Tour of Marathon Majors Starts in Boston

Associated Press

Monday April 17, 2006

BOSTON - More than 20,000 runners are expected to line up in Hopkinton for the start of the Boston Marathon, 26.2 miles away from the traditional bowl of beef stew, an olive wreath and a $100,000 first prize.

A few might have a different race in mind.

"Monday is the start of two races," New York City Marathon director Mary Wittenberg said. "One of the races will be over in 2 1/2 hours. The other race - to be the world's greatest marathoner - won't be over for 18 months."

The World Marathon Majors competition starting this year will award points to top runners based on their finish in five of the elite races: Boston, London, New York, Berlin and Chicago. The Boston winners will be the front-runners for a pair of $500,000 bonuses - one each for the men and women - but it will take sustained success in four races over two years to win.

"The whole point is to be the best runner in the world," Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi said as he prepared to make his Boston debut.

Marathons have a devoted but - compared to leagues like the NFL - relatively small following that keeps the sport from reaping billion-dollar TV deals and more lucrative licensing fees. The splintered structure also leaves the races competing for runners and attention.

So, the five races looked to the mainstream sports for a system that will reward athletes for long-term consistency instead of just one day of greatness. The circuit also creates other marketing and promotional opportunities that weren't available to them when they were just a bunch of different races.

"We feel like we're at a different level, and we felt we have an obligation to bring the sport into the future," Boston director Guy Morse said.

In coming up with a point system, organizers of the marathons looked to the grand slams and Triple Crowns in other sports to see how it was done. Of special interest was NASCAR's new Chase for the Championship, which made a mini-circuit out of a yearlong season.

"Our attention ebbs and tides," Chicago executive race director Carey Pinkowski said. "We looked to the mainstream sports and how they stay in front of the audience."

But while horses can run three times in five weeks and cars every weekend, humans usually run no more than two marathons a year - one in the spring and one in the fall.

Organizers knew two races wasn't enough to crown a true champion, so they came up with a two-year cycle, overlapping so that a bonus will be awarded each fall starting in 2007. Runners get 25 points for winning a race, decreasing to 15, 10, 5 and 1 point for fifth place.

"Everything is influenced by the fact that the athletes can't - and we don't want to encourage them to - run more," Morse said.

Figuring out the system was the easy part. A more delicate task was getting the sponsors and shoe companies to put their competition aside and go along.

Several of the races are sponsored, by financial services companies, for example, who are now sharing top billing with their competitors. Shoe companies also have ties to individual races and needed to work together on ideas such as uniforms.

"The beauty of our sport is it's a close-knit community," Wittenberg said. "It's like a family, where sometimes you're better for the rivalries within it. But now we're at a point where we're only going to be better together."

For now, the marathons will fund the bonuses themselves. A title sponsor - and a $1 million top prize - is likely soon.

Among the other changes being discussed are a uniform system that will make it easier to identify individual runners, instead of their shoe sponsors. Organizers are talking about a system that would allow competitors to carry their bib numbers from race to race to make them recognizable and marketable by number, like Mia Hamm's No. 9 or Dale Earnhardt's No. 3.

Olympic gold medalist Stefano Baldini would wear a gold jersey, and world record-holder Paul Tergat would wear yellow, like the leader does in the Tour de France.

Runners in Boston had already committed before the circuit was put together. Several said they didn't think it would influence where they run in the future.

But circuit organizers think that might change as the fall of 2007 approaches and a handful of athletes are in the running for the bonus.

"You're going to see it play out and grow in interest," Morse said.

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