Here's why not all races will allow deferrals or bib transfers.
DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World
Why are more and more marathons not allowing deferments? Registration is always way in advance, and training is several months long. A lot of things can happen between registration and race day. Twice this year, I registered for a marathon, got hurt during training, and was unable to run the race. I still want to run these races; it's not like I just changed my mind at the last minute. I understand the no refund policy, but I don't understand why I can't defer. What's the reasoning behind not allowing deferments? Thanks, Lisa V.
Thanks for your question. Allow me to answer this along with a similar, often-asked question about transferring bib numbers.
Every race determines its own policy. There are very few "standards" all race directors go by consistently. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing, it is just a fact right now.
I can't speak for every race, but for many races, granting deferrals (i.e., allowing participants to "roll over" their entries to future years) can be problematic in several ways.
First, if your event has a capacity and sells out, deferred entries take up spots in both this year's and next year's registration totals. It's the same as issuing refunds but on next year's revenues. Second, most races like to start off each season with a clean set of books. Deferrals create an unfulfilled obligation to the race, meaning the race starts the year with a negative balance for registration revenues. Finally, deferrals present an administrative challenge. They need to be recorded and validated from one season to the next, forcing the organizers to create yet another tracking system. As harmless as they may seem, deferrals can present a major challenge to some race organizers. That being said, some race directors actually do allow for deferrals either on a limited basis and/or up to a certain deadline date.
As for transferring bib numbers, a lot of races I know do have a transfer policy now. I direct the TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine. We allow transfers but only up to a certain date. Since the race closes out so fast, we realize that sometimes people register just to reserve a spot, whether they know if they can run it or not. And, as you say, races now open registration months and months in advance of the race date and "anything" can happen between that time and the day of the race. We do charge a small administrative fee for this service, but folks are happy to pay and feel it is reasonable.
As for races that don't allow transfers, I suppose a major reason why they don't is that, particularly for races that fill way in advance, they typically factor in a no-show rate when setting their field size limits. That is, they are accepting many more than they can actually handle knowing that a certain percentage will not show for any number of reasons. Thus, if they allowed transfers, then their no-show rate would decrease and they would have more runners than they had planned. (Of course, a case could be made that they could factor in a certain number of transfers into their planning and thus not go over their limit.)
Also, I would think that some races just don't want to be hassled with the additional burden of having to have to do a lot of transfers. I'm not saying that is necessarily good customer service, but it just might be a reason why they do what they do.
The biggest downside of not allowing transfers is when runners just do it anyway, unofficially, that is, just give or sell their number to someone else. That scenario is the worst, because then someone is running with someone else's bib under someone else's name. This is unfair, causes chaos, and is potentially dangerous in the event of a medical emergency.
So, my advice to race directors is to try to be as accommodating as you can to your participants. In the end, it will only put your event in the best possible light.