Thursday, February 24, 2011

Moving the goalposts

Last week I wrote about the effect of the Boston Marathon qualifying standard on finish times in other marathons.  The next day the organizers of the Boston Marathon, the BAA, announced new qualifying standards for 2012 and 2013 and a new registration process.  Here is my summary of the announcement:

  • For 2012, qualifying times for all groups are lower by 1 minute.
  • For 2013, qualifying times for all groups drop another 5 minutes.
  • For both years, runners who beat their qualifying time by 20 minutes are allowed to register first, followed by runners who qualify by 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and then 0 minutes.

Among runners, there has been a lot of discussion of the effect these changes will have on the demographics of the race, especially the proportion of women and older runners.

To answer this question, we have to get a sense of what the pool of potential qualifiers looks like.  I collected data from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Chicago Marathons (don’t ask me how).  This dataset includes 101135 finish times with the gender and age of each runner.  To keep things simple, I treat each finish time as a different runner, even though many people ran the race in more than one of the years I looked at.

I selected runners in the 18-34 group, which includes 22619 men and 24471 women.  Then I selected the runners who ran 30 minutes over the current qualifying standard or faster, which includes 4951 men and 5502 women.

For each finish time, I computed the difference between the actual time and the standard (3:10 for men, 3:40 for women).  This figure shows the distribution of those differences:

The BQ Effect, which I wrote about last week, is apparent for men and women.  For the men there is another mode 10 minutes below the standard, which happens to be 3:00:00.  Apparently the only thing more important than qualifying for Boston is breaking 3 hours.

The runners in this dataset are a sample of the population that constitutes the field at Boston.  If we assume that this sample is representative, we can use it to predict the effect of the changes in the qualifying standard.

As a baseline, in 2010 there were 9602 finishers in the open division, 4651 men and 4951 women.  In the Chicago sample, tightening the standard by 1 minute (which will happen in 2012) disqualifies 92 men (4.9%) and 102 women (5.6%).  Extrapolating these changes to the open division in Boston (9602), the net effect is to replace 16 women with men.

In 2013, the standard will be 6 minutes lower, which disqualifies 30.1% of men and 33.9% of women, and displaces 134 women.

The new registration process might make the effect even more dramatic.  If the field fills before the last group has a chance, the standard is effectively tougher by 11 minutes.  That disqualifies 41.6% of men, 50.5% of women, and displaces 395 women.

This change would be noticeable.  In 2010, the open division was almost 52% female.  In 2013, it might be 52% male.

Is that fair?  I will argue that it is not, but it will take some time to make the argument clear.  Let me start by explaining why some people think it’s fair.  It is conventional wisdom that the current standard is relatively easy for women.  If that’s true, then these changes will be a correction.

For example, in this article Amby Burfoot proposes a standard based on the age-graded tables created by World Masters Athletics (WMA).  Under that standard, the qualifying times would be 3:12 for men and 3:30 for women.  In the Chicago sample, that would increase the number of men by 8% and decrease the number of women by 47%.  Extrapolating to Boston, it would replace 1751 women with men, yielding a field of 66% men.

I think this standard is unreasonable because the WMA tables are based on world records in each group, not the performance of more typical qualifiers.  The proposed standard has a bigger effect on women because the elite females are farther from the pack than the elite males.

To see the the tail of the distribution, let’s zoom in on the runners in the Chicago sample who beat the standard by 30 minutes or more:

The tail for women extends farther to the left.  The fastest men beat the standard by 65 minutes; the fastest women beat it by more than 80 minutes.  But the existence of a small number of outliers should not have such a drastic effect on the qualifying standard.

In conclusion:

1) The changes in the qualifying standard and process might decrease the representation of women in Boston from 52% to 48%.

2) The common belief that the standard is relatively easy for women is based on the performance of a small number of outliers.  The gender gap for near-qualifiers is much larger than the gap for elites.

3) Implementing the standard proposed by Runners’ World would decrease the percentage of women in the open division at Boston to 33%.


Coming soon:

1) I will evaluate possible definitions of a “fair” standard and compute qualifying times for each definition.

2) I will extend this analysis to the other age groups.


If you find this sort of thing interesting, you might like my free statistics textbook, Think Stats. You can download it or read it at

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