5 min read

It Took Me 20 Years To Join This Ultra-Exclusive Club

The Six Star Finishers Club, that is, of persons who have completed all six of the Abbot World Marathon Majors
Abbott World Marathon Majors — Six Star finisher medal — All photos by author
Abbott World Marathon Majors — Six Star finisher medal - All photos by Author

Greetings friends!

What makes a club exclusive? I think it requires two things. Many people want to join. And only relatively few people ultimately do.

By this reckoning, the Six Star Finishers Club is ultra-exclusive.

Anyone who has ever strapped on their sneakers with the dream of completing a marathon is a potential recruit. That’s tens of millions of people.

To gain admittance to the club, you must simply participate in and complete each of the following marathons: Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo.

Colorful squares representing Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York
Abbott World Marathon Majors

This is simplicity itself to describe. Turns out it’s quite a bit harder to do in practice. As of the end of 2022, only 8,148 people had done so.

This week, I joined their ranks by completing the 2023 Tokyo Marathon.

Read on to see what I learned in the process, and what it’s like to become a World Record holder to boot.

You’ve heard references to the global 1% of wealthy people. And perhaps you’ve heard of the global elite, making up the top 1% of the top 1%, or just one in 10,000 people.

Well to make it to the Six Star Finishers Club, you are more like one in a million.

Author with Toyko Marathon finisher shirt & medal, plus six star medal and world record medal
So many medals
DISCLAIMER: This is not to suggest that club members are better or smarter or superior in any way. In fact, you could make a strong case for membership indicating a serious lack of common sense. It will cost you thousands of dollars and many months of your life and all you get in return is an unwieldy medal.

What Makes It So Hard To Join The Club?

1. You have to run marathons and few people do

This criterion alone puts you in a rarified group. It is estimated that some 1.1 million people (a bit over 0.01% of the world’s population) participate in a marathon each year.

2. You have to run all six of the World Marathon Majors, which takes time

Some are spring races, and some are fall races. Some are scheduled at the same time. It’s rare for most people to run more than two marathons in a given year. And you've no guarantee of getting a place in your desired race. As a result, most aspirants take several years to complete them all.

3. It’s hard to get entry slots for big-city marathons

Although the biggest races have fields of 40,000 or more runners, they attract hundreds of thousands of entrants. Entry is not guaranteed.

2023 Tokyo Marathon - waiting for the start
2023 Tokyo Marathon - waiting for the start

You have several options to find yourself at the start of a World Marathon Majors race, none of which is simple.

  • You may gain a spot via the lottery for each race. Your odds are 10–20%, so you may try in vain for years.
  • You may try to book a travel company entry. This is expensive and spots are limited, so there are often yearslong waitlists.
  • You may go for a charitable entry, committing to raising a certain amount of funds for charity.
  • If you are an elite athlete, you may qualify on the basis of your finishing time in a prior race.

4. The Boston Marathon represents a unique challenge

The Boston Marathon deserves special mention because, with few exceptions, you cannot buy your way in. You can only enter by running a qualifying marathon under an age-group-adjusted time.

Perhaps because it’s so hard to qualify and therefore means something if you do (at least to other marathon runners), a lot of people want to run Boston.

That very popularity makes Boston qualifying times quite competitive. Not only that, but depending on how many people apply in a given year, to be accepted applicants must typically run a qualifying time several minutes faster than the official qualifying time.

Think of it this way. A man hitting the full Social Security retirement age of 67 still must run around a four-hour marathon to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon. Up to your mid-30s, you’ll need to finish in under three hours. It’s tough.

Add It All Up, and You Need To Be Committed

I mean committed in the sense that you are dedicated to the goal, not that you should have your mental competence evaluated by a professional. Although, now that I mention it …

2023 Tokyo Marathon volunteers
2023 Tokyo Marathon volunteers

5. You also need a healthy dose of luck

So much can happen in life: accidents, injuries, and life itself. We pursue careers, raise families, and adopt and drop hobbies. We might stay in one place or we might move around the world.

What are the chances that through all of that, we’ll be both interested in running marathons every year and able to do so?

Today I Feel Grateful and Annoyed in Equal Measure

I am profoundly grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to run marathons for twenty years. And that my millions of steps have allowed me to join this ultra-exclusive club.

True, there was a point in every race where I cursed my stubbornness and questioned my sanity. But those doubts were always fleeting, while the memories of every finished race remain.

30 colorful marathon finisher shirts in a 6x5 grid
So many great marathons

Amidst all this gratefulness, why am I annoyed?

It’s because Abbott is considering expanding the World Marathon Majors to add another race. Not only that, all three candidates are on different continents!

They’re considering adding one or more of the marathons in Chengdu, China; Capetown, South Africa; and Sydney, Australia.

Oy vey! Just when I thought it was safe to put away my running shoes for a while.

What Did You Learn, James?

Right! Almost ended today before distilling the learnings. Here you go, faithful readers:

  1. When you work hard on something and persevere, you are building fortitude and confidence that extend beyond the immediate activity. What you do is less important than who you become in your pursuit.
  2. While it's true no one cares as much as you do, it is enough that you know and you care. Everything good that ever happened started with someone caring deeply about what they were doing.
  3. Our thoughts magically turn challenges and setbacks into opportunities. If Abbott adds another marathon to the list, they'll create a club of Seven Star finishers whose members initially number zero.

I can't wait to join the club.

Be well.

PS – I really am a new World Record holder, along with 3,031 colleagues. Speaking of turning setbacks into opportunities, Abbott realized that four years of pent-up Tokyo marathon demand generated an unprecedented 3,000+ runners trying to complete their six-star journey at this race.

2023 Tokyo Marathon - the finish line
2023 Tokyo Marathon - the finish line

So they promoted a world record attempt “most people to earn a six-star medal at a single marathon.”

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