Prior to the 2019 event, qualification for London Marathon was simple. Run under an allotted Good For Age (GFA) time and you were in.
Thereafter the organisers have applied a 3000 per gender cap on GFA places, introducing the risk that you may qualify but not get in, with the places allocated to the fastest in each age group.
The new gender quota and tighter qualifying times were announced just before the 2018 event was held in April, giving runners until August to get a GFA time. It kept applications low and it appears everyone that applied for GFA in 2019 got in.
For 2020 applications people had far longer to train and get their times in so they were oversubscribed. The organisers had to reduce the accepted times by 2m40s for men and 4m15s for women which caused some muttering on social media from those that missed out:
This ‘fastest first until filled’ system has been used by Boston Marathon for a number of years and runners have got their head around the concept of treating the Boston Qualifier (BQ) time as a minimum hurdle, with the goal to being as far under as possible. This is historically what makes Boston so prestigious. It’s not luck in a ballot, or a bulging wallet that gets you to the start line, nor scraping under a time barrier. You really need to put everything you have to get the fastest performance possible. Those precious seconds could make all the difference.
For 2020 Boston have increased the field to 31,500 runners, of which 80% are time qualifiers (25,200) all trying to prove themselves amongst the best.
Even with tighter qualification times for 2020 applications they still filled and had to turn away over 3000 runners and apply a 1m39s cut off across both genders (rather than adjusted to maintain a 50/50 split as London).
So is Boston still the hardest to qualify for?
Not for men anyway. Although the GFA/BQ times are largely similar, the required cut off in the age groups make London far harder to qualify in all but the 70+ age groups. In particular a 55-59 year old male would need to run a 3h17m marathon to qualify for London. The same result would gain entry to Boston for someone 10 years younger.
(Note – age brackets are split for easier comparison with other World Marathon Majors as the age groups aren’t aligned).
As a 40 year old male, I’d need a 3:02:19 for London and ‘only’ 3:08:20 for Boston. Both are outside my ability currently so largely academic. Those 6 minutes are 13 seconds a mile, certainly enough to take a pace from ‘oh my god this is hard but I can maybe hold it’ to ‘f*ck that I’m going home before my lungs pop out my chest’.
It seems for men the tables have turned and London GFA is far more prestigious that a BQ.
So what about women?
Apart from the 55-59 group, Boston required times are tighter than London and it retains it’s reputation.
If I woke up tomorrow as a female, I’d probably be too confused to run a qualification marathon. Once I got over the shock, then at 40 I’d need a 3:45:44 for London but 3:38:20 for Boston. Those 7+ minutes are nearly 17 seconds a mile and as for men, definitely enough to turn manageable discomfort to something intolerable.
For women at the top of their game, BQ is still the sign you’ve made it.
In the future?
Given how large the reduction in female times is for London at 4m15s it seems women are pushing the barriers and making massive improvements. If it continues then within a couple of years they may drop the qualification standard by a full 5 minutes to close the gap between GFA and BQ. As with the Boston this would likely drive performance and lead to even faster times.
How far could it go? If it kept moving and ultimately reached the 10% physiological difference between male and female as seen in elite sport it could end up as below assuming sufficient female entrants to fill the 3000 quota.