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World Marathon Majors

Boston’s Rolling Start: Easy and Effective, But Sustainable?

The new rolling start at Boston adopted for the COVID-influenced fall running proved great for runners. But what will they do next April?

Last week’s Boston Marathon differed from past Bostons in so many ways that Tom Grilk, president and CEO of the organizing Boston Athletic Association, says, “About the only thing that didn’t change was the route from Hopkinton to Copley Square. That meant there were many opportunities for things to go sideways.”

They didn’t, however. Go sideways. New logistical procedures worked well, thanks to carefully orchestrated plans and runners who mostly complied, whether with regard to vaccination regulations, bus loading, or an innovative “rolling start” in Hopkinton.

“Everything seemed to work fine,” notes Grilk, adding: “It was lovely to see the city come alive again. The vibe was exuberant. It was great to see so many people so happy.”

Start at Will

In the past, the Boston Marathon, like most major marathons, used “wave starts” with roughly 7000 runners per wave, and a slight delay between waves. In 2019, this process allowed Boston to start roughly 30,000 runners in 1.5 hours (from 10 am to 11:30 am). However, the runners had to wake up early to catch their buses in Boston, and to wait several hours in an “Athletes Village” (the Hopkinton High School athletic fields) before being freed to walk to the start line.

Last week, runners — assigned to specific bus waves by their qualifying times — left Boston roughly an hour later than usual, and didn’t have to spend any time penned-up in Hopkinton. Once there, runners could use portapotties, grab a drink, and saunter directly to the start. Many couldn’t believe that they were then free to begin running.

Race director Dave McGillivray was standing at the start line. “Runners kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Really, I can just start running?’” he reports. Answer: Yes.

McGillivray first began using a similar rolling start at the 2017 Chesapeake Bay Bridge Run (Across The Bay 10K). It worked there, and last spring he began thinking it might help Boston improve social distancing by eliminating both the Athletes’ Village and the sardine-packed start waves.

The rolling start spread out the field so much it altered runners’ experience, mostly for the better. Runner reported that they were mostly sorted by pace, although spaced out enough that encountering slower runners didn’t create as much of a problem as usual. One runner said, “I saw the downhills at the start for the first time ever instead of just shoulders ahead of me.” But McGillivray also noted, “I talked to people who had good running days, but many more who had bad days. I think they might have started too fast because they didn’t have thick packs of runners around them to slow them at the start.”

Now that Boston runners have experienced a rolling start, they appear to have become big fans. More sleep time? No wait time in a chilly, uncomfortable Athletes’ Village? What’s not to like? In an online poll at Boston Buddies, a Facebook group, fully 90 percent of over 500 respondents said they’d like to see the rolling start become a fixture in future Boston Marathons.

But it might not prove easy. This year, with 18,000 runners, it took 2.5 hours for them to clear the start line (from 9 am to 11:30 am) vs. the 1.5 hours with 30,000 runners in 2019.

Boston Marathon Start 2019 vs 2021
Year Runners First Bus Leaves Boston Athlete Village Wait Mass Start Time Time to Clear All Runners Through Start
2019 30,000 6 am Approx 2 hours 10:00 a.m. 1.5 hours
2021 18,000 7:15 am 0 hours 9:00 a.m. 2.5 hours

The problem is that Hopkinton is a small village of about 17,000 residents. The roads are narrow, and it’s not easy getting buses in and out of town. Not quickly, at any rate. If you have more time, sure, the process gets more manageable.

But time is another huge factor. The Boston Marathon has two main constituencies: runners, and the towns and cities through which the route runs. Runners like what they experienced this year — the convenience of a rolling start. But if a rolling start takes more time, the towns and cities might need to close their roads longer than they would like.

Tom Grilk isn’t slamming the door on any possibilities. He emphasizes the close working relationship between the Boston Marathon and its constituent towns. He calls it a “very supportive collaboration,” and notes that the towns agreed to a one-hour earlier start time this fall. “Our future plans are always open to discussion with the towns and cities,” he says, while acknowledging that “towns like to get their roads back.”

McGillivray relishes a logistical challenge, while also cherishing a smooth operation. Yes, there may be ways to organize a rolling start that can handle more runners in less time. But he hasn’t had a chance yet to overlay maps, street widths, bus frequencies, and everything else involved. In addition to logistics questions, since the 2013 bombings, the BAA has had to plan for security issues involving runner transport and location.

“I’m not saying we can’t do it,” he observes. “I’m saying we haven’t had time to analyze all our options yet. I’ve always believed we shouldn’t attempt anything that greatly increases our risks for failure. That’s just my basic MO.”

Vaxed and Looking Forward

When it came to COVID-19 considerations, public health officials must have been delirious. Fully 93 percent of Boston entrants presented fully-vaccinated documentation. Among the remainder, who were required to take COVID-19 tests over marathon weekend, only 0.3 percent returned a positive COVID-19 result. This seems to prove that marathon runners are both extraordinarily healthy, and also vigilant about following vaccine-related health guidelines.

Now Boston runners are eager to know two more key facts about the Boston Marathon. How many runners will be accepted into the April 2022 event? And will the popular rolling start continue to be used?

Neither answer will come soon. COVID-19 isn’t going to disappear overnight, and that’s just one piece in an equation that has grown much more complicated since the bomb explosions of 2013. Grilk has acknowledged elsewhere that Boston would like to nudge its numbers higher again in the coming years, but he’s not showing his hand.

“If we could predict the environment next April, we could tell you where we’re headed right now,” says Grilk. “But we can’t, so we will continue to analyze and discuss. At the highest level, our job is to serve the interest of a lot of people, and public safety is always our most important guideline.”

Registration for the 2022 Boston Marathon (April 18) will be held from November 8 to November 12. Runners can use qualifying times from September 1, 2019, to November 12, 2021.