Some of you may have been hearing about, or watching, the London Marathon this weekend and wondering how hard is it for you to get a place in next year’s race? You may have heard that it’s difficult to get a spot, or that doing so requires you to be a great runner, or to raise a load of money for charity. None of those is exactly true, on their own, but they are all part of the truth. So, here is a quick overview of how to get a sport for the 2020 London Marathon (and a bonus couple of ‘how not to!’)
How to get a place?
Be quick – the Good for Age scheme
Perhaps the ‘simplest’ way to get in is via the good for age scheme. Until 2019, this guaranteed entry for runners who achieved a given time at a qualifying marathon (pretty much all big marathons, and many smaller ones). The time has got progressively quicker over the years as the number of entries, and indeed interest in distance running in general, have increased. The required standard for 18-39 year old men is now sub-3hrs, which is a very quick time indeed. Times are reduced for women and for other age groups, but are presumably equally as challenging.
It’s worth nothing that the qualifying time has reduced substantially from, if I remember rightly, more like 3:15 a few years ago when I first started running marathons.
Even worse, though, a change for 2019 is that getting that time no longer even guarantees you a place, it simply gets you into the Good for Age draw, where your chances of getting selected should be very good indeed and far better than the open lottery, but not necessarily 100%. This problem is only likely to get worse, and I suspect we’ll see the GFA entry times both continue to decrease, and GFA become more of a lottery.
Edit: I was fairly sure that when I wrote this post, a couple of weeks prior to the marathon, the information above about the ‘GFA draw’ was accurate. However, either I misunderstood and have misremembered (entirely possible) or the information has been updated now that 2020 is the ‘live’ event. Either way, if GFA is oversubscribed, a random ballot will not be run, but rather the effective cut-off time in each age group will be gradually reduced until only the right number of people get in. This is similar to how Boston Qualifiers work and is certainly fair in that it rewards faster people and means that someone significantly faster than their age cut off should run little or no risk of not getting a place. For people closer to the cut-off, however, it is no doubt likely to cause some grief.
Be even quicker – Championship entry
If you are even quicker, it’s possible to get a championship entry by joining an Athletics Club associated with British Athletics, and running either a marathon or half marathon in a qualifying time. Note that half marathons do not qualify for Good for Age entry, only for Championship entry. The time for men is 2:45 for the marathon and 1:15 for a half marathon which are, obviously, also very very quick times and, while within range for the best club-level amateurs, not really achievable for the vast majority of runners.
Run for charity
If the Good for Age is the ‘simple’ way to get in, then I guess running for charity is the ‘easy’ way. Charities can sign up to various levels of London Marathon schemes, which get them a number of places, and then it’s up to the charity what they do with them. The charities allocate the places based on their own criteria, which may require a degree of connection and commitment to the charity, may involve their own lottery system, or may simply be first come first served. Either way, they will almost always request a commitment to a minimum fundraise, usually of at least £2,000.
The good news is that there are enough of these places that they are actually fairly easy to get your hands on if you are a) not overly picky about the charity and b) willing to commit to the substantial fundraising required. The London Marathon website provides a listing of charities with places, and if you do some Googling in the months prior to the event you will usually find plenty of charities advertising that they still have places available.
The bad news is, of course, that you need to raise the money and this is increasingly difficult in a world where absolutely everyone is running some kind of event to raise money for a good cause. And if you’re a serious runner and just want to get into a fantastic race then you may feel, as I do, that it’s a bit unreasonable to expect your friends to chip in £2,000 so that you can do so.
You may also feel, as many people do, that the dominance of charity places at big events like London have made it sadly very difficult for serious but not quite ‘Good for Age’ amateur runners to get a spot, while also turning much of the event into a sort of carnival or parade rather than a race, and that perhaps this isn’t a wholly positive thing for long distance road running as a sport.
Run for a club
Another group of organisations that are given places to distribute are running/athletics clubs. They may apply for places depending on their size, and it is then up to them how they distribute those places to their members. The number of places available is still very small: just one place for a club of 10-150 members, and a maximum of four places for clubs of over 350 members. All the same, the number of members who are active and wish to run the marathon in any given year means that your chance of getting a place could be statistically a little better than in the ballot, and the allocation is likely to be fairer and less random. Precisely because of that fairness and lack of randomness, however, you’re probably unlikely to immediately get a spot in the marathon if that’s the only reason you’ve joined a club. I would imagine that they are far more likely to go to long-standing and committed members, and perhaps to those who have been on an internal waitlist for several years. And of course, clubs may well run their own internal ballots too.
Still, if you are a serious runner then joining a local club and running other, easier to enter, races for them could set you up well to get a marathon spot in future years.
Get in through the lottery
The default method for anyone for whom the above methods aren’t an option or don’t appeal is to apply in the lottery. The system, (which some believe is unnecessarily complex, unfair and opaque) is as follows:
- Between Monday 29 April and 17:00 on Friday 3 May, enter the ballot online.
This is now a fixed entry period instead of the infuriating fastest-finger-test that it used to be, where it was only open until a certain number of entries had been submitted, which generally took a matter of hours.
Confusingly, the VLM states there is a fee to ‘enter the ballot‘ of £39 (or £80 from overseas). From what I can tell, this is (either intentionally or unintentionally) misleading. The fee is to enter the race if, and only if, you are successful in getting in through the ballot. If you are not, you don’t have to pay anything. However, the VLM really want you to ‘bequeath’ your £39 to their charitable trust. They used to encourage you to do so by sending a bit of branded running kit to unsuccessful entrants who opted to bequeath their entry fee. I believe they have stopped doing that, but now instead enter you into a second draw that has another 1,000 places available, so in theory that slightly increases your chances of getting a slot.
- Between the 3rd of May and early October, the VLM apparently spend around 5 months drawing the ballot (something the New York Marathon manage to do in a matter of days).
Inconveniently, during this absurdly extended delay, a number of other events that you might have wanted to do as a plan B open and close their registration windows, Brighton Marathon being a notable one. That means you have to run the risk of having no event to do in April, or the chance of two on the same day or within a week of each other.
- Finally, in early October, you get a newsletter in the post with one of two front covers on it, either a ‘You’re In’ or something like ‘Sorry you didn’t get a place’. At this point your £39 fee is taken, or not, depending on whether you got a place and, if you didn’t, whether you opted to bequeath your fee anyway.
- There is no longer any system to guarantee a place after a certain number of failed attempts, nor to upweight your chance after each attempt. If you are applying for the 10th time, you have the exact same statistical chance as someone applying for the first time, or indeed someone who has somehow been successful for the past three years in a row.
The good news is that if you do get a lottery place, you can then just show up and run, and can sit back and focus on training while a lot of the charity runners are discovering how surprisingly hard it is to squeeze £2,000 out of their friends and family.
One of the several pieces of free marathon kit I received over years of ballot entries
Come from abroad
A final option, which I found it a little hard to find detailed information about, is to come through a tour company. Like the athletics clubs and charities, a small number of approved tour operators in each country are given places which they can (and in fact must) then bundle up with a flights and hotel package and sell. The tour companies are forbidden from simply selling the places on their own; they must be part of a package.
This means that if you are prepared to pay for what I suspect are quite expensive packages, then you can presumably get a guaranteed place. That said, places are still limited and I suspect most tour companies get more applications for them than they can fulfil, so it’s still not an entirely sure thing. It’s hard to tell how oversubscribed the places are, or how the various tour companies allocate them. One website I read described them as ‘first come first served’ while another said they were only available to ‘invited guests’.
In theory this is only open to non-UK runners, although if a UK runner really wanted to pay for flights and a hotel as a way to get a guaranteed place in the marathon that might be possible, I honestly don’t know. Frankly, if you are a UK runner and you want to pay to get into one of the majors, I’d go for one that actually is overseas for you (New York, Berlin, Tokyo, maybe?) so that you actually need the flights and hotel and aren’t throwing your money away!
And how not to?
Take a friend’s bib
Marathon spots are strictly non-transferable and, while it might seem entirely harmless to take a friend’s place if they are unable to run for whatever reason, you absolutely should not do so for a number of reasons:
- Marathon organisers take this seriously and consider it a form of cheating. If you are caught, both you and your friend run the risk of being disqualified and banned from future events.
- If you become ill or are injured at the event or, even worse, keel over and die (it happens), imagine the distress that will be caused when the organisers cannot properly identify you because your running number shows up as belonging to an entirely different person.
- It is possible to distort results, without even realising it. Even a moderately fast young person who has taken the bib of a much older competitor could accidentally end up in the top few runners, thereby doing someone else out of the top spot. Again, it happens.
Like almost all marathons, London is run through the city streets on a relatively open course. While the start line is fairly tightly controlled, most of the rest of the run has little other than low metal barriers between runners and spectators, and sometimes not even those. It’s always tempting, therefore, to not even bother registering and simply join the run without a number. Some of the
tossers people that do this have even been known to take medals at the end but, whether or not you take a medal or how you justify this to yourself, do not bandit because:
- It is a form of theft. Everyone else running has paid to do so, and this money goes towards the stewarding, the policing, the road closures, the support stations, and everything else. Even if you don’t take water at the aid stations, you can’t avoid the fact that you’re benefiting from closed roads, stewarding and security that have been paid for by other runners. It could even lead to criminal charges.
- The race is already oversubscribed and overcrowded. You might argue that one more person in a field of tens of thousands will make no difference, but making an argument for doing something on the basis that it’s fine as long as only you do it is pretty low. Much like queue jumping, or even stealing something small from a large company that won’t miss it, the message of such actions is ‘I’m special, and as long as you sheep carry on following the rules, I can benefit myself by breaking them’. Imagine what would happen if everyone who wanted to run the marathon just did so without a bib? The event would fall apart within minutes. So don’t do it.
- If the above arguments don’t convince you, bear in mind that in this day and age the security services are a lot more concerned about people jumping barriers or sneaking into races without a number. Doing so puts pressure on those providing security, and runs the risk of you being arrested, and perhaps forcibly.