Boston Marathon officials’ grand gesture takes care of runners

A runner's acceptance of a profoundly impacted bib.


(This is an installment in our series at on what the Boston bombing means to more than two dozen people directly affected at last year’s marathon. So 2014 is the comeback, because 2013 was the knockdown. Read their stories.)

If the people most affected by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings never wanted to return to the marathon scene or Boylston Street (the site of the bombings) again, it would be completely understandable.

But, in the weeks following the 2013 Boston Marathon, the Boston Athletic Association started to hear from some of those people who were most impacted. They didn’t want to stay away; instead, they wanted to return as runners for the 2014 marathon.  

The B.A.A. extended an invitation to all potential runners who were greatly impacted by the bombings by posting an announcement in the fall asking anyone who was profoundly impacted by the bombings and hoping to run in 2014 to send in a 250-word essay explaining how the events of 2013 and the reaction to them inspired them to run in 2014. The response was tremendous.

Thomas Grilk, the executive director of the B.A.A., said he was not surprised by that reaction.

Boston Marathon Tribute

 “What happened last year in April was an attack not on the Boston Marathon but an attack on Boston, an attack on the United States, an attack on freedom, on our way of life,” Grilk said. “The universality of the response, of that resilience, of that determination to move forward and live lives the way people choose themselves has, I think, given rise to the interest we’ve seen here.

“As we thought about it, we certainly found all of those stories quite moving. We thought that we should set aside a number of entries for such people.”

Thus marked the creation of the “profoundly impacted” bib for the 2014 Marathon.

But simply creating an additional category of runners alone is not that simple. The Boston Marathon cannot hand out spots to whoever wants to run. Since Boston boasts one of the most difficult courses in the world, prospective Boston runners must complete at least one marathon prior to applying for a Boston spot, and there are a series of qualifying standards depending on age and gender that all runners must meet.

The course is also old and narrow, so Boston typically limits the number of entrants to a 27,000-person field filled out both by elite runners and long-time charity partner runners. In the hopes of maintaining the traditional character of the race, Grilk and the B.A.A. did not want to take spots away from either of those two categories. Therefore, the B.A.A. had to decide how many spots it would be able to offer to profoundly impacted runners and figure out how to fit them into the racing field.

Before the creation of “profoundly impacted” bibs, the B.A.A. offered “deferment bibs” for any of the 5,633 runners who completed over half of the 2013 marathon but were unable to finish due to the bombings. In order to accommodate the extra 5,000 runners, the B.A.A. decided at the time to expand the race’s field to 32,000.

Figuring out when those 5,000 runners would start the race was another challenge. The Boston Marathon traditionally staggers its start into three waves of 9,000 runners each. With the extra 5,000 runners with deferment bibs for the 2014 marathon, the B.A.A. decided to add a fourth wave of 9,000 runners to accommodate the 5,000 who did not finish in 2013. While the B.A.A. already knew it would be giving out “profoundly impacted” bibs, the addition of that fourth wave of runners helped establish the number of bibs to hand out, as 4,000 would both fill out that 9,000-runner wave and offer plenty of opportunities for the most impacted runners to participate.

Deciding who would receive each of those 4,000 bibs was a difficult task. The B.A.A. waived traditional entry requirements such as previous marathon experience and certain qualifying times solely for these runners, but it emphasized that applicants must understand and complete the amount and type of training required to run the Boston course.

Runners who will participate thanks to the profoundly impacted bib have a range of stories.

Runners who will participate thanks to the profoundly impacted bib have a range of stories. Some were bystanders-turned-first-responders, some were injured, and some are friends and family members of the Marathon victims.

While many of this year’s runners have incredibly emotional reasons for participating, the B.A.A. wants the 118th Boston Marathon to be a celebration. There are memorials planned leading up to the race to provide a time to reflect, mourn and remember, but Grilk said he hopes the race itself will be both a return to what the marathon has always been in Boston and a reflection of the indefatigable spirit embodied by the  “profoundly impacted” runners.

“The Boston Marathon is something that the BAA organizes but everybody owns,” Grilk said. “We want all those owners to have it be what it has always been for them: a day of competition, a day of celebrations, and the weekend that [former Boston] Mayor [Tom] Menino has always called the best weekend in the city of Boston.

“We also want it to be a day when everything moves forward, a day that displays the concept that I think is at the core of the slogan ‘Boston Strong’, which is to say that people will live their lives the way they choose no matter what someone did to try to stop them.”