The London Marathon ballot: How it works and what to do if you don't get in

Your options for crossing the finish line of one of the world's most sought after running events
The London Marathon ballot guide

Around 40,000 runners take part in the London Marathon every year, and almost half of those involved get their spot through the race’s ballot. That’s a lot of people, which might make you think that your chances are pretty good of getting a place in the race if you enter the ballot.

If you're looking for alternative marathons to sign up for – jump to here.

Unfortunately, that’s a long way from being the case. The London Marathon is a brilliant event, which only really has one downside – it’s so popular that the odds are very much against you when you enter the ballot.

What is the London Marathon ballot?

A random draw that allocates around 17,500 of the places available in the London Marathon each year. The rest of the place go to charity and club runners, along with those who have hit certain qualifying times.

How do you enter?

The ballot for the London Marathon is open for six days, and generally runs in late April and/or early May the year before, shortly after the event is held.

The ballot for the London Marathon 2020 has already closed, having run from Sunday 28th April to Friday 3rd May.

To sign up for the ballot you pay an entry fee of £39 (around $48), which is reduced to £35 (around $43) for runners who are a member of a UK running club. It costs £80 (around $99) for overseas entries.

It’s worth noting these prices are incredibly low relative to other races. Some 10Ks in London cost more than the London Marathon, and the New York City Marathon costs $295 (around £239) for Americans and $358 (around £290) for overseas entrants

Everything you need to know about the London Marathon ballot
Credit: Virgin London Marathon

You will get your money back if you're not successful or you can choose to donate your entry fee to the London Marathon Charitable Trust, which is not only very generous of you but also gives you another chance of getting into the race via a second-chance ballot – the Lucky Bequest draw.

This is drawn after the main ballot and allocates another 1,000 places in the race, which are only picked from people who chose to donate their entry fee. Strike out again and you still don’t go home completely empty-handed – you get a training top.

How many other people are entering?

Here’s the key number – 457,861 people applied for a ballot place in the 2020 London Marathon. The number has been rising and setting records in each of the past few years, with this year’s total a big jump on the 414,168 applicants for the 2019 ballot.

When we say the odds are against you, this is what we mean. Almost half a million people are competing for under 20,000 places. Don’t do the maths, it’s depressing.

Everything you need to know about the London Marathon ballot
Credit: Virgin London Marathon

Is the ballot weighted towards people who have entered several times?

The London Marathon used to operate a system where, if you were unsuccessful in five successive ballots, you were guaranteed entry the following year. Unfortunately, given the massive numbers of people who apply for a place, that is no longer possible – there are thousands of people who would be eligible for a guaranteed place under that system.

The ballot is completely random and the only way you can slightly increase your odds is to donate your entry fee so you get a second chance in the Lucky Bequest draw.

When do you hear the results?

The results of the ballot are delivered by the end of October each year in the form of a magazine. If you’ve secured a place in the race you’ll get a magazine with ‘congratulations’ on the front, and if you’ve failed to get a spot you’ll get a magazine with ‘commiserations’ on the front, which no-one will blame you for throwing straight in the bin.

In a bid to save paper, not everyone who misses out will get a physical magazine this year – you’ll get a commiserations e-zine instead.

Everything you need to know about the London Marathon ballot
Credit: Virgin London Marathon

What happens if you can’t run after getting a ballot spot?

Given the relatively low cost of entry to the London Marathon ballot and the fact it takes place shortly after the race each year, a whole lot of people enter it in a blaze of excitement. When October comes and they are told they have got a place in the race, the cold reality of what training for and running a marathon involves hits, and they start to regret their decision. As a result, quite a lot of people drop out.

You might hope this means their place goes to someone on a waiting list from the ballot, but that is not the case. You also can’t transfer your place to someone else. The organisers of the London Marathon take into account the amount of people who will drop out when they allocate ballot spots, and it’s apparently a remarkably consistent number from year to year. So if you drop out no-one uses that place.

Everything you need to know about the London Marathon ballot
Credit: Virgin London Marathon

What you can do, however, is defer your place for a year. You can only do this once, but it’s a great safety net for anyone who gets injured during their marathon training. Don’t force yourself to run in that situation, defer your place for a year instead. You can defer your place pretty much right up until the day of the London Marathon itself – there are instructions on how to do so on the London Marathon website.

What other ways are there to enter the race if you miss out?

The good news is that the ballot is far from the only way to get a place in the London Marathon. The bad news is that every other way does require quite a lot of effort, either in terms of fundraising or training to run an incredibly quick marathon time.

As you probably already know, the London Marathon is a huge fundraising event, and a vast range of charities have spots in the race. Apply to the charity of your choice for one of their places and you have a decent chance of getting to run, but you will have to raise around £2,000 for the charity. And that’s a compulsory target – if you don’t raise it, you’ll have to pay it out of your own pocket.

Everything you need to know about the London Marathon ballot
Credit: Virgin London Marathon

You can also get a place in the race through your running club if you’re a member of a club that is affiliated with British Athletics. These places are, of course, in high demand within running clubs, so usually go to active members who volunteer to help with events and regularly represent the club in races. In short, you can’t just join a club and ask for a London Marathon spot.

The other way to get a place in the London Marathon is to be fast. The race has 6,000 Good For Age spots, which are split evenly between men and women who have hit a qualifying time, which is based on both gender and age. So a man aged 18-39 needs to have run a sub-3 marathon to be eligible, and a women aged 18-39 a sub-3:45, with the qualifying times getting slower for older runners.

However, the kicker is that getting the time doesn’t guarantee a spot – if there are loads of people applying who have the time, the places go to faster runners first, so for the 2020 London Marathon the 18-39 men’s qualifying time is actually 2:57:20, and the 18-39 women’s time is 3:40:45.

Everything you need to know about the London Marathon ballot
Credit: Virgin London Marathon

If the times above barely raised an eyebrow, you might even be eligible for a Championship place in the London Marathon. This is the one guaranteed way to book your spot in the event, but it involves running really very quickly.

For men, you have to have run a sub-2:45 marathon or sub-1:15 half marathon in the past couple of years, while women have to have run a sub-3:15 marathon or sub-1:30 half marathon.

What are your other options?

If you've got your heart set on taking on the London Marathon as your one and only marathon you wouldn't be alone. For many people, it's a bucket list experience that even those who haven't run before want to complete. If that's the case and you can't find an alternative way to take part then, like for many other people, it probably isn't your year.

If, however, your reason for entering was because you wanted to run a marathon, then your journey is far from finished (apart from the 26.2 miles). VLM is just one of the dozens of marathons taking place in the spring, many of which have just as much going for them.

The other benefit of most of those marathons is that they don't have a ballot system. So if you find one you like all you need to do is sign up, pay for your entry and get training.

Alternative spring marathons

Paris Marathon

Everything you need to know about the London Marathon ballot
Credit: Paris Marathon

Yes, it may be in another country but the ease of getting there and back using the Eurostar makes Paris an excellent alternative to the London Marathon.

If you've got your heart set on doing a large-scale spring marathon then Paris is one of the best options out there. At almost 50,000 finishers in 2019, it's one of the biggest marathons in the world. It has the crowds, the famous landmarks and if you're looking to celebrate afterward, it's tough to beat.

Many people who've taken part in both London and Paris do note it as being a slightly harder race. Aside from more undulation along the river stretch, there are areas that are noticeably empty of spectators and the final few quiet miles through the Bois de Boulogne is a stark contrast to the final crowd-lined London streets of VLM. That doesn't stop it from being an impressive event that's well worth experiencing though.

When: 5 April 2020

Number of runners: 49,000+

Price: From €110

Brighton Marathon

If you're looking for cheering crowds, beautiful scenery and a location that's geographically close to London then Brighton is the perfect alternative to the London Marathon.

Over the past few years, Brighton has become one of the most popular destinations for runners, hosting various events throughout the year including the fantastic Brighton Half Marathon and the BM 10K (which takes place over the same weekend). Like London, there's a wonderful vibe around the event as residents come out in droves to give support.

The route itself is for the most part full of impressive seaside views – although be warned that the further reaches of the race take place away from the cheering crowds and can be a real slog mentally – not to mention the rolling hills. There really aren't many places as nice to be when you cross a finish line after 26.2 miles though.

When: 19 April 2020

Number of runners: 12,000

Price: TBC – Register your interest to receive updates

Manchester Marathon

Alongside the Great North Run, the Manchester Marathon is one of the most popular running events that take place in the northern part of the country, and for good reason – not only is it extremely flat, it also has one of the nicest atmospheres you're likely to find at a race, which is one of the main reasons you probably wanted to do London in the first place.

Starting and finishing at Old Trafford, there's also a new route for 2020 which will take runners through the city centre for the first time ever, so you'll also be part of running history.

When: 5 April 2020

Number of runners: 20,000

Price: £55

Edinburgh Marathon

Okay, it's a long way from London but if you're looking for a race that has the same sort of feel of London then Edinburgh is well worth the long drive to get there.

Not only is it by far one of the most beautiful road marathons you'll ever do, the impressive point-to-point route that follows the coastline has a massive 5k decline at the start. That basically means you're getting the first part of the event to relax and enjoy the various Edinburgh landmarks.

Note that the race has sold out every year so far. So make sure you get in early.

When: 24 May

Number of runners: 16,000+

Price: From £62

Liverpool Rock and Roll Marathon

If loads of runners, heaps of history and some stunning views is what you're after then Liverpool Rock and Roll Marathon is an excellent alternative race to investigate after London – especially if you're a fan of the Beatles.

The route takes in some of the most famous landmarks around Liverpool including the football stadiums, the Beatles statue, Stanley Park, the John Lennon statue and the Kings Parade waterfront.

Don't expect an easy run though as there are a fair few hills dotted across the route which, twinned with Liverpool's propensity for a bit of wind, means that you're going to need to dig a bit deeper to get across the finish line.

When: 24 May 2020

Number of runners: 20,000+

Price: From £42

Main image credit: Virgin Money London Marathon

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