Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Are The Boston Qualifying Standards Too Easy for Women?

I'd planned to sign up for Boston this year, but didn't see any hurry to do it. The day after registration opened (October 18, 2010), one of my non-runner friends asked me if I were one of the few who had gotten in. I'd completely missed that it had sold out in hours.

Which prompted some interesting discussions with other runners in the following weeks. Boston really shouldn't sell out in hours--on that we all agreed. But, how do you make a correction so that Boston re-emerges as the "People's Olympics" type of event that it once was? While I have some ideas for that (fodder for future posts), the most common theme I heard from other runners was the standards were too easy for women.

It's hard to conclude anything other than, well, I really didn't deserve to qualify because I didn't work that hard for it.
Come to find out, this is a fairly widely held belief: "But there's another possible reason for the surging demand—one that has the potential to kick up a fair amount of controversy. It's the notion that the qualifying standards for women are too soft…. Some running experts say that one way to reduce excess demand for Boston slots would be to stop treating women like the gentler sex." (WSJ, It's Time for Women to Run Faster: Boston's Crowded Marathon Prompts a Gender War; Why Females Get an Extra 30 Minutes)

I'd like to debunk the myth that Boston's qualifying standards are disproportionately too easy on women, and that lowering the women's standards on their own won't solve the Boston entry problem.

More men than women qualify for and run Boston.

In Boston 2010 (the year I ran it), forty-two percent of the finishers were women.

In 2009, the total number of finishers of U.S. marathons and other road races were just about evenly split, men versus women.

If you assume that the same percentage of those who qualified actually run and complete the race, you can draw the simple conclusion, that about twenty percent more men than women qualified for Boston in 2010. Based on the national average of marathon completers versus Boston qualifiers, it actually appears that women may have it harder--even with the 30 minutes of additional time to qualify.

Yes, a 50-54 man has to run 5 minutes faster than an under-39 woman to qualify, but the average winning time of the 50-54M age group is 7:21 faster than the average winning time of the under-39F age group.

Too many women qualifying for Boston simply isn't the problem. Reading through some angry online forums that mostly bash on t
he "easy standards for women," I think IsleRoyaleRunner said it best: "The reason why it's [Boston 2011] anticipated to sell out in a matter of days has little to do with lowering the standard for women. There aren't 10,000 women running between 3:35 and 3:40. All the standards need to be lowered significantly if you want the race to be open past the 1st of the year."

Study after study has shown that the Marathon distance performance gap between men and women is between 11 to 12 percent:

"This is a fascinating result. Women actually do better, relatively speaking, in the shorter events, and the marathon is one of their worst distances compared to men." (Men vs. Women in Sports)

In their examination of performance in sports, women versus men, Astrand and Rodahl state "…In the marathon, women are 12% slower." They elaborate, "The women's running economy was poorer; that is, their oxygen uptake during running at a standard submaximal speed was higher. The heart rate, respiratory exchange ratio, and blood lactate concentration also confirmed that a given running speed resulting in higher physiological strain for the women." (Textbook of work physiology: physiological bases of exercise by Per-Olof Astrand, Kare Rodahl)

Due to key differences between men and women, women are at a distinct disadvantage for running the marathon:

"The marathon is simply not long enough to nullify the physiological advantages that men have in testosterone level, maximal oxygen consumption, and hemoglobin level. Given that over 99% of the energy used in the marathon is produced aerobically, women’s lower hemoglobin level (which mean women can transport less oxygen per unit of blood) is a distinct disadvantage." (Will Women Marathoners Catch the Men? Pfitzinger Lab Reports)

Women's blood carries 11% less oxygen for the same blood volume.

"It's obvious that males frequently achieve better performance times than similarly trained females. Part of the reason for this is that males routinely engage in a perfectly legal, natural form of 'blood doping.' The key male sex hormone - testosterone - promotes the production of haemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein found inside red blood cells, and testosterone also increases the concentration of red cells in the blood. The key female hormone - oestrogen - has no such effect. As a result, each litre of male blood contains about 150-160 grams of haemoglobin, compared to only 130-140 grams for females. The bottom line is that each 'male' litre of blood can carry about 11 per cent more oxygen than a similar quantity of female blood.

"Note how closely this 'oxygen gap' parallels the performance gap observed by Seiler and Sailer, who found a male-female performance difference of exactly 11 per cent in the 1980s - and 12 per cent today. Is this just a coincidence, or does the 11-per cent enhancement of blood oxygen in males produce the 11-per cent improvement in running speeds? Since oxygen is needed to furnish most of the energy required for endurance exercise, some scientists have suspected that the 11-per cent oxygen difference is the key factor behind male-female performance variation.

Exercise scientists Stephen Seiler and writer Steven Sailer mention in the May-June edition of the internet publication Sportscience News "two other key female 'deficiencies' - less muscle mass and smaller hearts than men, even after correction for smaller body size." (The Gender Gap 1: Women are getting slower; men are getting faster?)

Conclusion: The qualifying standard differences between men and women are probably about right.
"Running USA, a research center based in Colorado, has collected raw data from nearly 500 marathons across the country that show a median gender difference of about 28 minutes in finishing times."

Personally, I'd vote for lowering the standards across the board--for everyone. Allowing fewer women clearly doesn't solve the problem.

Note: I have added the distribution of male / female finishers for Boston 2010 in the image immediately to the left, for purposes of discussion. If anyone has the full data records of all 22K+ Finishers they'd be willing to share, please DM me in twitter.


  1. First, Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

    Ah, numbers, numbers, lets crunch some numbers! Let’s crunch them a little differently. 58% male qualifiers minus 42% female is a 16% difference. Rounding up to 20% introduces a 20% error. The 50-50 split in marathon finishers is irrelevant to Boston. If you look at the back of the pack, let’s say >5:30, you will find about 70% females. This skews the numbers. Nothing wrong with being in that group, but you really can’t count them in potential BQ candidates.

    A 50-54M has to run 10 minutes faster than a 35-39F. Did you mean <34F? What is the average winning time of ALL females under 34, not just the age group immediately under?

    What are Kevin Drum’s credentials? His numbers are way old at best, and his conclusions are faulty. He has the difference between male and female marathon records as 14:16. For a while, the difference was right at 10 minutes, it is now 11:26. That’s a significant change from his numbers. There is much more data that shows that males have a greater advantage at shorter distance with more testosterone and larger muscles, and as the distance increases, estrogen assists with fat burning and females actually gain the advantage in uber-ultras. In marathons, males obviously still have the advantage but it does narrow.

    If we overlook all of the above and accept “Marathon distance performance gap between men and women is between 11 to 12 percent,” let’s call that 11.5 percent and apply that to the current standards.
    Age M M+11.5% F Diff
    18-34 3:10:59 3:32:57 3:40:59 0:08:02
    35-39 3:15:59 3:38:31 3:45:59 0:07:28
    40-44 3:20:59 3:44:06 3:50:59 0:06:53
    45-49 3:30:59 3:55:15 4:00:59 0:05:44
    50-54 3:35:59 4:00:49 4:05:59 0:05:10
    55-59 3:45:59 4:11:58 4:15:59 0:04:01
    60-64 4:00:59 4:28:42 4:30:59 0:02:17
    65-69 4:15:59 4:45:25 4:45:59 0:00:34
    70-74 4:30:59 5:02:09 5:00:59 -:01:10
    75-79 4:45:59 5:18:52 5:15:59 -:02:53
    80+ 5:00:59 5:35:36 5:30:59 -:04:37

    An 18-34M needs 3:10:59 to qualify. 11.5% slower than that would be 3:32:57, a 21:58 difference. If we are just looking at performance by those standards, 30 minutes is too much. You cannot say that an extra 8:02 is not substantial, it simply IS currently easier for females. The gap does widen as you move down the age groups, but you get all the way to 65 yrs old before it becomes a 30 minute difference.

    All of that said, is BAA simply shooting for equal effort/performance, or do they apply different standards to different gender/age groups to try to have a more even field? Similar to the gender gaps it can be argued that it gets easier as you age up, so I suspect there is a larger group of fast 18-34M so they make it harder for them and fewer 60-64F runners so they have to modify the standards to have very many in the field.

    With the number of runners being at an all-time high, and the number of spots at Boston remaining constant, this was bound to happen at some point. Next year will be even worse if they don’t do something because everyone who qualified at New York (and other late fall marathons) who would have normally registered for ’11 will now be vying for ’12 spots.

    There are really only 3 possibilities, or any combination thereof:

    1. Make some or all gender/age groups more elite than current standards. I don’t know about an even decrease across the board. It seems to be asking much more, for instance, to take a 3:10 down to 3:00 than it does to take 4:30 down to 4:20. It would be interesting to see how an even decrease would skew the field.

    2. Find a way to increase the field size of qualified runners. This could be by decreasing the number of un-qualified runners (doubtful,) simply making it more crowded (also doubtful,) or adding a wave. Adding waves could be accomplished with little impact to street closures if they crack down on bandits.

    3. Some qualified runners stay home.

  2. Sorry about the formatting of the table. Blogger's comments wouldn't allow for spacing. The columns are Age Group, Current Male Standard, Male Standard + 11.5%, Current Female Standard and Difference between the 11.5% and current Female.

  3. Rick,

    I think you missed the point--making qualifying for Boston harder on the women doesn't solve the Boston problem of "selling out" in hours.

    I'd love to get the detailed data on Boston, and spent most of yesterday looking for it (electronic records for all 22K+ finishers). And actually, I do hope I find it, as I'd like to look at the distribution for all age groups, male and female. In fact, in a future post, I'd very much like to present a study of the data and make more specific recommendations. It's quite possible that it should be a hair smaller at the younger age groups--and slightly bigger at the older ones. But those conclusions cannot be drawn without further study.

    With a broad brush (which is what I'm after here), the numbers speak pretty clearly. With the current standards you have today, you still allow into Boston fewer females than males. Period. Too many women; and women having it "too easy" isn't the problem. Making the difference between the men and the women less than thirty minutes does nothing except let even fewer women into the Boston Marathon.

    At the "back of the pack" greater than 5:30 pace you mention for Boston 2010 completers (I've added a distribution to the bottom of the post, see above), you have probably around 1,000 to 1,100 runners altogether (fairly evenly split, male vs. female). I doubt they are all qualifiers. I would expect some charity runners in that mix. Making it harder on the women who have a 5:30 pace (which, by the way, is only the qualifying time for 80 and over females) still doesn't solve the Boston problem.

    And as far as Kevin Drum finding the difference of around 11 percent at the marathon, his findings are independently mirrored by several others I quoted herein, with the range of 11 to 12 percent at the marathon. So if you don't like his data, look at others who conclude the same thing. I stand by my conclusion that making it disproportionately harder on female qualifying times does NOT solve the Boston problem. Boston did not sell out in hours this year because it's too easy for women to qualify. Everyone's times need to drop.

    Rather than adding waves or increasing the field, I'd like to see Boston raised to a higher standard--for everyone. But, that is a topic for the future.


  4. I completely agree with your point that solely changing the women’s times would not solve the problem. I have not heard anyone who has made that assertation, and would view them as foolish. I disagree with “I'd like to debunk the myth that Boston's qualifying standards are disproportionately too easy on women.” Going by the 11 to 12 percent difference which you presented, the physiological difference for everyone under 65 is less than the 30 minutes provided. If we’re merely going for equal distribution, the physiological reasons why women are slower really don’t matter and the 11 to 12 percent presented is irrelevant.

    My guesstimate at 70% female in back of the pack was meant to mean in all marathons without qualification standards, not Boston. This percentage is merely a guess, but when I’ve been back there pacing with my father and my wife, and spectating friends, I was surrounded by females and that was about the mix. I also looked at the results of several marathons listed at . My assertation is that with a 50-50 mix of males and females as finishers, and with the back of the pack being predominately female, that must mean faster than 5:30 would shift to greater than 50% male. If you go for equal distribution at Boston, that would be disproportionately too many females.

    I will disagree with one more line of your post: “It's hard to conclude anything other than, well, I really didn't deserve to qualify because I didn't work that hard for it.” I conclude very differently. You crushed the time that you needed to qualify, by enough that you crushed any time that they could realistically modify the 40-44F standard to. If they made it faster than 3:38, they would have very few 40-44F’s running it.

  5. I like this post and discussion. First off, there is nothing scientific about the boston qualifying times. They're quite arbitrary.

    Long ago, I compared the qualifying times to their AG% equivalent. If you trust the AG% tables (I do), the younger runners of both genders did have an more of an advantage. As both genders got older, their required AG% became higher.

    However, females did have it easier with 62.16% required for the youngest group compared to 65.75% for males.

    However, as the age groups get older. The required AG% for females become higher at a faster rate than the males. 65.9% for a 69 year old male vs 75.56% for a female of the same age.

    One could argue, masters women have it tougher starting at age 54 when looking at it from this perspective.

    To truly make it fair, all age groups and genders should qualify according to an AG%. It would have to be more than 65% for there to be a difference. Some groups will become easier while others would become harder.

  6. After my last comment I looked at the participant statistics at One thing that quickly jumped out at me is that in the 18-39 age group, the largest age group comprising of 43% of the field, there are actually more females than males. There are more males than females in the rest of the group, with the gap widening as age increases. This data goes completely hand-in-hand with law-of-inertia’s post. I wonder, is there a physiological reason why the women’s numbers drop off more quickly than the men, or is it because there are simply fewer >50F running? If the latter, those numbers should fill in over the next 10 to 20 years as today’s 40F age group ages up.

    I like the AG% idea, or at least adjusting different age groups differently if they are looking for certain quotas. I’ve heard it argued to simply adjust everyone’s qualifying standards by 10 minutes across the board. That is asking for a 5.26% improvement for a 35M, while a 55F is asked for a 3.92% improvement. To keep the current ratios, they would need to make very small changes to younger males and older females, and larger changes to younger females and older males. This also goes along with 30 minutes being too much of a gender allowance for the younger groups, and perhaps more than 30 minutes needed in the older age groups. Alex mentions this as a possibility in her comment above… are we all heading toward the same thing?

    The other thing that I notice in the participant stats is that 13.5% of all entrants do not even make it to the start line. Are they overselling with this in mind, or could some of the pressure be alleviated through bib transfer or cancel/resell?

  7. Joe, I love the idea of AG%. I totally agree: the set number is "arbitrary." The thing that I wanted to explore the most with this research was (after hearing from several other runners): Is it really too easy for females and too hard on the males to qualify? I've heard the ".... but you only have to run a 3:50 to qualify.. and I have to run a [name your male qualifying time], so it's really not fair" just a few too many times.

    I've also heard that this is the basis of Boston selling out--too many women with too easy qualifying times. If we moved to AG% to adjust the standards across the board, the problem would not only be solved, but appropriate balance could be achieved. --Alex

  8. Rick,

    In this post I sought out to determine if women really did have an undue advantage when qualifying for Boston, as I have heard from several others.

    I looked at your link, and as you stated, only in the 19-39 age group did ladies outnumber the men, BUT not by much: 4651 men, 4951 women. If the goal is to make it "near" even, this group actually has it the closest to 50/50. If you did make it even, you are only looking to shut out 300 females (1.3% of finishers). That is probably not going to solve the Boston problem, and the numbers are not egregiously out of line.

    What was most startling to me to discover is the colossal drop off for ladies at 40 and over, where men dramatically lead the ladies in numbers.

    I would still conclude that the 30 minute difference (while not perfect), is actually not too bad. Only in one group do we have 300 extra ladies. At a minimum, it is NOT the cause of the Boston problem.

    I am all for the AG%, which offers correction in a proportional way. --Alex

  9. I wondered where I would fall out with my "best" marathon (and first Boston Qualifier, Chicago 2010, 3:38:22). I found an age grading calculator here:,7977,s6-238-277-415-0-0-0-0,00.html

    My age graded score was: 67.17% with an age graded time of: 3:21:36. At least if we kept the cut-off to 65% I'd make it, but I would not make it at 70% :) without a lot more work! And, probably giving up my day job.

  10. Whoops.. that should have read "Chicago 2009"

  11. Alex,

    You meant Herb.

    I would agree with use of age-grading, although it too is an imperfect measure. But perhaps less imperfect than most. It also does the qualifying on a year-to-year basis. I can tell you that 54 is a lot tougher than being 50.

    I find the data interesting, addressing as it does the man vs. woman issue. In the end, it is arbitrary. It's not some absolute, but a method of allocating limited space. I know some women who are within haling distance of BQs, and I forwarded your link. They both said that if it's changed, they have no problems. If they don't make the new standard, that's fine. If they are forced to run faster to do so, that's fine too.


  12. Joe, Herb, So sorry on the name screwup. Would it help if I mentioned I spent yesterday evening in the er :)? I think, Joe, I expected to hear from you first, so my somewhat drugged mind just made it so. Ok, no more blog commenting for me while taking serious rx drugs! Herb, major apologies! I thought about deleting my comment and posting a correction... But that would make the comment flow wrong :) --Alex ( ... I think...)

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Hmmm, interesting post. I suspect that this is a problem for all sports as soon as they become popular. I myself am a triathlete, and can tell you that many Ironman races sell out in seconds. The reason? there are more ironman triathletes these days than even just 10 years ago.

    I suspect that the same is happening with Boston. These days there are more people doing marathons, therefore more people qualifying. As such the only way I can see to alleviate this would be to raise the standards for ALL.

  15. Javier, Thanks for stopping by! I'm not surprised about the growth in popularity of Ironman races. I've been interested in trying to do one myself. It sounds like a huge achievement to have completed one, and my hat is off to triathletes. I am especially impressed by the endurance it takes to complete an ironman that will no doubt start at daybreak, and most likely end at dark for all but the fastest.

    I tend to agree with you. Looks like some changes are afoot for Boston soon:

    Best, --Alex