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The Boston Marathon’s Rules Are Not Sexist Against Women

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This year was an unusual year at the Boston Marathon. In a typical year, the top 15 winners in each gender division are given cash prizes with no controversy over whether they really placed in the top 15. This year, however, was all about controversy, particularly in the women’s race. The prize money for the women’s race still went to the top 15 women to cross the finish line, but three other finishers had chip times (the time from crossing the start line to crossing the finish line) that were actually faster than many of the 15 winners, including one woman who ran fast enough to come in fifth based on her chip time. However, because these three women did not run in the elite race, they were not eligible for the prize money (though the Boston Marathon did eventually choose to award them money regardless of eligibility).

At first glance, it might seem unfair that these women were not eligible for prize money even though they were in the top 15 fastest women’s times for the race. This is likely what prompted Emily Stewart to write this Vox piece entitled “3 top finishers of the 2018 Boston Marathon won’t get prize money because they’re women.” [Note: The title of the piece has recently changed, but this was the original title of the article]

Screen Shot of the Vox Article with the title "3 finishers of the Boston Marathon won't get prize money because they're women."

This article and particularly its headline is highly misleading, implying that these women would have been eligible for the prize money had they been men, even though these women would likely not have even run that fast had they started at the same time as the elite women. There is a reason that the Boston Marathon awards prizes to the first people who cross the finish line and not the fastest runners based on chip time. Most of the time those are one and the same, but sometimes there are unusual circumstances that make it more likely that runners in later waves will have enough advantages to allow them to run faster than the fastest elite runners. This year was one of those exceptional years.

Who is eligible to win prize money at the Boston Marathon?

The elite women are the first runners to start at the Boston Marathon. They start 28 minutes before the elite men. There was a time when they started at the same time as the elite men, however this often caused the women’s race to get a lot less attention than the men’s. The fastest men are generally faster than the fastest women, so everyone’s focus was on the person in front (the men’s frontrunner) and not on the first place woman. When the first woman crossed the finish line, she might be crossing along with a bunch of men, making it look as if she is not actually first. The Boston Marathon and many other marathons have made changes to have the elite women’s race start first so that it’s clear that they are not racing against the men. This gets them the media attention and visuals they deserve.

A little under a half hour after the women’s race starts, the elite men’s race and the first wave of men and women start, though the elite men start in the front. The non-elite men could run fast enough to pass the elite men and place in the top 15, earning prize money, but they still would have to be in the top 15 to cross the finish line. They could not win based only on chip time, even if they ran a faster race than other men in the top 15. Women in the first wave are not eligible to win, mainly because it wouldn’t be possible for them to somehow overtake the top elite women who started almost 30 minutes before them. Men and women in later waves are also not eligible to win prize money, no matter how fast they run.

If a woman in wave 1 runs faster than a woman in the elite race, why can’t she win money?

The elite women’s race and the wave 1 race are two completely different races with different circumstances that cannot be directly compared. In fact, the wave 1 women have a ton of speed advantages. Had the women from wave 1 this year who placed in the top 15 actually run with the elites, they almost certainly would have run a much slower race.

When you watch the top runners at the Boston Marathon, you’ll often notice them running in packs. This is because there is a huge advantage to running behind another runner and particularly in a pack of runners. On a windy day, the runners around you will block a lot of the wind, allowing a marathoner to put all their energy towards moving forward rather than fighting against wind. And, this year was an especially windy year at Boston.

A map of the Boston Marathon course showing that the marathon runs in a straightish line going northeast

If you take a look at the course map, you’ll see that the Boston Marathon is not a loop. It heads in a straightish east-northeast path the entire way. This year there were downpours during the marathon with winds of up to 25mph from the east. This meant that marathoners were running the entire marathon into strong headwinds.

So many women dropped out of the elite race this year, mostly due to the bad weather conditions, that the top runners were running alone rather than in a pack, fighting against the wind the entire race. The wave 1 women runners were luckier. The fastest wave 1 women could run in packs with men. This would have given them an immense advantage towards running an extra fast race, particularly in this year’s extremely windy weather. In fact, this is almost certainly why this was the year that some women in wave 1 outperformed many of the elite women.

This is what I mean when I say that, for example, Jessica Chichester, who ran in wave 1 but had the fifth fastest time, would almost certainly not have had the fifth fastest time if she ran with the elite women. So, although it may seem unfair that Chichester was not eligible for prize money even though her time was fifth, it would actually be more unfair to award her the prize money over the woman who was the fifth to cross the finish line. In fact, if the rules were such that prize money was based on chip time rather than gun time, all elite women would be better off choosing to run in wave 1 so they could take advantage of the greater opportunity for running in a pack.

Has this situation really never happened before?

This is the first time at the Boston Marathon that someone had a top 15 fastest chip time but was not also top 15 in gun time. However, even though the Vox article states many times that this has never happened before, it has in fact happened before. In 2008 at the Chicago Marathon Wesley Korir had the fourth fastest men’s time at the marathon, but because he ran in a later wave rather than with the elites, he was not eligible for prize money. Just like at this year’s Boston Marathon, the Chicago Marathon eventually acquiesced and still awarded him some prize money even though he wasn’t technically eligible.

Is there a way to avoid this happening again in the future?

Certainly it’s not good PR for some runners to have top 15 times but not be eligible for prize money. The Boston Marathon should definitely review their rules to make sure that they are giving every opportunity for women with a shot at the top 15 to be eligible for the prize money. This could mean going back to a system where the women’s elite race starts at the same time as the men’s, though this may mean they will have to find a new way to make sure the women’s race is given the attention and visuals it needs to be regarded as highly as the men’s race. It could also mean keeping the women’s elite race starting first, but allowing more women to qualify for the elite division. Or, it may just mean acknowledging that this year had exceptional weather conditions that created a situation where there were extra large advantages for women running in wave 1 and perhaps no rule changes are needed since it’s so unlikely to happen again.

I certainly do not think it helps for there to be articles like the Vox article out there implying that women are somehow running under a completely different and sexist set of rules that makes it harder for them to win prize money. Nowhere in the article do they mention how large the advantage is for women running in the first wave and they mention a couple outright falsehoods (some of which have been fixed but were present in the original published version). Bending the truth in this manner may cause the Boston Marathon and other marathons to decide that being called sexist because of a misunderstanding is not worth it and it makes more sense for them to start the women’s elite race at the same time as the men’s, at the expense of garnering extra media coverage for the women’s race. If they do decide to have the elite women start with the men at future races, I would hope this decision is based on a weighing of the pros and cons for the women runners and not merely to fix an image problem caused by misleading articles like the one on Vox. 

Featured photo by Dave Atkinson @cc-by-nc-nd 2.0

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