“I’ve trained my whole life for the Boston Marathon and now I’m pregnant I’m losing my place”

Mum-to-be Ailsa Paterson is campaigning to change the rules for the Boston Marathon after being told she could not defer her race entry because she’s pregnant.

Qualifying for a place at the Boston Marathon is hard. You have to be seriously fast – for women aged 18-34, that means running a sub 3hr 30min marathon – and even if you manage to meet the tough qualifying time, there’s still a chance your application might be turned away because the race is usually always oversubscribed. Running a qualifying time literally just means you can apply. There’s no guarantee you’ll actually get in.

Out of all the major marathons – including London, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Tokyo – Boston is the only one that requires a qualifying time from the previous year. And while this time-limited qualification window gives Boston – the oldest and arguably most prestigious marathon – a certain allure, its strict no-deferral rule (entries in the Boston Marathon cannot be transferred, deferred to a future year, and only those who elect to purchase registration insurance may be eligible for refunds), means that it poses a specific set of issues for women who may become pregnant between qualifying and race day.

Ailsa Paterson, a 32-year-old runner from London, asks: why does the Boston Marathon discriminate against women?

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“I started properly running in 2017. In 2018 I entered the Edinburgh Marathon and qualified for a ‘Good For Age’ place at London 2019 – where you have to run a certain qualifying time for your age category. I wanted to see if I could run fast enough in London to then qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2020. And I did. Then Covid happened. The world closed and marathons, like everything else, were cancelled. The Boston dream was over.

“But then, I ran the Manchester Marathon with my husband last October and I managed to qualify for Boston again. I received the confirmation of my place on 2 December 2021, and on 3 December, I found that I was pregnant.

“For context, the 2022 Boston Marathon takes place in April so I’ll be six months pregnant – which means running the Boston Marathon isn’t really an option for me.

“Running while pregnant is generally considered safe, and is often actively encouraged by doctors as it can lead to many health benefits and help women prepare for labour. The NHS advise keeping up your normal daily physical activity or exercise for as long as you feel comfortable. And say that the more active and fit you are during pregnancy, the easier it will be for you to adapt to your changing shape and weight gain. But not every woman can – or wants to – run 26.2 miles while carrying a baby.

“Running a marathon puts a huge toll on your body – it’s a physical challenge like no other, regardless of whether you are a recreational runner or an elite athlete. It can leave even the fittest athlete feeling sore and achy from head to toe. And for me, personally, the health of my baby is the most important thing to me.

“As it stands, the Boston Marathon does not offer any deferral option for women who are in this position – the option is either to run the race whilst pregnant or forfeit your hard-earned place altogether.

“I know that you can defer your place at the London Marathon if you’re injured, for example. In fact, I know several people who have had to do that. But when I reached out to The Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), I received a very ‘computer says no’ response from them confirming that deferring places to the following year is not an option. They said: ‘Congratulations on your growing family. If you’ve registered insurance, you can claim with a valid reason. Pregnancy is a factor that’s covered in the insurance’. And that was basically it.

“Frankly, I am disgusted by this policy. I’ve had to qualify twice now for this race – I’m clearly fit enough to run it – it makes me so angry and I feel like I’m being punished for getting pregnant. 

“I’m a strong runner and I’m fairly confident that I would be fine to run it in 2023 – I might not do my fastest time, but I could give it a good go and actually enjoy it instead of risking my health – and the health of my baby – while running it pregnant.

“I’m 32 years old, and as someone who could struggle to get pregnant again in the future, I’m not going to put off having a baby for the sake of a run. But at the same time, I worked so hard to earn my place on that start line and I feel like I have received a ‘too bad honey – you get knocked up, you lose your place’ response.

“The London marathon was hit by similar criticism for their deferral policy last year – they were accused of discriminating against new mums, forcing them to either run or lose their place – but they’ve since reviewed their policies and now offer pregnant or postpartum women a general entry for a subsequent year or a full refund of the entry fee.

“Most other marathons offer a deferral option for injury and/or pregnancy. Yet, the Boston Marathon don’t.

“Why do some of the world majors offer deferral options but not others? It doesn’t make sense. When the Chicago Marathon, for example, was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were given the option of deferring for three years – so you could use your entry for the 2020 race in 2021, 2022 or 2023.

“I’m not a full-time athlete or professional runner, but running Boston has become a dream for me. In fact, for many runners, running the Boston Marathon is the ultimate running goal. Running is my hobby and something I love and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m upset I can’t run Boston this year. But, equally, I can’t just put my life on hold. And the B.A.A shouldn’t make me feel like I’m being punished for having a child. 

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“I am urging the B.A.A to change their policy on this. Being able to defer your place by a year should be an option for women like me. Big corporate events can’t just be allowed to enforce strict policies like this without considering the impact on women’s bodies.

“I’m hopeful that after I’ve had my baby, I will be able to qualify again, but I will certainly think twice about taking part in a marathon that so blatantly discriminates against pregnant women.” 

When Stylist reached out to the B.A.A. for this feature, it said: “The B.A.A does not allow race entries to be transferred, deferred or refunded for any of our races, including the Boston Marathon. Participants acknowledge and accept this at the point of registration. Participants do have the option to purchase registration insurance for the Boston Marathon at the point of registration. Participants who elect to purchase this insurance are covered for a variety of reasons, including pregnancy, and receive a full refund of entry fees upon submitting a claim.

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Images: Ailsa Paterson

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