Abingdon Marathon Take 3

Long held as the flattest UK marathon (before Manchester marathon started making the same claim), Abingdon is a popular Autumn event to get your PB, and for anyone that missed out on London Marathon ballot places, a chance to secure a Good For Age (GFA) and qualify instead.  It’s been running for nearly 30 years and has a pretty old school feel.   

It’s a relatively small event with around 1000 runners and a definite focus towards the sharper end of the field. Cut off is 5 hours, compared to 6 for most events. Even within the 5 hours there is a definite leaning towards the faster finish times. A 3h45 run would typically see you finish in the top 20% finishers elsewhere, here it’s more likely you’d be in the bottom half or lower. It also strictly enforces the UK Athletics ruling on headphones. If you’re seen by a marshall using headphones you will be disqualified and listed as such in the results. No sense running a world record pace only to have it voided. The event is held in October, with registration opening in February and typically fills by April so worth keeping your eye on their website.


The event starts and finishes at Tilsley Athletics Stadium in Abingdon. It has a great small but organised feel, and benefits from a fair amount of indoor area to keep warm before you start, and showers with changing facilities for afterwards. The downside is parking is located a fair walk away, not a huge issue unless you’re running late in which case the 10 minute walk will soon turn into a run.


After the first 5 miles through the town you start the first of two 8 mile loops, after which you follow a three mile route back. Given how scenic the surrounding countryside is, you could be forgiven for expecting some spectacular sections. Sadly in the interests of keeping the elevation down and providing a flat course it is by and large dull, taking in business parks and residential streets. The few sections along the River Thames help and the brief tour past the original Tudor buildings provide light relief from what is otherwise a pretty unremarkable course. Fortunately most people are there to get a good time, not admire the route.


I first ran the course in 2013, on the hunt for a PB. Following a 3h43 at Brighton in the spring I’d had some disappointing results over the summer and planned for this to make up for it. It was as I came up the underpass in the last few miles (the biggest climb on the course and feels like a mountain in comparison to what’s gone before) I realised I’d missed it. True to form I’d been swept along by the unbelievably quick runners and posted a brilliant time for the first half before slowly falling apart. I pushed on for the finish through cramping legs, swearing at the seemingly pointless loop of the park before hitting the athletics track and pushing for home, managing a 3h45. My second quickest but felt a long way off the Brighton time. I tried to console myself that in only two years I’d gone from barely finishing my first marathon to mixing it up with the proper runners – albeit at the back of the race.


Come 2014 and I returned to do justice to the course. It was a quick course and I’d spent a year training hard, narrowly missing a sub 3h30 and gaining a 3h31 PB on a course with gates and cattle grids and having gone sub 3h35 a few times in the previous few months. This time I was certain of a sub 3h30. The main difference on my second visit was the number of other runners I recognised from event, like marathon addicts anonymous. Lining up on the track again I planned to run it conservatively and save something for the second half. Then we started and I once again got swept along, having to check my watch constantly and consciously slow the pace. It didn’t help and 3h45 later I was back on the track, crossing the line 1 second slower than 12 months previously. What a monumental disappointment.


I didn’t bother running in 2015 and instead took a year away, ready to return in 2016 and finally get that PB.


Having secured a 3h15 earlier in the year and a 3h24 only a few days after another marathon I was feeling pretty good. Only a rumbling ache in the calf gave any concerns so arrived at the start wearing calf guards even though they make you look ‘special’. Abingdon serves water in cups in an old-school feel, with two stops serving sports drinks in bottles as a concession to the modern desire for sugary go-go juice. For this reason I ran with a soft bottle of sports drink in my shorts to aid me through. First half went well and I kept pace with a complaining Dionne, worried her back would give in and tempted to quit. She then maintained pace and went on for a 3h15 finish. Jealous?  Yes!  

Sadly I started to fade. My grumbling calf was causing me to run a little off and my ankle was whining. I hadn’t remembered from previous years but the course has countless cuts on and off pavements and along crumbling footpaths which break your stride and remind you of any aches or pains. 


With about 8 miles to go I was back to the usual mental arithmetic. How slow could I go to salvage a sub 3h30. I’d been reminded how uninteresting the course was. With my 100th planned for 11 months away if I could keep it under 3h30 I’d consider the event ‘done’ and never need to return. Hooray!  It was close but looking possible. 

 As much as I was trying to run a tight line the course was coming up a little long, around 0.2mile long but that was manageable. Then I hit the 21 mile marker and I was suddenly half a mile up on what I should be reading according to Garmin? How had I gained so much in a single mile?  How badly had I been weaving?!  If the marker was right I’d be finishing at 26.7 miles. That extra half mile was costing me the 3h30. I nearly threw the toys out the pram and walked but just in time saw the 22 mile marker coming up and the error drop back to 0.2 miles. I hadn’t managed to get lost, the marker was just well out so I could just concentrate on pushing along. 


Coming up the slope to the entrance to Tilsley stadium it was still too close to call. If there was the heartbreaking lap of the adjacent playing fields again I would be outside. Luckily the route was slightly revised and we ran straight into the stadium for a lap of the athletic track. My right leg was generally just grumpy at this point so no sprint finish was in the offing and I jerkily hobbled in 3h28. Abingdon was done and I wouldn’t need to return, especially after being presented with a thoroughly dodgy green technical top that makes the wearers resemble a scout leader. 

London Marathon Ballot Disappointment!

October marks the start of Autumn.  Birds migrate South for warmer climates and runners migrate to their doormat to see if they’ve been lucky enough to get a spot in the London Marathon.

For 2019, as per previous years if you donated your fee and were unlucky you’ll receive your ‘loser’ top and magazine in the post.

If you chose not to donate your fee (and face a marginally smaller chance of winning) you need to check post box and your email box as VMLM advise “A random selection of approximately half of unsuccessful applicants will be sent the Commiserations [loser] magazine and the remainder will be sent an e-zine version. Overseas applicants will be contacted via email.”

Here’s a few stats to ease the pain when you inevitably receive a “dear John”.

The ballot system up to 2016 closed after 125,000 applicants.  This meant if you were keen you’d set your alarm for an ungodly hour of the morning to get up and get in.  Assuming you had access to the internet and not stuck working nightshift away from a PC this was relatively fair as only the most keen got in before the limit was reached.

For the ballot for 2016 race onwards it’s been open for five days.  This gives everyone a chance to apply but also means a far higher number fighting for the same number of places.  For the 2016 marathon 247,069 applied, for 2017 it was 253,930, for 2018 it was 386,050, and a massive 414,168 for the 2019 ballot.

The organisers are a little cagey on how many ballot spots are available but general consensus is around 17,000.  This sounds a lot but equates to a 4% chance of getting lucky under the new system, or 13% under the old.

Year 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Ballot places 17,000 17,000 17,000 17,000 17,000
Entries available 125,000 247,069 253,930 386,050 414,168
Probability of success 13.60% 6.88% 6.69% 4.40% 4.10%

The makeup of the entry field is also something VMLM seldom list in detail but appears to be around 15,000 charity, 6000 Good For Age (those runners fast enough in the age and sex category to gain a spot), 1000 Championship (even faster than Good For Age), 1000 for affiliated running clubs, 100 Elite and 100 Celebrity spots (although based on previous years this definition is quite stretched.  If you can find more than 10 people who recognise you, you may well be a celebrity).   It’s unclear how many places are available for the overseas ballot, and how many defer from previous years.

Field Split
Total (nominal) 50000
Main Ballot 17000
Charity Places 15000
Celebs 100
Good For Age 6000 *now fixed after 2018 changes
Championship 1000
Elite 100
Deferred from previous TBC
Overseas Ballot TBC
Club Places 1000

In total all these add up to 50,000 places, far more than ever make the start line and VMLM themselves advise “We accept a total of more than 50,000 runners as we can predict, after 36 years, almost exactly what proportion of entrants will drop out due to illness, injury or other reasons before Race Day.”

What’s interesting is quite how many do drop out.  The press pack for the 2016 event helpfully lists starters and finishers for every year it’s been held.  For the years 2006-2017 they’ve accepted between 48,0000 and 53,000 runners but never had more than 40,000 make the start line.  For 2018 they had nearly 41,000 collect their bibs and 40,275 finishers. That’s an average dropout rate of 25% before the race has even begun.  If you’re one of the many runners having been unsuccessful on the ballot for multiple years it could be quite disappointing to know that a quarter of those that get a spot never even make it to pick up their race pack from the exhibition hall whilst you’d have gladly sold a close family member or at least a distant aunt to run the marathon.

In the unlikely event all 50,000 ever turned up there would be a lot of issues with crowd control and course congestion, not to mention at the finish as VMLM advise on their press pack they only have 40,000 goody bags and medals – a lot of disappointed runners.

Those that make it to the windswept start line in Greenwich are a persistent bunch though and in recent years only around 1% fail to finish the event, an impressively high finish percentage and a measure of the crowd support, determination of the runners and the relaxed course cut offs with finish times up to 9 hours being allowed and included.   The one exception is 2010 which saw an unusual 8.2% fail to make the finish line, but also the lowest number drop out before the start (22%).

Year Total Ballot Applicants Accepted Runners Starters % Drop Out Finishers % Drop Out
1981                 20,000                7,747        7,055 9%            6,255 11.3%
1982                 90,000              18,059      16,350 9%          15,116 7.5%
1983                 60,000              19,735      16,500 16%          15,776 4.4%
1984                 70,000              21,142      16,992 20%          15,649 7.9%
1985                 83,000              22,274      17,500 21%          15,841 9.5%
1986                 80,000              25,566      19,261 25%          18,030 6.4%
1987                 80,000              28,364      21,485 24%          19,545 9.0%
1988                 73,000              29,979      22,469 25%          20,889 7.0%
1989                 72,000              31,772      24,452 23%          22,652 7.4%
1990                 73,000              34,882      26,500 24%          24,953 5.8%
1991                 79,000              33,485      24,500 27%          23,393 4.5%
1992                 83,000              34,250      24,500 28%          23,783 2.9%
1993                 68,000              35,820      25,000 30%          24,448 2.2%
1994                 72,000              37,379      26,000 30%          25,194 3.1%
1995                 79,000              39,097      27,000 31%          25,326 6.2%
1996                 68,000              39,173      27,134 31%          26,761 1.4%
1997                 78,000              39,813      29,500 26%          29,135 1.2%
1998                 69,000              42,228      30,663 27%          29,924 2.4%
1999                 87,000              43,774      31,582 28%          30,809 2.4%
2000                 93,000              42,596      32,620 23%          31,658 2.9%
2001                 92,000              43,517      31,156 28%          30,286 2.8%
2002                 99,000              46,083      33,297 28%          32,906 1.2%
2003               111,000              45,629      32,746 28%          32,281 1.4%
2004               108,000              45,219      32,746 28%          31,983 2.3%
2005               132,000              47,969      35,600 26%          35,260 1.0%
2006               119,000              47,020      33,578 29%          33,224 1.1%
2007               128,000              50,039      36,396 27%          35,698 1.9%
2008               120,000              48,630      35,037 28%          34,602 1.2%
2009               155,000              49,995      35,884 28%          35,366 1.4%
2010               163,000              51,378      39,956 22%          36,632 8.3%
2011               163,926              50,532      35,303 30%          34,836 1.3%
2012               170,150              50,200      37,227 26%          36,774 1.2%
2013               167,449              48,323      34,631 28%          34,311 0.9%
2014               169,682              49,872      36,337 27%          35,911 1.2%
2015               172,888              51,696      38,020 26%          37,641 1.0%
2016               247,069              53,152      39,523 26%          39,140 1.0%
2017               253,930              53,229      40,048 24%          39,487 2.2%
2018               386,050  54,685  Approx 41,000 25%  40,275 Est. 1.8%

Of course if you don’t get in for a number of years and don’t donate the entry fee, then after 6-7 years of rejection you’re some of the way to ‘buying’ a spot from a charity and raising money for a cause that means something to you.