Boston history – The challenges of qualifying for the 1973 Boston Marathon

Ever wondered what it was like to try and qualify for Boston before you could Google “Boston training plans?” Ken Parker discovered marathon running in the early 1970s, this post takes you through his journey to earn a Boston Qualifier and will be followed by a post about his experience running the 1973 Boston marathon.

I didn’t start out as a distance runner. I was a sprinter, and my best event was the 100 yards. I had no coach, and I ran in a pair of thin leather shoes with spikes. Like many sprinters, I was occasionally drafted to take part in a relay, so I considered the 4X400 distance running. I was pretty good, but there was another kid from North Bay who always passed me around 70-80 yards, so I had no illusions of winning gold medals at the Olympics.

Boxcar C119

When I joined the Canadian Air Force, as a navigator in Squadron 436 in Ottawa (flying in the vintage gas guzzler, Boxcar C119,  for the aviation fanatics out there), there was a fitness test. My commander took this test seriously, if you failed you were grounded. Not a desirable situation for a navigator! Part of the test included a mile and a half run. I played flag football and basketball, I’d run track, I wasn’t concerned, and I did pass the test, but I was shocked these skinny guys were leaving me in their dust on the run, humbling for someone who thought of himself as a runner.

Not long after, I was posted to Winnipeg and I heard a news story about the Boston marathon. 26 miles!  Wow! One day I want to do that! I started researching and finding out everything I could about the marathon and discovered Boston wasn’t just “a” marathon it was “the” marathon. For a competitive runner like myself the lure was irresistible. (side note from Susan: The first New York marathon was 127 runners running loops around Central park in 1970, the London marathon didn’t start until 1981, the Chicago marathon has been around since 1905, and is a great race, but does not have the prestige of Boston)

Run to the Top by Arthur Lydiard

Now keep in mind this was in the early 70s. I didn’t have the option of doing a Google search for marathon training plans. I had never seen a copy of Runners World (side note from Susan: apparently the first issue came out in 1966). So, I researched training for a marathon the way everyone researched in those days: I went to the library. I asked the librarian to show me the section on running books. Well they didn’t have a section, but they did have a book by Arthur Lydiard called Run to the Top.

Arthur Lydiard was a controversial New Zealand runner who created his own training plans using trial and error. He was somewhat controversial as a coach, but it’s hard to argue with his results. He coached New Zealand’s running team which dominated the middle distance at the time. His team included Peter Snell, New Zealand’s Sports Champion of the 20th century, who won gold in the 800m and 1500m at the 1964 summer Olympics.  Runner’s World has since hailed Lydiard as the ‘All Time Best Running Coach’. Lydiard believed in building an endurance base by putting in a lot of miles, and he believed in designing a training plan to reach peak performance on the day of your goal race.  His training plans combined strength work such as hill running and sprinting, anaerobic training, and every marathon runner’s favorite part of the training plan, a taper. Sound familiar?

Fun fact:  We used to do seminars every month from the fall leading up to the Ottawa Marathon in May partly because, in the early years, the general public didn’t really know how to train for a marathon. In the late 1970s we brought Arthur Lydiard as a speaker to talk about how to train for a marathon. So I had the chance to meet the man who wrote the book I used to train for my first marathon. He was really great!  

Meme What if I told you its not that simple

So, back to my training. I started training for a marathon. The biggest change for me was adding a lot more long runs. But of course, those of you familiar with Boston know that you don’t just register for Boston, you have to qualify for Boston. Boston introduced qualifying times in 1970 because the number of runners registering for Boston had been steadily increasing. They had 1,342 runners in 1969. The Boston Athletics Association officials felt that a field over 1,000 was too congested on the course so the 1970 Boston marathon application stated “A runner must submit the certification of either the Long Distance Running chairman of the Amateur Athletics Union of his district or his college coach that he has trained sufficiently to finish the course in less than four hours. This is not a jogging race.”  

This new requirement reduced the field size in 1970 to 1,174 but that still exceeded the target field size of 1,000 runners. So, in 1971 they updated the race application again “An athlete has to have run a marathon in under three hours, thirty minutes; or, in the last year to have run ten miles in 65 minutes or under; 15 miles in 1:45, or 20 miles in 2:30.” That’s right, they reduced the qualifying time by 30 minutes! (side note from Susan: I guess I should stop complaining about that 5 minute drop in Boston qualifying times in 2020). This resulted in a 1971 field size of 1,067.  They kept the 3:30 qualifying time until 1976 but added requirements that the time must be achieved at a B.A.A. or other sanctioned marathon, or an A.A.U. sanctioned long distance race. They continued to allow runners to qualify at races shorter than the marathon distance because there were a limited number of marathons at the time. 1972 was also the first year women were officially allowed to run the Boston marathon, but they had to meet the same qualifying standards as the men.   

So, to qualify for the 1972 Boston Marathon, I needed to run a sub 3:30. In May of 1971, there was a charity event organized for the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Winnipeg called the Spacewalk. People walked various distances. The Spacewalk was my first opportunity to run the marathon distance. I ran it in 3:20:05. But it was not an “official” marathon so I could not use it as qualifier.

Spacewalk race newspaper article

But the timing of my quest for an official marathon worked out well, as 1971 was the year they founded the Manitoba road runners association. In May 1972, they put on a marathon in Birds Hill provincial Park. The park had a nice running loop around the exterior. I ran it in 3:30:50. At this time I was running around 250 miles per month with a long run of 16 miles.

I had an opportunity to improve my time in September 1972 when I ran a marathon was in St Vital, a suburb in the South end of Winnipeg. I remember being interviewed by the CBC and I had to explain to the reporter that a marathon was a 26.2 mile race because he had never heard of marathons before. 13 runners entered the St Vital marathon. The route took us winding through the suburban streets, up and down crescents and side streets. My wife came to cheer me on. When I spotted her on the course she called out “you’re in third place!” I finished in 3:11:54.

I had my qualifier and I was on my way to the 1973 Boston Marathon!

Boston Marathon Qualifier

Who is Ken Parker?

Ken has been active participant in the development of marathon as a mainstream support and in particular with the development of competitive women’s running which he champions to this day. He was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and continues to coach the OAC women’s running team in Ottawa. This post is intended to start setting the stage for a series of posts, as I hope to continue interviewing Ken to learn more about his experience in the marathon space and in particular his involvement with the evolution of competitive women’s running!

If you enjoyed this post you may want to check out my other running posts, everything from race reports, to practical tips on Boston, to running disaster stories from runners just like you!

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