Chasing the 'Big Six'

With the Christmas and New Year festivities over for another year, I am already deep into another training block as I prepare for my next marathon. I had to make an early start this year as the race I’m targeting is very early in the calendar compared to other spring marathons (March 3rd), and this particular race will represent a special milestone for me. I am training for Tokyo marathon which will see me complete the series of races known as the Abbott World Marathon Majors, and with the finish line in sight, I thought I’d share the story of my journey to the “Big Six”.

The Abbot World Major Marathons is a series consisting of six of the most renowned big city marathons from around the world, which are; London, Berlin, New York City, Chicago, Boston and Tokyo. Those who are lucky enough to complete all six are presented with a special commemorative "6-star finisher's medal" as they cross the finish line of their last race, and they join a select band of 6-star finishers who have completed all six races.

The Abbott World Majors six-star medal

Between 30,000 and 50,000 runners participate in each of these races every year but at the time of writing only approximately 4,000 people have completed all 6 since the series format started in 2006, and only around 300 of those are from the UK.

Berlin 2014

My journey towards the Big Six very nearly ended before it had begun, as in my first marathon at Manchester in 2013 I'd hit the dreaded "wall" so hard in the last six miles that I swore I'd never run another. That rather hasty vow was quickly forgotten however, and before too long I was keen to have another crack at 26.2, and was eagerly researching races a bit further afield for added excitement. I settled on Berlin as I'd visited there before, loved it and had been itching to go back ever since. Entering the marathon there seemed the perfect excuse to go back and properly explore the city, however at the time I was still completely unaware of the World Marathon Majors or that Berlin was one of them. Incidentally, it was around this time that I plucked up the courage to try going along to a running club, as previously I'd been doing all my training alone, and so I came across a small local club on my doorstep called the Manchester YMCA Harriers and I've never looked back since!

Craig at the 2014 Berlin Marathon

Berlin was my first race experience outside of the UK, it was my first big city race and I was blown away by the scale of the event compared with the limited number of local races I'd run at home. Having to attend a huge expo the day before the race to collect your bib was all new and very exciting, as was arriving in the vast athlete's village outside the Reichstag on the crisp autumn morning of the race. Berlin is well known as being a fast course, and indeed the last 7 world records have all been set there. The reputation is well deserved, the course is flat and fast if you're looking for a fast time as well as a fantastic experience, this one should be on your list. With the help of the Harriers, I'd already made big improvements in just the 3 months that I'd been training with them, and this translated into a brilliant run which saw me take a massive 15 minutes off my previous best. Berlin also whetted my appetite for the added excitement of races on foreign soil, and from that day I knew that combining my love of travel and running was something that I'd be keen to do more of in future; I was hooked!

London 2015

In 2015 I was lucky enough to receive the Harriers' club place for the London Marathon (that's right folks; each year the Harriers receives one place for the London marathon which is awarded to a member based on certain eligibility criteria – bear this in mind and if you're interested, contact the club or ask one of the committee members for more details on how you can claim it), and it was only when I was collecting my bib number at the expo that I became aware of The Big Six for the first time. I noticed a stand that was promoting something called the Abbott World Marathon Majors, and there was a wall which listed the names of all those who had completed the series. It was then that I first became aware of the concept and was captivated by the thought of what an exciting proposition it would be to do all of the races, and to join the list of names on that wall. It occurred to me that I was about to complete my second race in the series, but I didn't contemplate at the time that I would eventually be in a position to complete all six, but little did I know: a seed was planted that day.

Having watched the brilliant and inspiring coverage of the London Marathon on TV every year since I can remember, to actually be participating in the event and running past those famous landmarks was fantastic. London is famous for its fantastic support out on the course and this reputation is definitely well deserved; the atmosphere builds as you work your way through the course, with each of the boroughs of the city bringing its own distinct personality to the support, but the crescendo of noise as the runners come into the final miles on Embankment before turning right at Big Ben, passing Buckingham Palace as you enter the famous finishing stretch on The Mall, was truly something to remember. My training for London had been badly interrupted by knee surgery and a subsequent two-month layoff, during which I'd doubted whether I'd ever get back to running properly again, so just to make it to the start line felt like a massive achievement but the combination of adrenalin and the amazing support from the crowds powered me onto a fantastic run, and one which I now look back on with immense pride.

Boston 2017

I was now two majors down but it was only when fellow Harrier Mark Griffiths and I started making plans to enter the iconic Boston marathon in 2017 did I believe that completing the series was a possibility.

Craig at the 2017 Boston Marathon

Boston is the holy-grail for many marathon runners; perhaps because it is the oldest of all annually held marathons (it was first run in 1897 and next year will be the 123rd race in its history, in which our very own Sarah Crandon and Zulma Edmondson will be competing); or perhaps it is because of the famous undulating point-to-point route that starts in the tiny town of Hopkinton, 26 miles outside of Boston from where the runners race back into Boston; or perhaps it is because it is the only major that doesn't have a ballot entry system, meaning that you have to achieve a strict qualifying standard just be able to apply, giving it a certain mystique amongst marathon runners; or maybe it is the race's illustrious history that makes it so alluring.

Most notably it was the event that was the catalyst which opened the way for women's marathon running, even though to do so it took the courage of two women who broke the ridiculous rules of the day that prevented women from competing in races of longer than 1.5 miles. The first - Bobbi Gibb - wasn't an official entrant in 1966 but made her stand by joining the course at the start of the race and completed the full distance, unbeknownst to race officials. A year later in 1967, Kathrine Switzer registered under her initials rather than her full name in order to be allocated a bib number, and she completed the race despite efforts by race officials to force her off the course and out of the race, when they became aware that she was running.

Race organisers tried to force Kathrine Switzer off the course in 1967, but a fellow University student helped keep her on track.

Although it wasn't until 1972 that women were officially allowed to participate, Gibb and Switzer's courageous and principled stands against the archaic rules of the time changed the face of running forever, and when you arrive in Boston to participate in its magnificent race, the history it carries hangs tangibly in the air all around you. It is truly a special event and my experience at Boston, my first outside of Europe was so inspiring that from that moment there was no doubt about it – I was gunning for the World Marathon Majors!

Chicago 2017

After Boston, I was immediately plotting my route to the Big Six. Chicago was six months away and I'd already made the decision that I would be running. I have friends from Chicago and we'd already talked about how exciting it would be to visit the city for my first time and to run in the marathon. I'd even convinced one of my friends to run it himself. It was a no-brainer, Chicago would be next.

Craig at the 2017 Chicago Marathon

On the right day, Chicago is without doubt a PB course - it is flat and fast, possibly the flattest course I've raced on to-date. The start area in Grant Park is spectacular; sandwiched in-between the tranquil shores of Lake Michigan on one side and the famous skyline of downtown Chicago on the other, and the route takes runners through the various districts of the city, and like all of the Big Six races, the support on the course is tremendous. It was a brilliant race that I'd highly recommend, plus the ballot entry system isn't quite as highly subscribed as some of the other big races which makes it a little easier to get into. A combination of a very early start time (7.30am race start!), a baking hot day, and bad race strategy on my behalf saw me struggle in the last few miles but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of a wonderful event and of the city itself.

New York City 2018

Next up, 12 months later was New York City, which was a totally awe inspiring experience and is definitely a "bucket list" race. For all the details about the NYC marathon, read my dedicated blog.

Craig at the 2018 New York City Marathon

Tokyo 2019?

Five down and only one to go – Tokyo, which takes place on 3rd March 2019, only weeks away at the time I'm writing this, and the excitement for what is in store is really starting to build. Japan has been on my list of places that I've wanted to go to for as long as I can remember but I've never quite managed to get there, until now. And that brings me to one of my favourite aspects of this journey towards the Big Six – it has taken me to places around the world that perhaps I would not otherwise have visited; I've been able to combine my love of running and travel, and the adventures that I've experienced along the way will stay with me forever. I've also been very lucky that I've been able to share those experiences with my amazing group of friends and family who do an incredible job in coming to support me in these races, and more importantly – helping me to celebrate afterwards!

Getting there though has been a challenge, and I suppose that there are reasons why only a relatively small number of people have completed the Big Six so far. Finishing the series means running at least six marathons – a tough ask in itself, which requires the continued motivation to get through training block after training block, year after year. The cost of travel, accommodation and entry can be prohibitive. (The American races in particular are very expensive to enter when compared with London for example.) And finally; simply gaining entry into the majors can be difficult; whilst all of the races have guaranteed entry routes for those who have achieved specified qualifying times, many runners' primary entry route will be the ballot processes which can often only offer a very slim chance of entry given the sheer volume of applications submitted, compared to the limited number of available places. As I've mentioned above; Boston doesn't have a ballot entry option, so most runners will have to meet (and better) the strict qualifying standards in order to participate.

There are also other possible routes of entry to consider if none of those listed above are successful, and these include charity places, which require a commitment to raise a minimum amount of charity funding; or Sports Tour companies who offer packages with a guaranteed entry place included, although again these can be expensive.

However, regardless of the challenges, this journey has been a wonderfully exciting and rewarding adventure from start to finish. I've loved every minute of it and there's still one more leg to go - that 6-star medal is so close, I can almost touch it – watch this space for my review of Tokyo!

Craig's Abbott World Marathon Majors certificate - five down, one to go

— Craig Jones