Boston will be the first major marathon to add a competitive Para Athletic Division
When Adam Popp was becoming a marathoner after losing a leg in Afghanistan, his goal was qualifying for Boston.
“That’s what you hear about, that’s the pinnacle,” said the retired Air Force sergeant. “After I did it in 2017, it was, well, that’s kind of it. What’s next?”
Next year runners who meet the competitive standards will be racing for official recognition and prize money as the Boston Athletic Association introduces a new Para Athletic Division with categories for classified ambulatory athletes with vision, lower-limb, and upper-limb impairments.
“It’s another step on a journey to recognize all forms of athletic participation,” said BAA chief executive officer Tom Grilk. “I hope what it helps to do is to broaden everyone’s understanding that there are different ways to compete and there are different forms of competition to which people can aspire.”
The BAA, which for years has welcomed runners with impairments, will continue its adaptive programs and keep the existing time standards of five hours for visually impaired athletes and six hours for mobility-impaired.
“If you’re saying, ‘I’m not ready for [the competitive division], I’m not there yet, I just want to be in the race, I need a little more support,’ then you have a program where you can come in as well,” said Marla Runyan, the BAA’s Para Athletes manager.
The competitive division, the first created by a major marathon, is designed to attract runners who crave a high-performance challenge.
“There hasn’t been a huge amount of amputees willing to spend the time racing at a high level in the marathon because there was no field like this,” said Dedham native Brian Reynolds, who has run in London and Chicago. “This is the first step to making it competitive on a much larger scale. This is how wheelchair racing got big a few decades ago, when they started introducing competitive fields at the world majors.”
By establishing a formal Para Division as a subset of the open field and offering a total purse of $16,500 with $1,500 for victors, the BAA will recognize excellence across all competitive categories.
“What’s going to be special about this race is that there’s no other race doing that,” said Popp, who has competed in both the Invictus and Warrior Games for injured or ill service members. “To put the spotlight on these runners, to show how many people can actually do this type of thing and do it well, is going to be a draw for those who are just getting into the sport or wondering, ‘Can I do that?’ ”
When Runyan, a legally blind runner who competed in two Olympics on the track, made her marathon debut in New York in 2002, there was no provision for vision-impaired runners.
“I didn’t have anyone to identify with,” said Runyan, who was the top American finisher there and subsequently in Boston and Chicago. “I had to pave my own way. We aspire when we can identify with someone like ourselves doing something great.”
Reynolds, who had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 4 after developing a bloodstream infection, is a three-hour marathoner who set an unofficial world record at last month’s New York City Half Marathon.
“Customers tell me, ‘We should run sometime, I’ll slow down for you,’ ” said Reynolds, who manages a New Jersey running store. “I’m like, ‘No, I’ll have to slow down for you.’ Just because I have prosthetics doesn’t mean that I’m a charity case that you have to slow down for.”
The competitive time standards for both male and female runners with lower-limb impairment will be 5 hours and 40 minutes, and 4 hours and 55 minutes for those with upper-limb impairment. Cutoffs for vision-impaired runners will range from 3:40-4:25 for men and 4:10-4:55 for women depending upon age and category.
“I think there are people out there who will surprise us, who have possibly dreamed like I have of winning the Boston Marathon and breaking that tape,” said Adrianne Haslet, a professional dancer who was a spectator when she lost her left leg in the wake of the 2013 explosions and ran the race in 2016. “They just haven’t come forward simply because they knew that there wasn’t a place for them.”
The important thing about the new divisions, observed Haslet, is the validation that comes with them.
“Everyone deserves a chance, and it’s no different for amputees than it is for elites or wheelchair racers,” she said. “To have this be recognized is everything.”