- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

BOSTON — In 110 years, many changes have been made to the world’s oldest and most prestigious distance race. But the popularity of the Boston Marathon and the running boom has created a demand that has hamstrung the Boston Athletic Association, the race’s organizing group.

With an entry field of 22,490, second only to the nearly 40,000 starters at the 100th running of Boston in 1996, the BAA has made several changes they believe will benefit the marathon’s runners as well as the residents who are inconvenienced from Hopkinton to Boston.

“The most significant change today is the two-wave start,” said Dave McGillivray, who has been with the race for 19 years, first as technical director and then as race director.

The main problem is that the staging area for the start is in the small town of Hopkinton, which was a fine host to a few thousand runners but now is crowded each Patriots’ Day.

“Space is an issue,” McGillivray said. “London, New York, Chicago, they have real estate. We feel that 25 feet of roadway to line up 22,000 people is not enough.”

To alleviate some of the pre-race congestion, the BAA has divided up its start and doubled the size of the athletes’ village. As has been the case the past few years, the elite women’s runners will begin at 11:31 a.m., following the wheelchair start.

The elite men’s runners and the first wave of runners will start at noon. All athletes with blue numbers, about 10,000 runners, will be in the first wave. The second wave, the red numbers, will follow 30 minutes later. Runners are assigned bib numbers according to their qualifying times, with the faster runners making the first wave.

The two-wave approach allows race organizers to fit 10,000 runners on the main street and not on the residential side roads, which will be a welcomed changed for local residents who have tolerated thousands of uninvited guests on their front lawns.

It also decreases the length of time it will take for the last of the 10,000 runners to cross the starting line. In the past, it has taken the first 10,000 runners about nine minutes to clear the starting line. It also has taken the last official runner in a 20,000-plus field almost 30 minutes to cross the starting line.

“No runner will be at a disadvantage over past participants and most will reap significant benefits,” McGillivray said.

Tom Rolander, the Webmaster for the Big Sur Marathon in California, is running his third Boston Marathon in preparation for his 21st Big Sur on April 30. He sees mostly benefits from the new start, but he also says some runners could be negatively affected.

“To me, it has to do with the runner’s attitude coming here — if they came here because they qualified and all they want to do is have fun and participate or they came here to race,” said the 58-year-old Rolander, who has run 83 marathons. “It’s more important to me to run Big Sur, so the second wave is great. To be able to handle more people, I think it’s great going to two waves.

“I would think if you were near the cut-off — 3:30 or whatever it is — and you missed the first wave, I would think it would be tough to compete being in the second wave. It also will be warmer, tougher for those people in the second wave. So you are punishing the people who already are struggling.”

McGillivray said: “Water stations will better be able to fill cups and keep up with runner density as it will be more spread out for a little longer period of time and the stations will be able to reload between the two waves.”

Another major addition to the race is the ability to track runners who leave the course without finishing. But with the Department of Health using bar codes on the runners bib numbers, the BAA will be able to track all runners all afternoon and into the evening.

And one course change near the finish will improve vehicular traffic while throwing in another small hill in the last mile of the already high-rolling route. The BAA agreed with the City of Boston’s request to have the race go under the Massachusetts Avenue bridge rather than across it, meaning another slight decline and incline for the runners at the 25.4-mile point.

Of course, this has little impact on the elites who are vying for their share of the $575,000 in prize money. But another change has the lead men wearing assigned uniforms to help identify the leaders.

Defending champion Hailu Negussie is back after a 36-second victory last year, the first Ethiopian male champion in 16 years. He will face about a dozen runners who have raced under 2:10.

“I am ready to win again, but God knows what will happen on Monday,” he said.

Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in his Boston debut, and Alan Culpepper, in his fifth year, lead the American contingent. Past champions Timothy Cherigat (2004) and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (2003) lead a typically deep Kenyan field.

On the women’s side, the favorites are Japan’s Reiko Tosa, who took fifth at the Athens Olympic marathon in 2004, and three-time Olympian Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia. Tosa is making her Boston debut.

Four-time and defending champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya took a hefty appearance fee to run Osaka in Japan earlier this year and will not defend her title.

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