How the London Marathon Works

By: Gerlinda Grimes
Runners medals wait to be handed out during the 2010 Virgin London Marathon.
Chistopher Lee/Getty Images

London! From Fleming and Chaucer to fish and chips, there are few places in the world more famous than England's capitol city. With such a storied history, it's no wonder that London is home to one of the world's top five marathons, too.

In a way, London is the mother of the modern marathon. Until 1921, a marathon's length was somewhat flexible, with most routes clocking in at around 25 miles. At the 1908 Olympic games, however, Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, requested that the marathon be lengthened to 26.2 miles (42.16 kilometers) so that she could view the finish from her perch in Windsor Castle. It took a few years, but in 1921, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) adopted London's 1908 length as the official marathon distance.


The London Marathon is notable in many other ways, too. It's part of the World Marathon Major series, which includes Boston, New York, Chicago and Berlin. The top male and female runners in this series split the largest prize in all of marathon racing -- a million dollars. The London Marathon is also one of racing's largest fundraising events. To date, participants have raised over half a billion pounds ($807 billion) for charity. It's also making strides toward becoming a more sustainable race. Recycling and eco-friendly toilets are available along the course, and the 2009 event reported a 67 percent recycling rate.

A generous prize purse and fast, flat course attracts the world's most elite athletes year after year for a race that's always thrilling and quite often record-breaking. The route takes runners past some of London's most historic sites, including Tower Bridge and Big Ben. More than anything else, the London Marathon is a cracking good time, with many participants decked out in costume.

You'll need to be Johnny-on-the-spot if you want to gain a place in this footrace. Find out how to enter after the jump.


London Marathon Entry

Competitors prepare for the start of the 2010 Virgin London Marathon.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When it comes to entering the London marathon, your fingers, rather than your feet, determine whether or not you'll gain a place at the starting line. Out of 150,000 or so applicants, only about 50,000 will be awarded places in the ballot. To enter the race, marathon hopefuls submit an online ballot and a registration fee, which is only charged if they win a spot at the start. Once organizers receive 125,000 applications, they cut off registration. The ballot often closes in 24 hours or less, and winners are chosen randomly.

Runners who miss out on a ballot place can still try a few tricks to gain entry:


  • Overseas ballot. Non-UK residents can apply for overseas ballots. Overseas registration opens the same day as regular registration, and it generally fills up quickly. Overseas ballots cost about twice as much as regular ballots.
  • Travel agencies. A number of approved travel agencies book marathon package tours, which include a race number.
  • Silver and gold. Runners who miss out on a ballot place can pledge to raise money for a charity partner in order to secure guaranteed entry. More than 750 British charities are Gold Bond partners; they purchase guaranteed entries and award them to runners who commit to raising a four-figure sum for their cause.
  • Qualifying times. If you're fast, you can supply a qualifying race time in order to secure a guaranteed entry. Qualifying times vary with each age group. Men 18-40 must submit a time that's under 3 hours, while women 18-49 must prove that they can complete the race in under 3 hours, 45 minutes.
  • Club and championship entries. UK athletics clubs receive a certain number of guaranteed entries based on their membership numbers. The clubs can then award these to lucky members. If you're a member of a UK athletic club and you've recently achieved a championship qualifying performance (sub-2:45 for men and sub-3:15 for women), you can submit it for a slot at the start.

Once you've earned your spot in the ballot, it's off to the races. Read about all the twists and turns along the London Marathon route in the next section.


London Marathon Route

Participants run through Parliament Square in Westminster during the 2010 Virgin London Marathon.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Woolwich, Tower Bridge, Isle of Dogs, Canary Wharf -- the London Marathon route is steeped in the history, language and pageantry of London. It's also a great time. Fast and flat, but also with a number of tight corners and narrow sections,  the course features a red dashed line that athletes use to keep from losing their way along the wending path.

The race has three distinct starting points. Elites and "fast for age" runners begin at the Blue Start in Blackheath. Celebrities, seniors, "good for agers" and sponsors toe the line at the Green Start, also in Blackheath. Most of the field gathers at the Red Start in Greenwich, which is famous for its elaborately costumed runners and festive, parade-like atmosphere. Highlights of the course include:


  • Miles 1 to 6. Runners pass the Woolwich Royal Artillery Barracks, Inigo Jones' Queen's House, built in 1616, and the spectacular architecture of Christopher Wren's National Maritime Museum.
  • Miles 7 to 12. Just past mile 8, marathoners reach the London Docklands area, and at mile 10.5 they can catch a glimpse of the Mayflower Pub where Pilgrims gathered to set sail for America in 1620.
  • Miles 13 to 17. Midway through the race, runners cross Tower Bridge, a real race highlight. At mile 15, athletes reach the Isle of Dogs, where 17th century Dutch-engineered dikes and windmills once drained the marsh.
  • Miles 18 to 26.2. At mile 18, runners can catch a glimpse of stragglers 3 miles behind them on the opposite side of City Pride pub. Miles 22 to 25 wend past St. Katharine's Dock, Billingsgate Market and Cleopatra's Needle. When runners reach Big Ben and Parliament square, they're only a mile from the finish at Buckingham Palace.

If the history along the London Marathon route is awe-inspiring, the sites on the course itself are equally memorable. In 2009, Paul Simons entered Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest Santa-clad 26.2 miler, with a time of 2:55:50 [source: Virgin London Marathon]. In 2010, Telegraph reporter Jim White spotted one runner dressed as a house "complete with thatch, porch and 'For Sale' sign."

Once the race is run, marathoners can compare results over a pint at any of the 81 pubs located along the course. Find London marathon stats, facts and famous finishes in the next section.


London Marathon Results

2010 London Marathon winners Tsegaye Kebede and Liliya Shobukhova pose with the trophy.
Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Most London marathoners reap the rewards of their race in the form of a foil blanket, race medal and finisher's bag, complete with sports drink and a Pink Lady apple. They check their race results online, interested to know how they placed in their age categories, but most compete for the fun of it or to raise money for charity.

For a few elites, however, the London Marathon offers the chance to win a healthy purse for themselves. In 2010, the top male and female finishers each won a $55,000 prize (about 35,000 pounds). Time bonuses were also awarded; the faster the time, the greater the bonus. The top time bonus was $100,000 each (about 65,000 pounds) for men (sub-2:05) and women (sub-2:18) [source: Marathonguide]. London is also a fine proving ground for wheelchair athletes, with a $15,000 (about 9,500 pounds) purse to the first place male and female finishers.


With so much money and prestige at stake, it's no wonder that athletes have broken so many world records at the London Marathon. In 2002, Moroccan-American marathoner Khalid Khannouchi bested his own world record with a new time of 2:05:38. That same year, homegrown Britton Paula Radcliffe, in her marathon debut, finished with a women's-only world record time of 2:18:56. Following in Radcliffe's supercharged slipstream, the four runners who finished after her each posted personal bests. The following year, Radcliff shattered her own record with a stunning 2:15:25 finish time. Her record still tops the women's world record chart today.

The London Marathon also stands heads and shoulders above other racing events in terms of philanthropy, having raised more than half a billion pounds ($318 million) for charity since it's inception in 1981 [source: Virgin London Marathon]. Not only do many participants pledge to raise considerable funds for a variety of charities, a portion of every runner's entry fee goes to the marathon's own London Marathon Charitable Trust, which has awarded over 33 million pounds ($5.3 million) in grants to develop British sports and recreational facilities.

From Santa suits to fleet elites, the London Marathon is one of the top racing events in the world. Find lots more information in the next section.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Galloway, Jeff. "Marathon: You can do it." Shelter Publications. 2010.
  • "2010 London Marathon Prize Money and Starting Lists." (Nov. 12, 2010)
  • Serpentine Running Club. "The London Marathon: How to Enter." (Nov. 12, 2010)
  • "London Marathon: how to enter for 2011." April 26, 2010. (Nov. 12, 2010)
  • Virgin London Marathon. "2011 Race Information." (Nov. 12, 2010)
  • Virgin London Marathon. "Marathon Runners Raise Half a Billion Pounds For Charity." Feb. 11, 2010. (Nov. 12, 2010)
  • Virgin London Marathon. "Virgin London Marathon -- Human Interest 2010." (Nov. 12, 2010)
  • White, Jim. "London Marathon: A taste for pain before pleasure." April 23, 2010. (Nov. 12, 2010)
  • World Marathon Majors. "About the Virgin London Marathon." (Nov. 12, 2010)