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Good For Age and controversy

April 30, 2013

Today the ballot for the Virgin Money London Marathon opened and filled in a record-breaking 11.5 hours. 1 in 7 will get a ballot place, but a number of runners will have planned to earn a guaranteed entry by running a Good For Age time.
So there was controversy when – without notice – the marathon organisers changed the goalposts and tightened up some of the categories. Cue storm of outrage on Twitter, opinion polls and even online petitions. We’ll see if the London Marathon backs down, or sticks to its guns.
Amidst this anguish – with cries of ‘If I’d known I’d have run faster’ (and really? Because if you were going for a time, why would you have held back?) – something struck me as a little odd.
Now, before I go into this, I’d love to be wrong. I don’t want to be some kind of an idiot about this, so please chip in if there’s a logic I’m missing.
So, most of the outraged cries were from men in the younger age bracket who now need a 3:05 rather than a 3:10. 3:00 is a significant time barrier, so this feels fair (even if it’s an hour after the race has been won). It’s also on par with the qualifying time for this group for Boston.
The women’s qualifying time for the youngest age group has also dropped by 5 minutes to 3:45. The Boston equivalent is 3:35.
So, here’s the thing – and I’m sorry if this is a bit of a dickish thing to say – but isn’t the women’s Good For Age a bit soft?
I know that this will have been considered by the organisers, with a careful eye on participation levels. There is a role for the UK’s most prominent race to play in encouraging grass-roots participation, and with significantly more men running marathons than women, it needs to be accessible and inclusive.
But, while at the top end of the sport the male genetic advantage generally plays out in a difference of about 15 minutes at the finish line, there’s a difference of 40 minutes in the Good For Age pen.
Yes 15 minutes plays out proportionally as you get further up the field, so I’m not arguing that the women’s Good For Age time should be moved to 3:20. But, a woman finishing 1:25 after the lead women have finished is still Good For Age.
And why does this matter? What’s the problem with encouraging wider participation and broadening the appeal of the marathon?
Aspiration – or at least that’s what I think. Because women at the top of the field are running incredible times – Paula’s competitive running career may be over, but her world record is arguably one of the most significant sporting achievement by a British athlete. We have great distance-running pedigree and history in this country, and there’s a new generation of Team GB women taking the step up to the marathon to fill her boots.
Yes, making the marathon more accessible for women plays a role in this legacy. But the gap between the Good For Age runners and the elites makes the front runners feel untouchable. If you’re ambitious, how do you even go about working up to taking more than an hour off your time?
Maybe this is all a symptom of the male bias in running – for whatever reason, it appeals less to women as a competitive sport. Maybe it’s only stated so explicitly in such a massively over-subscribed race. And maybe the Good For Age hurdles are broadening the appeal of distance running far more than would be the case if they were tightened up. But it feels like something that contributes to undermining the profile of the women’s race – another thing that implies women’s achievements in distance running are inferior to men’s.
I feel a bit awkward writing this, and perhaps it’s a taboo topic for a male runner who is, after all, crossing the finish line while the winners have headed in the direction of the press conference. The Virgin London Marathon is the most prestigious race in the UK and has a remit to raise the profile of our sport and inspire a new generation of distance talent. And while they’ve made a bad decision in how the changes in qualifying time were handled, it feels like a sideshow for what is a more pressing issue in running – that for whatever reason, it’s a bit of a boys’ club.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – especially if I’m wrong! What do you think about the difference between the male and female Good For Age times?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2013 8:10 pm

    It’s my understanding that the Good For Age categories are relative to the avaerage time that participants run the distance in. I agree with all of the points that you make above – that sandbagging women’s times could impact on the goals we set ourselves and also the implications that women runners should always expect to acheive so significantly less than our male competitors. But GFA isn’t about concrete goal posts. It’s about being in the upper percentile of runners in your age category. That seems to have been overlooked by many of the runners complaining about the VLM’s changes to the qualifying times. And when we concern ourselves with the enormous discrepency between the men’s and the women’s qualifying times, that is what we need to remember – it ringfences the upper persentile. It just so happens that women are still playing catch up in some respects. However I am confident that it will change significantly over the next decade and, as much as I’d love to run a GFA time, I look forward to it getting harder!

  2. May 4, 2013 12:08 pm

    I agree with you that the women’s GFA is certainly ‘easier’ than the men’s. And we probably shouldn’t be whinging given that it was 3h45 up till a couple of years ago anyway, when they decided to make it easier still!
    I also think a lot of the difference in amateur runners is down to their mental attitude rather than their physical fitness – a post I wrote a while ago on this sums my view up

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