After Runners Apply Pressure, Boston Marathon Announces Pregnancy Deferral Policy
After a runner’s Instagram post about the Boston Marathon’s lack of a clear policy around pregnancy deferrals, the Boston Athletics Association is finally taking action.
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Today, January 24th, the Boston Athletic Association announced a pregnancy deferral policy, effective immediately, that would allow any athlete who is registered in any BAA event, and becomes pregnant prior to race day to defer into one of the next two subsequent future races. Athletes can request deferral up to two weeks before race day.
“In listening to our participants and stakeholders, the desire from mothers and expecting mothers to participate in our races –particularly the Boston Marathon—while also focusing on building a family was clear,” said Jack Fleming, President and Chief Executive Officer of the B.A.A. in a statement Tuesday. “Women who are entered in a B.A.A. race and want to expand their family will be able to do just that without giving up a chance to participate at a future B.A.A. event.”
A few years ago, Fiona English would never have described herself as someone who would qualify for the Boston Marathon.
English, 34, is a run coach in London, England, who frequently works with athletes striving toward goals that register as just barely attainable. And for her, that goal was a Boston Qualifier (BQ).
A sub-3:30 marathon would qualify her for the event, a standard that only 10% of marathoners achieve. She kept her head down and trained. And trained. For years. In her 17th go at the 26.2-mile distance, she shaved a full 17 minutes off her personal best to BQ. Three minutes under the qualifying time, English was granted entry to the world’s most prestigious marathon, and a dream event for her.
“I’m phenomenally proud of the hard work and dedication that I put in to get here,” says English. “Boston is such a high standard, and I’m so proud of having achieved it.”
She signed up as soon as she could and paid her $235 international entry fee ($205 for U.S. residents). Then, she discovered that she was pregnant with her first child. Her due date was the same day that she’d have to pick up her bib number for Boston.
Therefore, running the Boston Marathon this year would be impossible for English. She had purchased race insurance for an additional $15, on top of the entry fee, so she submitted a request for a refund, under the “major injury” exception (the closest fit at the time). Her request was denied (the insurance company has since apologized, and issued a refund citing a clerical error in their original denial). But even with a refund, English would have to re-qualify, which is no easy feat, especially with the additional challenges associated with parenthood.
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So, English took to Instagram, penning an open letter to the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) urging them to reconsider her appeal (though insurance is handled through a third party). While she did not ask for a deferral she did want her race registration money back, and to raise awareness of something that negatively impacts many athletes.
“I personally haven’t asked for a special treatment deferral so am awaiting the announcement that the BAA has told me is coming for all pregnant and postpartum runners which would allow my qualifier from the Paris Marathon in 2022 to be extended for a further two years.”
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could celebrate the confluence of marathoning and motherhood, rather than upholding barriers established by male-centric systems,” says English. “We should celebrate women, and be delighted that they’re on our start lines.”
While the BAA has reached out and apologized for the insurer’s error in not issuing English a refund, it still reveals major gaps in the organizer’s policy. English says she’s disappointed that it took a viral Instagram post to move things in the right direction, and she wishes that more people in positions of power, like event sponsors Adidas, would apply pressure as well.
“My story has shown that if we as runners tell our stories openly and honestly, we can make change. I’m choosing radical positivity here, but while my story is very specific, I’m not special. I don’t want special treatment. What I want is a clear and consistent policy for all women.”
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Why Pregnancy Deferrals Are Important
Only 42 percent of Boston participants identify as female, compared to an average of 46 percent at other U.S. marathons. The difficulty in qualifying for, and affording to participate in, Boston (one study cited an average cost of $4,000 dollars all-told to run Boston, not including the transatlantic flight English would have to cover) is a barrier to many, and disproportionately shouldered by women, who in addition to bearing the majority of childcare labor, still earn less than male counterparts (a recently study put the gender wage gap at approximately 82 cents per every dollar men earn, though some experts argue this gap has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that haven’t been fully quantified.)
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When English tried to defer her Boston marathon entry, the only tick box on the insurance form that was even close to her circumstances was “Illness and Major Injury.” Categorizing pregnancy as either of those things is problematic for a number of reasons, unfairly lumping a normal, healthy and for many people, joyful human process in with illness or injury equates it as something aberrant or negative. It also makes it impossible to collect data on how many athletes it impacts each year, as all pregnant runners are forced to check a box that’s not reflective of their circumstances.
“That means that no baseline data is being collected,” says English. “I find it really sad that we have no way of knowing how many athletes this is impacting.”
According to a representative for the BAA, “The Boston Marathon does offer a registration insurance policy which covers a variety of scenarios, including pregnancy. This registration insurance provides a full refund of entry fees.”
While this may seem inclusive on the surface, it still unfairly burdens a group of athletes (those capable of getting pregnant) with yet another financial burden through purchasing insurance.
The London Marathon has had its pregnancy deferral policy in place for a year, which allows runners to defer entry for up to three years without having to re-qualify. Until this year’s marathon, the policy required runners in the Championship or Good For Age categories to re-qualify. Now, pregnant athletes can keep their category places when they defer. The Berlin Marathon has instated a similar pregnancy deferral policy for the first time this year. The Chicago Marathon and Tokyo Marathon do not currently have policies in place. In the trail running world, the UTMB organization just announced this year that it will allow deferrals for pregnant athletes.
“Boston has really great examples of being at the forefront of major change for women in marathon running,” says English. “But often, that change has to come about in really aggressive ways from the women involved.” English cites Katherine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb, who went against cultural norms and race regulations to force inclusion, paving the way for women to be accepted at the start line at Boston before even being allowed to run the Olympic Marathon.
“I hope it means New York and Chicago and Tokyo will follow,” says English.
Runners have been advocating for other world marathon majors to implement clear pregnancy and postpartum policies, as many athletes navigate the dual worlds of family planning and race qualification.
English is adamant that she, like other pregnant athletes, has earned their right to be on the start line through qualifying.
“I’ve earned my place,” she said. “I don’t want to take it up this year, but I’ve earned it. I want to re-qualify, and I still hope to, but there are enough pressures on me as a woman who additionally needs to navigate motherhood, and I don’t need the financial pressure of requalifying.” Re-qualifying would entail entering another qualifying marathon, requiring additional travel and childcare costs, not to mention time and expenses accrued during training. Despite this, English is optimistic about changes at Boston and other marathons.
“It would be really easy to focus on the negative, and how women have always had to fight for this,” says English. “But instead, I think this is trailblazing. That’s where women have made a difference. Not just on the start line, not just at races, but in society,” says English. “This is just the start of introducing a pregnancy and postpartum system where I stop being told that I’m injured, that I need to sit in the corner quietly, and where instead, I’m empowered and encouraged.”