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Time is of the essence

New rules have Marathon hopefuls trying to find a fast track to qualifying

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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DULUTH, Minn. - Wearing plastic trash bags as temporary raincoats, runners headed toward the Grandma’s Marathon starting line in a light mist. Temperatures hovered slightly above 40 degrees, and a light but steady breeze blew through the crowd of 6,000-plus.

It was mid-June in Minnesota. The runners talked obsessively about the weather, about forecasts of clearing skies and a tailwind, about perfect conditions for fast times. That is what marathoners do in the nervous moments before races.

Inevitably, some chatter turned to the Boston Marathon and its qualifying times. Some runners traveled to the shores of Lake Superior to chase those times, drawn by the relatively flat, fast Grandma’s course and cool weather. That is why I went to Duluth for a summer weekend.

For many qualifiers, the road to Boston goes through Duluth, Pocatello, Idaho, Fargo, N.D., Burlington, Vt., and other cities that host 26.2 milers.

When registration for Boston opened in mid-October last year, the roughly 21,000 slots for qualifiers were filled in a record 8 hours 3 minutes, leaving many runners sidelined. The BAA announced new registration procedures and qualifying standards last February. A slightly shortened qualification window and a priority on fast times created a ripple effect throughout the marathon community. Some runners scrambled to summer races, hoping to achieve the tougher standards set for earlier registration days.

With the first day of rolling registration coming Monday, the fall marathon calendar fell out of bounds for would-be 2012 qualifiers. Runners who hoped to qualify at the Chicago Marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, the Baystate Marathon, and other fall races switched plans. I searched marathon calendars, studied courses, and selected the Grandma’s, then shelled out almost $1,200 for travel and accommodations, crammed in training, and flew to Minnesota.

From prerace talk, I knew I was not alone in my approach. Grandma’s saw its field grow by 1,000 runners this year. Other summer marathons saw bumps in participation, too.

“We responded to what happened last year,’’ said Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray. “Transition years are always challenging. You change something and people have to adjust.

“Runners are looking at ways to still make the cut. They’re not just focused on sneaking under the qualifying time. They’re realizing, ‘I have to run as fast as I possibly can for a time competitive in my age group to make the cut.’ That’s very different than the way it’s been.’’

In the not-too-distant past, runners could qualify by one second and practically be assured a spot in the race.

On Monday, registration will open to runners who ran at least 20 minutes faster than the designated qualifying time for their age and gender. For example, women age 35-39 have a qualifying time of 3:45:59; the time to register on Day 1 is 3:25:00 or faster. On Wednesday, registration opens for runners at least 10 minutes faster than their qualifying times. On Friday, it’s five minutes faster. On Sept. 19, all qualified runners are welcome.

While the BAA hopes registration remains open into week two, many runners are not counting on it. Above all, BAA executive director Tom Grilk said he hopes the process “feels orderly and fair to the people who are entering.’’

Mind math Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I set my sights on a Grandma’s finish of 3:25 or faster, 20 minutes under the qualifying time for my age and gender. On pace early, I grew confident in my abbreviated training and race selection. But my pace slowed dramatically after 20 miles. I worried that shortcuts in training would cause a total collapse. My mind wandered to the new rolling registration standards.

I tried calculating the pace needed to make the cut for the second wave of registration, and the third wave. I learned that doing math in your head in the later stages of a marathon is dizzying and potentially demoralizing. I got lost in the numbers, ditched the calculations and slogged through to the end. With a finish time of 3:18:11, I will be at my computer Monday morning.

By the time Molly Pellegrini reached the late stages of Grandma’s Marathon, runners around her knew a Boston qualifying time was at stake. The persistent shouting of her friend and running partner made that clear. At Mile 25, the Tulsa mother of four almost came to a stop. A fellow marathoner, a man now invested in her qualifying effort, yelled, “You’ve got to go. You’re that close.’’

Pellegrini, a Boston College alumna who will turn 40 in November, went just fast enough to qualify, finishing in 3:49:02. She will spend the first week of registration with fingers crossed, hoping there will be spots left when the process opens to everyone on Sept. 19.

The last group of applicants will register from Sept. 19-23 if space remains. They won’t know if they’ve earned a bib number until a few days after the registration period, approximately Sept. 28. Priority goes to the fastest times within each category.

Still, simply achieving the qualifying time in her 11th marathon was worth a celebration for Pellegrini.

“The goal was to break 3:45 so at least I’d get in before the last registration,’’ she said. “In my mind, I was like, ‘I’ve got to stick with 8:15 [per mile pace] and be consistent with it. You’re thinking that way all the way till Mile 20 when you’re like, ‘I can’t do it.’ Then, you start thinking, ‘What do I need to run the next 6 miles just to get in?’ ’’

Fall races feel it Christeen Paulison planned to qualify for the Boston Marathon at Chicago in October, then she learned the Windy City race took place too late. She searched for another qualifying marathon and also chose Grandma’s.

“I looked at some May marathons, but didn’t think I had the time to get into good enough marathon shape,’’ she said.

Despite going out too fast, Paulison, 43, finished in 3:45:22, a personal best and fast enough to qualify. But like Pellegrini, she will have to wait until the registration process plays out to see if she snags an official entry.

“The second I can register, I will,’’ said Paulison, who is from Minneapolis. “And I’m going to run Chicago and run my best because that time will be good for 2013.’’

Yes, a lot of marathoners are already thinking about the 2013 Boston Marathon, when qualifying times will be five minutes faster.

James Sullivan of Chelmsford spent Labor Day Weekend in Pocatello, aiming to qualify at the Idaho State Journal Pocatello Marathon. At the race, he met a man from Lowell and a man from Washington, D.C., trying to do the same. Sullivan finished in 3:16:39, failing to meet the required 3:10.

“The whole thing was very challenging,’’ said Sullivan, 26. “If I ran the Baystate Marathon, I would have qualified. There’s little doubt in my mind.

“The course in Pocatello, all the downhills in the first half of the marathon, just killed me. I’ll get there, just not in time for next year’s Boston.’’

With his focus shifted to 2013, he still may run the Baystate Marathon in October, the race he originally planned to use as a 2012 qualifier. The Baystate and other fall marathons in the Northeast took a hit with the new registration dates.

Annually, one-third of Baystate entrants qualify for Boston. The last two years, the race sold out in August. Today, entries are still available.

The decision to open Boston registration in mid-September puzzled and disappointed Baystate Marathon race director Glenn Stewart. On his marathon’s website, he noted how the exclusion of fall marathons “spoiled the traditional marathon training cycle’’ in North America and forced many runners to use qualifying times run 12 months or more in advance.

“We’re not sure what effect that will have, but it can’t be good,’’ wrote Stewart.

He hopes the BAA moves back the 2013 registration date, thereby including fall marathons.

“Boston is going to fill up, regardless of when they do registration, whether they do it now or in January,’’ said Stewart. “For the last three years, they’ve opened the day after Baystate, which was terrific. Our constituency is people trying to run those 3:30, 3:40, 3:45 qualifying times. That’s the runner we cater to.’’

Grilk and McGillivray said the new registration procedures involved a lot of time, thought, and tough decisions. If the BAA pushed back the registration start date, then where would it stop? Include Baystate, but not the New York City Marathon?

Unavoidably, some runners and races were disappointed by the new process. Now it’s time to see how the system works.

“This is going to be a learning curve for all of us,’’ said McGillivray. “It’s anyone’s guess what happens on Day 1, Day 3, Day 5, what happens in Week 1, Week 2. Will we get to the second week?

“The good thing about the first year of this is that there’s next year to improve upon it, if necessary. We’re as anxious to see how it pans out, as I’m sure runners and the running industry are.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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