Should Marathons Be Accessible To All?

Firstly let’s be absolutely clear on something. I am a firm believer in the inclusive nature of running. I am almost fanatical about getting people to take up running and stick with it through the first few difficult months, until it clicks and they find the love. I am working towards getting qualified in order to help people start running, run better, run faster, run further…I want to teach the world to run!

However, I saw a conversation the other day that got me thinking, and the more I thought the more I got cross, and the crosser I got the less popular I imagined my opinion would be…but now I’m not so sure and so I am asking you, dear reader, for your input.

Should marathons be accessible to all?

The reason I ask is this conversation, which appeared on a marathon’s Facebook page (I’m afraid I can’t remember which and can’t find it now otherwise I would link to my source). Someone had complained that last year they had almost been swept up by the bus after 6h30m on course and with 7 miles still to go. They were demanding the course stay open later for all the slower runners and walkers who couldn’t finish inside the cut off. This got me thinking, are they right to complain? Should marathons be there for walkers and people who can’t manage more than 20 minute/mile pace? Does that undermine what is happening at the other end of the field?

I thought I might be alone in resenting those that had cheapened my marathon achievement, until I found this article from the New York Times in 2009. To précis what they say marathons have become about completing not competing (not necessarily with others but with yourself and the clock). Thousands now turn up on the start line with the minimum training and plod through 26.2 miles, finishing hours after the bulk of the field. They get the same t-shirt, the same medal and the same bragging rights as those runners that committed to a 16 week training plan of speed sessions, ice baths, clean eating and long runs.

Another point to be clear on, I am absolutely not being elitist. I’m yet to break the 5 hour mark in a marathon (but I’m doing everything possible to change that in Edinburgh this May!). I’m not suggesting marathons should become more exclusive, but I do think that they should be reserved for those that put in the work and are there to run. A 6h30m cut off is an average 15 minute mile, that’s enough even for a slower runner who’s wheels fell off at 18 miles to get in, surely?

What’s your opinion on the sanctity of marathons? Should anyone be able to walk 26 miles and call themselves a marathoner or should they be the reserve of the serious, committed runner?

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6 Responses to Should Marathons Be Accessible To All?

  1. Mary says:

    A controversial topic!
    I think our times are very similar. My marathon time is 5:04 achieved at London last year (also doing everything possible to break at five hour mark this Spring!) so again, I’m never going to make the front of the pack but yet I am capable of running within the 15 minute mile cut offs given to most races, which I believe is a realistic pace for the majority of people.
    I do believe that the cut offs need to exist. Having marshalled several marathons, I have hung around much longer than expected a few times now to help ensure that runners moving slower than the quoted cut off pace remain safe and achieve their goal. Not only does it put a number of other people out, there is always the issue of safety as the majority of marathons are run on public land.
    There are many long distance events put on for walkers who would like to complete the 26.2 distance so I don’t feel that anybody should be walking an entire marathon intended for runners. They would still be a marathoner but just have entered an event more suitable for their ability.

  2. C. Brooks says:

    You’re totally right that running is a very inclusive sport. Unless you’re an elite runner, a race is not a competition against the person running next to you, it’s a competition against yourself and what you can do. So from that aspect I can totally see that running a marathon with strict time constraints is not welcoming and may discourage the 13-minute-milers from thinking that they can every finish a marathon.
    However, I have recently had to make the choice to take a DNS (did not start) because of an injury, but I was seriously contemplating running if only the allotted time constraint had been longer. BUT it wouldn’t have been healthy for me to do it and then hurt my body more in the process. So, I was actually thankful for the time constraint because it was a finite reason for me to not race, keeping me and my injury drama away from other runners trying to accomplish a superhuman task.
    Also, these marathons are not on hidden paths that no one uses, they’re usually downtown large cities. This means that keeping roadways closed for a longer period of time than 6 or 7 hours is almost impossible. So there’s practicality in having a time constraint as well.
    All in all, though, it’s a great topic to discuss and get other people’s points of view on.

  3. bobbyjessica2319 says:

    I totally agree with you. I by no means think you have to be super fast or anything to run a marathon, but I think runners should be considerate to the volunteers , the city, and respect the cut off times. If they say 6 hours, good, work for that and at least try to do some sort of training before the day. They shouldn’t be allowed to show up to walk the whole way.

  4. ultraboycreates says:

    Running should be for everyone but the right to race should perhaps be earned. Respect the race you’re doing (something that seems to be increasing lacking as the popularity of running grows). Respect the rules of race and it’s time limits and most of all respect yourself! If you’ve not prepared or never intended to prepare for a race then don’t waste the place, don’t turn up and make a mockery of something brilliant – let those who do respect running, runners and others do it because we work hard to EARN our medals.

    But that’s just my grumpy opinion

  5. Great topic for debate.

    I personally think as long as the organisers are clear in their event description, then there can be no complaints, whatever they decide that cut-off to be.
    IronMan competitors are well aware that they may be withdrawn from the race, if they fail to meet cut-offs. It doesn’t stop them being cross or fed up but it’s part of the achievement (I imagine) of completing it within the timeframes set.
    All the road marathons I have entered are very clear that after a certain time, participants must be aware that traffic will be allowed through and the distance must be completed on pavements, etc.
    Part of the cost (a whole other debate!) of events comes from security/traffic management/policing/first-aid/logistics and if they are to remain on standby indefinitely then costs would soar (even more).
    Exceptions should be agreed with the organisers… Completing the distance in a Deep-sea diving suit comes to mind, as does getting round in the advanced stages of MS, or having leaned to walk again with bionic legs. But even in these cases, it was organised so that these people finished within the parameters of the organised event.

    Phew! That was long.

  6. Roseann says:

    Interesting debate. I did London marathon in 2012 with a 5 hour target and did it in 5 hours and…1 second!!! argh! Who was I in competition with? Just me and my goal. But I trained bloody hard for months on end and consider it a real achievement. I would never enter a race without expecting to put in a great deal of work, and I don’t think others should either; whether that’s for a finish time of 3 hours or a finish time of 5 hours plus. Everybody has a time that’s good for them. However, when that time goes beyond the cut off, then I don’t think the roads should stay open. It’s just not practical. I did Lochness years ago and I didn’t put in the training and the sweep up van wasn’t far behind us, but we just made it. Did I moan? No – well not about the sweep up van/cut off anyway! It’s just part and parcel of the practicalities of a big event, and you are made well aware of the fact when you enter.

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