How to Get a Spot in the Top Marathons

London Marathon

If you’re a marathoner, there’s a good chance that one of the World Marathon Majors is on your list. These six races (Boston, New York, Chicago, Berlin, London and Tokyo) are the largest and best-known marathons in the world. They’re popular with elite and recreational runners alike, so if you’re dreaming of running a big city race, consider this your guide to getting a spot!

Boston Marathon

Field size: approx. 30,000

Boston is often considered the Holy Grail when it comes to wish list marathons. The most popular way to enter this spring race is by qualifying a.k.a. running a BQ (Boston Qualifier). In recent years, the race has seen an uptick in interest, which means everyone who qualifies isn’t guaranteed a spot. The Boston Athletic Association remedied this by accepting the fastest runners from each age group. For the 2020 race, a person had to run 1:39 faster than their age and gender-specific qualifying time to gain entry to the race. For example, a woman age 18 to 34 would have to run a qualifying time of 3:28:21 to get a bib (the BQ for that age group is 3:30). The Boston Marathon also provides spaces for a number of charity runners.

New York City Marathon

Field size: approx. 50,000

The world’s largest marathon is also one of the most popular! Many hopeful runners enter the lottery each January in hopes of earning a spot in the November race. Many local runners also participate in what is called the 9 + 1 program. To earn an entry for the following year, runners must complete nine New York Road Runner sponsored races and volunteer at one race. There are also time qualifier options for the fastest runners. For example, women aged 18 to 34 must run qualifying marathon in 3:15 or a half marathon in 1:32 to earn a guaranteed spot. In addition, spots are available for charity partners, international tour operators and individuals who have run 15 or more NYC marathons.

Chicago Marathon

Field size: approx. 45,000

The majority of runners gain entry to the race through a lottery held each December. Additionally, there is a fairly generous time qualifier option. As an example, women aged 30 to 39 need to run a 3:40 marathon to receive guaranteed entry. In addition, entries are allotted for tour operators, charity partners and legacy runners. You can receive a spot if you’ve run the marathon five or more times in the past ten years or if you’ve run the Chicago Shamrock 8K five or more times since 2008 (including the current year’s race).

Berlin Marathon

Field size: approx. 40,000

Most entries to the Berlin Marathon are allocated through a lottery held in October of the prior year, but there are a number of other opportunities for a bib, including partnering with charity partners or tour operators. Additionally, very fast runners can also gain a spot through time qualification. Women aged 18 to 44 must run under 3:00 in a marathon to qualify. Finally, members of the Jubilee Club (10 or more Berlin Marathon finishes) are also guaranteed a spot.

London Marathon

Field size: approx. 40,000

Like many of the World Marathon Majors, the London Marathon holds a lottery for most of its spots (drawing takes place in the October prior to the race). London also has a time qualifier program that it calls “Good for Age.” As an example, women aged 18 to 39 needed to run under 3:40:45 to gain entry to the 2020 race. Finally, charity partners and international tour operators also have bibs available.

Tokyo Marathon

Field size: approx. 35,000

The Tokyo Marathon is the only World Major outside of the USA or Europe, and it’s particularly tough to get into. Most bibs are assigned via lotteries (both a general lottery and one specific for Tokyo residents) that open in the summer prior to the race. There is also an option for “semi elite” overseas runners. To qualify, women must run a qualifying marathon under 3:30. In addition, there are a number of fundraising opportunities, including traditional fundraising and a “crowdfunding” option that functions as a contest. The top 300 fundraisers on the crowdfunding platform gain entry into the race.

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