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Opinion: A Boston Marathon for All Benefits the Running Community

A virtual Boston Marathon in 2021 is a celebration of the sport and a chance to welcome more runners into the fold.

On Tuesday, officials at the Boston Athletic Association announced that 70,000 people would have the opportunity to register for a virtual edition of the race this year—no qualifying times required. Sign up, finish 26.2 miles, and earn a medal.

They’re still planning for some sort of in-person marathon on October 11, but it won’t include a full field of 30,000 runners. We don’t know yet how many participants will get to run from Hopkinton to Copley Square, and many will experience some understandable disappointment (again) when they don’t receive an invitation.

Any time the Boston Marathon announces a change or deviates from what we consider standard operating procedure, it receives some pushback from the running community. This time is no different. Those who’ve worked hard and long to earn their spots on that prestigious starting line—by running a qualifying time or raising thousands of dollars for charity (or both)—have dreamed of becoming part of the tradition. Let’s hope they get their chance, either this year or next.

But on the 125th anniversary of the race, I endorse welcoming more runners to participate virtually. It’s the perfect time to remove the barriers of time standards and travel, creating a shared experience around the world—a connection to one of the most revered races in the sport. It benefits everybody, and here’s why:

Revenue for the B.A.A.

I don’t begrudge anybody in the running and event industries trying to make money after more than a year of cancelations. We don’t know yet how much registration for the virtual race will cost, but if it helps sustain the organization and the careers of people who work in race management and operations, I am for it. I’ve signed up for more (unfinished) virtual races and challenges this year than I had planned because I want to see the events and the talented people who produce them stay in the sport when this is over. I don’t pretend to know the financial standing of the B.A.A., but I can imagine, like most organizations, it took a hit in 2020.

Inclusiveness.

Some of the grumbling following the announcement this week came from runners who want the Boston Marathon to remain exclusive for those who qualify. I know the feeling of training to get that BQ and how fulfilling it is to actually run the race. Nothing compares to it for recreational runners—it’s a special experience. But I don’t think Desiree Linden felt like her win in 2018 was diminished because 30,000 other people were also granted a chance to race that day. Similarly, nobody who ran in front of me or behind me in Boston took away from my experience, either.

I’ve gained a lot of new perspective in the past year about how so many people feel excluded from the running community. We have to think of new ways to reach out. A lot of runners will never get the opportunity to race in Boston—and not because they don’t have the talent. It costs a significant amount of money to make the Boston Marathon dream come true. Aside from the investment in qualifying, race weekend can run thousands of dollars in travel, accommodations, and food, as well as time off of work. It’s simply not an option for many people. A virtual race isn’t the same, but it does offer another avenue to get involved.

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Back to the race’s roots.

The Boston Marathon didn’t even require qualifying times until 1970 (73 years after the first race)—and it was simply a means to ease congestion on the course. It had grown from 197 entrants in 1960 to 1,342 in 1969, during the first significant “running boom” in the U.S. And although officially race “bandits” (those who didn’t qualify or pay for race entry) were never allowed, officials generally turned their heads the other way when the people lined up in the back of the field to run to Boylston Street. It was all part of the tradition for many years, until security measures, of course, couldn’t allow for it anymore. After the bombings in 2013, the no-bandit policy became strictly enforced.

The Boston Marathon has also increased its field size on special occasions. During the 100th anniversary race in 1996, for example, it opened registration to almost 39,000 runners—it was the largest number of finishers ever at a marathon at the time.

Growing the community.

A lot of people discovered walking and running during the pandemic. How we capture the new (or renewed) interest is important. I’m sure we’ll see people who took their first running steps in March 2020 share their progress toward finishing the virtual Boston Marathon in October 2021. We’ll see running clubs and crews rally around their newest members to help them train. I can’t imagine a better race to connect 70,000 people working toward the same goal while sharing their individual stories in their communities. And we know one runner’s success sparks inspiration for another to consider the possibilities.

If there ever was a time to put our elitism and cynicism aside, it’s now. Let’s welcome each other in, cheer each other on, and seize the opportunity to bring back running bigger, better, and more inclusive than it was before.