Why running the World Marathon Major is such a big thing

The BMW Berlin Marathon is an unforgettable experience for running enthusiasts, with its iconic landmarks, elite field and cheering crowd

Writer Cheryl Tay running the BMW Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Writer Cheryl Tay running the BMW Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

You may have heard of people talking about the World Marathon Majors (WMMs). You might also wonder why people pay money to travel overseas to take part in a race, some even spending thousands of dollars just to “torture” themselves.

Well, I headed back to Germany a second time this year, this time to run in the BMW Berlin Marathon again. What is it about these WMMs that make them so attractive? Let me explain it to you:

1. You need to ballot for a WMM slot

You can usually sign up for most marathons – such as the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM) – by going to the website to register and pay an entry fee.

However, for the WMMs - six prestigious marathons in the world - you need to ballot for entry. For the Tokyo, New York, Chicago, Berlin and London marathons, only a certain number of participants will get the slot.

If you cannot get the slot through balloting, you can still try for the charity slots, whereby you raise a certain amount of money (usually around a few thousand dollars) for a specific charity. Otherwise, you can try getting a slot from tour operators who offer packages with a guaranteed slot and accommodation. These two options however, are definitely costlier than getting your slot via the ballot.

For the Boston Marathon, there are qualifying times to meet before you can submit your ballot chance. This means that even if you meet the qualifying time, you still need the luck of the draw to get a slot.

By the way, the qualifying timings are based on age groups and they are tough. For my age group of women from 35 to 39 years old, the cutoff is 3hr 35min.

Hence, I am incredibly lucky that I got a second opportunity to run the Berlin Marathon last month, with nine other runners from Singapore to represent Team BMW Group Asia.

2. You get a special WMM six-star medal

If you complete all six WMMs, you will earn yourself a special six-star medal on top of the individual finisher medals that you get from each race and be permanently listed on the World Marathon Major Hall of Fame.

You can take as long as you want, over as many years as you’d like, to slowly complete these six highly-esteemed marathons. Singapore has 83 of these six-star finishers, of which 27 are female.

Over 47,000 runners took part in the 2023 Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: SCC Events)
Over 47,000 runners took part in the 2023 Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: SCC Events)

3. There are A LOT of participants

Typically at running events, there are different distance categories that you can sign up for, such as the 5km, 10km, half-marathon and full marathon. In 2022, it was reported that there was close to 40,000 runners across all categories at the SCSM.

However, at the WMMs, there is only one category – the marathon – and this year’s Berlin Marathon had a total of 47,912 participants, a huge number for only one distance. This means the race expo will always be crowded and popular merchandise will sell out very quickly.

This also means you need to pick your start pen correctly, so that you don’t get carried away and run too fast at the beginning. During race registration, you are to indicate your target time and from there, you will be assigned a start pen. Just for context, the elites start in Pen A and I started in Pen F.

The different pens will be set off in waves at different timings to prevent congestion. So don’t be too ambitious with your target time, or you will find yourself trying to keep up with the faster runners and killing your pace too early in the race.

4. You can be in the same race as the world’s best

The marathon world record was recently broken by Kenya's Kelvin Kiptum, who ran the Chicago Marathon in 2:00:35 on Sunday (8 October). The previous mark of 2:01:09 was set in Berlin last year by another Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, making it one of the fastest courses in the world.

At these WMMs, the best runners come out to attempt breaking the world record and you can expect stellar performances. Somehow it feels surreal that I was in the same place as these elites, knowing that we are breathing the same air and running the same route.

5. The crowd support and race atmosphere are unrivalled

Once you experience the crowd at a WMM, you will be spoilt forever. Supporters are lined up for practically all 42.195km of the marathon race.

They will be holding up motivational and funny signs such as “Pain is just French for bread”, “Remember, you paid to do this”, “Tap here for power”, that serve as great entertainment as you plod along. Kids will stick their hands out for high-fives, music bands are playing, cheer squads are out in full force.

Writer Cheryl Tay crossing the finish line at the 2023 Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Writer Cheryl Tay crossing the finish line at the 2023 Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

People are screaming and cheering, and you will feel so much adrenalin through your veins. Random strangers will also shout out your name (they can read your name off the bib) and it makes me want to cry when they do that, especially when I’m in the hurt zone.

I struggled from the 25km to the 32km mark, and my pace dropped considerably, but the crowd was there to lift me up. Into the last 10km of the race, I really leaned into the crowd and told myself to keep going. It makes so much difference having all these spectators and I have never experienced anything like this anywhere else.

6. Expect to spend a lot

There is a considerable financial investment to be made for these overseas races - flights, accommodation, meals and other miscellaneous expenses. As with all major city events, accommodation prices will be jacked up during this period because of the demand.

The entry fee for a WMM is also more expensive. For reference, Tier 3 of the SCSM is S$139, compared to this year's Berlin Marathon fee of €163 (S$240). For next year's 50th anniversary race, the price has already gone up to €212.

You will also be spend money on the merchandise such as official race T-shirt or jacket, having travelled so far for this prestigious race. Be warned - race caps sell out very quickly on the first day of the race expo. The whole city would then be filled with runners and non-runners proudly parading the merchandise.

Sponsors and brands will also launch or showcase new products or release limited-edition products. These can only be purchased at the race expo and usually come in limited quantities.

For me, I would also extend my trip post-race to other parts of Europe, and that would mean additional costs. In all honesty, an overseas race will always be worth the money because of the valuable experience.

7. Invest in a good smartwatch

When there are too many people at one place at the same time, technological devices may not work well as the signals might get scrambled. My mobile phone was down for a while after the finish, and I could not send any texts out and was not able to make phone calls either.

A reliable watch is therefore important fro such races, I used the Apple Watch Ultra for last year's Berlin Marathon and the new Apple Watch Ultra 2 this year, and both times the distance was fairly accurate.

A smartwatch such as the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is useful in compiling running data during a marathon. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
A smartwatch such as the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is useful in compiling running data during a marathon. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

What I like about the new watch is its brighter display, so I could see the screen more clearly in the sunlight when I’m running. Battery life is long and I didn’t have to charge my watch until two days after the marathon. Its dual-frequency GPS is efficient too, combining L1 and L5 GPS into an antenna design and getting data from both frequencies to calculate distance, pace and route more accurately.

It has a faster graphics processor and a new chip as well, for better performance overall. You can also conveniently start the outdoor run immediately with the Action Button on the left of the watch. When I reviewed my race data on my iPhone, the Apple Watch could also measure my power and I could see where I started to lose power on the run.

One thing that was really helpful for me was receiving text messages from my partner on my watch during my run. She saw from the tracking app that my pace was slowing, so she sent encouraging messages that made me cry because I was suffering. I replied her with an audio text by tapping the microphone button on the watch, and it meant so much.

The appeal for WMMs will always be there, so if you ever have the opportunity to take part in one, I would encourage you to go for it. It will be a core memory for life.

Team BMW Group Asia at the 2023 Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: BWM Group Asia)
Team BMW Group Asia at the 2023 Berlin Marathon. (PHOTO: BWM Group Asia)