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How to improve the Virgin London Marathon ballot

You may have read a post I wrote almost exactly a year ago about the Virgin London Marathon ballot, some of the perceived issues with it, and my personal frustration with the stranglehold that charities have on what should be one of the most accessible mixed amateur and professional sporting events in Britain.

Since writing that article I have spoken to other people who share my views, and I remain convinced that this isn’t just the idle moaning of people unhappy at not getting a place; there is a problem and it could be better. That the VLM raises so much money for charity is a fantastic thing. But isn’t this same spirit of charity actually undermined by the fact that so much of the money is raised, frankly, rather grudgingly? Raised by serious runners who, after being rejected multiple times in the ballot and then inundated with emails from charities, finally sign up for a charity they feel little kinship with and then lean on their friends to fund their place? Is it right that so few places are available in the ballot, yet charities have so many places that many are aggressively selling them right up until shortly before the event? Is it right that charities can tie people into multi-thousand pound commitments in exchange for a place, and require the runner to pay the difference if they don’t meet their fundraising target?

Well, obviously in my opinion it isn’t. But, instead of just complaining about it, here are a few ideas for improving things. Some of them are simple, some are controversial, one or two may even be mutually exclusive, but I think all are worth considering.

Improve the ballot

I talked a bit in my previous post about the frustrating nature of the ballot. There is a relatively short entry window (though it is longer now), then a very long wait, during which most other big Spring marathons close their own entries, and then everyone is informed on an uncertain date some time in October. Inexplicably, that notification is done by sending them one of two magazines, although this year for I think the first time you could be notified by email. In fact, by two emails, for some reason.

  • Shorten the wait. Maybe there is a good reason for it, but I can’t think of one, and plenty of other similar marathons (New York for one) manage told hold their ballot and notify entrants of results shortly after entry closes.
  • Announce the ballot results on a fixed day, at a fixed time, and allow everyone to check their results at that time by logging in to the website. Simple. If they want help building the platform to do this, they are welcome to get in touch with me. If some people like the suspense of waiting until the magazine lands on their doormat, they are welcome not to log into the website.

Make it easier for committed, serious, runners to qualify 

I’m not necessarily talking about changing the qualification time, as that is always open to debate and someone will always be unhappy. Besides, getting a good for age time is a real achievement and they deserve their guaranteed place. Rather, I’d like to see alternative qualification methods to reward serious, committed, but slower runners.

  • What about gaining qualification points by competing in other, smaller events (especially UK-based ones, to reward local runners and those supporting the running community here). A set number of points in the past 12 months could get you entry into a seperate, smaller ballot with better odds for the ‘serious amateurs’.
  • I’d really like to see them bring in some kind of improved statistical chance of qualifying for people who have previously been turned down. New York used to do this but ultimately had to stop as running became more popular and too many people qualified for guaranteed places. That will always be a problem, but there are ways it could be handled. One simple option is to have the same number of ballot places available but for every year you don’t get in, you get one extra entry into the ballot. That should mean that it is statistically very hard to get in on your first year (but some would, which is fine) but after six or seven years your chances go up to 50/50 or even better. The whole process would be much less frustrating as at least I could comfort myself with the thought that every year of rejection gives me a better chance next time, instead of knowing I’m back in the pot with all the first-time entrants again.

Reduce the power of (big) charities

I’d like to see more emphasis put on people running for charities because they really want to, and not because it’s their only option. If charities are struggling to get rid of their places they shouldn’t have them, and they should be encouraged to promote themselves to people who already have ballot places and could fundraise for them voluntarily not just to people who have no other choice. So:

  • What about giving charities only up until the day before the ballot is drawn to ‘sell’ their places? After that, all unused charity places are redistributed to the ballot, and charities are encouraged to focus their efforts on getting people with ballot places to fundraise for them. I.e. because they want to, not because they have to.
  • Ban charities from setting mandatory minmum targets and then enforcing them by making the runner pay the difference.
  • Increase the number of places available through the charity ballot. This is a separate ballot for small charities that do not have guaranteed places from being a Gold or Silver bond member, and it allocates 500 charities one place each. The majority of these do not partake in the aggressive marketing to uninterested runners that irritates me so much; most of them will have a staff member, volunteer or supporter already lined up and eager to run. That is how this should work, and it should be encouraged. I would happily see some of the reduction in charity places resulting from my ‘use it or lose it’ policy offset by increasing the places available in the charity ballot.

By the way, if anyone is wondering about the featured image, and the charity I was running for, it is called The AHOY Centre and is a small charity doing great work in Deptford. It runs sailing and other watersports courses for young people who otherwise wouldn’t have any access to those sorts of activities, either due to physical or learning disabilities, or because of deprived backgrounds. So they run sailability courses for people with disabilities, but also regular sailing courses for, for example, young people referred to them by the police for being at risk of falling into serious criminality. Anyway, at the time I ran the VLM I was a trustee of the charity and they had, I think, a bronze VLM membership which gave them one place every five years (I believe that system has gone, and is replaced with the charity ballot mentioned above). Unsurprisingly, this was a very valuable asset to them and they wanted to maximise it, although equally unsurprisingly they couldn’t find anyone willing to take it on given they were asking for £5,000 fundraising. As a keen runner, and a trustee, I agreed to do it although I found fundraising a huge struggle. It’s much, much harder to raise money than you think it will be, as anyone who has tried will testify. In the end, I fell short of the £5,000 but raised a decent sum all the same, and it got me hooked on marathon running, so I suppose everyone was fairly happy.

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