Addressing unfairness in the Virgin Money London Marathon and Boston Marathon qualifying times

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About to decline a jelly baby

Back in May, when I was just 62, I was quite pleased to complete the Milton Keynes Marathon in 3.52.11. “Wow, that’s a good time” said a friend. “Nice of you to say so” I replied, “but no, not really.”

You see, some old fellow out there has run a 2.36.15 marathon. I can use an age-graded calculator which divides the (approximate) world record time for my age by my own time: this comes out at 67.29%, compared to 100% for the best in the world of my age. Welcome to the unforgiving world of age grading.

Age grading is a useful tool for motivating runners as we get older. Inevitably, as we move into our forties and beyond, new personal bests will elude us. But an age graded percentage can offer encouragement by showing us that although our times are slower in absolute terms, they can actually be better quality when viewed against our peers. So we can still have an achievable target to aim at. In my case I’m pretty chuffed if I can hit 70%.

For many years, the London Marathon has reserved a number of “Good For Age” places: men and women achieving certain times at other marathons in each age group have been guaranteed entry. This changed from the 2019 race: since then, running a good for age time only gets the right to apply for a place: a cut-off is then applied inside the qualification standard to reduce the number of qualifying runners to the preset limit.

Presumably this change was made to manage the unpredictability of the number of qualifiers, as the London Marathon grows ever more popular. But it is harsh on runners: in previous years, they could find a flat, fast course and aim for a London qualifying time, knowing that if they managed to hit the target, they had a guaranteed place. But now they must wait to see where the cut-off is made: very possibly all their effort to qualify will have been for nothing.

In my case, had I run eight minutes faster and got just inside my 3.45 qualifying standard, I would have been bitterly disappointed when the cut-off was later made at 3.42.20. I suspect most runners would rather see slightly tougher qualifying standards, but with guaranteed entry as before: at least they would have a fixed and transparent target. The organisers shouldn’t find it difficult to manage some variation in numbers: a surplus could be absorbed by the inevitable large number of late cancellations due to injury, while any extra places would be snapped up by charities.

Comparing the qualifying standards for men and women highlights another potential issue. The standards for women appear more lenient compared to world record standards. I thought I’d run some numbers to check this impression.

London Good For Age001

The table confirms this – women under 60 have substantially less demanding standards. In the youngest age category, the required age grade is more than 9% lower than for men. This means that for a large band of club standard runners, women will qualify while men of comparable ability will not.

This is not an accident. The organisers have deliberately chosen equality of outcome over equality of opportunity. The website states:

The number of Good For Age entries for the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon is capped at a total of 6,000 places and has been split evenly with 3,000 entries for women and 3,000 entries for men.

“Split evenly” sounds fair, but takes no account of the different numbers of men and women who might apply. As far as I know, this figure is not disclosed, but presumably the easier standards for women reflect fewer applications. And while there are many areas where a case can be argued for positive discrimination, I’m not sure that running – the most democratic and easily measured of sports – is one of them. Surely both genders should be set equally demanding targets?

Notice, though, that older men have easier targets than women in terms of age grading. Age grading isn’t perfect, and can easily be affected by outliers, especially in the older categories, where statistics are relatively thin. And if, for example, an 80-year old is willing and able to run a marathon, most people would say good luck to them. In 2019, 14 men and 3 women over 80 started the race, and all but one finished. You could hardly say they’re hogging all the places.

It’s interesting to compare qualifying times with the Boston Marathon. Alone among the major city marathons, Boston sets tough standards for the great majority of its entrants. It has been run regularly since 1897, and as the oldest annual marathon, it takes pride in being seen as a high quality race.

Boston qualifying001

Boston also used to guarantee entry to anyone achieving the qualifying standard, but from 2012 the ever increasing popularity of the race led them to apply a lower cut-off. Such a high percentage of their entrants are time qualifiers (over 80% for 2020) that they have to carefully manage the numbers to stay within their race limit: this contrasts with London where the 6,000 Good For Age places represent only about 15% of the total field. In 2019, for example, Boston had so many applicants achieving qualifying times that it imposed a drastic cut-off of 4 minutes 52 seconds lower, which resulted in it rejecting 7,248 runners with qualifying times (about a quarter of the applicants), and then tightening the qualifying times for the following year.

Boston age grade standards for men are much more consistent, falling broadly into the 65-70% range, while London varies hugely between 57% and 74%. However, the women’s standards in Boston seem to have been added as a lazy afterthought – a flat 30 minutes has been added to the men’s time in all age categories, which strongly favours younger women, so that, for example, an 80-year old woman needs a world-class 90% age grading to qualify, while younger women again have substantially easier targets than the men.

Boston has been running a successful marathon for over 120 years, London for nearly 40. These fantastic races have earned the right to run themselves as they wish, and are only being constrained by their own success. But both, if they wished, could improve on the fairness and transparency of their qualification rules, without having to make more places available.

Boston could reset the women’s qualifying times to a more consistent age grading standard by tightening them for younger groups and loosening them for the over 60s.  The current standards for women have not been given serious thought.

And London? I’ve no doubt that the organisers thought they were doing the right thing by setting the standards to achieve equal representation for men and women. But isn’t that just patronising? Surely all runners – where possible – deserve an equal opportunity. Qualifying times should be adjusted to make it a level playing field between men and women. And I’m pretty sure most runners would like to see a return to guaranteed entry for qualifying times – even if that means the times are slightly more demanding – so they know exactly what they have to do to qualify.  If the organisers care about the runners, they should prioritise fairness and transparency over their own convenience.

Running and Cheating

Coe and Ovett

I love running, and the history of my race times for 10k’s, half-marathons, marathons and other random distances is all laid out through the internet, should anyone care. I’ve entered many races, and from time to time found myself unable to run due to injury, or with some clashing engagement. Sometimes you may be able to return your number to the organiser, who, perhaps for a small fee, can reassign it to another runner at your direction. But frequently this is not allowed, or the deadline to do this has expired. So it seems harmless enough, charitable even, to simply give your number unofficially to another runner – after all, the race may be sold out. And half marathons can cost upwards of £30 to enter.

But if you give your number to a slower runner, you’ll get a disappointing time against your name. Worse, if they are faster, you’ll get a great time which you haven’t earned, of which you’re not capable, and may have to face the congratulations or suspicions of fellow runners who notice it. My running history shows a wide range of performance stretching from poor to average. But it is mine, and it is true. This is why I have never given away my race number, or taken over anyone else’s. I don’t want to be a cheat. In a world of bullshit, some things should be kept pure.

But it’s easy to say that when nothing depends on my performance besides personal pride. At the elite end of the field, if an athlete can summon just a 1% improvement in his or her time – perhaps using performance enhancing drugs or blood doping – that translates to the length of the home straight in the 10,000 metres. That could easily be the difference between gold and fourth. We shouldn’t be surprised that athletes and their trainers are prepared to break the rules in pursuit of glory.

The athletics heroes of my (relative) youth were Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, who presided over a golden age of British middle-distance running in the late 1970s and early 1980s: between them they won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. They broke a total of seventeen world records in the 800 metres, mile and 1500 metres.

In his fascinating book on the rivalry between these two athletes, ‘The Perfect Distance’, Pat Butcher attempts to address the suspicions which Coe and Ovett inevitably attracted with their astounding performances. This is what Coe said:

‘I used to hear those rumours: “Oh, he goes to Switzerland, to Italy, for his blood.” I used to laugh it off, and Steve [Mitchell] and Malcolm [Williams] were mainly with me in Switzerland. I’m afraid it’s the sadness of sport. This is where you’ve got to be so careful about pointing fingers at people making big breakthroughs, because only in public terms is it a big breakthrough. In reality, you’ve been slogging away, mile after mile, weight after weight, ten years at a time.’

Not quite a denial, is it? Here is Ovett’s take:

‘I suppose when we were knocking records off left, right and centre people must have thought, What the hell’s going on here with these two? But I can put my hand on my heart, and on my children’s lives, that I never took an aspirin or a paracetamol at any stage in my career. I was frightened to death of doing a thing like that, and I’m very proud that I didn’t. So, you know, they can say what they like because I know the true facts.’

When read literally, despite the chilling decision to involve his children, this statement falls short of being a complete denial of taking performance enhancing drugs, and doesn’t address blood doping at all. The truth about drugs may be that they themselves don’t know: it would make sense to employ a ‘don’t ask’ policy with their scientists and nutritionists to enable them to believe themselves clean. However, it is unlikely that blood doping – which involves removing a pint of blood about a month before the event, then reintroducing it before race time to supercharge performance – could have taken place without their knowledge. I’d like to believe that Coe and Ovett were clean: they were my heroes. But their statements do not dispel the doubt.

Nor is cheating confined to the elite. There have been many instances, for example, of lesser mortals – often running for charities – cheating in the London Marathon: participants who, for example, run the first half in about two hours, only to then disappear from the timing mats until they are pictured beaming with their medal at the finish line at a time suggesting they ran the second half in near world record time. Typically they have simply turned left after crossing Tower Bridge and killed a little time before sauntering over the finish line.

Since the modern London Marathon began in 1981, one of the most regular celebrity runners – and now the most notorious – was the predatory and prolific sex offender, broadcaster Jimmy Savile.  He claimed to have run hundreds of marathons.  Before and after his death, and posthumous disgrace, there was much speculation in the running community about whether he had really done so, or whether he had cheated, perhaps by taking rides between photo opportunities.  Some runners offered anecdotal evidence of having overtaken him several times during the race while he had never passed them in return.

Jimmy Savile

Of course, set against his many serious crimes, this matters not at all.  But I found the question wouldn’t go away, and until recently, to answer it would require more research than I had time or energy for: the London Marathon results for the early years were confined to dusty libraries and ancient newspaper listings.

 

But a while ago the organisers of the London Marathon created a results database to celebrate the first one million finishers of the London Marathon, and it became possible to search online all results since the race was founded.  This has enabled me to carry out the research with the economy of effort better suited to a marathon runner.  So here it is.

Jimmy Savile’s London Marathon Times
Year Age Time
1981 54 4.08.28
1982 55 3.46.23
1983 56 3.33.59
1984 57 3.43.56
1985 58 4.02.00
1986 59 4.13.07
1987 60 3.46.14
1988 61 3.49.22
1989 62 3.49.52
1990 63 3.57.27
1991 64 4.12.37

 

Savile ran the London Marathon for each of its first eleven years, until he was 64 years old.  He is not shown in any results after 1991.  One caveat is that these years didn’t have the benefit of chip timing, nor the timing mats at 5k intervals which make it difficult to cheat the course.

I’ll admit that I took a look at this hoping to nail the guy, perhaps by finding a freakishly good time, or extreme variations.  But to my disappointment I couldn’t find much of a story here.  These times have the ring of truth about them: not so good they’re unbelievable, but consistent with a recreational runner of a reasonable standard.  His best times are only slightly outside the current (fairly demanding) “good for age” times for the Virgin Money London Marathon.  His 1987 time, for example, is only 74 seconds outside the mark.

One reason for scepticism about his times has been his assertion that he didn’t need to train for marathons: he claimed that he just turned up and ran.  Galling though this might be to runners slogging through their training programmes, if you run in as many races as Savile claimed to, that can itself be sufficient training to produce a respectable performance.

And Savile had an extremely high profile – it is difficult to imagine him slipping in and out of the race unnoticed. There is no credible evidence of cheating, and on this occasion – only – we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Coe and Ovett, though?  I think the jury’s still out.

 

Postscript:  after I put a link to this story on Chiltern Harriers’ Facebook page, a fellow Harrier called Ian Chapman posted this:

Much as I hate to defend him I ran most of the London Marathon with, or close to, Jimmy Savile in 1983 although he pulled away and beat me by a few minutes in the end.

I can confirm from that year’s results that Savile did in fact finish about eight minutes before Mr Chapman.  As this was the year of Savile’s fastest London Marathon time (3.33.59) this suggests to me that his other results are also likely to be genuine.  Not all marathon runners are good people.

Second postscript, 16 July 2019. I had this comment from Jules:

He did train!! Back then I lived in stoke Mandeville, he was always out running so he definitely put the training in. I assume he trained harder when being a wrestler too. Lots of people do secret training as with secret revision for exams, so as to appear better to others!!

So it looks like Savile wasn’t telling the truth about not doing any training – which provides more evidence that his times were genuine.