Making the case for another marathon in our city
You’ve clicked on this or seen the headline already so I’ll get straight to the point. Melbourne needs a marathon in the first half of the year, and more specifically sometime between mid March and mid April. Not just in 2021 to make up for the ‘rona messing up our race calendars, but every year. Not in place of the current Melbourne Marathon in October - in addition to.
Let’s start with the time of year. Yes, spring marathons are something of a tradition around the world, but there are plenty of great marathons held at different times throughout the year. As it stands, the key training period for the Melbourne Marathon in October is July-September. Fine if you’re a seasoned runner and someone who runs everyday regardless, but there has to be hundreds of fence sitters or first timers who get discouraged by the bitter cold and infinite darkness of Melbourne in August. It’s grim. And you might be saying “you’ve got to be tough to run a marathon” - yeah, cool. You’re probably right. But why do we insist on making it unnecessarily hard for new people to get to the starting line?
This isn’t Gladiators. It’s running.
Let’s look at a late March race day. The key training period is mid December to mid March, right? When the days are longest and the weather is the most conducive to running - sure, some of you are saying “yeah but it gets really hot in summer” (geez I hope you're not the same people saying "you've got to be tough to run a marathon") - that’s true, it does get hot. But apart from a couple of stretches each summer where you have 3-4 days approaching 40 degrees, you can generally count on great training conditions.
"You might be saying 'you’ve got to be tough to run a marathon' - yeah, cool. You’re probably right. But why do we insist on making it unnecessarily hard for new people to get to the starting line?"
I make this next claim with nothing but my own anecdotal evidence to go off, but I would argue the majority of the running community has a higher level of base fitness at the end of summer than at any other point in the year. By the end of March we’ve had 5-6 months of consistently good training weather. The average daylight hours for July-September in Melbourne are around 10.5, whereas for December-February it’s over 14.
How does a late March race fit with other races on the calendar? Obviously anyone travelling to a major in Tokyo, Boston, or London would still go there. It would still be a tight turnaround to do Gold Coast in early July, though it would give an extra 1-3 weeks over the current July-October scheduling. It could open up the option for Melburnians to run a local marathon in March, run a fast half on the Gold Coast in July (if they don’t want to do Run Melbourne in late July), and then reload for the Melbourne Marathon in October.
I’m not going to get into race day weather, because we consistently see that race day weather is unpredictable - not just in Melbourne but around the world. Some of the recent wet marathons that come to mind - Boston 2018, Chicago 2018, Tokyo 2019, Gold Coast 2019 (remember the torrential rain at the start of the race? Yuta Shitara does). Look at London - in 2016 the temperature at the start of the race was 6.8 degrees. In 2018 the temperature at the start of the race was 19.8.
And while the Melbourne Marathon generally enjoys dry conditions, we do see massive variations in wind and temperature. The average temperature range for March is 4 degrees warmer than October, with a lot less rainfall - and that 4 degree temperature variance is probably less when you consider late March to early October (obviously the back end of March is cooler than the first half).
"On average, October is the wettest month of the year in Melbourne based on volume of rain. In terms of the number of rainy days, October has over 14, while March has around 9."
OK, time of year aside - what else is happening in March that would impact on a marathon? Formula 1? Hardly - just keep it away from Albert Park. The football season? There’s nothing saying the marathon would have to finish inside the MCG (more on this later) - and depending on exact dates it could be the week before the AFL season starts. My point is - it’s not an insurmountable challenge. Track and Field National Champs are on, and many Australian elites have other things on in late March, but is that a factor for amateurs deciding to enter a race? Probably not.
So, why else wouldn’t this work? Obviously there’s a bunch of commercial considerations - the main one being participants. Melbourne Marathon sells out each year - in 2019 it boasted its largest ever field, with over 37,000 participants across all the distances (5k, 10k, ½ marathon, marathon). Of those, just over 7,000 took part in the marathon (10,200 ran the ½ marathon). I’m not suggesting a March marathon has to be on the same scale as the Melbourne Marathon, but there’s space for a smaller event that still has a big race feel. I would suggest a field size around 3,000 in the marathon would be achievable and around double that in the ½ marathon - meaning a total pool around 10,000. I'm not a race organizer but I imagine while adding shorter races brings in more revenue, it also leads to a lot more infrastructure, personnel needs, and so on. This idea isn't about creating a return on investment, it's about creating something that at its heart is about running before it's about dollars and cents.
Is 10,000 participants a viable number to hold a race in a city like Melbourne? I can’t imagine use of the MCG is cheap, but there’s no reason a race needs something like the MCG (I told you I would come back to this part). There are some amazing races around the world that finish...wherever. The fact that the New York City Marathon finishes in Central Park sounds great - but if you’ve been there, you know it’s just a nondescript hill on the west side of the park. It’s completely unremarkable. The Chicago Marathon runs down Michigan Ave before turning into Columbus Drive in Grant Park - in reality it’s just a big green space that is able to handle all the operations infrastructure. The Boston Marathon finish line is famous - for the crowd, not the location (although shoutout to the Dunkin' on Boylston). Boylston Street is cool, but it’s not dissimilar to Bourke Street or Swanston Street - it just gets packed on race day. I could go on, but the point is - if something as grand as the MCG adds significant cost to hosting a race, get rid of it.
The other point is - the finish line does not make the race. The New York City marathon or the Chicago Marathon or the Boston Marathon would be just as memorable and spectacular if they finished one street to the left. Paris-Roubaix, the most revered one day classic in all of cycling, finishes at a velodrome. Does anyone care? No, for the heroes of that race are forged on the cobbles.
Run Melbourne in 2019 had 5,537 ½ marathon participants, and a similar number in the 10k (they also hold a 5k, which had just over 5,000 participants - giving them around 16,000 participants across the 3 events).
I’m sure some economists somewhere have done studies on the price elasticity of race entries, but until I find one of those I’m willing to say - we’re prepared to spend money to enter a race. Even more so if it’s a good, well marked course and an opportunity to cash in on some fitness.
"The fact that the New York City Marathon finishes in Central Park sounds great - but if you’ve been there, you know it’s just a nondescript hill on the west side of the park."
A couple of other things to note. I said at the start of this article that a March marathon wouldn’t replace October’s Melbourne Marathon - I say this purely because there is no incentive for the race organisers to move the current race date. It sells out every year and has its clear territory on the calendar. I can’t see any situation where they move it.
The other thing worth noting - does another big race need to be in and around metro Melbourne? Is there space for a better regional race? How far out of the city can a race take place and still have big fields? I’d argue the Great Ocean Road Marathon in Lorne is too far.
Anyway, like any good idea conceived on the Sunday long run, this one will get better (or killed) when shared with a group. So - tell us what you think at the survey link below. Do you think the ‘sporting capital of the world’ could host a March marathon? We deserve more than a ½ marathon in July and the Melbourne Marathon in October. So much more (yes there are other events like the Great Ocean Road Marathon or smaller country races, all of which serve a purpose and cater to their local communities - shoutout to them).
Heads up! We’re not selling this data, but we do want to get as many responses as we can - it will take most people less than 2 minutes to fill out. Share it with your friends. We’re passionate about our local running community and trying to bring more racing to our streets.
Editor’s Note: This piece is my opinion only, and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the publisher, directors, or any stakeholders or commercial partners of TEMPO. These are simply my observations, thoughts, and ideas as a born-and-bred Melbournian and passionate marathoner.