The Boston Marathon is the world’s most respected and prestigious Marathon. It is viewed as the Mecca of Marathons, and the Super Bowl of distance running. In 2017, the Boston Marathon was also a place of uncertainty for many runners in the greater urban running community. The most pressing concern being: How the Boston Marathon will balance maintaining high levels of engagement/visibility, while still respecting the integrity and authenticity of the race’s rich history.
What exactly makes the Boston Marathon such a vital part of the greater running community, and sports culture as a whole? The answer is complex and simultaneously changing. It all begins with the rich history of the city of Boston and Patriots Day. Patriots' Day marks the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolutionary War, and is a state holiday in Massachusetts, Maine and Wisconsin. The history that underlies the holiday marks a point of pride for many in the Boston area. The city, and the greater Boston area is given the entire day off. Kids are off from school, and even the Red Sox game is moved to 11am to help acknowledge the day. On top of all of this, the entire greater Boston community gathers in the streets to cheer on the thousands of runners competing in the Marathon.
No other city in the world shuts down on the day of a race to embrace marathoners. New Yorkers, outside of the ones running and cheering during the marathon, generally despise how their commutes are altered because of the NYC Marathon. The same goes for the other major Marathons like Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo. They’re all great experiences, but they all fall short when compared to Boston. Another major reason why the Boston Marathon is such a huge event within the greater running community is because you have to qualify in order to compete in Boston. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon for a runner is like winning a Gold Medal. It’s the ultimate accomplishment in the running community. Qualifying for Boston is extremely difficult, and requires a ton of discipline, perseverance, and focus that most people are unwilling to devote themselves to.
The greater culture of the sport of running is arguably the most accessible. You don’t need an advanced skillset, or even equipment to be a runner. Literally, all you need is to be able to place one foot in front of the other and you can be considered a runner. Because of this inherent openness within running, a race like the Boston Marathon essentially draw a distinction between the Elites, Sub-Elites and the person who just downloaded the NIKE Running App and logged their first 12 minute mile. Not merely for the competitive components, but also in regards to cultivating a space that is conducive to self-development, and recognizing those who have dedicated their time to training and performance for the sake of furthering the culture of running.
Similar to how the standards of the Presidency of The United States were inherently diluted when a reality T.V. personality was elected as the 45th President of The United States. Many runners felt uneasy about the participation of so many non-qualifiers in the 2017 Boston Marathon, and questioned the races legitimacy. A number of runners argued that there is something intangible, and profound, to be gained in training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Something special that is potentially life changing and satisfying in a mystical way. Something that no one can ever question or take away from you once you run Boston. For all the talk of community, inspiration, and making the world a better place through running, many runners felt a disconnect between that ideal, and reality within the greater running community. “There are leaders within the greater running community who are opting for the growth of their brand, at the expense of tarnishing their brand” says one runner. “Furthermore, there’s a greater audience who looks to these figures as leaders within the urban running community, and see them running the prestigious Boston Marathon, and think they qualified. There’s just something dishonest about that”, one runner said.
There are others who would suggest that it is very possible for someone who did not qualify for the Boston Marathon, to run the race and go on to inspire others enroute to finishing the race. Their argument is that everyone runs for different reasons, and those reasons deserve a seat at the table within the greater running community, and at the Boston Marathon. Jessie Zapotechne is a great example of someone who is inspiring others through running, while remaining transparent regarding her Boston Marathon participation. Jessie has run Boston twice as an official Adidas ambassador. She’s well respected in the running community and seen as the most influential woman in the greater urban running community. Although initially hesitant to run the race without qualifying, she shortly realized that she wasn’t the only person to run without qualifying. Heat four in The Boston Marathon is specifically for non-qualifying runners. These participants acquire their bibs via fundraising, brand sponsorships, work etc. “I was nervous my first time running Boston as a non-qualifier. I wanted to really honor and respect the hard work that my friends and community have done to be there. I have witnessed the hard work and dedication that friends have put in trying to qualify, and I didn't want to feel that I was not respecting their efforts and abilities. My reason for running Boston, and running in general is to advance the visibility of women in the sport of running on the biggest platform possible. I was really honored to be able to connect my journey to those of Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer and to talk about their historical importance in women's participation in that race."
It’s interesting to see both sides of the argument. There are influential leaders, runners and running coaches within the greater running community that are divided on this topic. I do agree that both non-qualifiers and qualifiers deserve an opportunity to race the prestigious course. Personally, I just wish the non-qualifiers were as brave and transparent about their Boston Marathon participation as Jessie Zapotechne is. She runs her race and is transparent about her love and reasons for running at all times. Not everyone is as as strong as Jessie. These days, a number influencers use running, and the Boston Marathon, as a cheap opportunity to further their brand via social media. Some of them going as far to lie and be dishonest about their bib acquisition. Perhaps the organizers of the race should draw some type of distinction between non-qualifiers and qualifiers, that went further than starting corrals and heats? Time will tell. I just can’t wait until I qualify. It’s going to be the most authentic expression of joy anyone has ever seen, because I will have earned my way bib.. What do you think? Feel free to comment below.
MAN WHAT A TIME!