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.
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 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.