Marine Corps Marathon Snafu Shows Lotteries Are Best

Marine Corps Marathon

The 2103 Marine Corps Marathon got off to a hazy start after a registration snafu. (Photo: Cpl. Bryan G. Lett/US Marine Corp)

Race directors, take heed. Everyone expected the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C. to sell-out fast. All the race’s entries were gone in record time of 2 hours, 27 minutes.

But what frustrated thousands of runners, and no doubt the race organizers as well, was a massive failure of the race’s registration system run by the Active Network via

Consecutive registration snafus with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon last month and the Marine Corps Marathon yesterday, due to intense demand, have many runners chanting L-O-T-T-E-R-Y.

When it comes to the most popular races that expect registration to sell-out in a matter of hours, lotteries are simply the way to go, whether it’s the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon or any other race facing this type of registration stampede.

Marine Corps Marathon Registration Failure

As tens of thousands of runners rushed to Marine Corps Marathon’s site yesterday at noon EST when registration opened, problems with the Active Network caused delays for many runners attempting to register. Many—myself included—never successfully gained access to the registration system before the race sold-out. Instead, runners found a series of error messages and messages stating registration was on hold.

“While the Marine Corps Marathon sold out in record time, many runners experienced the frustration of error messages and slow-loading webpages,” said Director Rick Nealis. “These individuals were essentially in a holding pattern as entries were being processed and capacity was reached.”

One message I saw read, “It’s an exciting day today. We have a sell-out event in progress! If you’re seeing this message it means that lots of people are trying to sign up just like you. We expect that the event will sell-out within an hour. Please be patient, and we’ll get you in the door as quickly as possible.”

Marine Corps Marathon

Runners at the 2010 Marine Corps Marathon. (Photo: Sgt. Jimmy D. Shea/US Marine Corp)

After hitting refresh a few times, another message told me, “We were unable to add ‘Marine Corps Marathon 2013 – Marathon Registration – Individual’ to your order. This item is currently on hold.”

Yet, other times I could not access the site altogether. I was not alone.

“Active Network experienced technology system issues with registration for the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon today,” said Eric McCue, General Manager Sports for the Active Network. “For this, all of us at Active sincerely apologize. We expected unprecedented interest for this iconic race but as the demand for registration shortened from hours to minutes, despite thorough testing, the immediate traffic exceeded the limits of the system.

The marathon issued an apology to runners via their Facebook page and a press release on their website. My own inbox and Twitter feed was flooded with messages from frustrated runners.

“The MCM continues to celebrate the enthusiasm of the running community for ‘The People’s Marathon,’” said Nealis. “Unfortunately, today’s online experience is inconsistent with the organizational excellence that has become the hallmark of the Marine Corps Marathon. Everything regarding the MCM registration process will be reexamined for future years.”

A Marine Corps Marathon Lottery?
Marine Corps Marathon

Marine volunteers give water to runners at the 2010 Marine Corps Marathon. (Photo: Sgt. Jimmy D. Shea/US Marine Corps)

Many runners have been calling via Facebook and Twitter for the race to move to a lottery system, with some type of preference for military runners and veterans. Still others bemoan that so many major races have turned to lotteries.

For many runners, it was Chicago Marathon déjà vu.

Connie Kosberg from Pasadena, Ca., tweeted, “Memories of @ChiMarathon coming back to haunt me!! Ahhhhh”.

The Marine Corps Marathon is certainly not the first race to face online system failures. The Boston Marathon famously faced technical difficulties in 2010 when a crush of runners sold the race out in eight hours. The incident spurred race organizers to tighten the marathon’s famous qualifying standards and introduce rolling admission based on qualifying times to lower the number of runners vying for spots.

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the nation’s second largest marathon, earlier this month was forced to move to a lottery after their registration system, also run by, crashed when thousands of runners logged on the minute race registration opened.

Other races avoid registration stampedes altogether. The ING New York City Marathon, the nation’s largest marathon, moved to a lottery in 1999, and many popular D.C. area races like the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run and Nike Women Half Marathon DC utilize lotteries as well. So too does the country’s largest running event, the AJC Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta.

Marine Corps Marathon

Runner pass the U.S. Capitol at the 2009 Marine Corps Marathon (Photo: Cpl. Bryan G. Lett/US Marine Corps)

As the third largest marathon in the U.S. and eighth largest in the world, the Marine Corps Marathon would seem like the next obvious candidate to go with a lottery, especially in light of this latest registration snafu. Demand for the Marine Corps Marathon has boomed in the last few years. The 2010 race sold-out in six days and the 2011 event sold-out in 28 hours, 4 minutes in 2011. Last year, registration closed after 2 hours, 41 minutes.

For my own part, I thought the race should have moved to a lottery after the Chicago snafu. I asked the managers of the official Marine Corps Marathon Twitter feed if they’d considered a lottery in light of Chicago’s problems. They tweeted this response: “Worked hard in 2012 to handle two hour 41 minute registration. Working just as hard this year.”

I have no doubt that they did. And I don’t fault them or even I’m sure they ran every test in the book. These things happen regardless of perfect planning.

Marine Corps Marathon

The Marine Corps Marathon mascot gets a high-five at the 2011 race. (Photo: Lance Cpl. Cody A. Fodale/US Marine Corps)

But I hope all in-demand races take heed. Lotteries may not be popular with everyone, but then again nothing is popular with everyone. And a lottery is certainly the way Marine Corps should go.

By all means, have some type of preferred entry for military runners and veterans, whether it’s an early registration window, a guaranteed entry, or some such.

And yes, have a preference method for local runners too, similar to New York Road Runners 9+1 program for the ING New York City Marathon; NYRR members who run nine races and volunteer for one in the same calendar year get a guaranteed entry into the next year’s race. It’s a great system. I’ve run the NYC Marathon twice via that method. Marine Corps Marathon could put together a similar program with their MCM Event Series and other races to give local runners a leg up.

Marine Corps Marathon

Marines cheer on runners. (Photo: Chief Photographer’s Mate Johnny Bivera/US Navy)

And please keep saving a few spots for the people who have dedicated their lives to running this race—the folks who’ve run it 5, 10, 15 years. The MCM Runners Club gives guaranteed entries to runners who have completed at least five Marine Corps Marathons.

Another option MCM already has in place—charity spots. It’s a great way to offer bibs to runners who want to bypass a lottery. I ran the 2007 NYC Marathon for charity—after failing to nab a lottery spot—and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Then, after all those preferences, lob everyone else into a lottery and call it a day.

Why Lotteries Are Better

After yesterday’s experience, I can say this with certainty: It’s much less frustrating to not get into a race through a lottery than to not get in after spending two hours online hitting refresh.

A lottery just feels like a far fairer and far saner way to go about entering runners into a race. No, you don’t always get in. But sometimes you do. And you don’t feel like a chump in the process.

Me? I won’t be running the Marine Corps Marathon this year like I hoped. But it’s really not that big of a deal. There are so many great fall races on my bucket list that don’t have insane registration rushes. I’ll just run one of them instead. Next year? If Marine Corps Marathon has a lottery I’ll certainly enter it. But I won’t be stampeding online again to register for any race.

For runners with their hearts set on running the October 27 Marine Corps Marathon, charity entries are available through one of the race’s 130 charity partners. A list of all participating charities can be found of the event’s website.

For runners still wondering about their registration status, a press release from the Marine Corps Marathon said registered runners should expect to receive a confirmation email, and that any registration related questions should be directed to Active at (877) 228-4881, option 3.

Runners, I’m curious what you think. Would you rather take your chances in a lottery or take your chances in a registration stampede?

Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runners’ web show about running. She has completed six marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.

Karla Bruning


Karla Bruning is a race announcer at the TCS New York City Marathon + other major events, TV host for the New York City Triathlon + contributor to Shape, Redbook, Runner's World + other publications. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now it's her job. She's run 8 marathons, 30 halves, 10 triathlons + open water swims. When she's not running, talking about running or writing about running, she's snuggling her baby, spoiling her dog + compulsively traveling.


03 2013

17 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. 1

    I wouldn’t mind seeing more races introduce guaranteed entry standards. The California International Marathon does this to give Boston hopefuls a chance to register at close to the last minute.

  2. 3

    I think that lottery might be the way to go but at the same time I think there are a few downsides to Lottery. What about people who are planning to run a race together, or train together and one gets in and the other doesn’t? What about families, my Fiance and I are both runners, and plan trips for races, if one gets in and one doesn’t, 2 vacations aren’t always in the books for everyone. Some people plan their race schedules far in advance because they have so much going on, hard to do that when you don’t know if you will even get in because of lottery. As for MCM, this race is a huge military race, if you guarantee all military personnel get in, no one else will get in. So do they have 2 lotteries with Military getting more slots? This could be an issue.

    I do think that there are good things though, lottery bypasses all of the registration issues with Active (since they can’t seem to handle anything big these days). Instead of people sitting at the computer for hours, hitting refresh it can be more of a waiting game but less stressful.
    Laura recently posted..What’s up WednesdayMy Profile

    • 4

      Laura, most major ultras have lotteries. I’ve seen a few where you can tie your acceptance to another person. If both people get a slot then they’re in. If only one does then they’re both out.
      Chris Talley recently posted..Race Report: 2013 Way Too Cool 50KMy Profile

    • Karla Bruning

      Running with friends and family is a concern whether it’s lottery or not. I have friends who one spouse got into Chicago during the registration rush and one didn’t. You’re not both guaranteed to get in during a registration stampede either.

      Also, a lot of the big races that use lotteries let people enter as a group–Cherry Blossom and Nike Women Marathons do that. That way you’re all either in or out. My husband, a friend and I entered the lottery as a group for Cherry Blossom last year and our group got in! It was really fun. I think letting runners enter as groups in lotteries is the kindest thing race directors can do.

      As to the number of military personnel, that’s a great point. But I’m sure it’s something that can be worked out with a cap, and maybe two separate lotteries.

      Thanks for your thoughts!
      Karla recently posted..Marine Corps Marathon Snafu Shows Lotteries Are BestMy Profile

  3. Greg #

    How about runners who actually run these races to “race”? Those who dedicate their time to train for more than 80, 100 miles per week, and who are actually running the race not just finish but to run fast? These people should not be subject to a lottery along with people who are running 30 miles per week and think it’s an amazing accomplishment to finish in less than 6 hours. We need some standards for runners who are losing spots in races to people who aren’t even racing.

    • Karla Bruning

      First, it IS a great accomplishment to finish a marathon no matter how long it takes you. In any given year, only .16% of the US population runs a marathon (and that’s based on the total number of finishers–some of those finishers run more than one marathon, so it’s actually fewer people). So kudos to ANYONE who tackles the distance. And if someone is pushing themselves to their brink and they finish in 5 hours, that’s still racing.

      That said, to Chris’s point above, I agree that it’s fair to save spots for elite and local elite runners who meet a qualifying standard. NYC does and a lot of my teammates get into the race that way. They’re fierce runners. They’ve earned it. But let’s not denigrate slower runners who still give it their all.
      Karla recently posted..Marine Corps Marathon Snafu Shows Lotteries Are BestMy Profile

      • Jen Hoffman #

        I absolutely agree. I ran my first marathon at age 33. My husband and I were around mile 10 and the elite runners were well on their way back and they cheered us on! I finished in 5:15 and those who ran it in 3 hours were HAPPY for us. Not everyone is a sub-2:30 runner. Kudos to you for being so stuck on yourself for being better than I am at running, dude, but guess what? We both have to pay the same price for a subway token! We both lace our sneakers up. But I don’t spit on slower runners. THAT is where we differ. True runners take glory in the joy of sharing their passion; not crapping on it and acting like a bully at a playground, “I can climb across the monkey bars faster than you!” Haha! Do you tell the slower runners that your daddy can beat up their daddy, too?

    • Pedro #

      NYC Marathon does it right. Lottery for the masses, fast qualifying times for guaranteed entry, plus a locals option. If you’re not hitting the qualifying times then you haven’t met the criteria for guaranteed entry.

  4. Matt #

    I was able to get in after fifteen minutes and even then I was getting frustrated. I can only imagine how it was trying for over two hours and not being able to get in. I think I read that they were prepared for around 6,000 people per minute but they clearly were not prepared for what they got.

    If they are able to handle the stampede where people are able to get in without a problem and do not have to continually refresh their browser for hours, than I am ok with that. But if they cannot handle it, a lottery is probably the best option.

  5. 12

    I’m really torn on the whole lottery system.

    As frustrating as it was to hit refresh for an hour, I knew that same day whether I got in or not, to me the worst part about the lottery system is having to wait to find out! At the same time, I just happened to be off on Wednesday so I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in front of my computer until I got in…if I was at work I never would have been able to do that, so in that regard a lottery is definitely a more fair way to go.

    • Karla Bruning

      Waiting to find out if you’re in or out via lottery is indeed a pain if the lottery has a long lead time. But they don’t have to. Chicago’s lottery was one week from entering to finding out. That’s not bad at all. Instant gratification is nice though!
      Karla recently posted..Marine Corps Marathon Snafu Shows Lotteries Are BestMy Profile

  6. 15

    The errors experienced for this race seem to be almost identical to that by many the people trying to register for the Dumbo Challenge. There were a lot of complaints made my people who experienced errors when they were trying to register before the race was sold out. Granted, RunDisney events are different than other races, but both were through Active. Just saying…
    Kellie recently posted..Week in Training (But Not Really)My Profile

    • Karla Bruning

      Kellie, you’re absolutely right. A lot of runners did have problems with Dumbo registration, didn’t they? It will be interesting to see how Dopey Challenge registration goes this week in light of that. I wonder if runDisney would ever move to a lottery for those super-popular challenges. Would be interesting to see how a for-profit company like Disney handles these issues versus not-for-profits like NYRR.
      Karla recently posted..Marine Corps Marathon Snafu Shows Lotteries Are BestMy Profile

  7. 17

    Hi Everyone,

    We thought we would reach out and see if you guys would like to run the Let’s Go Haiti (LGH) Marathon and Half in Haiti.

    We wish we could have reached out to you runners in a different way, but this is our only way to invite you to take this Haiti challenge.

    If you are interested please visit the following link for more information.

    In the meantime, continue with your workouts.

    Happy trails to you all.

    Team LGH Marathon


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