Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Western States 100 Has a Problem - Part II: The Non-Problem?

Before we begin, an important note:

A good friend of mine has told me,

"You have a solution to a non-problem."

He wasn't been contrarian, but facetious. And factual.

His point was that the race leadership does not believe it has a problem. 

And he is correct. They do not think they have a problem. And here is why:

They believe that interest in the Western States 100 - and the radical increase in total lottery applicants - is truly organic. 

I disagree, and so do the numbers. Since 2010:

This means the growth in Western States entry is closing in on double the overall growth in the sport (which, when broken down, is largely driven by shorter-ultra finishes, not 100-milers).

Is Western States truly increased in popularity and general appeal, versus the sport at large?

Or could there be something else (artificially) driving up those entries?

They believe that premature entry is an anecdotal problem: "several people" applying "just to pile up tickets", but not a pervaise issue.

I disagree. There are potentially hundreds - if not thousands - of Western States lottery entrants - namely the first-year/single-ticket runners - that are getting in line, but don't really want to run this year.'

And why wouldn't they?

  • A geometric system rewards premature entry
  • A geometric system, filled with premature entrants, "piling tickets", punishes patience: waiting until you're truly interested and ready

Below are the single-ticket odds by (race) year:

2014: 5.6%

2015: 4.7
2016: 4.5
2017: 2.5
2018: 2.3
2019: 1.7
2020: 1.3

Why would anyone chose patience, when the odds of entry continue to drop like a stone? 

  • Premature entry is driving down the first year odds.
  • Dwindling first (and all)-year odds is driving more premature entry.

We're caught in a vortex.

It's like a bank panic: if you want any chance, you better get in line right now

True, posts like these are anecdotal:

But this?

103 Respondents! And 47% percent don't really want to run this year! 

I acknowledge this is not a scientific poll (not perfectly selecting from verified entrants, as my Twitter followers are more likely to rouse rabble than the general applicant pool).

But forty-seven percent, 48 of 103 respondents, don't really want to run this year?

What is the acceptable percentage of lottery entrants that don't really want to run this year? Surely it is under 47%, or even 17%. 

The counter argument: while begrudingly acknowledging that this is a legitimate concern, the Board wishes to point out data like this:

  • single-ticket lottery winners finish at a higher rate than the overall finishing rate (76% vs 67%, in 2016, for example).
But this answer is a substitution for another question, which is:

If you're offered an entry in the race (regardless of ability and interest), will you finish it? 

The numbers indicate they will. But that doesn't mean they were fully commited and prepared, compared to the rest of the 90%+ lottery losers. 

It's like being offered a free dessert - a highly coveted, rare treat - and still eating (and finishing it), regardless of hunger. Will you turn down something that you might never get again?


The race leadership does not seem to acknowledge the negative second-order effects on the rest of the sport. 

A corrollary: they do "make a conscious decision to reward persistence". But on whose backs does the weight of that persistence fall? 

Qualifying standards have become tougher; races decreased (since the 50-mile qualifier was abolished). Most qualifying races, themselves, now have lotteries. And many runners chose to enter events for the sole purpose of "getting a qualifier". 

Per my letter to the Board:

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". 
It also has palpable - and pervaise - effects on the yearly planning (and career trajectory) of runners, their coaches, and their friends and families:
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. 
In writing these posts, I've been criticized of (among many things) "sour grapes" - attacking the thing that I can no longer have (or, it seems, run fast enough, or finish frequently enough, to qualify to make any critique). Moreover, I've been accused of lobbing incendiary complaints into the race community without offering a solution.

And that's OK. I accept counter-criticism, and questioning of motives.

But a solution is worthless without accepting there is a problem.

This was the intent of Parts I and II: to help identify that, indeed, there is a problem. And it's only getting worse.

And it really isn't just a "numbers problem". It is an Existential Crisis:

Any sized cohort of entrants who "really don't want to run it, this year" is poisonous for the spirit of the race: like showing up to a bountiful meal, with bellies already full. (While starving folks stand, outside-looking-in)
I could go on - and will - about the issues and implications, but I will now turn the attention toward a solution:

a non-weighted, stratified lottery system.

The weighted system must go.

Thanks for reading and discussing, and please stay tuned. 


  1. So, even assuming half the entrants don't want to run it this year, the odds double to 2% for a single ticket. BFD. It sure seems to me that a runner who wants in (and hasn't gotten drawn) for five years in a row should have better odds than a newbie. And whatever formula you choose, you still will end up with 90+% of the applicants not getting drawn.

    No, it's not an existential crisis. It's a frigging race. If you want to run, qualify and apply. If you don't, don't. If you don't like the way they pick the entrants, run something else. WS may be one of a kind, but there are lots of other really good 100s out there.

  2. Very interesting analysis, thanks for writing this series. Regardless of how the lottery works, it would be interesting to see how many people would take deferrals (the "not ready/don't want to run this year" groups) if not limited to just one.

    Really looking forward to reading the next installments.

    1. Great question:

      It's worth noting that the Hardrock 100 as such an "unlimited deferral" program:


      It allows you to accrue tickets for each year you choose to qualify-enter-lose.

      But if you simply do not apply the following year, there is no bankrupcy: "tickets" are possessed into perpetuity.

      While their compounding system is still problematic (rewarding "starting"), it is advantageous because it takes away another troubling cohort:

      the serial qualifying runners who - after several years:

      * is no longer fully prepared or fully enthuasiastic about running THIS year
      * but doesn't want to lose ALL his/her tickets

      This is an increasingly larger group of WSER entrants.

    2. The specifics:

      "Applicants get one ticket for each DNS since they last started Hardrock. “DNS” includes everyone who applied, was qualified, and went through the lottery, but did not get to start the run. This includes both those who were on the wait list and those who withdrew from either the wait list or start list. Your DNS count does not go away if you miss applying a year - it is all your DNS's, ever."

      This means, you accumulate tickets:

      * every year you qualify, apply and lose
      * for every year between your last Start and today

      Thus, they're only "lost" if you are selected.

      While "stored", this system actually does take tickets out of the system.

      More importantly, it prevents the accrual of "lukewarm entry" tickets: folks who aren't truly prepared (due to injury, illness, "life") yet feel compelled to keep it going, just so they don't lose all their tickets.

  3. I think there is another category of 1st year entrants. I call them "whim" entrants. These are people who do a qualifying race as their main focus and then enter the WS lottery just for the heck of it. This is clear from the number that fail to reapply in year two (over 50%). In subsequent years, the attrition rate is much lower.

    The odds for everyone could be significantly improved by screening out these runners, perhaps by requiring two years of qualifying races.

  4. Love the above idea of requiring two years of qualifying races to sift out the "whim" first-time entrants...I think there are more of these than most realize.