Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Western States 100 Has a Problem: Part I - Introduction


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.

And it's slowly sinking in it. And we're all sinking with it.

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. 

Brief Background

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. 

But to fix it will take a leap of faith. 

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. 


Over the coming days, I intend to outline the various issues with the current lottery system, the consequences (many of them both negative and unintended) and impacts across the landscape of ultrarunning, and some personal anecdotes from me: a runner, a coach, a medical professional, and - more than anything - a true lover of this event, its people, and everything it stands for. 

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. 

Problems with the current lottery system. Right now there are at least three problems with the WSER geometric (2n-1  "ticket"/year) lottery system: 

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 racesThe 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 [2016] 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, 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:
  1. 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
  2. Lottery entrants. The total number of people interested in entering the lottery in a given year. 
  3. 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. 


  1. An edit to Part I:

    It wasn't the fall of 2017 when I realized there was a problem with the Western States lottery. It was in 2016, when I traveled to Auburn to attend the drawing, in person. It's truly an amazing atmosphere (regardless of outcome).

    It was near the end of the lottery when, after all the entrants were selected, there was still a single six-year (32-ticket) applicant unselected. (This isn't bad, given the math odds were likely only 75%, and 8 of 9 six-years were already selected).

    The race leadership asked the crowd - many enticed there by one of the five in-person lottery spots still availble - if the race could simply give one of those five spots to this person.

    They obliged of course.

    Then, of the 16 remainining five-year entrants, they were all added to the top of the waiting list.

    I was puzzled. "This isn't right", I thought.

    Not that it wasn't a "good" thing to do. But that it wasn't sustainable.

    How many years 'til ALL FIVE of the lotto-day entries go to the leftover six-years (or seven, or eight?)

    How many years 'til the ENTIRE waitlist is filled with these same folks?

    The final straw was when Craig Thornley approached the mic. Addressing both the in-person throng and the untold numbers of folks watching online, he said,

    "Just keep entering! WE'LL GET YOU IN".

    "Wrong! It's not possible", I thought. The numbers will only continue to grow. And admitting ALL runners *at a certain time interval* of application is mathematically impossible.

    And that's when I realized we had a problem.

  2. A friend linked me to this. Just wanted to say I have been obsessing over the problem with their lottery system as well for some time. I agree with all of your points here and am so intrigued by this problem of the numbers. Here is a fb post I made yesterday:

    Wondering why you didn't get in to WSER100 this year?

    It's because the system they currently have is flawed.

    Where are the nerd runners?!

    The problem is with this claim:

    "each runner who enters the lottery and fails to gain entry into the Run will have additional tickets in the hat when entering the lottery the following year, thus improving the probability of being selected."

    This is false.

    With each year the applicant pool grows, thus decreasing the chances you will get picked. This year it grew by 14% from last year. So whatever is improved by giving you an extra ticket or 2 is nullified or at least diminished by the vast increase in tickets each year. It's literally 1 step forward 2 steps back. Amirite?

    Unless they put a cap on how many can apply each year then each year you don't get in your chances will in fact go down, as the trend seems to be that the applicant keeps increasing dramatically each year.

    1. Great insight, Phillip. I agree 100% and will talk about this in my next post.

      The geometric system creates a tsunami of tickets. The multi-year, high-ticket entrants might be "above the wave"...but it isn't long 'til they're inundated with water.

  3. One possible solution is to make qualifying harder, by eliminating 100ks from the pool of qualifying races. This might at least stop the bleeding. But the real problem comes not so much from the 1 year entrants who are only given one measly ticket, it comes from their literal exponentially growing number of tickets for each year people dont get in. There were 7,000 more tickets this year than last year. Do we really think giving ourselves a few more tickets is going to help offset that increase in overall tickets? Especially if 98% of every entrant is going to experience a similar increase in their ticket count? They're literally inflating the value of tickets and pretending that 16 tickets this year meant the same as 16 tickets would have meant 5 years ago.

    1. Making qualifying harder just kicks the can down the road:

      more pressure on qualifying race
      more qualifying races expanding their fields (or adding 100Ks)

      This is part of the "second-order effects" I'll talk about, further.

      But again, you're spot on: TOO MANY TICKETS

      But the reason is, there's too many runners getting in line, too early.

      But they do so, why? TOO MANY TICKETS.

  4. 99% of 1st year applicants will grow into 2nd year applicants. If we keep growing that number of 1st year applicants, we guarantee that there will keep expanding the amount of years some people will have to wait before getting in, because of their 2^n-1 system. Yes, the myth that keep trying and you'll eventually get in is ridic, even if you give the slightest bit of thought to it. It should have been apparent in preceding years if it's not already apparent now by looking back at how the new categories of non-entrants developed over the years.



    2. As an econ PhD runner who helped design a race lottery, I find this fascinating. I definitely need to read Witko's paper. I do think Phillip's claims are overstated, however. It is true in theory that if the exact same people enter a lottery year after year, giving everyone 2^n tickets (or any multiple) doesn't change the relative odds from year to year. But the important fact is that the number of people doesn't stay the same! 1) Runners get selected, and then next year they start back at zero (except for Hardrock, but don't get me started on their system.)
      2) I doubt that 99% of 1st year applicants become 2nd year applicants. (Both for reason 1-getting selected and 2-life, etc.)
      Just look at any type of consistent applicant over the last several years-- (similar URLS work for 2018, 2019, 2020 as well). My own odds have gone from 9.5% to 17% to 24.4% to 33.5%. Yes, I get it, they're not doubling, but they're still increasing.

    3. Another quick glance at those same URLs show the number of 2nd year applicants is typically about 1/2 as many as 1st year applicants. Instead of 99% coming back, it's been more like 43%-48% the last few years.

    4. Mr Onion-

      Thanks for the comment.

      Are you looking at year-to-year re-applications? (E.g 1st year from 2018 vs 2nd year for 2019)?

    5. Yes. Year to year reapplication of first years becoming second years--2017 to 2018: 2427 down to 1060. 2018 to 2019: 2658 down to 1281. 2019 to 2020: 3113 down to 1447.

  5. There were 6664 unqiue lottery entrants this year. If the board decided to take no more new qualifiers and grant 369 spots each year to just those people - the race would be filled for the next 18 years. We're well past the time when most applicants will never get it.

    My take is the board is aware of this problem but it's not something they care to solve. They're a smart bunch and understand math. They take action quickly if they do care - see drug policy, pregnancy deferral and transgender policy. BTW - those were really good ones IMO.

    You know what the lottery has also killed? The ten year buckle.
    Is Ian Sharman the last 10 year person? If he isn't, then top 10 spots are the only way it will be achieved in the future. Damn that was an impressive strech by Ian.

    I'm eager to hear your solutions.

    1. Lucus-

      I don't think they "care to solve" it because I don't believe they think there's any problem.

      What I think they think:

      * the lottery is fair and rewards persistence
      * their race just happens to be REALLY popular and - by pure coincidence - has nearly a *geometric rate* of growth/application (of real applicants) over the past five years

      If you don't see a problem, you won't seek a solution.

    2. 10+ year buckles:

      You're right, we won't see many any more, unless they're elites. (Let alone 20-year!)

      But I think The Race (and all of us) need to be OK with that.

      My personal belief:

      * allow as many people as possible to race it ONCE
      * value veterans (5+ finishes) and allow them to work toward 10
      * special space for super-masters (50-year plus) -- they don't have time to wait ten years to run

      Everyone else should have VERY low odds.

      This stratification is part of my proposal.

    3. I agree with you on being okay with the 10 year buckle becoming a rare event.

      I'd also suggest for the Board should forfeit their automatic entry spot permanently.

  6. 1) Aren't there around 100 tickets each year that are already given out? Eliminate most of those and have them for the lottery. 2) I know that Leadville charges $1200 for their automatic entry, so what about raising the cost of entry to $1000 or so at WS? That would weed out some less than serious runners. 3) Have a point system like UTMB?

    1. 1.) Yet again:

      A linear solution to a geometric problem

      A 100 more entries won't help. A thousand might not, either. The demand is too great.

      2.) Egalitarianism is an implicit part of the WSER mission. Big entry fees won't happen....and would "solve" the entry demand by pricing out the general masses. Bad idea.

      3.) Maybe. But only if it somehow correlated with people wanting to run the race, THIS YEAR (Does UTMB have any carry-over lotto? I don't think so?)

  7. I'm a little out of touch with the entire process, but could they not just reset you back to 1st year lottery entry, once you've been selected? Example: 5-yr entry gets selected in 2020 lottery. If entering lottery for 2021, they are reset to 1st year status. Lowering their chances, increasing chances for those that are not selected in 2020. This might be an easier pill for some to swallow, instead of starting from scratch? Or no?

  8. Thanks for posting your insights and drawing attention to this Joe. I'm looking forward to your proposed solutions here. I believe WS care as much about this as they do all other issues they've broached in recent years, there's just not an obvious solution here. I'm certain all race directors with events that sell out rapidly, or have lotteries, will be listening intently.

    1. As I said above:

      What I think they think:

      * the lottery is fair and rewards persistence
      * their race just happens to be REALLY popular and - by pure coincidence - has nearly a *geometric rate* of growth/application (of real applicants) over the past five years

      If you don't see a problem, you won't seek a solution.

  9. Very good analysis, thank you for posting this. As a 5 yr lottery loser I agree 100%, this system is simply unsustainable and it will backfire much faster than most would think. Myself as someone deeply invested by now into the mechanism I have no choice but continue the qualifying saga and am aware that 8yrs might become the norm. If it wasn't for the accrued # of tckts, as much as I love WSER and what it represents, I would probably not join the lottery, simply ridiculous to think it would take so long to be allowed to run it. By comparison it is now easier (better odds) to enter UTMB or Kona (IM Legacy program) than run WSER. As an established and well run event I hope the WSER Board look into this as quickly as they have looked into the other "hot" topics (Gender, pregnancy, etc). We shall see......

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Anticipating a counter-argument, I could imagine someone saying:

      "WSER is the toughest to get into becuase there are so few spots".

      Indeed, there are far less (at least 10x) in WSER than either UTMB or Ironman.

      But this only underscores my argument:

      We cannot have a mechanism that artificially drives up demand and:

      * incentivizes PREMATURE entry
      * punishes patience

  10. What about allowing people to accrue tickets WITHOUT participating in the lottery?

    1. Phillip-

      We're no longer best friends! (;-) )

      Too many tickets is the problem - the inability to stem the tide of ticket inflation (and lower and lower actual odds of entry).

      Accruing tickets without being in the lottery is the opposite of the solution.

      That said, one could say:

      * "the lottery bybass is great becuase it allows you to sit out a year and keep your tickets"

      The bad news: everyone keeps their tickets.

      This system ONLY works if people crap-out and lose all their tickets:

      * either through entry
      * or giving up

      The tragic irony is avoiding the negativity/bitterness of "giving up" is EXACTLY why this weighted system was implemented.

  11. 7 time loser here. The mathematical models predicted 56% of 7-year folks (64 tickets) would get in. Only 22 or 40% were selected. The math models in 2018 also overpredicted selection for the higher ticket categories. As I was running this weekend, I was thinking that the tickets are not being dispersed in whatever bin they are using. Are the tickets getting stuck together, static electricity and the such?

    1. Odds are odds and subject to guassian distribution.

      So 40% is still only one standard deviation away from the mean (of 56%).

      That means in any given year, a group with 56% odds, the probabiliy is equal for either 40% or 72% picked.

      The math part the race doesn't understand:

      * for a cohort (say, the 7 or 8 years) to be FULLY picked, even at 80% -- for 100% to be picked -- is an outlying lottery of 2, 3 or even 4 standard deviations!

      Odds are odds. But the probability of ALL 100% of a cohort being drawn are **extremely low**, even with high odds!

      Yet it seems the race relies on this statistical rarity.

    2. The modeling used 314 draws, thus, it included the waitlist. This is not an accurate assumption for the simulations since not everyone on the waitlist gets in. That being said, when you do include the 4 7-year applicants from the waitlist, the result is that 26 were chosen from this pool, or 48%, less than 1 std dev. It's likely that the first 2 7-year applicants from the waitlist will get in given their positions, which means there will be 32 8-year next year, only about 70% of which will be selected next year, guaranteeing a handful of 9-year applicants unless they all get placed at the top of the waitlist. I think the board understands the math, as it's been talked over enough and put into laymen's term. They just won't or can't figure out what to do about it.

    3. Godo point, thanks for sharing.

      Having attended the lottery in person and seen what they said:

      "Keep entering, and we WILL get you in!"

      and what they did

      "cheat", by giving up a spot to the one remaining 6-year person, then sliding ALL the 5-year entrants on the the waitlist -- thus essentially "guaranteeing" an entry to these folks

      the race leadership does *not* get it. Nor to do they recognize the many second-order effects this lottery paradigm has on the sport.

  12. Joe,
    Good insight. I am looking forward to your proposed alternatives. I hope you take into consideration those of us who do not start running ultras until we are in our 50's and would like to run Western States.

    1. I have, Henry.

      My proposal includes an entry system for "Super-Masters": 50+ year runners

  13. Lucas hit it on the head, with 6664 unique applicants and only 369 spots available, many of which are designated to previous years top ten and other golden ticket races, there just simply isnt a way to 100% garuntee a spot.

    I will say, the way it is set up now it does reward "the serious runner" because they are the ones diligently qualifying every year, applying every year etc. Upping the cost to $1000 only makes it more elitist.

    My best suggestion would be to reward the more qualified runners. First eliminate the 100k qualifiers all together. Second increase the dificulties of 100 milers. Impart that with the lottery and ones that are diligent to qualify and apply. It may not solve it but it gets the boat headed in the right direction.

    Another option I havent heard you guys put out there to eliminate more of the entrants would be a one and your done. (unless your top ten)

    1. Lucas

      1. You're right. There should - and can - **never** be any system that explicitly (or implicitly) "guarantees" an entry. A guarantee is a mathematical impossiblily and can only happen with extreme luck, or cheating: bypassing the lottery and "giving" spots (via the waitlist, or other means)

      2. Yes, it does reward the committed. However, the whole system gets muddy, quick:

      A. these commited runners have *variable degrees of preparedness and desire* in any given year:

      For example, a 25-year old runner who "wants to run WSER someday, but not really (or not AT ALL) this year":

      Then, one of two things happen:

      I. They get picked -- and they're selected when they're not interested/ready to run (= Negative outcome)


      II. They don't. For this cohort, life happens: say it takes 7 years to get picked, and let's say that if we gave a fitness/preparedness score of 0-100, this is their level per lottery year:

      1. 25
      2. 75
      3. 95
      4. 65
      5. 70
      6. 40*
      7. 50 (get selected)

      So they get selected, but are they truly ready? Based on this score, they are not.

      (*WSER now has the once-in-a-lifetime Bye, but that's good for only ONE subpar, not-fully-ready year -- not the several that can happen in someone's life)

      The result: you get 6, 7, or 8+ year applicants who aren't truly ready. But since they had no choice but to keep applying, they must run *this year*

      From last year alone, I have two such anecdotal examnples of 7-year runners (Tim Lambert, Joseph Chick), who fell into this category:

      * have been variably fit and ready over the years
      * were finally selected for 2019
      * neither were physicially prepared to run (both incurred injuries in the fall of 2018), but were forced to take something they'd waited 7 years to "earn"

      Thus, this "diligent reward" is less rewarding than it seems.

      It's like having to wait for dessert to arrive at any given time over a huge span of time....then just happening to eat a full meal, right before that dessert arrives.

      Not so rewarding.


      The solution is this:

      We need a system where people are compelled to apply ONLY when they're 100% willing to run. And not a moment sooner.

      Otherwise entries are wasted.

      And to waste even a single entry of the paltry 379 is a tragedy.

  14. Very interesting analysis, thank you for sharing!

    One suggestion is to make it an "elite-only" race by raising qualifying TIMES significantly. Like the Boston of 100 Milers. I don't like this solution personally (as a slow runner it would disqualify me from ever being able to participate), but it must have been something that was considered at some point, due to such enormous popularity.

    1. That's a reasonable suggestion, but it's extremely unlikely.

      Egalitarianism is (at least an implicit) mission of the race; moreover, the "every day runner" running with elites is a HUGE part of the draw and magic of the race.

    2. There have been many calls to eliminate 100Ks and the easier 100s, which is essentially the same as raising qualifying times for the current races by weeding out runners who are just barely qualifying through the easier ones. If the goal is get as many runners to Placer High as possible, then I'd agree with getting rid of the easier qualifiers.

      On the other end of the spectrum, reserving 50 slots for elites seems too generous for a race with such high demand - 20 Golden tickets, 10 UTWT, and up to 20 for Top Ten. I have thoughts on all of the automatic slot categories too, including the Gordy slot; every automatic entry should be scrutinized.

      Ultimately, no change or solution is going to appease everyone, but something is needed.

  15. Thanks for sharing this Joe, I'm really looking forward to the follow-up articles. I really wonder (in the generic sense) how does any organization fairly deal with over 6000 (or even 3000) people who want to be in an event that can only take a total of 369 per year?

    One thing I'd be interested to see is what if they made the service requirement (ultra volunteer or trail work) to enter the lottery? I wonder if this would decrease the people who enter the lottery as they would likely have to show commitment before they've even done their qualifier and thus decrease the people who enter the lottery prematurely...

    1. Anon-

      1. What people (including the race) fail to appreciate is that the race is artificially driving its own growth:

      If you provide a "geometric incentive", you'll create "geometric demand"

      If you look at the growth in entries, it resembles a geometric rate that outstrips the growth the sport (which, but # of finishers, has leveled off the past few years).

      That's the problem: you already only have 369 entries. You cannot artificially drive up demand. That is the result of this system.

      2. The "Work Harder" (e.g "Jump Through More Hoops" concept) won't work for two reasons:

      A. It's a linear solution to a geometric problem (e.g it might detract a few entrant/year, but does nothing to decrease the reward of a geometric system)

      B. Ultrarunners like to work hard! I do anywhere from 20-100+ hours of service a year. You could make it 500 and I (and many others) would still do it.

      C. the "Work Harder" solution detracts from the mission of the race (e.g. is the Mission to make runners work extremely hard on trails?)

  16. Joe, do you happen to have any insight into why races such as Westen States don't run a second edition each year? I imagine permitting being the main issue although I'm just not privy to that information. From an outsider, multiple races are run through permitted trails each year so having the same one run twice appears possible.
    We're up to nearly 20 100+ mile races who have lotteries now. December and January are such a pain...

    1. See above: "Egalitarianism is (at least an implicit) mission of the race; moreover, the "every day runner" running with elites is a HUGE part of the draw and magic of the race."

  17. It also seems wasteful to print 1100+ pages of tickets...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. 1) Mandatory 2 year hiatus after being selected, minus top 5 including age groupers also maybe "given someone else a chance" rule
    2) End most automatic/golden tickets and corporate sponsorship tickets
    3) Make only the top 5 elites get automatic entry for the next year.
    4) Give some odds bump to >50 year old runners. Just being healthy enough able to run trails at all becomes less and less statistically likely for all of us as we age. Many are one injury away from a lifetime sentence of biking tights.

  19. ..also. maybe automatic "persistence pays off" entry for those trying for the 7th (or maybe 10th)year who have never run it. Would be hard to get >369 of those I think, especially if you create the above "give someone else a chance rule" that says you must sit out the lottery for two years (maybe three or more, the math folks can make calculations) after you win an entry spot regardless of if you toe the line. But of course the problem of single ticket entrants who are just building a foundation for the future and don't care about running it anytime soon is still there, and this 7 or 10 year rule could exacerbate that.
    The other aspect to think about that you only indirectly alluded to above is the squeezing out of runners from races they love that others are running just because its a qualifier. My running partner had a 100K as his target race for next year. He loved everything about the race and was gunning for redemption as he DNFd due to a headlamp issue and a thunderstorm. But the race filled immediately since it's a WSER qualifier. He cares 0.0 about WSER, but because of it he may not get to do his more local race he was really circling on the calendar a year in advance. Making less qualifiers will only make the pressure more intense on those remaining few and make this worse, and it would increase the carbon footprint of those jetting all over to run qualifiers that are now further apart. This also favors those with more financial means to travel.
    But at least it seems logical to make lucky lottery winners stay away 2 or more years since the current pattern predicts many will NEVER get in at all! Knowing that fact, I would personally actually feel bad getting in twice! If you made that mandatory hiatus 4 years, then at some point you have 1200+ or so otherwise capable and inclined runners that can't enter the lottery, 5 years makes for 1500+ less entering the lottery! This seems like it would make a real dent in the ticket count, as some would have accumulated multiple years of tickets in that time. It also seems predicated on a foundation of solid and widely agreed upon principles of ethics and fairness. -Todd Bitterman