London Marathon – Record Ballot Numbers – What are your odds?

In May 2019 London Marathon announced they’ve again beaten the records as a stonking 457,861 applicants registered for a ballot place in the 2020 event, the 40th edition of the race. This is up 10% from the previous year, already an impressive figure.

How’s it work?

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.  It also opened typically a week after the event so those whose enthusiasm from watching it on the telly was short lived would typically have moved onto another interest before the entry opened. A benefit to ‘serious’ runners but also decreasing the chances of a non-runner accidentally getting a life changing experience.

For the ballot for 2016 race onward it’s been open for five days, and was increased to six days for 2020 entry (started in 2019) where for the first time it was open during the running of the marathon itself so anyone inspired and watching from the safety of their sofa could enter immediately before the elite runners had even finished the course.  The changes give 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, and for 2020 is now 457,861.

What’s the odds?

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 less than 4% chance of getting lucky under the new system, or 13% under the old.

2910573_large-lndCoincidentally prior to the 2018 Fifa World Cup, sports data company Gracenote gave England a 4% chance of lifting the trophy in Moscow and remember how excited we all got about that?

It’s still better odds than the lottery and you don’t have to pay until you get lucky so also cheaper.

Year 2015 2018 2019 2020
Ballot places 17,000 17,000 17,000 17,000
Entries available 125,000 386,050 414,168 457,861
Probability of success 13.60% 4.40% 4.10% 3.71%

“It’s not fair! I wanna cry!”

by26g-ncuaeez_jEvery year when the figures are announced people complain, and every October or November when the ballot results are announced yet more complain. The numbers running creep slowly up every year, but the reality is London Marathon have an impossible task trying to stage a manageable and safe race and keep all applicants happy.

They recently changed the Good For Age times to streamline numbers and bring some parity with the rest of the majors. They adjusted the number of places offered to running clubs to increase ballot spots. Each year they’ve offered slightly more places than previous. Even with these steps they’d need to hold an event with nearly half a million runners to satisfy the demand. Given 40,000 runners close down London for 8 hours, that increase would be some undertaking and they might struggle for volunteers willing to undertake a 80 hour shift.

Breakdown

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.   It’s unclear how many places are available for the overseas ballot, and how many defer from previous years but you can assume deferrals are relatively consistent year on year.

What’s surprising is quite how many do drop out.  The press pack helpfully lists starters and finishers for every year it’s been held.  For the years 2006-2019 they’ve accepted between 48,0000 and 56,000 runners but never had more than 42,000 make the start line.  The average dropout rate is 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 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.”

In the unlikely event all 50,000-56,000 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 around 45,000 goody bags and medals – a lot of disappointed runners.

Year Total Ballot Applicants Accepted Runners Starters % Drop Out Total 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%         15,793 4.3%
1984               70,000            21,142      16,992 20%         15,675 7.8%
1985               83,000            22,274      17,500 21%         15,873 9.3%
1986               80,000            25,566      19,261 25%         18,067 6.2%
1987               80,000            28,364      21,485 24%         19,586 8.8%
1988               73,000            29,979      22,469 25%         20,932 6.8%
1989               72,000            31,772      24,452 23%         22,701 7.2%
1990               73,000            34,882      26,500 24%         25,013 5.6%
1991               79,000            33,485      24,500 27%         23,435 4.3%
1992               83,000            34,250      24,500 28%         23,833 2.7%
1993               68,000            35,820      25,000 30%         24,495 2.0%
1994               72,000            37,379      26,000 30%         25,242 2.9%
1995               79,000            39,097      27,000 31%         25,377 6.0%
1996               68,000            39,173      27,134 31%         26,806 1.2%
1997               78,000            39,813      29,500 26%         29,189 1.1%
1998               69,000            42,228      30,663 27%        29,972 2.3%
1999               87,000            43,774      31,582 28%         30,849 2.3%
2000               93,000            42,596      32,620 23%         31,698 2.8%
2001               92,000            43,517      31,156 28%         30,318 2.7%
2002               99,000            46,083      33,297 28%          2,950 1.0%
2003             111,000            45,629      32,746 28%         32,324 1.3%
2004             108,000            45,219      32,746 28%         32,012 2.2%
2005             132,000            47,969      35,600 26%         35,300 0.8%
2006             119,000            47,020      33,578 29%         33,250 1.0%
2007             128,000            50,039      36,396 27%         35,729 1.8%
2008             120,000            48,630      35,037 28%         34,637 1.1%
2009             155,000            49,995      35,884 28%         35,404 1.3%
2010             163,000            51,378      39,956 22%         36,666 8.2%
2011             163,926            50,532      35,303 30%         34,872 1.2%
2012             170,150            50,200      37,227 26%         36,812 1.1%
2013

167,449

           48,323      34,631 28%         34,381 0.7%
2014             169,682            49,872      36,337 27%         35,977 1.0%
2015             172,888            51,696      38,020 26%         37,793 0.6%
2016             247,069            53,152      39,523 26%         39,184 0.9%
2017             253,930            53,229      40,048 25%         39,472 1.4%
2018             386,050            54,685      41,003 25%         40,273 1.8%
2019             414,168            56,398  TBC TBC        42,619 TBC
2020             457,861  TBC  TBC TBC  TBC TBC

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.

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