BOSTON – Running, traditionally one of the world’s finest sports, has been marred by a horrific row in the midst of a pandemic over who should stand a chance of winning a coveted Boston Marathon medal.
Rival camps in the running world began to jostle each other this week. It started after the Boston Athletic Association, which still hopes to host a truncated in-person edition of the planet’s most prestigious running race in October, announced it would award medals to up to 70,000 athletes if they walked the distance wherever they were.
Almost minutes after the BAA announced that it was significantly expanding its virtual version of the race, a social media whirlwind ensued.
On the one hand: runners who have spent years training to qualify to run the real thing, including some who complain that sending medals to people who run the 26.2 miles in Dallas or at Denver will devalue the iconic Boston experience.
“A dagger in the heart to someone who worked hard to finally win the qualifying standard,” one runner, Mark Howard of Salisbury, North Carolina, growled on Twitter.
On the other: just about everyone, including the working masses and runners who raise millions for charity, who counter that anything that helps the 125-year-old marathon survive the COVID crisis- 19 is worth it.
“A Boston virtual run that invites everyone is a reason to celebrate,” said Maria Arana, marathoner and trainer in Phoenix. “This in no way detracts from my personal experience of the Boston Marathon or that of anyone else.”
The feuds seem to have caught many off guard, if only because road racing has long had a reputation as a lovable and equal sport.
It is one of the few disciplines where ordinary amateurs compete in real time on the same course as elite professionals, and where trash-talking is rare. As four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers said, “Running is a sport that everyone can get along with.”
A notable exception to this kindness was the 1967 race, when race director Jock Semple chased after Kathrine Switzer – the first woman to run with an official bib number – and tried unsuccessfully to remove her from the course.
It also comes as the Boston Marathon and other major city races struggle to stay afloat during the pandemic and look for creative ways to keep runners engaged online.
The BAA rolled out a virtual version of the marathon last year, after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to postpone its usual April to September first, and then cancel races in person altogether.
But this was limited to athletes who had already qualified for the race or who had registered as charity runners. This time around, the first 70,000 people aged 18 or over who register and pay a fee can earn a finisher medal simply by covering the classic distance wherever they are. They don’t even have to run – they can walk.
“For the first time in our history, almost everyone will have the opportunity to win a Unicorn Finisher Medal,” Tom Grilk, President and CEO of BAA said in a statement.
Grilk said the in-person race, if it goes as planned on Oct. 11, will have reduced terrain to help keep athletes and spectators safe. Typically, the Boston field is capped at around 30,000; the BAA has not said how much smaller it will be this fall.
Josh Sitzer, a San Francisco runner who qualified for the Boston Marathon three times, was initially among those who dismissed the idea of handing out 70,000 medals as “a blatant cash grab.”
“Respect yourself and the game. Don’t do Boston unless you win it,” he tweeted. Then he changed his mind, tweeting, “I was wrong. It’s not the same as the Boston Marathon, and it doesn’t devalue “the experience of those who meet strict qualifying standards for a chance to line up in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.”
It was a bad look, admits Erin Strout, who has been covering the sport since. WomensRunning.com.
“If there has ever been a time to put aside our elitism and cynicism, it is now,” she wrote in an opinion piece. “Let’s welcome each other, encourage each other and seize the opportunity to make running bigger, better and more inclusive than it was before.”
William J. Kole of The Associated Press wrote this story.
Follow Bill Kole, editor-in-chief of AP New England on Twitter at http://twitter.com/billkole.