Marathoning and the quest for the Holy Grail


Boston. Boston.

Boston. Boston. Boston.

For so many runners making it to Boston is akin to taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To run the world’s oldest annual marathon and line up against the best runners on the planet. To cross over that famous finish line and proudly wear that jacket.

To let people know: “I ran Boston”

But what they really want to say is: “I qualified for Boston. Nana nana booboo.”

Getting that BQ is an obsession for so many marathoners right on the fringe of the time standards. Some consider running Boston a right of passage while others a vindication that they are a marathoner. But for many, qualifying for Boston is somewhere between a pipe dream and an impossibility.

Why are we so infatuated with Boston? Is finishing a marathon not enough? Must we run at least 2 marathons – one to BQ and the other Boston itself – to feel like a true marathoner?

Is it that people really value the history of the marathon so much that they MUST run this race? I understand the 2013 bombing caused the community to band together but this Boston-or-bust mentality existed well before the bombing.

You don’t have to run Boston to race against the pros. I lined up (literally, as she was tying her shoes) next to 2014 USA Marathon Champion Esther Atkins at a smaller, less prestigious marathon right before she set the course record and kicked all of our butts.

So why the focus on this one race, really?

Let’s be honest. It’s the most attainable of the prestigious goals there is

Marathoning is a race and when you have a timed event people will ultimately fuss over their numbers. You can debate if Lebron James is as good of a basketball player as Michael Jordan until your blue in the face because there’s no clear-cut answer. But with running it’s easy. Who has the faster time? That person wins.

By creating time standards you’re essentially creating tiers of runners. This can ultimately lead to runners focusing on entry into those elite clubs more than anything else. You have qualifiers and non-qualifiers.

Let’s look some of the different goals that can exist for a marathoner. The below percentages and time standards for the Boston and NY marathons are all assuming a 35-year-old dude.

Because that’s what I am.


Time Pace %tile
Break 2 hours 2:00:00 04:34 100%
World record 2:02:57 04:41 100%
Medal at the Olympics* 2:10:05 04:57 98%
Make the US Olympic team** 2:13:00 04:59 95%
Qualify for US Olympic Trials 2:15:00 05:08 93%
Qualify for NY Marathon 2:55:00 06:40 72%
Break 3 hours 3:00:00 06:52 70%
Qualify for Boston Marathon 3:10:00 07:14 67%
Break 3.5 Hours 3:30:00 08:00 60%
Break 4 hours 4:00:00 09:09 52%

*Based off Galen Rupp’s awesome bronze medal in RIO

**Jared Ward’s time at the 2016 US Olympic trials

If we look at the qualification times for NY, Boston and the US Olympic Trials it’s easy to see why the focus is on Boston.

The US Olympic Trials is rare air that only 7% of marathoners will breathe and dropping another 15 minutes to qualify for NY requires a pace per mile 34 seconds faster than Boston.

So for many the dream stops at BQ.

“Maybe if I work really hard then I can BQ. But ain’t no way I’m making NY”

So we must get it, right?

Dude, you just ran a freaking marathon!

You know why people always use the phrase that something “is a marathon, not a sprint?”

That’s because running 26.2 miles is hard and the mental and physical toll a marathon takes on a person is incredibly taxing.

And you just did it!

Millions of people would never even dream of doing such a crazy thing as voluntarily running 26.2 miles unless they were being chased by a bear. And a lot of them would give up after 2 miles. Screw it, just eat me already.”

So who cares if you went 3:10.01 or 3:09.59? Finishing that thing is amazing and you should celebrate that herculean feat no matter what your time was.

A 5 hour marathon is just as far as a 3 hour marathon

26.2 miles is 26.2 miles no matter how long it takes. To be that dedicated to run for 5 consecutive hours is to be commended. If I gave someone the choice between a 3 or 5 hour workout most are gonna choose the 3.

Except for them crazy Ironman athletes and ultramarathoners.

Also consider the fact that most races start around 7 am when the weather is nice and cool. A 3 hour marathoner is done by 10 am just as the temperature starts to ratchet.

But the 5 hour marathoners finish at noon when the sun is out burninating their tired and dehydrated bodies. While the faster runners are a couple deep in the beer tent or headed home the 5 hour marathoners are grinding away in the heat. Still focused on getting to that finish line. One foot in front of the other.

Kudos to the 5 hour marathoner for that level of dedication. I tip my visor to you.

Some people just aren’t built to go fast

A long time ago I was at a swim meet at the Naval Academy and my coach pointed to the water and said “that kid is gonna be the next world-class swimmer.” 

That kid was an 11-year-old Michael Phelps wreaking havoc on the other 11-12 year old boys.

I know we have all heard the saying that something is 90% mental and 10% physical.” Maybe at the personal level, sure. It’s easy to psych yourself out. But no matter how bad I may want to beat Michael Phelps it ain’t happening. I can train my butt off for years while he sits around drinking beers and he’d still bang out a world-class 200 I.M. I’m not saying he didn’t work hard. It’s quite the opposite.

Some people were predisposed to be great. And the right blend of dedicated training, mental fortitude and talent can create super-human athletes like Michael Phelps and Lebron James.

Meanwhile, on the end of the spectrum, some are born with physical conditions which limit athletic ability and can make running quite difficult. And spread out in-between those limited and super human athletes are the rest of us.

Some will easily make Boston and some will just miss. Some people have zero chance.

And that’s OK.

So how’s this have anything to do with being a Cheap Athlete?

I’ve seen a lot of runners go to great lengths to qualify for Boston. They’ll purchase expensive, gimmicky running shoes and fancy equipment, hire coaches and travel to specific races which are considered to be “faster” marathons. All this for the opportunity to run yet another 26.2 miles. Yay!

Let’s keep things in perspective. We’re all runners whether you run a marathon, half marathon, 5K, 100m dash or whatever. We all understand and respect each other – blisters, early morning workouts and missing out on social events to train and chase our goals. We know how disgusting energy gels are and openly talk about pooping in front of each other.

We are all runners, BQ or not. 

With all that said, see you in 2018 at Boston!

Happy marathoning!


  1. Nice write up. My wife is a runner and it took her three marathons before she qualified. I think you are right about it being an awesome yet attainable goal. She just ran it this April six months post partum and had a blast.

    Good luck in April. It is quiet the event.

    1. Congrats to her! That’s an amazing accomplishment. I’m humbled to take part in it. And super stoked

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