Jessica Chichester placed fifth in the 2018 Boston Marathon.
But the 31-year-old nurse from Brooklyn, New York, won’t be receiving the $15,000 in prize money that goes to the fifth-place woman. And she’s not alone.
Two other women who placed in the top 15 also won’t see any cash from their breakthrough races. It all ties back to the time they crossed the starting line in Hopkinton.
The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the historic 26.2-mile race each year, stipulates that prize money is only awarded to women who start the marathon in the group of runners with the fastest qualifying times.
Below, why the BAA thinks that rule is necessary and what runners have to say about it.
What is the rule and why is it in place?
The Boston Marathon has a separate, earlier start time for the top female runners competing in the race, and these women are scored separately from women who leave the starting line in Hopkinton in waves 1 through 4. This year, participants in what the BAA calls the elite women’s start (EWS) began the race at about 9:32 a.m., ahead of the other runners in waves that started from 10 a.m. through 11:15 a.m.
The BAA’s website states (bold theirs):
Open and masters division women who consider themselves eligible for prize money in the Boston Marathon must declare themselves as a contestant for the EWS start. They may email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details on format, eligibility, regulations, and instructions. Race officials can assist in determining which start – EWS or 10:00 a.m. – is most appropriate. Prize money will be awarded to contestants in the EWS only. Women who choose not to start in the EWS waive the right to compete for prize money.
Runners who have times that don’t qualify them for the EWS cannot start with that group and, therefore, cannot be awarded prize money.
The qualifying time for the EWS in the 2018 marathon was 2:47:50 and 46 women qualified, according to Buzzfeed.
T.K. Skenderian, communications director for the BAA, told Boston.com that the “Boston Marathon is a race between competitors who can see each other and strategize accordingly.”
“It is not a time trial,” he said. “Prize money is awarded on gun-time, as opposed to net-time. If you’re racing with the elite women and you realize that there are only three athletes in front of you, it would be unfair to later inform you that you finished fifth, because someone who started in a later wave ran a faster time among different competitors.”
Since the prize money is awarded to finishers based on their gun-time, not their net-time, if, for example, a non-EWS runner places 15th and an EWS runner places 16th, the 16th-place EWS runner would get the $1,500 15th-place prize (assuming that the 15th-place finisher was the only non-EWS runner ahead of her).
“All runners — both in and out of the Elite Women’s Start are aware of, and agree to, the prize money rules before the race,” Skenderian said.
According to the communications director, 2018 wasn’t the first year that runners who placed in the top 15 spots weren’t eligible for the prize money. It also occurred in 2004 — the first year of the EWS — when runners had to contend with “high temperatures,” he said.
What do the runners think?
According to Buzzfeed, Chichester wasn’t allowed to join the EWS because she didn’t have a fast enough qualifying time.
“It makes me sad that there’s not a way for people that are in the mass start, that have a breakthrough race and come up from having not as good of a time, can be eligible for the prize money they deserve,” she told Buzzfeed.
Chichester ended up finishing with a time of 2:45:23.
— Boston Marathon (@bostonmarathon) April 16, 2018
She wasn’t the only woman who placed in the top 15 who wasn’t eligible for the prize money.
Veronica Jackson, 31, of Weehawken, New Jersey, placed 13th with a time of 2:49:41, but she won’t receive the $1,800 award. According to Buzzfeed, Jackson also missed the qualifying time for the elite start.
She told Buzzfeed the situation was “frustrating” and said that more runners should be allowed in the elite women’s field.
“In races, men’s sub-elites get to start with the elite men,” she told the publication. “Women’s sub-elites don’t. Men’s sub-elites are always eligible for prize money. Women’s sub-elites are not. And that’s really unfair.”
Becky Snelson, 24, also was not part of the EWS but came in 14th overall with a time of 2:49:50, a position that usually carries a $1,700 prize.
She said she was shocked when she was told how she placed and is trying her best not to let the rules bother her, but she told Buzzfeed, “it kind of stinks a bit.”
“I earned this money because I was the 14th fastest that day,” she told the publication. “I didn’t expect to walk out of Boston making money either, but I feel like I kind of deserve it.”
Chichester, Jackson, and Snelson all started the marathon in wave 1, according to Skenderian.
What is the BAA saying in response to criticism of the policy?
Michael Pieroni, the athletic performance director for the BAA, recently told the Boston Herald that the separate start time for elite women was implemented in 2004 in order to highlight “head-to-head competition.”
Skenderian said the decision to give elite women their own start time was made following communication with athletes and other large marathons, including London, New York, and Berlin, with the intent of making the women’s race “as good as it can be.”
“It allowed the women to race each other without obstruction,” he said. “No longer would 2:20- or 2:30-paced men be blocking female competitors from each other, from the wind, or from a fluid station. It also allowed for the women’s race to receive the attention it deserves and not be overshadowed by the men’s race.”
According to the BAA, the elite men, who begin the marathon at the same time as wave 1, are separated from the rest of the runners. Male runners participating in waves 2, 3, and 4, are not eligible for the men’s prize money because they are running at a different time and under different conditions.
“To be with the elite men (at the starting line), runners have to have a qualifying time below 2:24 or 2:25 (something in there),” Skenderian said. “The difference here (of about 50-60 feet), gives the elite field a jump on the rest of the sub-elite group. In this way, we give the elite men the best chance to race without obstruction, as we have for the elite women.”
“It’s probably once in a hundred years that this would happen,’’ Pieroni told the Herald of runners placing in slots where they aren’t eligible to receive prize money.
Skenderian said there hadn’t been concern at the BAA that the rules for the non-EWS runners could be perceived as unfair.
“This year created a unique set of circumstances with an unusually high number [of] elite dropouts during the race due to weather conditions,” he said. “This was an extremely rare occurrence.”
When asked if there were any plans to change the rules either by granting non-EWS women prize money or allowing more women to start with the elites, Skenderian said the BAA “takes time” after every race to consider changes to the event.
“In the weeks ahead, we’ll be considering all facets of the race, and (for example) how the poor weather impacted the pre-race plans,” he said.