In Stride

If You Set Qualifying Standards, Will Runners Come?

A new race in San Diego is betting exclusivity will increase demand right from the start

More people are running races than ever. Will qualifying standards only increase demand or leave runners stranded on the starting line? Illustration by Oliver Winward
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On November 21, San Diego will host the inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational, the first “qualifiers-only” half marathon in the U.S. (Tagline: America’s Fastest Runners, Competing in America’s Finest City.) Runners who wish to participate must provide evidence that they’ve completed a half marathon in the qualifying standard time for their age group at some point during the past two years. 

While creating an element of exclusivity may be a viable strategy for club promoters, it remains to be seen if it is an effective way to drum up interest for a race that has no established pedigree. 

This approach has been tried before, with discouraging results. In 2010, marathon enthusiast and physics teacher, Mike Tammaro started the Gansett Marathon in Narragansett, Rhode Island.  Though it was only a small, local road race, Tammaro went with the qualification-only route from the start, setting stringent standards that were five minutes faster than those for the Boston Marathon. The race hasn’t been run since 2013, when it had only 58 finishers. Tammaro now puts on an annual Gansett Half Marathon, which, tellingly, has no qualification standards.   

On the other end of the spectrum, the oldest annual marathon in the world, the Boston Marathon, has had qualifying times since 1970. Those times weren’t set to give the race an air of exclusivity, however, but were instead a direct response to race participants exceeding course capacity. As the Boston Athletic Association website explains, the starting field size “grew at a steady rate from 197 in 1960 to 447 in 1965, and 1,342 by 1969…officials thought that a field size of more than 1,000 athletes may create a congested course that could compromise the overall quality of the Boston Marathon race experience.”

The need to create entry standards to cope with an increasing number of applicants is also evident in a few famous trail races, though here standards are also needed to ensure runners are prepared for the physical demands of the course. The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run require traversing 100 miles of rugged terrain at high elevation, so it’s understandable that organizers would want runners to first prove themselves elsewhere. As the Hardrock website states, “For safety reasons, not as an attempt at elitism, we cannot accept novice runners . . . finishing a qualifying event gives some evidence of being prepared for the HRH.” 

Nevertheless, both Western States and Hardrock are immensely popular events–achieving the qualifying standard doesn’t gain one entry to the race, but merely makes one eligible for the race lottery–and having entry standards clearly helps cull the herd of applicants. 

The USA Half Marathon Invitational, on the other hand, is in its first year. The use of qualifying standards is not a response to having too many applicants, but a conscious attempt to counteract the increasing fun-runification of the sport. 

“For someone who would typically just do a Disney run for the fun of it, this gives them an opportunity to set a goal for themselves and push themselves just a little bit harder,” says Ken Nwadike, the marketing director and founder of the USA Half Marathon. “It’s kind of a way of dangling the carrot in front of those people who are very close to qualifying.”

Unlike the Gansett Marathon, which set strict standards from the start, the team behind the San Diego race is hedging its bets a little. As others have pointed out, the qualifying times for the “competitive” category are rather generous compared to Boston standards. A 32-year-old man, for instance, only needs to run a 1:50 half marathon to make the cut in the 2015 USA Half Marathon, while a 3:05 full marathon is required for Boston. (The latter race also has over 2,000 charity bibs available for those seeking a non-performance-based means of entry.)

“We wanted to have standards, that was the whole idea of doing this, but we didn’t want to make them so severe that we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot,” says Dave McGillivray, whose company, DSME Sports, is in charge of management and logistics for the USA Half Marathon. “If you make them so tough that you go out of business after the first year, no one wins.” 

Entry times will likely become significantly quicker if America’s fastest runners do begin heading to San Diego in droves. For now, organizers are betting on a strategy that combines exclusivity with attainable entry standards, which they hope will set their event apart in crowded sea of over 28,000 annual U.S. road races.  

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