are cut off time necessary for marathons?

Yesterday I sneaked out of bed, dressed in the dark and went out into the cold to tackle the 8 mile training run that was penciled into my diary as part of my preparations for this years London Marathon, in the end my Garmin informed me it was actually 9.3 miles I covered and doing the maths in my head somewhere in the middle of Victoria park in East London I thought to myself “Am I seriously going to be able to run this 3 times over in just 3 months time?” and if I run it at my current speed it may well take me close to 8 hours.

I am often asked my views on the complex issue of whether you have to complete a marathon in a certain time to be considered a “Real Runner” whatever that might be, so as I sit here this morning with the on set of a cold and the prospect of tonights Yasso 800 session I figure now is as good a time as ever to give you my view.

At its crux the issue is about the time it takes some individuals to complete the 26.2 miles of a marathon, with many individuals from the mainstream running community believing that slower runners and in particular walkers are ruining the big city marathoners for the “real runners” who can’t get ballot spots any more due to the increasing popularity of these events.

So is it about speed, or is it more about competitors not fitting the mould of what traditionally marathon running was all about? Because with the increase in running being used to help with the worlds obesity and inactivity levels, and the popularity of charity fundraising and concept running events, surely this problem is only going to get worse.

Like many of us, the first time I ever saw a marathon I watched it on TV, sitting in my PJs on a Sunday afternoon watching the London Marathon with its thousands of runners, many dressed in silly costumes snaking their way through the city I live in, I can remember thinking “I want to do that one day” even though I never really understood how far the distance was, or the preparation it would involve and I never for a moment thought about how difficult it was to actually secure myself a place.

But somehow I found myself with a charity place in 2012 for the London Marathon and of curse had to predict a finish time for my application form.


I had only ever done a few dodgy 10Ks and a couple of very slow half marathons at this point in my running career, much of which I had jogged or walked for various reasons, I wasn’t even sure if I could complete the distance, but they needed a time so I doubled my slowest ever half marathon result and added an hour, giving myself a 7 hour target. I knew that wasn’t going to be quick, but I also didn’t know that runners who finish in seven or eight hours are looked down upon by so many other marathon runners.

vlm2_2_2It didn’t actually take me 7 hours in the end, although being in the 7 hour pen at the start made the first few miles quite slow as I dodged the rhinos, the stilt walkers and the hundreds of people powerwalking to victory…it was in fact quite frustrating, as I was there to run, so found myself wasting quite a bit of energy trying to find myself with some other running type runners. I reckon I could have knocked at least 30 minutes of my time, perhaps even more.

Finally, after a rather non eventful (as in I didn’t die or hit the wall) but as you can imagine emotional race which you can read about here if you like, I crossed the finish line of my first ever marathon in a grand old time of five hours fifty minutes and 37 seconds, which I was incredibly proud of…in fact I still have a race magnet of my finishing time on my fridge…just as proof that I actually did it.

A few days after my race I proudly told a local councillor who I worked with about my achievement, and he said to me “Oh, so you walked it then”, apparently he had been a runner in his day and was probably in the “you need to be fast to be considered a runner” camp. The comment really annoyed me at the time because I had in fact ran about 90% of it…the first 16 miles for a start without a single step of walking, with a short vomit related incident stopping play before picking up the speed again just in time to see my family at mile 18, and then my running club at mile 20, an issue with blisters had made the last section a bit stop and start, but I managed to run for the last mile through sheer determination and the inability to feel anything.

But what if it had taken me 8 hours, as it had for one of the old guys at my running club. Jim who had done London over 20 times or something crazy like that, and had suffered from a didgy tummy on this occasion.

Because of course now London has an 8 hour cut off. I remember there was a story in the news about a disabled walker who didn’t get a medal as it had taken them a lot longer than that. I remember thinking, hmmm that’s a bit sad but at the same time, surely there has to be some kind of cut off, and a marathon, especially one which is as popular as London can’t be encouraging people to simply forget about the concept of running and instead see everyone taking days to finish it. After all, there are specific walking events already out there designed for that purpose.

20140407-124345When I did my second marathon, Brighton in 2014 I was forced to think about this issue again because having trained even harder this time, I was trying to get under 5 hours, but a back injury in the last month had affected my training and confidence and I lined up this time just hoping to get round, but by mile 7 or 8 it felt like absolutely everyone was walking…it was so demotivating, and let me tell you these were not overweight, old or disabled runners, these were folks who in my opinion looked like they should be running. Perhaps maybe a few people had started it off and everyone else had just followed the crowd like sheep. I resisted for a while but in the end must have walked for at least 3 miles in the middle of that race, and hated myself for doing it…my mind was all over the pace and the fact I had missed my sub 5 hour goal made me want to give up, but by mile 20 I decided to start running again and didn’t walk again despite the fact nobody else appeared to be running anymore.

So should people simply be allowed to walk the whole way round?

I guess you can’t really stop people and we all pay the same entry fee, but personally I would never enter a race if I thought I couldn’t run it, that’s not to say that I haven’t in most races taken a walking break, but these are often brought on by confidence issues or my emotions getting the better of me, and the occasional bout of cramp…but never because I haven’t trained enough or simply just can’t be bothered.

What this all boils down to really is intent.

We don’t always know what is going to happen in a race, and even pros can have a bad day, but I personally think people who enter running races should do so with the intent to run them, which does IMHO also include individuals deploying specific run walk strategies, because in some cases those folk often get a better time than us plodders. However, if you do have to walk sections of the race unexpectedly that is also fine, but we must remember that these events are put on specifically to cater for runners…folk who run. The sites and courses have been selected for that purpose, the medical support, the volunteer rotas…everything has been planned with runners and runners finishing times in mind.

VolunteerHaving been involved in the putting on of major sporting events (8 years of working on London 2012 related projects) I know that a whole heap of thinking and planning goes on to make these events safe and enjoyable, both for participants and spectators and issues such as the cost of road closures do come in to effect when we are talking cut off times. But also if you are a crew member, or emergency staff working on a large scale event chances are you have been on site from about 5am, and it is just not feasible for a team of 500 odd people to be hanging around to see hoards of walkers across the line 10-15 hours later.

I am sure there are ladies reading this that probably feel disappointed by my view on this, but ultimately I believe that marathon running should be treated with the respect it deserves, and where possible they should be attempted in the way they were designed to be…as in run. And I think 8 hours is ample time to jog around the course.

Of course there is a prestige associated with running one of the big city marathons, and when we are raising money for charities close to our hearts we often have to think big in order to get peoples attention, but marathon running requires training, hours and hours of running in the cold and dark, making sacrifices, building strength and fitness, developing a strong mindset, otherwise everyone would be doing them.

Perhaps what the commercial sports world need to consider is that we simply need more mass participation long distance walking events which are set up more to meet the specific needs of slower paced competitors, perhaps more like the world of ultra marathons, with pit stops and support along the way, or virtual events where participants have their own support teams around them.

I have no intention of walking any part of that marathon on April 23rd, in fact I would also like to get much closer to the 5 hour mark again meaning I need to do some serious training between now and then as I know I am a long way off from that at the moment…but do you know what that is what being a marathon runner is all about for me…its is the hard work that is required in the lead up, reaching that starting line in the best shape that you can so that you can give it your all, that is what gives me my sense of achievement once its all over.

Paula Radcliff once made a comment about admiring the folk who slog it out taking 6 or 7 hours to complete their marathon, and I too have admiration for anyone brave enough to tackle the distance walking or otherwise, but I do think we need to look honestly at the supply and demand nature of most big marathons, and the logistics involved in event the smallest of events.

I don’t think this is about excluding slower runners from the joy of taking part in races, I think this is instead about finding a place for us all to fit in alongside each other in this amazing running community.

The fact so many people want to run marathons just proves how awesome it is

What do you think?

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