When you laced on your first pair of running shoes your goal was to make it around the block. Later, you entered 5Ks, moved up to 10Ks and started feeling good about yourself as a runner. Maybe this was more than just exercise for you; it was something that became an important part of your life. You started to set higher goals for yourself, maybe running the Boston Marathon someday.
You soon found out, however, that you couldn't simply sign up and run one of the most prestigious running events in the world. You had to qualify to run Boston. Sure, you could hang in the back as an unofficial and unrecognized "bandit", or participate in charity fundraising or running club events to earn a number. But the real goal, the one that always seems nearly unobtainable, is to run as an official runner, and to do that you have to qualify by running a time based on your age at a sanctioned marathon.
For New England runners, the best chance of hitting that qualifying time is in Lowell, Massachusetts at the Bay State Marathon. The flat and fast course increases your odds considerably, as more than 33 percent of runners at Baystate beat their age-graded times and earn an official number for Boston. According to Denise Sweeney of Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray's DMSE Sports, Inc, Baystate is 15th on the list of Boston Marathon "feeders" nationwide--up from 19th in 2006. Sweeney also noted that 245 runners qualified for Boston from the 2006 and 2007 Baystate Marathon.
"Baystate is starting to be recognized nationally as one of the best qualifiers for Boston", said Race Director Mark Coddaire of Marx Running and Fitness in Acton, Massachusetts. "We're getting mentioned in national publications alongside big races such as Chicago and Houston as one of the best places to qualify in the country". But Coddaire says Baystate offers a small city feel with the focus on running without the 'hoopla' of a big city race.
Baystate is also home to the USATF New England Marathon Championship. As a result, Coddaire expects a strong field and course records to be broken. "We should see Kara Haas's 2:55:22 (2007) and Scott Loomis' 2:30:21 (2006) fall this year," said Coddaire. Those are the new course records. Dave Dunham's 2:21:36 and Mary Ellen Kelly's 2:45:53 are the event records set on the old course.
Baystate's size is something that's on the organizer's minds as the race grows in popularity throughout the country. Not only size, but the quality of the field is also important. "To run fast times, you have to have fast groups. "We encourage the best national and regional class runners to come and be a part of a terrific event on a fast course," Coddaire said. Baystate is not recruiting international stars, although all are welcome to participate.
"The last few years of success and its national popularity are moving Baystate to a new level," Coddaire said. "City officials now see Baystate as an important part of the community. We're also reaching out beyond the immediate area to cities and towns throughout the region."
Coddaire recognizes that Baystate's success leads to organizational and logistical challenges. "We're at a crossroads," Coddaire said. "We can stay local or become a big community event. We're working with city officials on where to cap the number of runners, now 1500. We will review how and if we want to change it."
Glen Stewart, president of the Greater Lowell Road Runners, and Baystate's course director agrees that there are challenges that come with growth. "The race has grown quite a lot, 8 percent over the last four years," Steward said. "Getting runners and cars over the bridges on race day is an 'interesting' challenge. We give the runner aiming at a qualifying time an exciting race that provides great value."
This year's Baystate may be a bit more focused on faster runners with the NE Marathon Championship, but Steward said, "...we never lose sight of our primary running constituency--the runner qualifying for Boston."
Coddaire said organizers will look at the numbers and growth they're expecting. "If we decide to become a major marathon, the city could do it. But communities are affected on race day. We need a commitment from all communities to get it done. The Baystate race committee is getting better at communication and is recognized as a significant asset to the area. We want to make it part of the community."