Yi Zhang crossed the finish line at the 2021 Hartford Marathon in a state of curious suspense.
She knew she’d missed her “A goal” of 3 hours, 30 minutes, as well as her “B goal” of 3 hours, 35 minutes. But the 41-year-old wasn’t sure whether she’d fulfilled her third and final goal: 3 hours and 40 minutes for 26.2 miles, a mark that would meet the qualifying standard to run the 2022 Boston Marathon.
“When I got through [the finish line], I thought, ‘Maybe I screwed up and I missed all three goals,’ ” recalled Zhang.
And then she saw the five magical digits: 3:40:00.
“I had a zero-second difference from the Boston qualification time,” she realized.
Yet while Zhang had run a time that technically qualified her to run Boston, she understood the reality of her circumstance.
While Boston Marathon runners have been required to meet a qualifying standard for more than a half-century, over the last decade even those who met that high bar haven’t been guaranteed a spot in the field. In 2012 and again in every year from 2014-21, in order to maintain what had been deemed a manageable field size, the Boston Athletic Association turned away thousands of marathoners who’d completed a 26.2-mile race in the official qualifying time.
“[Usually] we have to send notices saying, ‘The cutoff was whatever number of minutes, whatever number of seconds, thank you for registering with us, however …,’ ” lamented BAA chief operating officer Jack Fleming.
In 2021, with the marathon’s field reduced to 20,000 because of the pandemic, a record 9,215 qualifying runners were turned away. Only those who’d beaten their demographic’s qualifying time by at least 7 minutes and 47 seconds were allowed to run.
Zhang assumed there was little to no chance she’d get to run the 2022 Boston Marathon. She questioned whether she should bother applying.
But with encouragement from Fleming, she did so, and in mid-November, the BAA shared news that thrilled Zhang and others who’d doubted that their qualifying times would be sufficient for admission. For the first time since 2013, there would be no cutoff time. Every applicant who’d run a qualifying time in another marathon was approved to run Boston.
“How lucky am I?” Zhang marveled.
For marathon organizers, the opportunity to say yes to all qualifying applicants — particularly after the postponement and then cancellation of the Boston Marathon in 2020, and then the postponement leading up to a fall race in 2021 — represented a way of salvaging joy from two years of disruption to the running world.
The successful staging of the Boston Marathon last fall with a field of 20,000 qualifying runners set the stage for a return to a 30,000-runner field this year. But the number of qualifying applicants seemed almost certain to be reduced for a number of reasons.
Foremost, the near halt of marathons in the face of COVID-19 restrictions from March 2020 through May 2021 had created a gap in potential qualifying events.
“The sport was on hold,” said Fleming.
The BAA thus widened the qualifying window for the 2022 Marathon, allowing qualifiers from races over a two-year period (November 2019 to November 2021) rather than the usual one-year period to apply. But even with that expansion, the number of qualifiers remained diminished.
Some races were canceled. Others capped their field sizes in ways that would limit the potential pool that could apply to run Boston 2022.
For instance, while Boston usually yields more than 26,000 qualifiers for the next year’s race, the reduced field of 2021 had resulted in fewer than 18,000 runners crossing the finish line with times that qualified them to apply to run in 2022. Similarly, the Chicago Marathon went from nearly 46,000 qualifying finishers in 2019 to a little more than 26,000 in 2021.
Meanwhile, the BAA recognized signs of diminished interest from the global community. International runners typically require months or years of planning to run Boston, and the expense of doing so is considerable. Amid logistical uncertainty prompted by the unpredictable trajectory of the pandemic and its restrictions, the BAA reached agreements with some international tour partners to take a hiatus year in 2022 — another signal of a smaller applicant pool.
Finally, while the running world has a high COVID-19 vaccination rate, the introduction of a vaccination requirement in 2022 was expected by Boston organizers to have at least a small drag on participation.
Given those factors, BAA director of athlete services Barbara Sicuso recognized ahead of last November’s registration period that there was a chance that all qualifying runners for 2022 might be admitted. She wanted to encourage those such as Zhang who’d narrowly met the qualifying time to apply and take advantage of an opportunity that rarely exists.
In recent years, registration had occurred in four stages — opened initially for those who’d qualified by at least 20 minutes, then for those who’d qualified by 10 minutes, then by five, before being opened to all who’d run marathons in qualified times. But organizers believed the staged approach deterred those who run times that narrowly (or, such as Zhang, precisely) qualify them for Boston. At Sicuso’s suggestion, the BAA opened registration to all qualifying runners from Nov. 8-12.
“[Sicuso’s] concept was, through this disruptive period, let’s remove [the staged approach] and restore the potential hope that everyone would be allowed,” said Fleming. “It managed expectations differently and it actually gave some people hope.”
When registration opened, the BAA recognized on the first day that the number of applications was down, increasing hopes of a field that welcomed all qualifiers. Even so, organizers speculated that much like everything else in the world, registration might follow an atypical rhythm in the pandemic.
But the numbers followed projections. Ultimately, there were a little less than 24,000 qualified runners who applied for Boston, well within the 30,000 runner cap. The usual grim notices informing applicants that their qualifying times had been inadequate would be unnecessary.
“It was emotional. It makes me emotional now to think about it,” said Fleming, his voice catching. “I know that this is not the most important thing in the world at this moment with everything going on in the world, but this race means so much to so many people, and not just the runners. It’s the volunteers, it’s the city. We’re really happy to play our part in delivering to them an experience that they’ve hoped for, that maybe they’ve seen as a spectator on TV or from a friend, that they’ve heard about, but that they’ve never experienced themselves.”
Zhang will be among the first-time participants.
She was in a work meeting in November when her phone started vibrating with message after message after message. She worried that there might be an urgent family matter, but instead, during a break, she encountered a flood of congratulatory texts featuring the wonderful news: She’d be running Boston in 2022, a particularly meaningful race, given that it marks the 50th anniversary of women being officially accepted to run it.
With that opportunity, Zhang hopes to inspire others — particularly Asian women — to pursue goals that might seem unattainable.
“You can try something where, at the beginning, you don’t have a lot of hope, but later you find out that with some luck, with some help, with some encouragement you can reach your goals. They go from something impossible to something you can attain,” said Zhang. “I really learned a lot. I really hope I can share my story and impact other people.”
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