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Are City Marathons getting too Expensive?

It is 166 traveling distance miles between London and Manchester. Buy an anytime return rail ticket between the two cities and this works out at 50p a mile. Compare this with 347 dollars (£218) or £8.32 a mile that non-US citizens paid to run this month’s New York City Marathon. Don’t get me wrong, the Big Apple is a great city, and the race is one of the world’s most iconic. But that’s the cost of two of two pairs of the most expensive running shoes I ever bought (I can’t persuade myself to throw either pair away). And this excludes the cost of air fare and accommodation. Of course, the counter argument is that like any enterprise the NYC Marathon will charge what the market will bear, and in a market economy if people are willing to pay, then that’s good and dandy.

My beef is that running is in danger of becoming the preserve of the well-heeled and the wealthy, and that the inexorable rise in prices will dissuade many people from participating. Traditionally, one of the great attractions of running is that is simple and cheap, compared to many other sports. For those that remember Alf Tupper (Tough of the Track), can anyone see him paying these fancy pant prices? No, me neither.

One only has to look at England’s Premier League, where £50 a match ticket have become the norm to see how this is pricing traditional supporters out of the game. These days England’s football grounds are more like libraries than the raucous passionate amphitheatres of yesteryear.

The New York City Marathon stands out for its sheer audacity in taking the cost of running a marathon to another level, but regrettably it is not alone. Next year’s Guernsey Marathon will cost punters up to £56, those entering the Loch Ness Marathon will pay up to £49 for the privilege of not seeing Nessie. Edinburgh is charging up to £54.54 and Brighton a whopping £67.50 (ouch).

Race organisers say that the costs of putting on events have risen, that these days runners expect Goody bags more like Christmas hampers than Christmas stockings. They will also point to the expense of road closures, first aid, toilet facilities, etc.

There may be some truth in this. But in my view not much. The costs of a local 10k race I organise work out at about £10 per runner, and this includes donations to supporting organisation, such as the scouts. And this figure hasn’t changed very much in recent years.

There is lots of evidence that races can be put on even cheaper. I recently competed in a fell race in Wales, where the entry fee was £4, and that included sandwiches in the pub afterwards. The Seaview 17, along the North Devon coast, which includes a coach trip to the start and refreshments afterwards, costs a miserly £6. Granted marathons are entitled to charge a bit more, but even so the gulf between the most expensive and the cheapest is even greater than that between 2.04 marathon runners and those who stagger across the finishing line in six hours or more.

Among the cheapest marathons around are; The Isle of White Marathon £17, and the Langdale Marathon (£16 attached 2014 prices). Perhaps the greatest antidote to the high cost race model is parkrun, which remains free to runners, all be it parkruns are only 5k, and couldn’t exist without sponsors. It can only be a matter of time before this group of runners weaned on not having to dip their hands in their pockets begin to ask why they should pay some of the silly prices they are being asked for something that is for them as natural and as free as breathing air.

It is fair to say that the common denominator for most of the expensive marathons is that they tend to be organised by private companies, whereas the cheaper ones are invariably organised by local running clubs run by volunteers. I have nothing against the profit motive, and some of the events in the higher price category undoubtedly wouldn’t happen without that commercial impetus. The staff of these events’ companies need to be paid after all.

I guess it comes down to runners themselves, and the type of sport they want. As long as the running community is prepared to pay more than £218 to run through the mean streets of New York, rather than voting with their feet and choosing a cheaper option, entry fees will only continue their inexorable rise. If that is the case, then I can’t help feeling that not only in our pockets but in a wider sense too, we will all be poorer for it.

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