The Virgin London Marathon ballot – is it fair?

I find myself in the position this week that my twitter feed is full of people celebrating getting into the Virgin London Marathon ballot, commiserating with those who failed to get in, or moaning about the whole process; while I am away from home and so currently have no idea whether I got in or not. This seems to me like a perfect opportunity, from a wonderfully Schrödinger’s Cat position of blissfully ignorant unbiasedness, to give some of my thoughts on the London Marathon ballot system. I shall also include some controversial thoughts about charities – so feel free to hate on me for that.

First off, my own experience: I ran the marathon once in 2012 for a charity I was then trustee of, then skipped a year in 2013 to do the New York Marathon, and then unsuccessfully applied via the ballot in 2014 and 2015, so I have a fair idea of the process and also the frustrations involved. I am a little bemused, though, at some of the comments on twitter that describe it as a needlessly cruel process, since the ballot has never before seemed to me to be either needless or cruel (unlike the run itself, as it happens).

Is it needless? Well, on the face of it, no. Too many people want to run the marathon, so short of going almost entirely based on performance (like Boston), there surely has to be some kind of ballot. The process could be first-come-first-served like the Marathon des Sables but I would suggest that this would be unmanageable due to the volume of applications, as well as even more unfair and disadvantageous to those who simply couldn’t get online during the likely 5-10 seconds that applications would be open.

So, if you accept that there needs to be a ballot, what is the issue with the VLM one? Firstly, I think, is (or was) the short amount of time it was open. It used to be open only for as long as it took to get a certain number of applicants (still roughly 10 times more than they could take, mind you), and then closed. That often happened in half an hour or so, meaning it took a fair amount of organisation and planning to even get on to the ballot. Every year there were complaints from those who simply missed the window to enter. Recognising the problem, the ballot is now open for a fixed five days which strikes me as a step in the right direction although, bizarrely, I have seen some people on twitter now complaining about this, and saying that those who get in there early should be advantaged. Frankly, I don’t see the point in making the act of even applying a race in itself, and even very popular marathons like New York have lengthy windows during which registration is open, which makes it less of a ‘fastest-finger’ test, and encourages a wider range of people to sign up.

And is the process cruel? Here, I have more understanding of why people think that. Why, for example, does it take months for the results of the ballot to be announced, particularly given, during those months, lots of other marathons on or around the same weekend in April (peak marathon time) close their entries, meaning people who want a backup to the London Marathon have no choice but to pay for entries to events they may not be able to do. Why, also, have they apparently removed any kind of statistical advantage for those who have applied and failed for several years in a row? Although I am sure they are not being deliberately cruel, I can’t help but feel they are taking advantage of their popularity and not taking proper care of a very important segment of keen amateur runners who cannot quite achieve a good-for-age time, but run too often to simply do every race for charity.

And, yes, charities. I know, I know, charity is a good thing (mostly), but it’s hard not to think that the London Marathon uses the wide availability of charity places as a massive cop-out. Fail to get in and the first suggestion they give is ‘there are plenty of charity places’. Complain on twitter and charity twitter accounts will be queuing up to encourage you to run for them. On the one hand, of course it’s a brilliant thing that the London Marathon raises such colossal sums of money for charity every year, but I have real problems with the way that fundraising has come to dominate what should be a very accessible amateur sport. Is it really a good thing that, if I want to get a place in the marathon, my best bet is to just choose a random charity and convince my friends to give them £2,000 (the usual minimum fundraising target for the London Marathon)? If people sincerely want to use their achievement to raise money for a charity then that is excellent and they are free to do so with a ballot place. Every year, though, there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of runners who just wanted to run this wonderful marathon but find themselves begging their friends to make donations totalling £2,000 to a charity they feel no particular kinship with simply because it was the only way they could participate. Raising these sums of money is bloody hard, and keeps getting harder with the increasing numbers of long-distance running events and people taking part, and I can’t help but feel that there is now just a little tinge of blackmail, where charities hold a huge percentage of these incredibly sought-after places, and effectively sell them for huge sums of money to people who may never have wanted to run for charity, and, in my opinion, shouldn’t be forced to.

So yes, I know, no one likes to moan about charities but I regret the fact that fundraising seems to have become the tail wagging the dog of amateur long-distance running, particularly given that it disadvantages the silent army of us who love running and train hard and have no intention of asking our friends to effectively crowdfund our hobby, but who can’t quite get the sub 3hr marathon needed to guarantee our place.

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