Virgin London Marathon 2014 entry opens… and slams the door on some GFA runners

After the excitement and razzamatazz of the London marathon, there follows a somewhat unsightly scramble for places the following year. There is a ballot system in place which is capped at 125,000 entries. Once this is reached the ballot entry closes – and that usually takes a few hours to fill up – and then the lucky runners are informed later in the year, whether or not they have gained entry. There is about a 1 in 7 chance of getting a place, provided you get into the ballot.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 09.13.29This is the nature of the beast. Mass participation running and endurance sports are getting more and more popular and the demand for places has outstripped supply for decades. This could be seen as a good thing. Or a bad thing – I guess that subject warrants a post all to itself.

But if you want to run the London marathon, having to rush to enter a ballot to then have a 1 in 7 chance of getting a place is a pretty frustrating situation.

There is another way to get into VLM

This is where the three guaranteed entry systems come in to play. Yes, there are three ways that you can get a guaranteed place in the London marathon. In order of difficulty they are:

  • Elite entry – for a man you need to have run faster than 2 hours 20 minutes to get into this hallowed group. Do that and you will have every advantage possible and stand right on the start line
  • Championship entry – a race within a race. This is the UK AAA Championship, held every year and open to club runner who have qualified by running 2hrs45min for a marathon or 75mins for a half marathon (for the men) or sub-3:15 for a marathon or sub-1:30 for a half (women’s entry standard). You will enjoy a separate start pen, warm-up area, dozens of portaloos, water and a tent to change in as well as a start right behind the elite men’s field.
  • Good For Age entry – this is a guaranteed entry for anyone who has run a particular time that is considered good for their age group. You can see the qualifying times here. The start is similar to the Championship (above) with a separate pen, loos, etc and a position right on the start line.

As you can imagine, these entry systems are something that many, many marathoners aspire to. No queuing for hours for the loo. No 15 minute shuffle to get to and over the start line. A much more relaxed bag-drop. A sense of having ‘made it’.

Not so fast…

So it is a bit of a blow for many runners that this year, without warning, the London marathon powers-that-be have elected to make the Good For Age qualifying times tougher, by 5 minutes across the board from what I can see.

I imagine that the reason for this is to restrict the number of people that can get one of these coveted places. A few years ago the Boston marathon, which has a qualifying standard for all entries, did the same and I was caught up in that trap myself (more on that in a moment) and I guess it is a pleasing outcome in some senses: it means that standards of running are improving. But what about the people who thought they’d got their GFA place and now discover that they don’t?

A few years ago I went to run the New York marathon. I can’t remember the time that I did, but I crossed the line thinking that I had got my BQT – Boston Qualifying Time. Only to be told by another runner that the Boston Athletic Club, who run the race, had lowered the qualifying time by 10 minutes and I was now too slow for Boston. I was gutted.

Runners affected

So I can understand the reaction to the change in Good For Age qualifications from some of the people I know. Here are two tweets I received this morning:

@fehrtrade: I ran 3:48 in Oct & thought I’ve had GFA for the past 6 months. Completely cruel to change it now.

@themrwyatt: Means what I had planned is now not an option. Shame when your working hard for something that the goal posts change

The problem here seems to be that the team at the London marathon have made the change without telling anyone. So now people who assumed that they could get into London for 2014 have found out they can’t and with the Good For Age application phase closing in the next couple of months, they don’t have time to do anything about it.

What do you think? Is it more than a little unfair to change the entry requirements without telling anyone (in my Boston example the change to the qualifying time was publicised a year in advance… I just hadn’t checked!) Or is it just a symptom of the fact that more people want to run so the standards are creeping up, something that should be applauded?

I guess which ever way you look at it, the standards are now set and if you have just missed out, I can really recommend Brighton or Paris… both really lovely races.

 

Competing or Completing?

I spent a happy hour browsing running related videos online yesterday and one that I watched really struck a chord with me. It was the highlights of the 2010 Chicago marathon. I thought that the video was rather nicely made with sweeping panoramas of the runners and some great shots of the city. It really made me want to run the Chicago marathon one day!

But the thing that really made me think about all this marathoning, when I watched the video, was the difference between those who were there to compete and those whose aim was to complete the course. I thought about the difference between the elite and the fun-runners and the relative positions of those in between these two extremes.

Paula Radcliffe is a racer, putting everything on the line for the win

For most people in a marathon, running is something akin to a hobby: a way of staying fit. A personal challenge to rank alongside succeeding at work or going on exciting holidays. An item in their bucket-list.

For some however, the marathon is much more than that. It defines who they are. It shapes what they do, when they do it and why. Career advancement is sacrificed for the chance to train more and more effectively. Relationships are moulded around the everyday requirements of training and racing. These people strive and strain and put as much as they can possibly afford into running.

But where is the boundary? Is there a point, somewhere down the field, where racer turns into runner? Where competitor becomes ‘competer’? Or is it more a state of mind that can be found all they way through the field?

My personal feeling is that there are racers and competers all the way through the field of a race. I will always remember standing on the start line of a cold, wet and wind-blasted 20 mile race a couple of years back when the man next to me – a tiny, lightweight runner in a saggy vest and ancient running shorts – informed me that whilst he might finish in the final few of the race overall, he would make damn sure that he would beat “that bloke over there” – a similarly tiny, lightweight under-dressed chap who I was informed was the current holder of the over-70s winner’s medal from the year before (by the way, my compatriot did indeed win the Vet 70s race that year – apparently he and his nemesis swapped the cup almost every year!)

Taking time to high-five spectators = enjoying, but not racing.

For me, racing is a state of mind. It is wrapped up in the desire to be the best one can be. It is about looking at every aspect of one’s training and preparation and working out how to make it better. It is about making choices, every day, that are designed to result in being a better runner.

I believe that those whose aim is simply to complete a race aim to do what it takes to get through the distance. Time and position in the race is a secondary issue to actually finishing.

For racers the equation is slightly different – certainly, finishing is important, but achieving a PB or achieving a certain position or a time that qualifies the runner for something like the London marathon’s Good For Age entry system, is equally if not more important and not finishing or blowing-up before the end, is a risk worth taking for the chance of achieving something greater than just finishing.

So what are you? Completer or Competer? Do you have goals that feel at the limit of your reach? As my coach is fond of saying: anyone can cover 26.2 miles if sufficiently motivated and fuelled. It might not be pretty, but it is manageable. But for a racer, just getting around is not enough. Are you one of those runners not satisfied with just getting round?

And that was what struck me about the Chicago marathon video. The camera showed the entire gamut of runners as the film cut from those who were most definitely competing – Sammy Wanjiru and Tadesa Kibedi dueling it out in one of the most thrilling races I have ever seen – to those who were just looking to get to the end. I wondered why some people choose to race whilst others choose to get round? And what do you choose?

U2 can decide to carry on

Earlier this week I heard U2’s hit “Where the streets have no name” on a radio being played in another room. Suddenly I was reminded of the classic YouTube video – well it is a classic as far as I am concerned! – of the dual in the sun. This was the 1982 Boston marathon in which Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran the entire distance neck and neck, finishing within two seconds of each other. The video is quite amazing, especially towards the end as the commentators get ever more excited. Check out the crowds and the impressive array of technology used by the television companies to broadcast the race, which goes some way to illustrating what an important sporting event it was.

Equally compelling viewing is the video that usually pops up to the side of the race coverage video – that of Dick Beardsley describing the end of the race from his point of view and, I guess, with the benefit of hindsight.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sC8A9TNRf5A&feature=related]

What strikes me about Dick’s monologue is what he thought during the final few hundred meters of the race. Dick Beardsley had been leading the race, albeit only by the length of his arm, for most of the 26.2 miles. However Alberto Salazar was the favourite and, as Beardsley acknowledges, Salazar  was considered to have the better kick, so it was no surprise when Salazar dropped the hammer with less than a kilometer to go and passed Beardsley just as his hamstring cramped up.

Dick could have eased up at that point. With a cramp in his hamstring and against one of the greatest marathoners of all time and certainly of his generation, Beardsley knew that second place was his and there would be no shame in that. But he didn’t…

Instead he put in one of the fiercest comebacks in any marathon and with only a few hundred meters to go, Beardsley went for the win.

So what does that mean for us? Well I think the simple lesson is don’t give up. I know that in the end Dick Beardsley did not win the 1982 Boston marathon. But he did know as he crossed the finish line that he had given his all and exceeded everyone’s expectations of him, perhaps even his own expectations. I think that the way he raced and didn’t give up also illustrates the kind of man he is and the level that he was training at. He gave it his all and this is what I think that everyone should do, whether that is running the first 10K or the 100th marathon, giving it all allows us to find out what we really are capable of.

So have a look at the videos and remind yourself of your aim. Then in every way you can make sure you give it 100%… you never know U2 might find out that you are capable of more than you ever thought possible.