The London Marathon ballot problem: Is there an alternative?

My rejection magazine hasn't arrived, so here's a pic of my trainers instead

My rejection magazine hasn’t arrived, so here’s a pic of my trainers instead

Another year, another rejection from the London Marathon ballot. After receiving my rejection email (the taunting Spider-Man magazine is yet to arrive) I found myself bemoaning the ballot system… And I wasn’t the only one.

 posed the question: is there a fairer option? Lots of lively debate followed. An interesting suggestion by @ in particular – a points system rewarded runners who’ve run smaller races – got me thinking about the frustrations with the current system and whether there’s any alternative that solves them. I thought I’d sum up my thoughts here.

The fundamental problem is that far, far more want to run the London Marathon than the race has room for. Yes, there are other marathons. But it’s one of the most famous races in the world, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s on the bucket list for a large proportion of regular runners as well as first timers. With fewer than 1 in 7 would-be runners getting in on the ballot, and no ‘five rejections and you’re in’ rule anymore, thousands are disappointed each year. So what are the alternatives?


Once rejected from the ballot, the London Marathon magazine and what seems like every charity going will urge you to take part through a charity place instead. A common complaint is that this excludes the regular runners – who will struggle to effectively crowdfund their hobby – and means the race is full of people who aren’t ‘proper’ runners. With ambitious fundraising targets, charity places can be an exhausting way of taking part. Shouldn’t a running race be about the runners?

Well yes, and no. Charities set ambitious targets in part because it costs them quite a lot of money to get places, but also because with so many people wanting to take part they of course want to raise as much as possible. The London Marathon is the largest annual fundraising event in the world,a and the charity aspect is a key part of its unique atmosphere. Every year hundreds of charities line the route to support their runners, while thousands of people raise thousands of pounds for causes close to their heart. For me that’s something pretty special, and I don’t think it should be limited.


Some places are reserved for celebrities. While it’s fun to look at their times, I don’t think it’s really necessary to guarantee celebs a place in the race. In terms of raising the profile of the race itself, I think most people will agree that’s not really needed. With most celebs running for charity, it makes more sense to cut the celebrity places and urge them to go for a charity place instead. Unfortunately this probably wouldn’t make much of a difference to the overall problem. While it’s unclear exactly how many celeb places are up for grabs, it doesn’t seem like enough to dramatically increase the number of spots open to us normals.


If you’re a ‘proper’ runner, you should be able to qualify for a Good For Age place. Or so I’ve heard. While for some that’s a serious option, it’s not one open to everyone. however dedicated. I run 3-4 times a week, enter a few races a year and have now completed two marathons, so I’d like to think of myself as a fairly committed runner. But I’m not naturally fast and while I know I can get faster with a bit more focus in my training, however hard I try I am not going to shave 75 minutes off my marathon time. I personally feel that moving towards a Boston Marathon-style approach would just exclude even more people and diminish what is unique about London.


Jake MDS first suggested this during the #ukmarathonchat debate and I’m quite a fan. A lot of running clubs dish out their places in this way: for example, Westbourne RC gives out its two places to the runners who have finished the most out of a series of already-agreed local races. In the event of the tie the places go to whoever has been rejected the most times. Why not introduce something similar on a larger scale? Have a list of qualifying races around the country, with a guaranteed place (or increased chance) if you’ve completed a specific number within a certain time frame?


I personally believe that the number of charity places shouldn’t be cut, because I think fundraising is part and parcel of what the London Marathon represents. But I do think that one of the biggest races in the world shouldn’t exclude regular runners, and it’s clear at the moment many people feel that’s the case. So are there any realistic alternatives to the current system? Perhaps.

Option 1: Two ballots

Keep the charity places, keep the Good For Age places, but have two separate ballots. Ballot one anyone can enter. Ballot two is only for people who have completed a certain number of affiliated races or have been rejected a certain number of places. If you qualify for ballot two, you can still enter ballot one.

Option 2: One ballot, more than one chance to enter

Keep to one big ballot which anyone can enter, but allow multiple chances if you meet certain criteria. Rejected the past five years? That’s another ballot entry. Taken part in more than x number of affiliated races in the past year? That’s another one. The theory being, the more ‘dedicated’ a runner you are, the more likely it is that you’ll gain a place. If you only ever want to run it once, you’re a lot more likely to use a charity place, but if you’re determined then you’ll keep trying.

You could even incorporate the Good For Age places in here, although I personally think that creates more problems than it solves.

What do you think?



  1. James White · October 5, 2015

    A very well composed article Daniella and some good suggestions for improving the system. I wonder how complex the admin side might be to implement the changes though.

    How do you keep track of who has entered and how many times? What if people change address, get married etc?

    Does making smaller races “qualifying races” mean that their popularity will increase and drive up the prices? How do you manage the tracking of qualifying races?

    Will the extra admin drive up the cost of entering London?

    How will charities react to the reduced numbers? Maybe the charity places should be limited and via ballot?

    Could the capacity of London be increased? More waves perhaps? Staggered starts across a number of hours?

    I just don’t think there is a way of rectifying the problem!



    • daniellagraham · October 5, 2015

      Lots of good points – and I don’t have many good answers!

      With tracking entries, given that you previously had the 5 rejections and you’re in they must have had a tracking system in place. I wonder if for club members there’s something with tracking through your EA number potentially, as that could work with tracking qualifying races too.

      Potentially very complicated but I think qualifying races could potentially be organised within regions? For example, all the Dorset Road Race League races would count? It could ultimately act as an extra incentive for races to be well-run as they’d be able to call themselves an affiliated race. Who knows, maybe it would ultimately serve to help increase races more generally and encourage wider range of people to take part, in a similar way to parkrun?

      Do agree that any changes potentially difficult to implement and ultimately no solution will please everyone. At the moment a lot of regular runners feel hard by, but find a way of appeasing them and you’d stand accused of making the race less accessible to newcomers.

      Even if they never change the system, I do wish they’d speed up the process!


      • James White · October 6, 2015

        Unfortunately there isn’t a “one change fixes all” solution. Anything you change now will inevitably annoy or marginalise a different group of people and three years down the line we’ll be having the same conversation, just in a different context.

        I completely agree though that there is no reason for the ballot results to be so long after the entry!!!


  2. runningprincess78 · October 24, 2015

    A well thought through piece and definitely a real problem for many runners. I’m not sure what the solution is, if indeed there is one at all. Increasing the number of times someone’s name is in the ballot initially has some appeal (even if it does sound a bit like The Hunger Games!) but on closer inspection might not actually help e.g. not everyone would have the means/opportunity to access qualifying races.
    I agree that a change is needed, but the difficulty is in how it could be changed so that everyone saw it as fair. I wish I knew the answer as I’d love to run London again (I was lucky enough to get a club place one year; I’ve never had any luck in the ballot).


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