Messages from STEM and Health Science Scholars

Who Runs Boston? A Descriptive Report of Performance-Related Characteristics of Boston Marathon Qualifiers

Article Excerpt with Reflection

Derek Hanson

Marathon running is a sport that is increasingly attracting participation among runners year after year. From the six World Marathon Major races that attract tens of thousands of runners per event annually, to the local events that include runners by the thousands each year, all around the world people are training for, participating in, and completing marathons in large numbers. Among these runners, tremendous variation exists in training strategies, demographics, goals and reasons for running.

The Boston Marathon is considered the premier and elite event for most runners. Entry into this race is based on meeting a qualifying standard, within the year prior to registration, by completing a certified marathon that must be faster than a specified time. This standard time, known as BQ (Boston Qualifier), is based on gender and age that helps to normalize the criteria for all entrants. Over the past decade the BQ standard has been lowered twice due to the enormous number of applicants, with many people who have met the standard by at least 2 minutes still being rejected. The allure of participating in the Boston Marathon is something that drives many runners to push their limits and has even become part of runner culture. Evidence to support this includes an almost universally asked question among runners “did you BQ?” and the hosts of the race (Boston Athletic Association) adopting a unicorn as the marathon emblem to signify the elusiveness and mystical quality of gaining entry to the event.

Sport performance and the science of running are well documented. There is an abundance of studies that examine a wide array of training characteristics for runners (e.g., determinants of velocity, effects of climate of performance, nutritional strategies, pacing strategies, psychological aspects).1–4,4,5  With the wealth of knowledge available to runners, there still remains the difficulty of translating this information into practical information and useful guidelines to support runners who wish to achieve their best race in an attempt to gain entry into the club of runners who have ran the Boston Marathon. When striving to attain their BQ, there are some clear indications that a runner is actually increasing the odds of successfully achieving that difficult goal. The purpose of this study is to explore and report some of the key descriptive performance-related characteristics of runners who have successfully qualified for the Boston Marathon.


Passion, excitement, grief, anxiety, frustration, self-doubt, agony, curiosity, and confidence begin to describe the spectra of emotions that have accompanied my efforts in the scientific writing process. Reflecting on this experience makes me wonder if this emotional roller coaster is typical to the writing process or if it is an artifact of attempting to enter the world of writing at the beginning of a global pandemic. My guess is that it is a combination of the two, and most likely different and unique to each writer.

Coming from a clinical background working with athletes, using strategies that rely on evidence-based practice and the scientific method, I was familiar and something that I had become comfortable with. My prior training and experience that helped foster this ability include a research assistance position, courses in research methods and scientific writing, along with frequent literature reviews to guide practice. Across my time as a “user” of the literature, I increasingly had questions that I couldn’t find answers to, leaving me with the feeling that perhaps I could be a “contributor” one day. This sense of responsibility was fully awakened in me when I accepted a position in academia, which required that I produce original scientific work. During this clinical-to-academic transition, I soon realized that my comfort in using scientific work was not the same as creating and writing about it.

The translational process of investigating a specific, measurable, and practical question that could provide answers and be useful for athletes in the real world was my starting point into the process and production of scientific writing. This journey, I was soon to learn, requires a series of steps, each with its own challenges and barriers that must be overcome prior to the production of the actual written product. Knowing that each step could, or most likely would, be scrutinized in the peer-review process added a layer of uncertainty to each decision that I made. Nevertheless, I systematically went through each of the steps with careful attention to detail to ensure that my final manuscript would be considered good science and, more importantly, published, so that people could read and use the information.

This process began with a draft of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) application, and after many revisions, it was finally approved. I was on my way to the next step of the scientific process, data collection, which presented an impossible barrier. The 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, and all public gatherings were canceled, making it impossible to carry out the planned experiment, write about it, and disseminate my findings. It was a heartbreaking moment when I realized that the planning, IRB revisions, and dreams of answering a long-debated question were not possible. Following the grief and mourning over the loss of my work and efforts up to that point, panic started to set in. Fear that the new professional role that I have pushed myself towards, which requires me to be a scientist and “produce” original work, all within a deadline, would not be possible.

I anxiously tried to think as objectively as possible about the situation. This process started by asking, “How can I perform research with human subjects if this is not allowed?” The answer to this question was straightforward and provided me a glimmer of hope, I needed to find something to measure on human subjects that is allowed without physical contact—a web-based survey! However, finding the “something” [to be measured?] was the challenge that continued to test my emotional state and creative energy, particularly because of my desire to write about a topic and question relevant to the work that I had done in the past.

And so, the creative process was back on track, albeit only at the beginning. I created an almost ritualistic habit of reading through various articles related to my interest, writing down some thoughts, and then reflecting on them for a day or two to see if my emerging questions were answerable, made sense, and were useful. This study formula allowed me to think of what articles to look to next so that I could repeat the process over again. After the mental exhaustion of repeated cycles of thinking through a researchable question, forming a hypothesis and potential conclusion worth reporting—followed by the frustration of seeing the flaws in my thinking—I stumbled on a related idea that renewed my excitement to start over once more!

My focus shifted from the exploration of the physical characteristics of runners towards an investigation of their psychological characteristics. I was back at square one with the scientific research and writing, which carried with it the same anxiety and uncertainty as my original intended study. However, since the question that I wanted to investigate was a little outside my expertise, a new layer of uncertainty and anxiety set in. The thought of writing and reporting new findings on a topic that has been investigated in dozens of studies over the past 20 years by researchers who exclusively specialize in this area made me question every word I recorded. Particularly because my hypothesis was refuting most of the previous work that has been done! Thoughts like “Who am I to go against these experts on this topic?” or “Is there something that they know that I am not seeing?” were preventing me from moving forward.

After finally battling through these emotions, I forced myself to sit and write. The opening sentence took the most time and energy, with what seemed like agony at the time, to commit to every word that I recorded. When I finally had the opening statement pointing me in what I thought was the direction I wanted to go, it felt like a faucet had opened and words started to flow. I began connecting thoughts, citing relevant papers describing my rationale, and strengthening the argument for my hypothesis. It became easier the further I made it through the manuscript and even stimulated my curiosity for future follow-up studies that would build on that study within the discussion. More importantly, it served as a much needed boost to my confidence that this work was conceptually sound, important, and good science.

Currently, I am preparing to submit this manuscript to a targeted journal for publication. Although I am still at the very beginning of this process called “scientific writing,” I have learned so much. I learned that scientific writing can be very much an art form that allows the author to use a combination of the scientific process along with written words to demonstrate something that is novel or unique. I learned that an attempt to answer a question and then be able to write about it requires a combination of more work than meets the eye and the ability to be adaptable. Most importantly, I learned that science and writing can be fueled by a process that elicits the widest range of emotions that a human can experience. I am grateful for learning this lesson early on in my career as a scientific writer who is contributing to the body of knowledge. I will be even more grateful to experience the emotion of relief when that paper is accepted for publication.


  1. Nikolaidis P, Di Gangi S, Chtourou H, Rüst C, Rosemann T, Knechtle B. The Role of Environmental Conditions on Marathon Running Performance in Men Competing in Boston Marathon from 1897 to 2018. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(4):614. doi:10.3390/ijerph16040614
  2. Knechtle B, Di Gangi S, Rüst CA, Nikolaidis PT. Performance Differences Between the Sexes in the Boston Marathon From 1972 to 2017. J Strength Cond Res. 2020;34(2):566-576. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002760
  3. Burdina M, Hiller RS, Metz NE. Goal attainability and performance: Evidence from Boston marathon qualifying standards. J Econ Psychol. 2017;58:77-88. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2017.01.001
  4. Maffetone PB, Malcata R, Rivera I, Laursen PB. The Boston Marathon versus the World Marathon Majors. Weber CR, ed. PLOS ONE. 2017;12(9):e0184024. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0184024
  5. Ahmadyar B, Rüst CA, Rosemann T, Knechtle B. Participation and performance trends in elderly marathonersin four of the world’s largest marathons during 2004-2011. SpringerPlus. 2015;4:465. doi:10.1186/s40064-015-1254-6


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