Controversy Arises Over Boston’s Moving 6-Hour Results Cutoff

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Laura Caster wants to be clear: She knew what the Boston Marathon rule was about official finishers.

She was aware she had 6 hours from the time the last starter crossed the starting line to finish the race in order to be considered official.

Her problem? She didn’t know what time the last starter crossed the starting line.

Caster, 52, from Idlewild, California, was in corral 7 of Boston’s final wave, wave 4. And she crossed the starting line at 11:25 a.m. So for how many more minutes were runners crossing the starting line behind her? “Are they a minute behind me? Five minutes?” she wondered.

Every minute would count for her.

As it turned out, the final starter crossed the line at 11:28 a.m., so Caster needed to finish by 5:28 p.m. to be considered official.

Caster typically runs about 5:40 for a marathon. She finished Tokyo on March 3 in 5:41:50. Tokyo was her fifth of the World Marathon Majors six-star challenge. Boston was to be her sixth.

To gain entry to Boston, she had run for a charity, Team for Kids. She raised more than $5,000—part of the more than $40 million Boston Marathon organizers say the race raises through charity runners every year. And she treated Tokyo as a long run for Boston.

But the weather was warm on Marathon Monday, April 15. The slower runners start later in the day. And from early on, Caster knew she was in trouble. Her stomach was upset. She couldn’t take in all the fluids she needed. She was grabbing ice every time a spectator offered it.

Still, she plugged along, hitting every timing mat—even though the mats are rolled up along the course on pace with the 6-hour finish time. She passed halfway in 2:58:40.

At numerous points, Caster became aware of a vehicle trailing runners like her, who were going at about 6-hour pace. And she asked a volunteer at one timing mat, “How do I know if I’m going to be official?” Caster said he pointed at the car and told her she needed to finish in front of it.

“I was like, okay. That’s a definite answer,” she said. “I’m not going to look at my watch. I’m going to focus on not throwing up and being in front of that car.”

Caster was well ahead of the car on Commonwealth Avenue when she turned right onto Hereford Street. Just to be safe, as she approached the finish line on Boylston, Caster took a final look behind her. No sign of the official car. She crossed at 5:31 p.m., in 6:05:59. Volunteers put her in a wheelchair and sent her to the medical tent. From there, she was transported to a hospital with high blood potassium levels. She was released later that evening.

At the hospital, she looked at the results and realized she was not official. She had a gun time and a net time, but no place.

Caster was devastated. All the training, all the time and expense of pursuing the six stars, and she wasn’t really done. “I’ve worked for years, was so excited to have gotten to this point,” she said of her progress. “I was just leveled.”

Caster’s coach is Meb Keflezighi, an Olympic silver medalist and the 2014 Boston Marathon champion. On the phone with him, she broke down.

He told her, “I couldn’t be prouder of you. You missed it. We both know that you completed all six. You’re not official. But you showed grit, you showed determination.”

Allowing roads to reopen

Caster was not alone. Chris Lotsbom, a BAA spokesman, wrote in an email to Runner’s World that 497 people appeared to have crossed the Boston finish line this year after it officially closed. Volunteers staffed the area and handed out medals for approximately 4 hours, or until 9:45 p.m., longer than the race has ever continued to note times before.

Of those 497, many were within a few minutes or seconds of 5:28 p.m.

Cortney Blackburn, also in pursuit of her sixth star at Boston, missed by 37 seconds.

In an email exchange after the race with BAA officials, she asked how she was to know what the cutoff time was after she had started running. She, too, was told about the car, with flashing lights on the top, going at 6-hour pace and alerting runners if they were falling behind. Blackburn never saw the car—she finished well ahead of it—and she, too, recorded a split at every finish line mat along the way.

Lotsbom confirmed the car was there—a “road reopening vehicle”—he called it, meant to inform runners that roads were reopening and aid stations were shutting down.

“Without knowing specifics, I can’t comment on the individual instances referenced,” he wrote. “I can say that we are reviewing our processes and procedures in regards to final finishers for future Boston Marathons.”

Blackburn crossed the finish line and picked up two medals: the Boston Marathon medal and the World Marathon Majors six-star medal. Only later did she realize she wasn’t official in Boston’s results and therefore isn’t official in the WMM results, either. She has the medals, but no online record of her achievement.

Courtesy of World Marathon Majors

But if the finish line remains open, and the timing continues, why not allow runners to be official? Or at least communicate a time—for example, 5:30 p.m.—that is consistent from year to year? Why use a moving target?

Boston’s strict cutoff is part of the agreement the race has with the cities and towns along the route. The 6-hour time limit is in place “to support the communities throughout which the race runs, to allow their road reopening program to commence as planned,” Lotsbom wrote.

“We understand we could do even more in communicating the closing time on race day and we are looking to enhance that messaging to all runners for next year to ensure everyone is clear [on] the time limit and time that the finish line will officially close on race day,” Lotsbom wrote.

A grace period

A few runners who are much slower than 6 hours get to start in earlier waves, which gives them more time to finish. For some runners close to the 5:28 p.m. cutoff, starting in an earlier corral of wave 4 would have meant the difference between an official and unofficial finish.

In 2015, some members of Boston’s Quarter Century Club, people with 25 or more consecutive Boston finishes, were concerned about the 6-hour limit, which was imposed for the 2016 race. So race officials moved them to Wave 2. Problem solved.

For others, the problem remains. And the moving cutoff appears to affect more women than men, older runners more than younger ones, and many runners of color.

Hector Espinal, like Blackburn, only discovered well after the race that he wasn’t official. He wrote on Instagram on April 18, “Despite crossing the finish line, finishing the race and receiving my medals, this morning I was informed that I did not complete the Boston Marathon in the time allotted to be considered an official finisher and @wmmajors 6 Star Marathoner.”

The post has more than 10,000 likes, and 1,000 comments, the majority of them supportive. Elite runner Mary Ngugi of Kenya, who was sixth in 2:24:24, wrote, “No no, you are a 6 time world major marathoner and a hero.”

Boston is a race that has at times struggled with its image, which critics call elitist. Spectators last year accused the race of over-policing enthusiastic fans, most of whom were people of color, at a mile 21 cheer zone, which prompted a lawsuit. Runner’s World reported in 2022 about the B.A.A.’s obscure, largely white, invitation-only membership group, which is involved with governance of the organization.

To many observers in the running community, setting a fixed finish time would be an easy way to help the race show it is concerned about runners of varying abilities, not just the front of the pack.

Other races in the World Marathon Majors are much more lax about their finishing times, with the exception of Tokyo, which has nine cutoff points along the route, and runners are stopped if they lag behind. There are no questions, however, about where they stand.

But finishers of London, New York, and Chicago appear in results with times hours slower than the races’ published cutoff times. Berlin, which has a posted cutoff time of 6:15, stays open for an extra 15 to 20 minutes before the Brandenburg Gate closes, according to previous finishers.

Blackburn won’t be back to Boston anytime soon. “I don’t know honestly if I would do it again without major changes to actually be inclusive of non-qualifying athletes,” she wrote in a message to Runner’s World. “I think [B.A.A. officials] are putting out ‘we are trying’ vibes without actually trying.”

Caster, on the other hand, plans to try again. The uncertainty while she was on the course—and the wrong information she was given about the official vehicle—were what upset her. She doesn’t know if it would have made a difference for her had she been aware of the time she had to beat.

“But I would have liked to the opportunity to have tried,” she said. “That’s the part that I’m sore about.”

Lettermark

Sarah Lorge Butler is a writer and editor living in Eugene, Oregon, and her stories about the sport, its trends, and fascinating individuals have appeared in Runner’s World since 2005. She is the author of two popular fitness books, Run Your Butt Off! and Walk Your Butt Off!

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