From The New York Times
Big Marathons, Already Packed, May Still Grow
By JULIET MACUR
Published: October 28, 2008
“I just pray,” he said, “and hope not to get mowed down.”
Such is the experience for many participants in the sport’s glamour races, like the marathons in New York, London, Chicago, Berlin and Boston. Bursting with runners, those races appear to be at their saturation point, with several fields hosting more than 35,000 competitors. Some of those events have doubled in size from a decade ago.
To ease congestion on its five-borough course, New York is implementing a new starting system this year, when more than 39,000 are expected to compete. Recreational runners will begin the race in three intervals, 20 minutes apart.
The race director, Mary Wittenberg, and New York’s deputy mayor for economic development, Robert C. Lieber, have discussed expanding the field. More than two-thirds of the runners come from outside the tristate area, bringing the city more than $220 million, organizers say.
Lieber said he could envision at least 50,000 runners in New York’s marathon.
For the 57,665 people who applied to run in last year’s New York City Marathon but were denied entry, that may seem like great news. It would be a disappointing turn, however, for many runners who already find big-city marathons unmanageable.
Liam Mycroft, a 50-year-old tax auditor from Dublin, is a veteran of 22 marathons, including the Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Boston, Winnipeg and Rotterdam races. He ran the London Marathon twice, the last time in 1998. But never again, he said, because of the crowds.
Some streets in big-city marathons, like London’s aptly named Narrow Street, were clearly not fashioned to handle a sea of 70,000 sneaker-clad feet and the 35,000 runners attached to them, Mycroft said.
“You’re running in some places that there are some really tight bends, so you’re almost walking the first three miles and you don’t really get going until six or seven miles in,” he said. “It’s a fantastic, brilliant experience to run toward Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, closer to the end of the race. But when you’re still weaving around people, it’s annoying and not very much fun.”
Bigger fields mean more challenges for race organizers. As the number of entrants increases, so does the number of volunteers, police and medical workers, said Carey Pinkowski, the executive race director for the Chicago Marathon, which caps its registration at 45,000.
“Could we take 60,000 participants? Sure,” he said. “But that’s not a simple process. Right now we’re at a number we feel very comfortable with.”
Race directors in Boston and London say it would be impossible to add more runners to their already crammed courses.
In 2002, the Boston Marathon had 16,939 entrants. It then relaxed its race standards for runners 45 and older, and the field grew to 25,283 this year. And that, apparently, is the maximum the course could handle as it winds through eight cities and towns, the race director Guy Morse said. The field size for 2009 will be limited to 25,000.
“You are a victim of what you accomplish,” Morse said. “We want to be as big as we can be without compromising the integrity of the event. There’s a breaking point, and you may not know what that is until you get there. We don’t want to find out.”
Mary Pardi, 38, from Falmouth, Me., competed in the Boston Marathon in April, and said she ran shoulder-to-shoulder with other runners through Mile 18. She said she was “up on lawns, weaving in and out of people and wasting a lot of energy,” because the course was so packed. She failed to reach her goal of finishing in under three hours, crossing the line in 3 hours 3 minutes 44 seconds.
“I think they should make the standards a little harder because people are getting in better and better shape,” Pardi said. “But, no matter how hard it is to qualify, I think there will always be 20,000 people running it. Everyone wants to run in Boston because it means you are the best of the best.”
The attraction of running in a big-city marathon, where the course passes famous landmarks and goes through boisterous neighborhoods, has increased the demand for spots in races like the London Marathon. It already has 118,500 applicants for the 2009 event in April. About a third of them will be accepted.
David Bedford, the race director, said in an e-mail message that London was considered a marathon that many “want to do at least once in their lifetime.” He added that participants simply find ways “to cope” as they made their way through gridlocked parts of the course.
Although London organizers feel as if their race has reached its limit, New York officials are looking for their race to grow.
The wave start being used Sunday in the New York City Marathon is intended to ease crowding at particularly jammed points, like near the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Mile 8) and the Willis Avenue Bridge (Mile 20), said Wittenberg, the race director.
She said that she and other organizers have studied video, photographs and data from computerized timing chips on the runners’ sneakers to assess bottlenecks on the course. The start is an obvious point of congestion, but the finish area is also a problem because runners gather to reunite with friends and families.
Race organizers and city officials have discussed altering those two areas to expand the field.
“The No. 1 driver to get bigger is that more people can run the race and there is more economic impact,” Wittenberg said. “We think it makes sense just as long as the quality of the experience remains high.”
Pointing out that New York had more finishers than any other marathon last year, she added, “We want to be the biggest marathon, but never at the cost of being the best.”
Lieber, the deputy mayor, said he would not mind if the race was both. He scoffed at those who said the race was too crowded.
“That’s baloney,” he said. “It’s all about how you set it up.
“We’re not going to go from 39,000 to 50,000 in one year. It will happen over time.”
Obelkevich, who has competed in the race every year since 1976, finished his first New York City Marathon in 1974, when there were 527 entrants. He shudders at the thought of the race growing any larger than it is right now. Even so, he said he would not turn his back on it.
“I’d never think of skipping it,” said Obelkevich, 65, a retired music teacher from Manhattan. “What other race do you run with hundreds of other people helping you through the tough miles? Where else will you hear 26 bands along the course playing the theme song from ‘Rocky’?
“Now that I’ve got this streak going, I just can’t skip a year. Even if I broke my leg, I’d do it on crutches.”