As the city marked the one-month anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing on Wednesday, the Boston Athletic Association continued to figure out what the future holds. The 2014 Marathon will be unlike any other road race — part celebration, part commemoration, part logistical puzzle, part massive security undertaking. That much is certain.
Field size, start and finish area changes, and increased protection for runners and spectators along the route remain under discussion. BAA executive director Tom Grilk and race director Dave McGillivray must make a lot of tough decisions before registration opens for qualified runners in mid-September. But when it comes to accommodating larger field sizes and increasing security, Marathon organizers can look to blueprints from road races around the world, including major marathons in London, New York, Chicago, and Berlin.
Conversations with road race directors and marathon organizers from around the world give an idea of how the 2014 Boston Marathon might look. Other races hint at what might lie ahead.
First, the BAA must determine how it will handle the 5,700-plus runners who couldn’t finish the 2013 race. That is probably the easiest decision the BAA faces. It’s a no-brainer to give the non-finishers guaranteed entry into the 2014 Marathon, and an announcement likely will come soon. Given the tragic, unprecedented circumstances that kept them from the finish line, and the need for closure, most of the non-finishers probably will return next year, creating pressure to increase the field beyond 27,000 runners.
From there, the decisions become much tougher. Do the non-finishers who use their guaranteed entries, likely around 5,000 runners, take a portion of the 20,000 spots designated for qualifiers? If they do, then qualifiers may need to run 10-15 minutes faster than their qualifying times to earn entry with a registration system that favors the fastest runners. Will the non-finishers be added onto the 27,000 total for a field of 32,000 or more? If they move quickly to 32,000, will organizers aim for a record field near 40,000? Will the eight cities and towns along the route permit such a large field?
Although the emotional call to make the 2014 Marathon the biggest ever has come from President Obama on down, it is far easier said than done. Still, the most compelling argument may be the race’s dual role as bombing commemoration and prideful celebration of Boston’s strength. a record field size in 2014 would be only a one-time occurrence.
To increase the field size to around 40,000, organizers would need to commandeer more land in Hopkinton for the staging area at the start. For the 100th Marathon, a record 38,708 entrants took over land that was Terry’s Farm. Today, that farm is the new Hopkinton High School complex.
Then, the eight cities and towns along the route would have to consent to longer road closures. A large portion of the Boston Marathon covers two-lane roads, not broad boulevards like New York, London, and Chicago, meaning more start waves to keep runner congestion to a minimum.
Finally, the finish area possibly would extend to the Public Garden and Common, as it did for the 100th running.
Would this be impossible to organize in 11 months? Not exactly. A long shot? Yes. It took two years to organize for the 100th. And Grilk and McGillivray must tackle the logistics of heightened security as well as field size issues.
The start and finish areas likely will see the greatest security-related changes next year. As race directors from marathons in New York, Berlin, London, and Chicago noted, those are the two places where they more easily can restrict access and exert control. Even when well-policed by public safety officials and military personnel, a 26.2-mile course is impossible to cover as thoroughly as the start and finish. Additionally, the start and finish attract the largest, most tightly-packed crowds, making them natural focal points.
For the 2014 Marathon, the Hopkinton start and Boylston Street finish certainly will be more closely guarded, with access more restricted. That’s an easy call. The questions are: How closely guarded? How tightly restricted? And how can you install heightened security in residential Hopkinton and on commercial Boylston Street? Unlike New York with its Fort Wadsworth start and Central Park finish, London with its Greenwich Park start and Mall finish, and Chicago with its Grant Park start and finish, Boston’s start and finish are in more confined, more trafficked areas.
From the moment runners board buses for Hopkinton, they should expect the validity of their bib number to be more regularly and thoroughly checked. It’s likely they will be given clear plastic bags for the items they want to bring to the start and pick up at the finish, just as New York does. Upon arriving at Hopkinton High School, the traditional pre-race staging area for most runners, they may find a secured zone. Borrowing a template used at other major marathons, that secured zone probably will involve strictly guarded entry points with bib numbers or credentials required for access, lots of temporary fencing creating interior and exterior perimeters, and police and military all around.
While it will give organizers a logistical headache, the secured zone may need to cover the roughly half-mile that runners walk from the high school to the starting corrals on Main Street. If so, the secured zone would include the residential streets that feed into the corrals and Hopkinton Town Common. It may be difficult, especially next year, to keep Hopkinton from looking like a town on the verge of a lockdown.
At the finish, the length of Boylston Street may become a secured zone, too, running from Hereford Street to the Public Garden and Common. Almost certainly, the area immediately surrounding the finish line will be some form of secured zone requiring tickets or credentials for non-runners. That is the way New York City and London operate. For a few hundred yards, the sidewalks along the London finish area are filled with a labyrinth of heavily guarded, temporary fencing.
In Boston, the challenge will be dealing with all the hotels and restaurants clustered near the finish line that traditionally host viewing parties on Patriots Day. That’s not a problem faced in Central Park, Grant Park, or on the Mall. Those restaurants and hotels may need to vet their invited guests more carefully and issue finish area tickets. Still, it seems inevitable that the volume of the screaming canyon of Boylston Street fans will be turned down.
From today until race day in April, every decision the BAA makes will have an impact on the character of the Boston Marathon and the cities and towns along its route. Starting now, the challenge is to make changes without changing all that runners and spectators love about the world’s oldest marathon.