Two Major Marathons Take Two Different Approaches to Registration, Due to Covid-19

Written by Charlie

This year is very different for the hundreds of marathons taking place. Here is a look at how two major marathons are handling the registrations in very different ways.

For runners, 2020 was really non-existent in terms of actual races, especially marathons. There were a few but the last large scale one had been just about a year ago and run in Los Angeles. For 2021, race directors are doing their absolute best to get the races back on track and that means a ton of fall marathons – maybe. But, how do you convince runners to sign-up with the still-present uncertainty?

Two Major Marathons and Two Major Differences in Registration

Races were judged quite a bit last year by how they handled the cancellations, the options for refund or deferment, communication, etc. While this was completely unchartered territory, it was ok to analyze the various race committees’ performances in these areas since it said a lot about how they were thinking of their runners. While most allowed some kind of deferment or a refund (a portion all the way up to complete refund), there were some races that did not do as good of a job as others along the way.

So, here we are in 2021 with a full slate of fall marathons, including some big major marathons that all are scheduled to take place within a two month span. All of them are going to want runners to sign up – especially those that allowed a full deferment to runners from last year. They need the cash to make these events happen. So, how are they handling it? Here is how two major marathons are handling it and which one I think is doing the better job.

Marine Corps Marathon Registration

I actually did the Marine Corps Marathon virtual race last year and absolutely loved the medal from the race. It was the 45th anniversary of the running of it so they had made it extra special by including some of the black sand from the island of Iwo Jima in each of the medals – very cool!

This year, they are about to open up the race for virtual entries again. While it is normally a lottery system, the Marine Corps Marathon is not actually opening registration for a live marathon – yet. Instead, they are telling runners that they can enter the virtual race and, in their words, “Those registered for the virtual event have the first option to participate in any event that is ultimately approved to host a live, in-person version.”  So, they are letting potential runners know that, should they actually put a live event on the schedule, virtual runners will have a first shot at participating.

The registration window for the virtual races opens to the public on March 10 at noon Eastern Time. While they never did sell out of the virtual marathon last year, I would not be surprised if they hit a cap quickly this year since it is the best way in for the actual event – should it take place.

Chicago Marathon Registration

Next up, we have the Chicago Marathon. This is one of the most popular marathons in the world and also operates on a lottery system. This year, they do have a live race date on the schedule and it is October 10, 2021. This year is also based on the lottery and those who are successful in this will pay $205 ($230 for non-US registrants)Registration window closes tomorrow, February 18, so sign-up today if you want a chance.

They are doing something this year that I have wanted races to offer for years – offering a fully-refundable option to the registration. This should have been something that races did all along because they would have made money from the insurance fee and could have gone down a waiting list to someone else who wanted to pay the full price – maybe even more if it was closer to the race. Since anything can happen in the weeks leading up to a marathon, I think a lot of runners would pay for registration insurance.

For Chicago, that insurance will cost 14% of the total cost of the race and anything the participant adds on but does not include the processing fees (and you would not receive a refund for those processing fees either). So, if you covered merely the registration fee, this insurance option would cost you $28.70. This could be nice peace of mind if you weren’t sure you would run it.

BUT, WAIT! It does not cover everything, in fact, here is what they say it does not cover:

  • If the participant does not attend the event because they are concerned about the coronavirus (COVID-19) or are self-isolating without a positive COVID-19 test or other non-COVID-19 communicable diseases leading to quarantines or travel restrictions
  • Actual or perceived: war, hostilities, civil commotion, etc.
  • If event organizers cancel the race
  • Processing fees associated with items (entry fee, ancillary products, etc.) purchased during the application process

Visit this site to see what they do cover. And, you will need to provide evidence for your claim as well so this isn’t a simple “I don’t feel safe with the Covid-19 conditions at this point, I want my money back” situation.

One of the other things is that the insurance you would pay does not let you recover your full registration fee if the Chicago Marathon is canceled. In that event, here is what the marathon organizers have to say:

  • If the event is cancelled on or before March 31, 2021, registered participants will be offered:
    • A 40% refund of their 2021 entry fee or a 50% discount on a deferred entry for the 2022 event
  • If the event is cancelled between April 1 and June 30, 2021, registered participants will be offered:
    • A 20% refund of their 2021 entry fee or a 30% discount on a deferred entry for the 2022 event
  • If the event is cancelled between July 1 and September 30, 2021, registered participants will be offered:
    • A 5% refund of their 2021 entry fee or a 10% discount on a deferred entry for the 2022 event
  • If the event is cancelled between October 1 and October 10, 2021, registered participants will have the opportunity to receive a guaranteed entry for the 2022 event. In this scenario, all event fees (entry, ancillary products, etc.) are non-refundable, and will not be applied to future participation. In order to access the guaranteed entry, individuals will be required to claim and pay for their guaranteed entry during the 2022 event application window.

Right, so if you pay for insurance due to the uncertainty surrounding potential events this year and the Chicago Marathon decides they need to cancel it in July, you would only get $10.25 back or you would get $20.50 towards 2022’s registration fee (and don’t forget that the big marathons often hike their fees each year so it could be worth even less).

My Take on the Two Methods

Personally, I think the way the Marine Corps Marathon is handling the registration is far better than the Chicago Marathon. With Chicago, it seems like a nice idea to get insurance but that insurance will not cover you against anything Covid related unless you or someone around you tests positive before the event. If the race gets called off, you basically get almost nothing. I mean, the chances of them canceling the race in March is almost zilch.

I think Chicago is not handling this in the best way, at least compared to the Marine Corps Marathon. Last year, Chicago was generous in offering full refunds to all runners or offering deferments for this year, next year, or 2023! This year, if they cancel, you will get next to nothing – and spending $205 on a marathon is not just spare change.

What do you think about these two marathon registration methods? Is one better than the other? If so, which one do you like more?

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About the author


Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.


  • I find the Chicago Marathon’s refund system fairly appalling, as many of the race’s variable expenses (shirts, medals, police, fencing, etc) will not be spent if the race is cancelled in, say, July. Yes, every major race has some form of fixed expenses related to the website, marketing, and salaried staff but not to the percentages suggested above.

    Happily, I’ve already run both marathons and have also directed a 7000 person race in my own city. Much smaller than Chicago or MCM but with similar principles.

    • Good for you on directing a race, Robert! That is great of you to be able to help out the community in this way and a 7,000 person race is no small feat!
      I definitely agree with you about Chicago as well. My best guess is that Covid-19 caught all these major races’ insurance companies completely by surprise and there was nothing to avoid having to payout on the cancelations (there were even larger events that got big insurance payouts for having to cancel). But, every insurance company has excluded the coronavirus or pandemics now so Chicago has no coverage if they need to cancel for this – so they put it on the runner. Still a bad move by them, I believe, especially with what you are saying.

  • I lead a charity team for Chicago and NO ONE is signing up right now! I would be VERY surprised if their “lottery drawing” will have to turn anyone away, especially because of what you mentioned above. It appears they rushed into things in 2021 and so far it doesn’t seem to be going well. I am grateful that we will be able to offer entries to our runners until July 16, as hopefully there will be a lot more confidence then that an October race will happen, even if it’s modified in how it happens.