On March 21st at noon, online registration opens for the Peachtree 10K, which takes place on the 4th of July in Atlanta. Appropriately, I will be in Atlanta that day for the ING Georgia half marathon and can stop back at my buddy Nick’s place and sign up as soon as it opens. It may be necessary to do so because the race could be sold out within a few hours. Even in this economy, it seems that more and more big time races are reaching full capacity sooner and sooner. Some people see this as a problem and have proposed a variety of solutions. A few races have raised the entry fees, which has had little impact. Despite the availability of substitutes, the elasticity of demand seems to be very low for any big time race such as Peachtree, Cherry Blossom, NYC marathon etc. On the other hand, I’m sure that if a local 5K charged a $50 entry fee, its registration would plummet. Currently, there are 3 approaches to handling sell out races: 1) first come-first serve, 2) random lottery or 3) difficult qualifying standards. First come-first serve is the most common solution and I suppose that the rationale is that the race will accept those whose desire for entry is the greatest. I see this as a problem. Some races such as Houston and Chicago open registration more than 6 months in advance and both sell out within weeks so if you are banged up or do not wish to make definitive plans that far in advance, too bad. Peachtree, Cherry Blossom and the Boston half all sell out on the day registration opens and it may not be long before the sellout occurs in terms of minutes rather than hours. If for some reason you do not have internet access at that time, too bad.
To avoid this problem, a few marathons such as St. George have a lottery system in which registration is open for a set period of time and all have an equal chance of selection regardless of the day they applied. In most cases, if you are denied entry, 2 or 3 years in a row, you are guaranteed entry the next year. I dislike both solutions for one key reason. I would hate to tell an elite runner who runs a 30 minute 10K that he cannot run because a walker who is pushing a baby stroller wants to participate as well and either signed up earlier or was chosen in the lottery. Then, of course, there is the Boston marathon with a qualifying standard that is unattainable for the majority of runners. Even though I may not be capable of reaching those standards, I am okay with them just for that one race because they add to its prestige and mystique. Still, that said, I would be opposed to the idea of every big race imposing a similarly difficult standard such as a 40:00 10K for Peachtree and with the way registration has been increasing, even that may not be tough enough to prevent a sellout before race day. So, what is the best solution? Leave that to me.
My proposal is to impose relatively soft standard that will allow more serious and semi-serious runners in at the expense of walkers who may not exercise the other 364 days of the year. For those under 40, I’d set the men’s standard at 55:00 for 10K and 2:05 for the half marathon and the women’s at 60:00/2:15 with more time given for older athletes. I am of the opinion that barring obesity and serious medical problems, those standards should be attainable with 1-2 years of training at about 15-20 miles per week for a runner with average natural ability. Moreover, such a standard would give less talented runners a real goal and reason to feel proud when it is achieved. No, it probably would not prevent a race from selling out before race day but it would at least slow the process and in my view increase the quality of the event by focusing solely on runners rather than walkers. Still, as I have written before, I have tremendous respect for runners who get out there and train on a regular basis despite having little-no talent for the sport. I realize all too well that the standards that I proposed would be unattainable for those built like an NFL linemen and some have argued that it is not right to exclude them by imposing any kind of standard. That’s certainly a valid point but consider what would happen if well respected universities decided to scrap their standards of admission and simply let anyone in on either a first come first serve or lottery system. How about this for a compromise: Set up a tiered lottery system in which faster runners are given a greater chance of entry but does not exclude anyone because of slower qualifying times. You could also set it up to favor those who registered sooner rather than later. Thus, above-average runners have a good chance of getting in and less talented runners are not completely shut out. In conclusion, you can make valid arguments that there is no completely fair solution but I feel that the process certainly needs much improvement. Feel free to agree of disagree.