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The Boston Marathon returns in-person this Monday after the pandemic forced a rare virtual event last fall. And while the field has been whittled down by nearly a third to accommodate for coronavirus concerns, a new group will have a shot at a podium finish in the 125th year of the event.
For the first time in any World Marathon Majors, an open Para Athletics Division, separate from wheelchair racers, will allow runners who have a visual, upper, or lower limb impairment to compete for prize money.
The top three men and women (of the 30 total competing) in each category will receive an award and prize money: $1,500 for first place, $750 for second place, and $500 for third place.
Runners must hold a national or World Para Athletics classification of T11-13 visual impairment, T61-64 single or double leg amputations above or below the knee, or T45-46 single or double arm impairment through the elbow.
This is not the first time the Boston Marathon has paved a way for adaptive competitors. In 1977 Boston was host to the first wheelchair division, inspired by Bob Hall’s completion of the 26.2 mile race in 1975.
This year, wheelchair racers will compete for $122,000 in prize money, with $25,000 going to the first male and female finisher. Wheelchair runners are also eligible for a $50,000 record bonus, equal to the bonus offered in the open division.
Liz Willis, a 2016 Paralympian who will toe the line on Monday, hopes that soon other World Marathon Majors will recognize ambulatory para runners and “perhaps the Paralympics will add a marathon to future Paralympic Games, as amputees are not currently included in the event.” The Tokyo Games featured a marathon event for the T54 wheelchair class, the T12 visual impairment class, and the T46 upper limb amputation/deficiency class (men only), but not for runners with a prosthetic leg like Willis. Previously, Willis competed at the Rio Games in the 400 meter, which has since been discontinued for single-limb amputees.
“Transitioning from the sprints has been difficult to say the least but I’m always up for a challenge in attempt to expand the limits of the human body,” she says. Thinking about lining up on Monday, in a moment of history, is a humbling experience for her.
Danielle McLaughlin, a T64 competitor like Willis, also hopes this will be the first marathon of many to recognize ambulatory para athletes on an elite level. A retired world champion paratriathlete and runner, McLaughlin has previously run the New York City Marathon. “I’m truly excited and honored to be a part of the inaugural field for this division at the Boston Marathon,” she says.
Monday’s race will be symbolic for her. “I may be one individual toeing the start line but in my mind, I’m running the race for other para athletes past, present, and future,” says McLaughlin. “I thought of this often during training runs. I believe it is important that para athletes are acknowledged and have representation in distance running.”
Other notable contenders that will join Willis, McLaughlin, and the field of 30: Tayana Passos, the fastest female T13 marathoner in last year’s Boston Marathon Virtual Experience (3:22:27), and Japan’s Misato Michishita who is the current world record holder (2:56:14) in the T12 women’s marathon. She’s coming off of a gold medal win at the Tokyo Paralympics on September 5.
McLaughlin is filled with anticipation for her first Boston Marathon, not just for competition’s sake, but to feel the energy of the crowd and the famed course. “Being a part of this race will help grow and expand our sport,” she says. “It provides an opportunity to showcase our competitive nature, dedicated training, and what we are capable of.”