Boston Marathon Data Analysis, Part 1

Women, men, young, and old: What can we learn from the data about how to qualify for Boston?

This is my first story in a new series focusing on the Boston Marathon. This is a bit of a departure from my normal themes of design and creativity, but if you look closely those ideas will still probably break through at points. Let’s get to it…

Who gets in and who gets rejected?

Boston is notoriously hard to get into. Participation is capped at 30,000 runners with more than 20% reserved for special invitations and charity programs. That leaves about 23,000 spots up for grabs for anyone who can meet the qualification standards. If you know anyone who has tried to earn their “BQ” you can know how much work goes into achieving a qualifying time. The chart below shows the times needed to qualify for Boston from 2013–2019.

Nearly 1 in 4 athletes who qualify for Boston were rejected in 2019

Cutoff Times:

2014: You needed to beat your qualifying time by 1 minute, 38 seconds
2,976 people turned away

New Standards in 2020

In response to the increasing number of people applying for the race and to reduce the number of disappointed qualifiers, the B.A.A. adjusted their standards for 2020. The field size remains at 30,000 but the times needed to qualify has increased by 5 minutes for all age groups. Below is a chart showing the new qualifying standards.

Source: https://www.baa.org/races/boston-marathon/enter/qualify

What do the new standards mean for runners?

Although an increase of 5:00 might seem disheartening to runners hoping to qualify, if you were already aiming to beat your qualifying time by 5 minutes, this probably won’t change your training or goals. Remember, just because the standards have changed doesn’t mean there will be thousands of runners who are running faster. It is likely that the biggest impact of the standards change is just a reduction in the number of rejection letters that get sent out.

Here is the breakdown of how people got in to the Boston Marathon in 2019:

  • 18% (5,256) beat the qualifying time by 20 minutes or more
  • 29% (8,620) beat the qualifying time by 10–20 minutes
  • 29% (8,545) beat the qualifying time by 5–10 minutes
  • 1% (220) beat the qualifying time by less than 5 minutes
  • 22% (6,656) were invited by special invitation or through charities
  • 1% (433) have run 10 or more consecutive Boston Marathons
  • 1% (270) athletes were accepted with disabilities

Age and Gender

In a perfect world the distribution of runners would be spread equally across all ages and genders. But the world is a messy place and the B.A.A. does a commendable job of balancing the fairness of qualifying times with a mostly even distribution of runners across ages and gender. Over the last four years the race has consistently been 45% female and 55% male.

The field is consistently 45% female and 55% male
The age distribution is remarkable consistent from year to year

About Me

Thanks for reading. My name is Adrian Hanft. I am a runner from Colorado with a passion for data, design, and storytelling. You can follow my runs on Strava and my writing here on Medium. If you enjoyed this analysis, please click the clap icon or share it with friends. Stay creative.

Author of User Zero: Inside the Tool that is Reshaping Dystopia