Chicago was two weeks ago, New York is coming up in another two weeks, the London ballot and Boston qualifiers have been announced… it’s all about the World Marathon Majors at the moment! The Abbott WMMs are a series of 6 races around the world (Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo) through which elite athletes can compete to win points and eventually a trophy at the end of the year. For the rest of us mortals, completion of all six earns you a coveted ‘six star medal’ and massive bragging rights.
It has become a goal for many to work towards that medal, but the races are some of the biggest in the world and therefore very difficult to get into. Some work on a lottery system, others by qualification time, and it can all get a bit confusing and complicated. I’ve now run three of the six Majors and will be running my fourth in Boston next year with the aim to earn my own six-star medal. Here’s some of ways of running each of the different events.
An iconic marathon home to both the women’s marathon records (female-only and male-paced), London Marathon sees over 40,000 people take to the streets each April. As the years have gone by, it has become more and more difficult to get a place, thanks to the staggering number of participants in the ballot. This year a record 414,168 people entered in the hopes of winning one of 17,000 available spaces, so chances of getting through are slim. However, at only £39 for the race, it’s the cheapest WMM and worth putting your hat in the ring. You don’t need to pay upfront but can choose to do so: if you have and are unsuccessful, you’ll be sent a swanky ‘commiserations’ jacket & the fees will go to charity. The ballot opens late April, with results posted in October.
If you live in the UK, you are eligible to qualify for a ‘Good For Age’ places, which is how I ran it the second time. (My first time I was lucky in the ballot, much to the annoyance of all my friends!) This used to be a simple time qualifier, but with the increase in interest for 2019 they introduced a limit on the number of accepted entries: 3000 men and 3000 women. The fastest runners would be accepted until that limit was reached – but from what I can tell, everyone who applied this year with a GFA time got into the race. For a female aged 18-40 the qualifying time is sub-3:45, for a man of the same age it is 3:00; you can find the full list of times and more information here.
The London GFA system is based on that of the Boston Marathon. There is no ballot for Boston, you have to earn your place by running a ‘BQ’ (Boston Qualifier). For me, this was a massive motivator to work on getting faster and faster, and when I finally achieved it at Berlin last year it felt like a dream come true. Boston is the oldest marathon outside the Olympics, and is also where the first woman ran a marathon with a bib number. It’s a Mecca for marathon runners, and therefore most marathoners want to run it at least once.
In 2018 (for the 2019 race), 30,458 people applied via a rolling entry system. This works as follows: the applications open in September first for people who have run 20 minutes or faster than the qualifying time, then 10 minutes or faster, and finally 5-minutes or faster. The ballot then closes for Week One. If not all the available places have been filled, the ballot opens again for anyone with a qualifying time to apply. Of those, the fastest applicants are accepted until the maximum runner limit has been reached. This year that number was 23,074, with the ‘cut-off’ time being 4:52 below the qualifying time.
In 2018 for 2019, the qualifying time for an 18-40-year-old female was 3:35, which meant that actually you had to have run 3:30:08 or faster to be accepted into the race. From this, the qualifying times have now been decreased by 5 minutes across the board. A female in that age category must now run sub-3:30, and a male sub-3:00 (other qualifiers here). However, I’d still recommend trying to beat the qualifying time by as many minutes as you possibly can to avoid the possibility of missing out.
Compared to London and Boston, it’s quite straight-forward to apply for the Chicago Marathon, and the odds are pretty good for getting in! There is a ballot which runs from the end of October until the end of November, and around 50% of applicants are chosen to be one of the 45,000 runners in the Windy City. At $250 for international residents ($200 for US citizens) it’s not a cheap marathon, but it’s one of the easiest to get into. There is also a Good For Age system, which you can apply for during the same time period as the ballot. The times have recently been updated to introduce a new 16-29 category of sub-3:35 for women and sub-3:05 for men.
The NYC Marathon winds through the five boroughs of the famous city, and is the largest marathon in the world with 50,766 finishers in 2017. The February ballot is a lot more difficult to succeed in than Chicago (but still not as bad as London): 105,184 applicants vying for 15,640 spots. Those odds aren’t too bad, but be warned: the race is also the most expensive marathon in the world at $358 for international residents. It’ll only get taken from your credit card if you’ve been successful in the ballot though!
You can also qualify for the race, via a very complicated system. New York is the only marathon where you can use a half-marathon qualifying time as well as a marathon, and the standard is a sub-3:13 full or sub-1:32 half for women 18-35. The men’s standard for that age category is sub-2:53/sub-1:21, and the remaining categories are on the NY Marathon website. However, you are only guaranteed entry if you run that time at one of six specific New York Road Runners (NYRR) races. If you achieve the standard elsewhere, you can apply during the application period (mid-Jan to mid-Feb) and will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. So be quick!
If you’re lucky enough to live in/near NYC, or have the cash to fly there periodically throughout the year, you can also get a guaranteed entry to the marathon by participating in 9 NYRR races + volunteering at one. This is called the NYRR 9+1 program, although you can also replace your 1 volunteer by donating $1000 to the NYRR Youth & Community Service programs.
London is where the women’s marathon world records have been set, but the men’s always fall in Berlin. In September, Eluid Kipchoge ran 2:01:39 there, but the six previous improvements since 2003 also fell at Berlin. It’s a fast and flat course, and always brings the atmosphere – including a inline-skating marathon the day before. From what I know, its ballot (open now!) isn’t too difficult to get in through with an estimated 50% acceptance rate, similar to Chicago. Uniquely, it does offer the option to register along with one or two other people as a ‘team’ ballot entry, meaning that either you all get in, or no-one does.
The Berlin Good For Age times are the fastest of all the WMMs, with women 18-44 required to run sub-3:00 and men sub-2:45 to qualify. However, if you’re not that speedy or were unlucky in the ballot there may be another chance to enter: in early December 2017 the race opened up additional 1000 entries which cost an additional €60. That extra money went towards the RTL Donation Marathon for children in need, and it’s possible they will have the same scheme available this year.
The only WMM in Asia (for now), Tokyo Marathon sees 37,500 runners take to the streets in February each year. Their application system only becomes a ballot if more people apply than the places available, but with 331,211 entrants vying for 27,370 places in 2018, don’t hold out hope. These numbers make Tokyo the second most difficult WMM to get into via the ballot, however I do know a few people who have been lucky.
Tokyo also accepts time qualifiers under its ‘RUN as ONE’ scheme, which invites semi-elite international runners to apply. These are women who have run 2:52:01-3:30:00 and men with 2:21:01-2:45:00, although not split by age category. Different numbers on the website indicate that there are either 300, 1500 or 2000 places available for these types of entries. Applicants are notified of their success/rejection with a week still left on the general ballot, so if you miss out on qualifying you can still try your luck.
Other ways to run
If you’ve been doing your maths, you will have noticed that there are significant gaps for some of the marathons between the number of runners and the number of places available through the respective ballot/qualification system. A portion of these will be deferred entries, press, elites etc., however the majority will go to runners in two categories: charity or tour operated. These final two are guaranteed methods of entering any of the races, and although expensive, are the best way of securing your place.
Each race offers charity places, although some are more charity focused than others. In London the majority of runners are raising money for charity, and it has broken the world record for an ‘annual single day charity fundraising event’ 12 years in a row. In Tokyo, there are 4000 charity places available where you have to raise 100,000¥, but these were snatched up within four days. At New York, you can join the ‘Team for Kids’ and raise $2620 by the beginning of October the year of the race to gain your spot. Look on each of the official race websites for more information.
The last option is to go through a tour operator. These are companies such as 2:09 events, Sports Tours International, Marathon Tours etc. who offer package deals for each of the marathons. Usually this will include a guaranteed entry into the race, accommodation and some meals, but not your flights/insurance/transfers. They’re not cheap, but for many people they’re the only way to work their way towards earning that six-star medal.
The six Abbott World Marathon Majors are each special in their own way, and if you like big cities and want to experience the atmosphere at the biggest marathons in the world, it’s worth trying to run at least one. They have announced that they may be adding two new events in the next few years, but that anyone already working towards their six-star medal before those races are added will still be able to get their hands on the bling. So what are you waiting for – get applying for some ballots!