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!
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):
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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, Bournemouth & Chester 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.