The Western States Enduance Run has a problem.
It has nothing to do with the course, the weather, the aid stations, the volunteers, the runners, or the leadership.
It has a math problem.
The weighted lottery system - designed and intended to reward committed serial entrants with a faster and (seemingly) guaranteed entry - has not only failed to deliver on that intention, but it has unwittingly accelerated the already steep demand, and thus made it exceedingly more difficult to obtain that precious commodity: the Western States entry.
The compounding system, first implemented decades ago, was a well-intended system intended to reward runners who, failing to gain entry in their first year, would be guaranteed an entry the second year. The "Two-Time Loser" system rewarded the persistence of consecutive entry and functioned for many years without issue.
But that was a different time: before the proliferation of trail racing and, more notably, before the internet (and all modern technology, including online news, websites, blogs and documentary videos) "virally" spread worldwide the magic dust of what Western States was all about.
Thus, by around 2010, the Two-Time-Loser system was inundated with so many runners that it could no longer guarantee an entry, even two years on. Something had to change. In 2011, a linear, compounding system was adopted: giving runners an additional "ticket" for each consecutive year of entry.
This "n+1" system* was promising, but the race entries grew even faster, and diluted the lottery even more.
(where, in this case, n = number of years of entering the lottery and not being selected)
At some point, elements of race leadership realized that this was a problem. Based on my personal discussions with various board members and race administration, those concerns were two-fold:
- One, they wanted to afford any interested runner the opportunity to run the race, someday.
- Two, they did not want members of the ultrarunning community, frustrated with repeated failure, to become embittered and develop a negative attitude about the event.
Thus, to address those concerns, and reward due diligence and commitment to multiple years of serial application, along came the Geometric System.
In 2012 or so, the geometric system was implemented. The equation, 2n-1 was used to more quickly - geometrically - grow ticket counts. While in the previous system, a five-year entrant would only have five tickets, in this new geometric system, that person would have 16 tickets. Thus, compared to a first-year entrant, this five-year lottery veteran has far better odds, and those committed runners would all eventually get selected.
A Geometric Solution Becomes a Geometric Problem
The eventual mathematical reality of a geometric system was somewhat difficult to anticipate when it was first implemented eight years ago. (And admittedly - it just might take a math degree to realize that, no matter how many years one applies, the odds will never, ever, reach 100%: the literal definition of an asymptote).
But eight years on? People across the sport are beginning to realize a few things:
First, a weighted system does not "clear" runners. It only partially increases some odds, while diluting others. And no matter how high the odds, there will never be a "sure-thing" entry, whether a runner qualifies ten years in a row, or a hundred.
Second, the weighted system forces runners to enter before they're truly willing (let alone ready) to race. With each passing year, an increasing proportion of runners enter because they "want to run Western States someday, but not really this year".
Why? Because with each passing year, the single-ticket (first-year) odds get lower and lower.
Third, the converse: a weighted system punishes patience. Runners who would rather wait a year (or two, or five) to run Western States feel compelled to enter now, knowing that it may take three, five or even eight-plus years to get an entry. If then!
Why? Because such a rewarding system is artificially increasing applicant growth - at this point, far out-stripping the overall growth in ultrarunning and 100+-miler participation. So with each passing year, the geometric growth of the ticket pool drowns out that measily single ticket.
You're a fool to not enter "early and often", as they say.
But these realizations are just the beginning. There are deeper effects that ripple across the landscape of the sport of ultrarunning: how we chose to train and race, how we choose to approach different race events, and indeed the sort of personal - familial and even medical - decisions runners must make to keep The Dream alive.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
We'll all have to take our turn.
Settle down. Chill out. BE PATIENT.
And enter the lottery only when we are truly willing and ready to race from Squaw Valley to Auburn.
Part I: Diving In
(The following was an analysis I prepared for and presented to several members of the Western States Board of Directors in the fall of 2017.
Somewhere around that time it finally dawned on me the true and pervaisive consequenses of the weighted lottery. As both a runner and coach, I was worried. But as someone who's lived and breathed Western States for going on a decade, I was deeply concerned. So I gathered my thoughts and presented them to The Board in October 2017.
The following text is verbatim from that message. Any additions are indented and [bracketed] for enhanced clarity:)
Introduction. This analysis and proposal is based on the current, incentivized geometric lottery model for Western States. At first glance, such a method was devised to "add fairness" to a lottery system where an increasing number of interested runners enter, for a frustratingly (and stangantly) small number of entries.
However, such a incentivized lottery has only made the situation worse. It's created it's own geometric rise in lottery entrants, based on the fact that entering prematurely is rewarded, while patience - waiting only until the year in which one is ready to race - is punshed, with ever-dwindling first-year ("one ticket") odds.
Below is my analysis, followed by proposal for lottery reform.
1. Incentivizes premature entry & punishes patience. This is the #1 worst problem of the WSER lottery: it gives incentive to people to prematurely enter the lottery. This mindset is pervaisive: "I need to start now...". A very large (too large, tragically large) proportion of lotto entrants -- and thus selected runners -- enter, knowing full well they do not wish (or are not fully prepared) to race this upcoming year. However, not only are they incentivized to enter -- more years, more tickets -- but they are punished for patience. This is based on the data that suggests that with each passing year, odds for those with a single ticket (first-year applicants) decrease. This is punishment for waiting.
2. Second-order effects. There are powerful, and overwhelmingly negative, second-order effects of the WSER lottery on the entire sport of ultrarunning. These include:
Increasing pressure on qualifier races. The WSER qualifiers face mounting pressure (in both quantity and fervor) from runners regarding, among other things, entry into the qualifier race and finishing in the prescribed standard. Failure to do either places enormous (and increasing) strain on RDs and events, who must service a runner who's sole desire is to "run another race [WSER] other than this one".
Altering the annual landscape of ultramarathon participation. Quite simply, people are forced, because of lottery strain, to base his/her entire yearly race schedule on "getting a qualifier". As opposed to running events organically, for their own sake -- because they're unique and desirable in their own right -- great pressure is put on runners, their coaches (and family), and race events to cater to this geometrically increasing need to finish a WSER lottery qualifying race. Indeed, the more "tickets" - and the older the runner - the higher pressure there is to register for and finish a qualifier.
This is against the spirit of ultrarunning. Runners should enter, run and finish races, in order to run that race - not simply for the opportunity to run another race. "Dance with the one that brung you" -- don't abuse one event, simply to climb a rung closer to another.
3. Mathematics of Critical Mass. I recall RD Craig Thornley say, repeatedly, at last year's  lottery at Placer High School say, "Just keep qualifying, and you'll get in!" The problem with that statement is, eventually, it is false.
Without delving into the complexities of geometric math, if the race continues to grow in both individual entrants (which it has) and consecutive entry lottery tickets (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 64, 128....ad nauseum), the numbers of people with higher-and-higher-ticket counts will grow to the point where a runner - even with, say, 128 tickets - will simply not get picked.
In 2016, we faced that situation for the first time and barely escaped:
- 2 runners had 64-tickets (7 years of entry). Both runners gained entry: one was selected, and the other was "given" one of the five remaining "in-person" lottery spots. (While generous, this is obviously an unsustainable strategy)
- 31 runners had 32 tickets (6 years of entry). Only 18 gained entry, and in order to "clear them" from the system, the remaining 13 had to be placed on the Waiting List -- a new (and also incentivizing) feature of this year's race. To my knowledge, most were picked (or otherwise waived their entry for this year).
Great. But soon (within perhaps 1-2 years), those "long-waiting" applicants: >6 years or more, will completely fill the waitlist. Then what? Reserve it only for 7 year-losers? 8 years? 10 years? How long is the acceptable wait time? What degree of frustration and resentment is WSER OK with?
[Of note, there were 9 eight-year applicants in the 2019 lottery, and all but one were selected. The Ninth was added atop the waitlist. This represents a mathetmatical cheat that, as I will discuss later, is both unfair and unsustainable.
[Another note: 38 of 54 seven-year entrants and 88 of 126 six-year entrants were not selected this year. Within two years, the race will have surpassed a ten-year wait. WIth no end in sight]
If you're interested in some (nauseating) math, here is a fantastic analysis by Ryan Witko on the issues and challenges of the WSER lottery. I have my doubts that most WSER board members have read and understood this analysis (I have 3.5 college degrees and have taken both upper level calculus, statistics and even quantum mechanics, yet have a hard time fully absorbing it!). But the conclusions are thus:
- both entrants and ticket counts are increasing geometrically
- the lottery cannot "clear" all of the runners from the system before they they fail to re-qualify (either due to physical incapacitation, or - even worse - failure to gain entry to a qualifying race!).
- An increasing number runners -- many of whom that have "queued patiently" -- qualifying and entering the lottery, year after year, per Mr. Thornley's recommendation -- will not ever be selected.
- This is the worst-case PR scenario for the race: runners "guaranteed" to eventually get in by the system, only to slip up one time (after, say 8-10 years of consecutive entry).
- In short, per My Witko's analysis: "Assuming recent trends continue, we will soon reach a point where most applicants in the lottery will never actually be selected."
In conclusion, the geometric rise in both runners and tickets are on a collision course for failure. However, that's only the half of it. That a large proportion of runners in a given year actually do not want to (or are otherwise not ready) takes a bad situation and makes it tragic, and utterly frustrating for those who are.
Recommendations. There are only three factors that can impact the demand to run Western States:
- Field size. Permitting mandates a finite size. It's generally understood that the Board is working to somehow expand this. But even if the field grew to 2,000 -- that is still a very small, non-geometric increase, relative to the following two factors
- Lottery entrants. The total number of people interested in entering the lottery in a given year.
- Lottery tickets. The total number of tickets in a yearly lottery hopper. The current 2^n-1 formula creates a geometric growth pattern of total lottery tickets.
#1 is currently a rigid figure. For #2 and 3, there are but two options:
A. Decrease demand for individual runners to [prematurely] enter.
B. Decrease the number of tickets (in order to increase the value of a single ticket)
That is all for Part I. Subsequent parts - including a proposed alternative to the current system - are forthcoming.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.