by Dante Zappala

Ryan Hall is fast. He is qualified. He’s the only American marathon runner to break 2:05, accomplishing that at Boston in 2011. So when he toed the line at the same event in 2014 with the world’s best, you’d have to believe he deserved to be there; except that he hadn’t actually earned his spot in the race.

The Boston Marathon requires potential entrants to meet certain time standards. The rules state that your qualifying time needs to come within 18 months of the event. Hall hadn’t completed a marathon in more than two years. You can do the math.

Of course, the Boston Athletic Association would make an exception for an elite runner like Ryan Hall. In fact, they make many exceptions. Former winners of the race can grant entry to anyone they’d like. Corporate sponsors get entries. And then there are those that raise money for charity to gain entrance to the race.

I think these two systems in parallel are what make the race so great. For many runners, reaching Boston is a pinnacle achievement. We’ll never make it to the Olympics, but with effort, commitment and some luck, we can make it to Boston. Meanwhile, a portion of the field can taste the atmosphere and take the stories home, hopefully inspiring themselves and others to get there again somehow, someway.

This system has created conflict. Some believe it sets up classes of the deserving and the undeserving. But the problem is not with the race and the way it is structured, it is with the way we interpret the concept of qualification. By itself, qualifying connotes a certain value. In the current landscape, to qualify suggests hierarchy. It elevates a person, yes, but ostensibly it must be above another.

This is the root of our seduction by prestige and exclusivity. We applaud people who earn it. We deride those that don’t, but yet we still desire to be where they are. People define it with wealth and possessions. They define it through the accumulation of power and influence. Some live in a kind of perpetual junior high school, where improving your social status means climbing rungs tied to the backs of others.

And it’s no mistake that some of us seek it in running. Growing up, getting to Boston was the pinnacle achievement for the guys I ran with. Some never made it; and for good reason. If you were trying to qualify in the early 80’s, the standard for men under 40 was 2:50. That is, in a word, ridiculous.

We’ve institutionalized this chase to get in to the point that we’ve passed it on through generations. Children are fighting each other to get to Boston, New Haven, Ithaca or West Philadelphia. Being qualified for that honor is no longer even about possessing the skill sets to succeed at these institutions. It’s a fashion label that serves as a means to an end. And the time standard, the score they need to get there is fabricated because of the pressures that teach kids to prim and stand out from their peers. Substance is no longer the byproduct of sustained effort. It’s just another embellishment in the sales pitch.

But then what? While embarking on the mission of getting in for the sake of getting in might land you in the Ivy League, a privileged social circle or a big race, it can also check you into the roach motel. These single achievements can leave one exasperated and lost with no knowledge of what to do next.

Qualification has created an atmosphere of inherent animosity and anxiety. Even reaching the mountaintop leaves one with an eye looking out and the other looking down. But it’s a fallacy to believe that the ideal view is from above. We don’t learn at altitude. You try to qualify by putting the miles in on the road, and it’s there that you’ll also find the best angles to view success and failure.

I finally did it. After four years of trying, I put it all together and ran a race worthy of entry into Boston. My time at the Via Marathon this month landed me a spot at the starting line on Ash Street in Hopkinton on April 20, 2015.

But maybe it would be best if don’t say I qualified for Boston. No, I’m just on my way.