This is the first in a series of posts that will explain how to gain entry to the coveted World Major Marathon races. We begin with Tokyo… the only Asian major.
Race & Entry Timeframe
The Tokyo Marathon typically takes place on the last Sunday of February. This means you need to begin looking out for entry details beginning July 1st of the prior year.
This strung-out timeframe is a recurring theme with the world majors. Planning far ahead is essential. Tokyo is one of the easier majors for reluctant planners like myself - you’ll soon see that others demand attention a full 364 days before the race. Tokyo’s only 8 months out… how generous!
There are several ways to get in. The best way for you depends on your preferences and abilities. Rather than focusing on a specific year’s requirements, I’ll cover the general themes and criteria applied to each category, so you can decide which is best for yourself.
International Semi-Elite (Run As One)
Who it’s for
- FAST non-Japanese runners.
- Reside outside of Japan.
- Very fast qualifying times.
- Generally males are looking at sub-2:45 and females are looking at sub-3:30.
- MUST MUST MUST Have a physical paper finisher’s certificate from the qualifying race.
- Qualifier must be on a IAAF Gold/Silver/Bronze, or AIMS Certified course.
- A little bit of luck. This entry method’s field size is capped in the low hundreds of runners (combined men+women).
- Elite start.
- Special finish area and gear check (debatable whether this was a benefit or a drawback).
- Special bib pickup.
- Some extra schwag.
- The word “semi-elite” next to your name.
- Automatic fallback to general lottery entry if not selected for semi-elite.
I was personally fortunate enough to run Tokyo in 2017 as a Semi-Elite international runner. I entered using a 2:42:07 that I had run at the Boston Marathon in 2016. I was quite pleased to have the word “elite” associated with my name, but overall I found the actual mechanics of entering this way opaque and a bit confusing.
One point of confusion was whether this entry is called “Run as One” or “Semi-Elite”. Some material had both names, some had just one or the other. Let me clarify: they [probably] both refer to the same exact thing. Either way don’t worry about it!
The year I applied, the Tokyo race organizers were also quite opaque about the criteria applied to these entries. They didn’t publish specific cutoff times (or if they did they were hard to find), and they also did not clarify whether their total number of entries was a combined men+women or if they were going to accept that many men and that many women. I reasoned that if I had finished in the top few hundred in Boston, I would probably be among the top few hundred entrants for Tokyo as well and stood a decent chance of getting in this way. Even this coming year - the Tokyo marathon web page says 1,800 entrants will be accepted this way on one page, and that 300 entrants will be accepted this way on another, and that 2,000 will be accepted on yet another - who knows!
Providing proof of past performance was a small fiasco. The Tokyo race organizers are extremely specific about wanting to see a finisher’s certificate for your qualifying race. Unlike nearly every other race on the planet in the 21st century, they simply will not accept a link, screen shot, or other form of race results as adequate proof. I ran into some trouble because Boston had not yet issued certificates when I was applying. I decided to take a chance and applied anyway, providing a link to Boston’s results page instead. The Tokyo organizers got in touch a few weeks later to let me know that they needed a photo of my paper finisher’s certificate (which obviously had not arrived yet). I immediately contacted the Boston race organizers to explain the situation, and see if they could send me an expedited copy or if there were other options. I was pleasantly surprised to hear back from the Boston organizers almost immediately (thanks, guys!). They seemed a bit bewildered by the unusual request but reassured me that the certificates had coincidentally been mailed the prior week anyway, and told me that I could refer the Tokyo race organizers directly to them if needed. Thankfully I stalled and the certificate arrived a couple days later. I sent a photo and was accepted as Semi-Elite quickly after that. I would encourage the Tokyo race organizers to reconsider this outdated policy and conform to the standards set by other races which only require a link to results.
Who it’s for
- Luck. Tokyo only accepts around 26,000 runners via the lottery.
- None really.
This is your run-of-the-mill lottery entry. For the 2017 race, you would have had about 1 in 12 odds of being selected if you entered using this method. This is pretty bad but not hopeless when you start comparing to other world majors lotteries. The good news is that you’ll usually find out whether you’ve been selected by the end of August, which gives you plenty of time to enter other less popular races in the same time frame.
Who it’s for
- Money. You will need to pay for an entry in addition to coming up with a sizable donation.
- Luck. There are a limited number of charity entries. Mid-thousands of entrants usually.
- Feeling good about yourself and supporting a good cause or two.
- Usually some special treatment at the expo and finish.
- Some schwag, likely a special t-shirt or similar.
Charity is a fantastic way of getting a guaranteed entry to the Tokyo Marathon. These entries are done a bit differently in Tokyo than they are elsewhere. Instead of going through the charity like most races do, you go through the Tokyo race organizers, and can even split your donations among the 15 (as of 2018) participating charitable organizations!
It’s also a relatively economical way to get in. The fundraising minimums are low compared to most other races: only 100,000 JPY, which works out to 900 USD (750EUR, 650GBP). Quite a steal compared to the multiple thousands of dollars other races demand!
You may still need a little bit of luck since only a few thousand entries are available (3,000 in past years) - and it’s first-come first-served. That said, this method is typically under-subscribed even as late as September, with as many as 1,000 entries remaining at that time in previous years, so if you’ve missed the boat on the lottery and don’t have the qualifying times, charity is worth a serious look.
Who it’s for
- Money. Lots of money.
- Operators organize lodging for you, usually at a swanky hotel.
- Organized meals, tours, and activities around town.
- Support from the tour operator. Usually this means small things like ponchos to use at the start or a booth at the finish line.
You can always attempt to use a tour operator, such as Marathon Tours in the USA & Canada. I say “attempt” because the majors are getting so popular that tour operators often sell out of entries nowadays! For Tokyo, operators are able to sell guaranteed entries - but they come at a steep price since you will also have to accept their accommodation and tour package. If you want to bring a significant other or a friend, even if they are not running, you will also pay big bucks for it. A couple traveling with MT to Tokyo in 2018 will be spending about 5,000 USD for four nights of accommodation and a guaranteed race entry (and that does NOT include airfare or insurance).