- - Sunday, April 17, 2011

BOSTON | For most people, it is not particularly easy to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This year, in its 115th running, it was even more difficult to gain entry into the world’s oldest annually contested marathon.

The 2011 field reached its maximum capacity of 26,800 official entries faster than any previous year when qualifiers rushed to register online, closing registration Oct. 18 in a mere 8 hours, 3 minutes. Approximately 23,000 runners from all 50 states and more than 70 countries will make it to the starting line Monday morning.

Of course, many athletes who had put in the grueling work to qualify for Boston through another 26.2-mile footrace were stinging from being left out in the cold, a fact not lost on marathon officials who responded three months later with a new set of procedures for the 2012 and 2013 races.

“Our new registration process takes into consideration the many comments we received from runners this past fall and winter, most of whom urged the [Boston Athletic Association] to institute a system which recognizes athletic performance above all else,” said Tom Grilk, BAA Executive Director.

The Boston Marathon is the only marathon in America - aside from the U.S. Olympic Trials - which requires an age-graded marathon qualifying time, giving the prestigious event an additional feel of elitism. That exclusivity has been tempered somewhat over the past 23 years when Boston, along with other sold-out major marathons, began holding back entries for their charity partners to sell to anybody willing to raise money for them, no qualifying time needed.

BAA officials report that last years selected charitable organizations generated nearly $10.2 million, bringing the total since the programs inception in 1989 to nearly $106 million.

No doubt that those monies far outnumber the dollars for prize money, which for Boston this year totals $806,000 plus $220,000 in bonuses. Defending champions 22-year-old Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot of Kenya and 28-year-old Teyba Erkesso of Ethiopia both earned $150,000 for the effort last year.

Cheruiyot banked another $25,000 for smashing the Boston course record by 82 seconds with a time of 2 hours, 5 minutes, 52 seconds. His trek through all eight towns and cities from rural Hopkinton to downtown Boston was equivalent to running 26 consecutive miles at 4:48 per mile.

“I have competed two times in Boston,” said Cheruiyot, no relation to four-time Boston champ Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot or Evans Cheruiyot, who also is entered in this years elite field. “The first year [2010 when he was fifth in 2:10:06] was a little hard for me since the course was new to me, but last year it was fine.”

Cheruiyots victory was the 18th time a Kenyan male outran the rest of the field since 1988 when Ibrahim Hussein put the African country on the Boston map. There was an era when Americans dominated the annual Patriots Day event, but Americans have not triumphed here since Greg Meyer in 1983 and Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985.

Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher have been trying to end this draught since 2009, when they both finished third. Hall was fourth last year while Goucher was on the sidelines pregnant. Neither appears to be in top form right now, and they both face stiff international competition. The other American threat would have been Meb Keflezighi, the 2009 New York Marathon victor who was fifth here last year, but he said publicly he was not invited.

One American who will garner attention from the more than 500,000 spectators along the 42-kilometer course is 1984 inaugural Olympic marathon gold medalist Joan Samuelson. She won here in 1979 in a U.S. record of 2:35:15 and returned four years later with a world record 2:22:43. Her significance in the race is that at age 53, the Maine native is attempting to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials in Houston in January by running faster than 2:46.

Samuelson, nursing a sore back, said she has qualified for every Olympic marathon trials since 1984, the only American who has done so. But she insists that just running Boston for the first time in 18 years is her focus, not necessarily nailing the standard for an unprecedented eighth time. She ran 2:47:50 in the Chicago heat in October.

Also in the womens field is Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, whose four victories here at the most of any female champion since women entrants were officially recognized at Boston in 1972.

But the distinction of the competitor with the most wins ever at Boston goes to South African Ernst Van Dyk, the veteran wheelchair racer going for his 10th Boston title and fourth in a row. The 38-year-old owns the world and course record of 1:18:27, set in 2004.

The top male and female wheelchair finisher both earn $15,000.

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