Not since 1897 when 15 ill-shod men toed a line in the dirt in Ashland has the Boston Marathon been postponed, not even when it was run as a military relay race in 1918.
Now that the world’s most fabled footrace has been rescheduled for Sept. 14 and the London Marathon moved from April to Oct. 4, five of the six World Marathon Majors are slated to take place within a period of seven weeks.
“It creates a challenge I haven’t seen in the 30 years that I’ve done this,” said Carey Pinkowski, who has been Chicago’s race director since 1990.
Boston is the most favorably placed since it has the earliest date of the five (which also include Berlin and New York City) and picked up additional contenders both before and since the Olympics were postponed last week. Besides New York men’s champion Geoffrey Kamworor and third-place finisher Girma Bekele, Ababel Yeshaneh, the women’s half marathon world record-holder, and US runners Elkanah Kibet, Augustus Maiyo, and Taylor Ward are probable participants.
Their presence will enhance a field that already includes eight Boston champions: defending titlists Lawrence Cherono and Worknesh Degefa, Lelisa Desisa (2013 and 2015), Desiree Linden (2018), Yuki Kawauchi (2018), Edna Kiplagat (2017), Caroline Rotich (2015), and Buzunesh Deba (2014).
“Once folks have that Boston experience, they’re likely to return, and we’re grateful for that,” said Mary Kate Shea, sponsor John Hancock’s senior director for elite athletes. “There aren’t many major marathons that have eight champions returning. That’s a testament to the tradition that is the Boston Marathon and to the fans. That hasn’t changed in 123 years.”
London, which planned a classic showdown between Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, the two all-time fastest men’s marathoners, had its top people under contract. The other three races are in a holding pattern.
“Ultimately my sense is that all the races are letting the athletes decide what makes the most sense for them,” said New York Road Runners senior vice president Chris Weiller, who usually begins assembling his elite field in earnest after the spring races.
The majors calendar, which begins with Tokyo in late winter, allows for elite racers to compete in both a spring and a fall marathon. With Boston and London now coming first and third in the fall sequence, Berlin (Sept. 27), Chicago (Oct. 11), and New York (Nov. 1) will be fishing in a decidedly shallower pool.
“Do I have an answer for you? I don’t know if I do,” said Pinkowski, who usually recruits off of Boston. “Next month or so we’ll have a clearer picture.”
The postponement of the Olympics until next year, which frees up 160 men and women who likely would not have run a fall marathon after racing in August, will be a windfall. Galen Rupp, the Rio bronze medalist who won the US trials, quite possibly will make his customary appearance in Chicago, where he won in 2017.
Since New York is the last race in the series, it’s conceivable that some Boston runners will try to double.
“It seems to be something that athletes are looking at more, the ability to turn things around quicker if they can,” said Weiller.
For now, the race directors are giving the athletes time to assess their options.
“I told them to take a few weeks to regroup, focus on themselves, their families, their community,” said Shea, who said that Hancock would be “as accommodating and patient as possible.”
“We want to make sure that they are safe and healthy. That’s our top priority. We recognize how much work and effort and commitment goes into running a major, so we’re going to support their decision whatever it is. If they can’t come back in September, we are going to work with them to come in 2021.”
Meanwhile, the Boston Athletic Association, which has 31,500 athletes from more than 100 countries entered in the race, is planning for a delayed event amid unprecedented uncertainty.
“We are in an environment marked by a relentless pace of change that continues to increase,” observed B.A.A. chief executive officer Tom Grilk. “Along with everyone else, we’ll have to be pretty nimble and agile.”
The three most common questions from entrants involve refunds, deferrals for next year’s race, and the qualifying window for 2021.
“We don’t want to rush forward with answers that might turn out to be imperfect,” said Grilk. “We want to get it right, but we also want to show respect to all the people who signed up to run here. We want to make sure that we tell them correctly. We’re pretty close to being able to do that.”