Can you imagine running Heartbreak Hill while seven, eight, or nine months pregnant? I can’t.
But if women register for the Boston Marathon in September and become pregnant shortly thereafter, they face a tough choice: Race for two or miss what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Boston Athletic Association doesn’t grant refunds or deferments “for any reason,” including pregnancy.
That policy should change. The BAA should offer pregnancy deferments. And as soon as possible, preferably in time for the 2017 Marathon.
With pregnancy deferments, the BAA has an opportunity to make a statement that recognizes and reflects the impressive growth of women’s participation in marathons. Women in their childbearing years always represent the largest percentage of female runners in the Boston Marathon. In Monday’s race, 64 percent of all female runners will be 18 to 44 years old. And in the future, they shouldn’t feel forced to labor along 26.2 miles or lose out.
From talking with BAA executive director Tom Grilk, it seems marathon organizers might be coming around to that way of thinking. After the 2016 Marathon wraps up, Grilk plans a reexamination of the race’s deferment policy, spurred by his “personal” interest in looking closer at how pregnancy deferments might work.
“There’s nothing about the idea of a pregnancy deferment that, as a matter of doctrine, seems wrong,” said Grilk. “It’s more a matter of managing it. It’s an issue that has simply grown as women’s participation has grown. Something that was once a modest issue now becomes a bigger issue . . . But in considering pregnancy, one can’t do it without considering the whole landscape.”
The Marathon’s lack of pregnancy deferments recently gained wider attention because admitted bib swapper Gia Alvarez couldn’t run in 2015 while carrying her third child. Nothing excuses her cheating, but her case does bring attention to the pressures that expectant marathoners face. Grilk called Alvarez the “most publicly discussed” example of the pregnant marathoner dilemma.
But Alvarez is far from alone. With some regularity, I hear from extremely disappointed women who cannot compete in Boston because they become pregnant after gaining entry as a qualifier. Not everyone can or should be Amber Miller, the woman who ran the 2011 Chicago Marathon while nearly 39 weeks pregnant then delivered her baby a few hours after she finished.
That said, I understand the dilemma Grilk and the BAA face with deferments. Call it the “whole landscape” factor. How can the BAA offer deferments to pregnant women but deny a deferment to a qualifier severely injured in a car accident three months before race day? What is fair when it comes to determining who deserves a deferment and who doesn’t?
There are no easy answers, but Boston abounds with experts who could provide ethical guidance, medical perspectives, and analytics. The complexity of the issue and potential headaches from runners’ complaints shouldn’t be a reason to ignore it. An added bonus of a policy change: Allowing deferments for some reasons might alleviate some of the headaches caused by bib swapping.
The BAA can also look to the policies of other major US marathons.
If runners received a place in the 2016 Chicago Marathon through the race’s entry drawing, they can defer to 2017. But a deferment comes at a cost because the Chicago Marathon doesn’t offer refunds of the 2016 registration fee and requires runners to pay the full 2017 registration fee to claim their new entry. The New York City Marathon doesn’t let runners defer their entry and fees. But the race has a cancellation policy in place that gives runners, as its website spells out, “the possibility of guaranteed entry to the following year’s race.”
Both Chicago and New York don’t let entrants repeatedly postpone running. It’s a one-year deal in both cases.
So, where does this leave Boston? Clearly, for pregnant women and other runners, there are better options out there than Boston’s current, rigid policy of no deferments “for any reason.”
Grilk plans to put a reexamination of Boston’s deferment policy on the upcoming agenda for the BAA’s management work group — a seven-person committee that includes the executive director. The work group will study and discuss the issue from all angles, then potentially come up with a proposal. If it gets that far, the group, Grilk said, will “present a well-vetted view” to the BAA’s Board of Governors.
Finally, if the Board decides to vote on the issue, a majority is required for approval. The Board meets monthly, so there seems ample time to get approval for the 2017 Marathon.
“Things change,” said Grilk. “Every year we’re looking at something. It seems like a pretty good time to look at this one.”
Yes, 50 years after Roberta Gibb became the first woman to run the entire Boston course, it seems like a good time to consider another way the race can be fair to women. Especially since one female runner has become thousands.Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.