Why I’m glad I didn’t get into the London Marathon
(And five events I’ll be running instead)
by Andy Waterman, Editor of METER
Entering a marathon through the ballot is a lottery. Literally, a lottery — that’s the point; some people get lucky at their first attempt, others take years. Even more give up and find another route to the startline, like taking on a charity place with all the baggage that brings.
When the Virgin London Marathon opened its 2016 ballot this summer, demand was so high they had to keep the website live for a full five days. By the time it closed 247,069 people had applied for a place, with 135,000 of those people entering their first marathon. London has 38,000 places in total, with ballot places just one small slice of the pie. That means the overwhelming majority of ballot applicants were running headfirst towards disappointment.
But should they be disappointed?
I applied for a place, not through any particular desire to run a marathon, but a sense of duty. I’m a Londoner and I’m a runner. Therefore, I have a duty to enter the London Marathon. I filled in the forms, paid the fee, hit return and held my breath.
The truth is that when the rejection letter arrived, I opened it with a sense of relief. I’m free! Free to run cross country, free to race 5k’s, free to take the day off when the weather’s bad or a friend suggests we go cycling or hiking. The marathon might get all the attention, but it’s a brutal, intimidating, distance — something most amateurs survive rather than savour. With the never ending stream of LSD and overuse injuries off the menu (for the time being at least), here are some distances and events I’ll be enjoying instead.
Cross country races in the US and the UK are quite different. Mention the words “course record” to a Brit and they’ll offer you a confused look — in Britain, conditions change so much year on year (mud, dry, snow, gales) that the watch tells you nothing, position is everything. In the US, times are more predictable and distances more accurately measured, but essentially races on both sides of the pond range from 20mins to 50mins, meaning they fit in well with any distance runner’s programme. For decades cross country was the staple winter pursuit of distance running’s elite, building strength, maintaining the top end and offering intensity without the impact — this fall I’ll be digging out my spikes and getting back to it.
Being so long, marathon milestones are few and far between — running sub-3hrs is a milestone, but 2:55? Not so much. Drop down to 5k though and taking 30 seconds off your PR is something to shout about. Even 5 seconds will have you grinning for a week. What I love about the 5k is that it’s long enough to reward serious training, but it’s short enough that there’s a real skill to it. Go out too slow and there’s no time to make up the difference, set off too fast and that final 2km can feel interminable. And just ‘going running’ isn’t enough to train for a fast 5k — you need to think and you need to learn what works for you. Some people thrive on intervals with long rests while others need lots of tempo running. Few run well solely as a consequence of getting the miles in. The really great thing is that as a result of it being such a popular distance, and not so long as to be completely destructive to your legs, you can race it regularly — most people in the US and the UK will be able to find a 5k taking place close to them at least once per month, more often in the UK where parkrun is an unstoppable phenomenon.
If you’re a potential 2:45–3hr marathon runner, one goal that seems attractive to us is covering 10 miles in 60 minutes. It’s not the most popular road race distance any more, but it shouldn’t be discounted.
For most amateurs the half is close to the perfect distance — a distance for connoisseurs, not bucket list box tickers. And with elites running the marathon in a shade over 2hrs, a 90min half is closer to that effort than a 3:15 marathon.
The half may be seen as the marathon’s poor relation in the eyes of the uninitiated, but for anyone with a demanding job and busy family life it’s ideal — a challenging but achievable distance, one that requires a serious commitment to training, but when you pin on your number, it’s manageable enough that you can genuinely race it rather than simply survive.
There’s something alluring about off-road Ultras. Perhaps it’s because there’s nothing to compare them too — you can’t tap a recent 5k race time into an online calculator and predict your Ultra Trail Mont Blanc finishing time, all you can do is show up on the start line and see what happens. These kind of races seem to be less about being a thoroughbred athlete (although that obviously helps) and more about the mental skill of keeping going when your body is ready to quit, as well as a sense of adventure and decent outdoors skills. Training-wise, no coach would suggest you need to do a 60 mile training run, but running and hiking all weekend to reach some remote camping spot on Saturday night, then working your way back to the trailhead on Sunday, that’s the kind of training I can get behind.
There’s more to life than the marathon, and there’s more to training than LSD. If you haven’t got a place in a spring marathon (and with the Boston qualifying getting harder and harder, it really isn’t easy, even if you have a qualifying time), don’t be upset, just take it as an opportunity to do something different — something enjoyable, rewarding and less damaging to your body than endless 100 mile weeks. And if you’ve still got the marathon itch, there are hundreds of small town races across the world that will be happy to have you.