THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

McGillivray: BAA will make adjustments

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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Four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers, the legendary runner nicknamed “Boston Billy,’’ figures he’d lose any online race to register for the Boston Marathon. With the 2011 event selling out in a record 8 hours 3 minutes in October, Rodgers is thankful he has a guaranteed entry as a past winner, if he ever wants to run the marathon again.

“You’ve got to be good with the computer these days,’’ said Rodgers. “I’m not. If I was a qualifier, I would lose out.’’

That is not what the BAA wants to hear. The belief that computer speed (and Internet access on registration day) is as important as foot speed — and that the registration system is unfair — is forcing the Boston Athletic Association to make changes. And changes to the world’s oldest annual marathon do not come easily.

After numerous meetings and research, the BAA has narrowed its options to what race director Dave McGillivray called some “necessary adjustments’’ and “a few innovative approaches.’’ The final formula will involve a combination of adjustments to the qualifying standards, field size, and registration start date and window during which runners can qualify. It is highly unlikely any form of lottery will be instituted.

Fairness is the primary objective, though the BAA knows not everyone will agree with its final decision.

“No matter what, you’re going to ultimately disappoint the same amount of people,’’ said McGillivray. “But you want to give everyone an equal chance to get in. That’s the goal. We have a problem here and we’re not going to eliminate it completely.’’

Organizers will test their new formula over the next month and could announce changes as early as mid-January. The new plan will be phased into effect beginning with the 2012 marathon, with the qualifying window for that race under review. The BAA’s intent is to honor qualifying times run in what has been the traditional window, which opens in mid-September.

Problem-free registration isn’t the only challenge for the BAA. Achieving fairness with qualifying standards is a constant debate in the distance running community with complaints that some age-group standards are too soft, some too tough. Despite average marathon times dropping nearly eight minutes for men and nearly 14 minutes for women from 2005 to 2009, according to MarathonGuide.com, the BAA has not changed qualifying standards since 2003, when it added time for runners age 45 and older.

The use of two qualifying times for each men’s and women’s age group — one significantly faster than the other — has been under consideration, according to McGillivray. Under such a system, registration would open first to the faster qualifiers. BAA organizers, however, worry that runners who achieve the slower standard will view it as less of an accomplishment and find themselves in entry limbo with bib numbers not guaranteed until faster runners have an opportunity to register.

“I don’t want to eliminate the sense of runner euphoria when they cross the finish line of a qualifying race and they look at the clock and see a time,’’ said McGillivray. “I don’t want them to cross the finish line and say, ‘I hope I’m in now.’ You’d like to structure this where you run a certain time and you can start celebrating right away.’’

Complicating potential adjustments to qualifying standards is the BAA’s desire for gender balance. Last year, women made up 42 percent of the field with their numbers expected to increase as overall female marathon participation grows. Among 18- to 39-year-olds in the 2010 race, female runners outnumbered men, 5,942 to 5,455, perhaps hinting at an area where qualifying times can be toughened.

The BAA also wants to be fair to the eight cities and towns along the course, particularly race anchors Hopkinton and Boston, as it considers field size expansion. BAA leaders said public safety officials have instructed them not to exceed the current field size. Yet that hasn’t stopped the BAA from discussing the potential impact of an additional 3,000 runners with state officials and the cities and towns.

BAA leaders, executive director Guy Morse said, “have to be careful not to change the whole flavor of the event.’’ The fear is too many runners funneling through a 22-foot-wide road in Hopkinton and facing other size-related logistical issues could ruin the Boston Marathon experience.

McGillivray sees a small percentage growth — down the road 30,000 runners — as a possibility. But organizers cannot increase the field size to a level where it alone solves the bib number crunch for qualifiers. When 36,748 runners participated in the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996, it put a tremendous strain on Hopkinton and Boston and Morse said, “significant risks’’ were taken at the time. It was intended as a one-time spectacle celebrating race history, not a vision for the future.

“We don’t want to hurt anybody,’’ said BAA Board of Governors president Thomas Grilk. “We don’t want to hurt the town of Hopkinton. We don’t want to make a mess of things in Boston or along the way.’’