The Boston 'badge of honor'

Qualifying for the world's oldest annual marathon a never-ending goal for many

Updated: April 10, 2013, 9:06 PM ET
By Duncan Larkin | Competitor.com

Boston MarathonJohn Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesThe rush on Boston won't soon fade, no matter how stringent the race's qualifying standards become.
Every year, big-city marathons around the world come and go. Runners who manage to register in time show up on the starting line, gut through 26.2 miles, get their finishing medals and head home. These events ramp up suddenly and then go away for 10-11 months.

Not the Boston Marathon.

It never seems to go anywhere or fall off any runner's radar. After all, it's the world's oldest annual marathon, dating to its first running in 1897. More importantly, you have to earn your right to even show up to the starting line. And this year, the marathon's governing body, the Boston Athletic Association, made it even more exclusive by tightening qualifying standards by five minutes, 59 seconds across the board.

RELATED: Qualifying standards get tighter

Tom Derderian, who has written several books about the race and was a member of the committee that set the new qualifying standards, thinks Boston should be a test of courage.

"The whole point of it at the beginning was that it was designed to be a foot race," he says. "It was to see who could be the fastest. Back in 1897, it was looked at as a dangerous pursuit. The men who ran it did so at great peril to their lives."

The race has never been for wimps.

This means, nowadays, that runners throughout the world are working nonstop to get there, pounding pavement in the frigid winter or gutting through long runs in the oppressive heat and humidity of summer to train for their cherished "BQ" (Boston Qualifier). Just earning an entry ticket to the race is the mark of a true runner -- someone who has pushed the limits of pain and dedicated hundreds of hours toward achieving a goal.

"Once the qualifying standards were imposed, Boston actually became a bigger draw as serious runners around the country and the world considered it to be their 'holy grail' and the race to shoot for," Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray says. "To run Boston is like competing in the Super Bowl, the Tour de France, or the World Series."

McGillivray says every year he sees 27,000 runners who have worked incredibly hard to get to that famous start that takes place in the sleepy village of Hopkinton, Mass. Every runner has his or her own inspiring story, he says.

Athletes preparing themselves, by giving it their all, just so they can reach the start: That's Boston, and it doesn't get any sweeter than that.

VIDEO: Tom Derderian discusses history of Boston Marathon

For Dawna Garza, the concept of running Boston never even seemed like a remote possibility. She always thought of the race as something reserved for the sport's upper crust -- runners much, much faster at covering those 26.2 miles than she could ever cover them. But after her fifth marathon, a light bulb went on in her head.

"I realized that Boston might be achievable for me," she says. "Upon completion of marathon No. 7, I was frustrated with my results. I sought help from a talented 2:32 marathoner who was kind enough to put a challenging training schedule together for me. I followed that schedule closely and as a result not only did I PR at the half-marathon six weeks prior to the target marathon, but I set a PR at the target marathon and qualified for Boston."

[+] EnlargeBoston Marathon
Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesEvery year there seemingly are two Boston Marathons: the race to win among the elites ... and the quest to qualify for most everyone else.
Garza, 42, who lives in Missouri, is but one of many with stories like this. London-based marathoner Terry Walsh "barely" qualified for the 2012 race, clocking two minutes under the standard for his age. "I was quite surprised that I made it into this year's Boston," he says. "I didn't think I had a chance under the new qualifying rules."

While there are plenty of frustrated runners who didn't make the qualifying times for Monday's race, Walsh, 61, applauds the tightening of standards.

"I want Boston to represent a difficult and demanding goal that requires disciplined training and extreme motivation," he says.

Running marathons since 2002, Walsh contends that no matter where you go as a runner, you will eventually get asked about Boston: "How many times have you run Boston? What were your times? How long did it take to qualify?"

"We always want to know about Boston because it is the best objective standard to compare ourselves to other runners," Walsh says. "Boston has always been and remains the gold standard for all serious marathoners."

Chris Kearns, 45, who leads the runners' group at the New York Athletic Club, also was a just-under-the-wire Boston qualifier. He probably best sums up what it means to book your ticket to Boston.

To him, qualifying is a huge achievement. Yet it seems there's always someone better, whether it's the winner of the race or the guy who has the locker next to you.

"You can't win," he says. "But that same internal fire that leads us to do a marathon in the first place glows brighter when we meet a goal beyond just finishing. Qualifying for Boston has become that universal goal -- it's not just finishing, but finishing above a serious, and seriously hard, standard that's there for all to see."

That's Boston -- a true badge of honor.

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