. “For some people, the goal is the finish line. Then, the next goal is a time. Then, the ultimate is a Boston qualifying time.’’