Should Boston make it tougher for women to qualify?

Posted by Dave on October 1, 2015 | 1 Comment

The Boston Athletic Association just announced the list of people who were accepted as registrants in the 2016 Boston Marathon by virtue of their qualifying times. This year, as in the previous two, not everyone who made a qualifying time has been accepted into the race. You had to beat your official qualifying time by 2:28 this year in order to even make it into the field. Thousands of runners who thought they had a chance were denied.

This has added intensity to a debate that’s been raging for years: Many runners claim the standards are too easy for women, giving women an unfair advantage. For 45-year-old man who ran a 3:23 — 2 minutes faster than his 3:25 qualifying time — and didn’t get in, it might seem wrong that 45-year-old women needed only a 3:52:32 to make the cut.

But just because it “feels” wrong doesn’t mean it’s really unfair. There are many physiological reasons why the fastest women probably won’t ever run marathons as fast as the fastest men their age. One example is their naturally higher body fat levels, which don’t improve performance in marathons but do add to the amount of weight women must convey for 26.2 miles. A fit 150-pound man carries about 12 pounds less fat than an equally-fit woman the same size.

That said, the official Boston Qualifying (BQ) times are a full 30 minutes slower for women than men in every age group. Could this rather arbitrary-sounding number truly reflect the physiological differences between men and women? Does it make sense to keep that same difference in qualifying standards, for every age group?

One way to answer this question is by looking at age-grading. Age-grading attempts to form a consistent standard for every age runner by comparing their performance to the world record for their age. You can enter your age, gender, and time for any race in a calculator and it will give you an “age grade,” which is really just your speed for that distance as a percentage of the world-record speed for your age.

I downloaded the tables that were the basis for this table and used them to graph the age grades (AGs) for each BQ time. Here are the results:


This graph gives the age grade for every BQ time. As you can see, up to age 50, men score higher (meaning this is a more difficult time for them to achieve), but after age 50, women score much higher than men. At the very least, this means we are definitely right to question the 30-minute difference in BQ times for men and women for each and every age group. In general, young men and older women have the toughest BQ times, while older men (at least those under 80) and younger women have it relatively easy (assuming the age-grading model is sound).

So what could we do to improve the system? Let’s turn this graph around and look at what the BQ times would be for a given age grade (AG):



The thicker lines plot the current BQ times against age. The light-colored thin lines (green for women, blue for men) plot what the times would be if we kept the AG at a constant 0.62 for men and women. As you can see, this would make it easier for everyone. It’s just slightly easier than the BQ times for women age 40-45 and men age 70 and much easier for everyone else. Older women would benefit most of all. This makes sense since the current system is hardest for them. Unfortunately, this would create another problem: There would be even more qualifiers than before, and the BAA would have to set another arbitrary cutoff to limit the number of runners to the available spots.

The dark-colored thin lines correspond to an AG of 0.65 for men and women. This would make it easier for men under 30, much easier for women over 60, and harder for just about everyone else to qualify. That might be just about the right solution for the BAA to adopt. Based on these results the BAA qualifying table would look about like this:



Of course the BAA might want to tweak this to get round numbers, but something like this would probably more representative of actual ability than the current system, which seems to favor younger women and older men. This all assumes that the current age-grading system is accurate. I’m not so sure it is. It’s all based on the current world-record times for each age group, and that assumes that every age group is working equally hard to break world records. It’s also important to note that in this model, the women’s age groups that would be affected the most (between 35 and 49), the change isn’t quite as dramatic as it appears (the BQs are reduced by 7 to 8 minutes) because presumably nearly everyone who qualifies would get in to the race — there would be no 2:28 cutoff because there would be fewer qualifiers.

If I had to guess (and it would just be guessing at this point), the reason AG times increase so dramatically for women over 60 is because women that age weren’t allowed to compete in distance races when they were younger, so you don’t see as many competitive older women. The first women’s Olympic marathon was in 1984, and the winner, Joan Benoit, is now just 58. Expect to see some of the records for 60-and-older women to improve dramatically in the coming decades. Then we may have to revisit BQ times yet again (which isn’t a bad idea to do in any case).


One Response to “Should Boston make it tougher for women to qualify?”

  1. Glen Carpenter
    October 4th, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    I was curious what the qualifying time would be if there were no gender or age grading and what the distribution of ages and gender of the qualifiers would be.