London Marathon Ballot: The Impossible Problem

Willy Wonka doesn’t organise marathons.  But if he did, it’d probably be the best marathon in the world.  Would he hide golden race numbers in energy gels?  Would that be any better than the London Marathon ballot?

It’s that time of the year again when more than 200,000 runners are dashing home to check their doormats for a magazine.  The “You’re In” London Marathon magazine seems to be rarer than rocking horse shit but there are thousands of them being delivered by posties across the UK.

Today, on arriving home from work, I became Charlie Bucket.  I tore open the wrapper as fast as I could and slid the paper down to see the yellow glimmer of running vests.  Was it real?  Could it really be?  I slowly read and re-read the cover and the paperwork.

It’s a bloody golden ticket!

2016 London Marathon You're In magazine
2016 London Marathon You’re In magazine

Please don’t click away from this post in anger.  I know only too well how lucky I am having researched the ballot and the number of London Marathon places a couple of years ago.

With more than 253,000 runners in the ballot for the 2017 London Marathon I calculated that gave us a 16/1 chance of getting in via the ballot.

Pretty good odds compared to the 14 million to 1 chance of winning the UK lottery but pretty shabby odds for anyone desperately coveting that London Marathon place.  So how do you solve a problem like the London Marathon ballot?  How do you satisfy 253,000 runners?

Let’s start by looking at the London Marathon history in numbers (figures taken from the 2016 London Marathon Media Guide):

Number of London Marathon applicants & % accepted
Number of London Marathon applicants & % accepted
Outcome of London Marathon applicants
Outcome of London Marathon applicants

Not a lot of people know that many more places are granted than actually start the race.  Before you get angry at those who don’t toe the start line, the number of no-shows is so consistent the organisers over book the race knowing that the eventual field size will be manageable.

Look at the last 25 years – almost bang on 72% every year.  Uncanny!

% of accepted London Marathon runners who start the race
% of accepted London Marathon runners who start the race

And 2015 (the latest year I can find stats for) a record number of places were granted, runners started and runners finished the London Marathon.  The other great news is that if you start the race, you are very likely to finish it, with only 1% of starters failing to make it to the finish.

London Marathon places, starters & finishers
London Marathon places, starters & finishers

Cold comfort to the 200,000 or so of you who won’t find that golden ticket this year I’m sure.

So what are the other options?

Let Everyone Run

An idealistic solution: anyone who wants to run can run.  Simple.

Unfortunately practicalities get in the way of this one.  Getting 38,000 runners to the start in Greenwich (and their bags back to the finish) is a huge undertaking.  Even if it were possible to upscale the logisitics to cope with over 182,000 (taking into account the fact that 28% of people won’t even start), the course would be so packed I doubt you’d be able to run at all.

Another iconic race, the Great North Run, is the largest race in the UK with 57,000 runners taking part.

There are few races around the world that have more participants for a single distance event; none of them are a marathon length.

Phased Race Starts

Becoming more popular for shorter distances is a phased start system whereby people are given different start times and go off in waves.  London Marathon could have 5 waves accommodating 36,000 runners each.  Or could it?

Notwithstanding the logistic issues mentioned above, the course would either get log-jammed with runners or the waves would have to be spaced out so much the whole event would take more than 24 hours to get everyone round.

Multi-time Ballot Guarantee

Time and time again people raise this as a possible solution.  The principle is that if you are unsuccessful in the ballot for X number of years you get a guaranteed place.

Sounds simple enough but there are so many people who applied for ballot after ballot after ballot that you’d have to set the number of years to something ridiculous like 20 else there would still be too many runners for available spaces.

Both the London Marathon and the NYC Marathon had to abandon this type of system years ago when the numbers of potential guaranteed places would have been more than the race limit.

Restricted Ballot

The principle behind this is to allow different people to enjoy the fantastic experience of the London Marathon.  In it’s simplest terms anyone winning a ballot place would not be able to apply for a ballot place in a subsequent year or number of years.

This is something that London Marathon do on a very small scale for charities that do not have a gold or silver bond.  They introduced a charity ballot for the 2015 London Marathon in which they gave 500 places to 500 charities with the caveat that anyone winning a place can’t enter the ballot the following year (but can enter again the year after).  This is how I managed to run the London Marathon for the first time so I’m a big fan!

There is little more than admin getting in the way of this one but I’m not sure how much difference it would make.

If we assume 50,000 people won ballot places this year out of the 250,000 balloters (if it’s not a word, it certainly should be!) and that anyone receiving a ballot place from that year was never allowed to enter the ballot again it would take 5 years to satisfy everyone.  Assuming that no one new decided to hop onto the band wagon of course!

If you allowed people to enter the ballot again after a year off then you could still have 200,000 in the ballot each year.  Oh dear, still too many.

Points System

Now this is an interesting proposition that would reward “regular runners” and take some of the sting away from people who are riled by first-timers taking ballot places.  It would be a reward scheme for runners who supported other events.

This idea comes from a friend of mine, @GrundyOxford:

Grundy's points ballot idea
Grundy’s points ballot idea

This would, some might say controversially, remove some charity places and re-allocate the places to an additional ballot where entrants must qualify by scoring points during the year.  Runners score points by completing other UKA-affiliated races thus rewarding runners who were supporting “grass roots” running.

I must admit, I am intrigued by this idea despite the cut in charity places (personally I’d prefer to cut the main ballot instead) and I wonder what difference this could make.

It’s very difficult to tell how many balloters run races regularly and therefore would qualify for such an additional ballot.  And would you include parkrun?

I don’t class myself as a big racer but this year I have already completed 2x mile races, 4x 4 mile races, a 10k, a 10 miler and a half marathon with another 10k and half lined up which would easily qualify me for Grundy’s points ballot, without even counting parkruns.

Perhaps it could just take fine tuning the points and qualifying requirement.  I just wonder whether this would just create a different level of frustration.  And would people be able to enter the regular ballot as well as the points ballot?  It could get complicated.

Conclusion

The short answer is: there are too many of us who want to run London Marathon.  Even if every place was given to balloters this year, 80% would still be disappointed; there would still be over 200,000 sad, angry, bemused (& maybe even a little relieved) runners out there.

It’s easy for me to say, sat with a golden ticket in my hand, but there are other great marathons out there.  Prior to today’s result I had been researching into some of the options others have recommended like Loch Ness, BournemouthChester among others.  Also, entries to the inaugural Birmingham Marathon have opened this month and another new marathon is set for spring next year in Cardiff after the success of the half marathon this autumn.

There is something magical about the London Marathon and that’s why so many of us put ourselves through the pain of the ballot.  I’m not convinced there is a way to make it better so if you’re not going to look elsewhere keep searching for that golden ticket.  Good luck!

What do you think to the options I’ve mentioned?  Got a bright idea of your own?  Drop it in the comments and start a discussion.

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35 thoughts on “London Marathon Ballot: The Impossible Problem”

    1. And a good reflection on the logistics/fairness of it all. It redeems the fact that you’re Charlie Bucket and I’m probably an Oompa Loompa.

      1. I have no idea how to make it fairer – but as a foreigner I don’t get why Good for Age is only for UK residents. And your idea of a pointbased system is only working for UK residents too…
        London Marathon is part of the World Major Marathons and a lot of runners world wide try to run them all – but getting into London is in my opinion as good as impossible. It’s charity and UK runners.

        I’m from Denmark. I’ve been in the overseas ballot for years – no luck. The Danish travel partner is sold out on London Marathon until and including 2021 (haven’t opened selling the 2022 race).
        I’ve been able to get into the other 5 major marathons – but London? No way.

        And why does it take almost ½ a year before you know the outcome of the ballot? Makes it hard to plan your racing calendar and book other popular races that might sell out too.

        Congrats on getting in! Enjoy the race

    2. Nice blog I was playing around with the figures last night and shocked by how many DNS (although as you say this is allowed for in the VMLM planning). I’d support going back to limited applicants. There will be some stuck on airplanes or shift working that can’t get to a pc, but by and large if you’re keen enough to apply you’ll manage to do it Monday morning. If you can’t be bothered to apply until Friday afternoon as a half arsed gesture then probably you weren’t that keen.

      1. Thanks! The trouble they had with the ballot limited to 125,000 was that it was closing in a less and less time making it ridiculous. Also, it would still leave over 100,000 people disappointed – not to mention the people who’d be disappointed not to even get in the ballot in the first place.

  1. Fantastic, great news. This year I did not enter for the first time in a long while, having hung up my road marathon trainers, but must admit feel a little left out not getting any type of magazine!

  2. Congratulations, it’s amazing. 8 rejections in a row for me, so going to go elsewhere. I like the points based reward system (but exclude 5ks) or how about going back to the postal system, is it too easy to enter online?

  3. Why not carry forward failed entries so that after failing to get in via the ballot your name goes in twice the next year and three times the next year increasing for each subsequent year of failed attempts. By this method you chance of getting in increases for each failed year until you are successful, then you go back to one entry again. It’s not perfect but seems fairer than the current system. Good luck by the way.

  4. The points system sounds great to me and restricting entry for people who have already run London marathon.My partner Mike and I ran London in 2015 and raised £6300 for our local hospice St Richards.We haven’t tried again as we think everyone should have the opportunity to run it once.
    Lynda.broadway@aol.com

  5. Surely a marathon is for runners. In South Africa only persons registered with a running club ant therefore appearing on a National register are allowed to enter races. Sadly serious runners have been excluded in favour of many who have not trained at all and it is now a fancy dress party, not a runners race. In order to enter, many of us now are being blackmailed into raising money for a charity we may never even have heard of, just to get a place. Let runners run and let donations to charity be made on a voluntary basis.

    1. Having marshaled at 12.5 & 22.5 miles, I must say I was just as inspired by the tail end of the race as I was by the elite. And I wonder whether, if the charities didn’t have places, the level of sideline support and atmosphere would be quite as unique.

  6. If you didn’t get the golden ticket then you can enter the MK Marathon on Bank Holiday 1st May. Great course, medal, tech tee and support. mkmarathon.com 🙂

  7. The points system should apply for all ballot places. It annoys me something rotten that people who dont even run most of the year (and in the marathon they walk most of it) have as much chance as runners who compete most weekends. I have ran over 100 events each of the last 3 years and well over 500 in all and have been unsuccessful i ballot 8 times. Its even more frusfrustrating as keep getting very close to good for age.

  8. I feel for those continually unsuccessful applicants. The approach I have adopted is if you were lucky enough to get a ballot place for London and run it (and I certainly was first time round last year) perhaps let someone else have the opportunity? Just my opinion though… happy running all xx

  9. Well written, Dan. Very interesting.

    I’ve seen a few posts around this time talking about all those unaccepted places, but of course if they were redistributed or passed on in some way to make the take-up closer to 100%, then they wouldn’t be able to offer as many in the first place.

    I’ve run it 3 times and can’t see it happening again. Especially if I don’t apply.

    I was interested in Cardiff this year but I’ve just seen they’ve delayed it to 2018.

    1. I was intrigued by Cardiff too. Just seen the news of the delay. I did think it was a short period of time to get set for a marathon. Best of luck hunting an alternative – let me know how you get on. I’m sure I’ll need another marathon in the future!

  10. Very interesting read and stats . As someone who has failed through the ballot 8 years running it is frustrating . I understand the dilemmas but my gripe is that I am aware of people who have entered twice through the ballot and got in both times . Both over a 3 year period . This to me is where they could do something that says if you received an ballot place entry in the last xx years you go to the bottom of the pile

  11. Well done and good luck!
    Points is a great idea and I don’t think people should ever do it more than once! Less charity places better and seems a lot of them are the cheaters lol

  12. I do agree with the point as to why it takes six months for them to announce the results. Great North Run only takes a few weeks before you find out if you’re in-have been turned down for London six years on the trot but have got into the Great North in four of those six years. I also know an old boy in his seventies who got in last year and has been accepted again for next year.

    Interesting article though with some good points to ponder.

  13. Very thought provoking article Dan, well written and thought through. One question for you – any thoughts on what could be done with 200k+ people that don’t get a place? They’ve shown an appetite for running and taking on a challenge – how could London Marathon find other events for them? Or some kind of system similar to the points model you suggest where they could ‘earn’ a place from an allocation of second chance places? Any thoughts?

  14. Congratulations on getting a place , ive applied 5 years running now and had another unlucky magazine this year.
    I was going to retire from running any more marathons and choosing a different charity every year with London always being the last one, so on the brightside, ive had to stay fit keeping in my mind next year maybe and it also means theres charities still getting sponorship money from me.
    Good luck with your run !

  15. Hold 2 events. Runners then a charity run. All comes down to money and organising shutting roads. Got too big which will kill it off for runners

  16. Why not hold it twice a year? With the second one having no charity places, only balloted places. It still wouldn’t be able to cater for everyone who wanted to run, but it would help

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