Saturday, December 14, 2019

Western States Has A Problem – Part III: A Non-Weighted, Stratified Lottery Proposal

Previous posts in this series:

The Proposal:

1. Eliminate any weighted lottery system. Abolish compounding tickets: one ticket per entrant, per year.

2. Create a stratified, multiple sub-lottery system comprised of four groups: Never-Starters, Veterans, Super-Masters, Everyone Else. Lottery odds are based on number of times a runner has run the event, not number of tickets.

Background. This proposed lottery alternative is based on two pre-existing systems: the original (basic) Western States lottery, and components of the stratified lottery system current employed by The Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run (HR100).

The former - a simple, "one year, one ticket" basic lottery - was the original lottery strategy of Western States from 1981 until 2011, when then first weighted system, "n+1", was instituted. This system, while blind to both experience, previous runs, and previous lottery attempts, also eliminates any incentives for entering prematurely, or continuing to enter in order to “keep my tickets”.

The latter is a lottery system developed by The Hardrock 100: a stratified lottery system consisting of three separate lotteries, one each for:
  • First-Timers
  • Veterans (5 or more finishes)
  • Everyone Else
In this system, three separate lotteries (and the same number of waitlists) are held, each with a set number of entries. Prospective entrants fit into one of three groups, but transition over time, depending on entry and race experience. A stratified system allows the race to pre-determine the desired race composition, balancing new runners and veterans.

The Details. Here is a detailed explanation of the proposed alternative:

1. Eliminate any Weighted Lottery System

De-incentivize premature entry by abolishing the compounding ticket system, entirely. This includes both the current "2n-1", as well as the preceding "n+1" system.

The only way to curb the trend of premature entry is to eliminate a geometric entry system that rewards it. With entrant numbers skyrocketing and all entry odds plummeting, runners know fully well this reality: "If I want to ever run Western States I have to enter now". 

Below are some interesting data:

This is the overall growth of lottery entrant per year, dating back to 2000. Two important milestones are worth noting:
  1. the n+1 lottery began in 2011 
  2. the geometric system began 2012
A less important, but also interesting milestone: 50-mile qualifiers were eliminated, with only a limited number of 100K qualifiers allowed, starting in ~2013. 

Next, take a look at this graph:
This represents the growth of one’s ticket cache, for each consecutive year of entry.

It’s impossible to prove that a geometric system can definitively cause the geometric growth currently observed in the lottery.

However, basic economics tells us: a geometric incentive will create a geometric demand.

Returning to the Western States entry data: when superimposing the historic changes to the lottery, the correlation between those changes and the resultant entry numbers becomes more compelling:

This hybrid chart superimposes the history of the lottery: what changes were made, when, and the correlated changes in applicants. 

Note three fairly distinctive slopes in the history of the Western States lottery: the basic lottery era, the “n+1” years, and the geometric system. (Also note the small plateau that occcured in 2014 after the tightening of qualifier races).

Looking closer at each period:

From 2000 to 2010, a basic lottery was held that also included the Two-Time-Loser clause: if you entered twice before and we're not picked, you would automatically enter.

Growth was relatively steady until the end of the decade. Growth was modest early on (+50-100 added applicants per year).

During this time of 500 or less applicants, the "Two-Time Loser" functioned well. But once interested piqued in the late 2000s, this initial incentive was quickly overwhelmed.

(Note: a reader might think that the Two-Time-Loser was a major incentive. It wasn't. If anything, it was a dis-incentive to prematurely apply because it guaranteed entry. Why rush to something you're guaranteed to get? Additionally: at this time with the basic lottery, odds were still holding at 50% for all applicants).

As total applicants began to triple and even quadruple the maximum allowable field size, it became clear that in a basic, indiscriminate lottery, eventual selection could take inordinately long. Moreover, a guaranteed entry after two "losses" became impossible. Thus, the Two-Time Loser clause had to be abandoned and the “n+1” system was conceived and implemented for the 2011 race:

Correlating with the implementation of “n+1”, we see a growth increase of upwards of 400 applicants per year from 2011 to 2013.

Somewhere along the line, the Race got even more concerned and felt that additional protections be put into place to allow for a more expedient and “guaranteed” entry for committed runners. The 2n-1 system was implemented in 2013 (of note: tickets were retroactively compounded for 2nd and 3rd-year applicants from the previous n+1 system):

From 2014 through the 2020 lottery, growth began in this period at 400 applicants per year and has progressively increased to a current annual growth rate of 800-1000 applicants per year.  The race now increases in applicants per year, more than double the total applicant numbers (~500) from 20 years ago. 

While correlation does not equal causation, the changes made to the lottery do, in fact, act like independent (input) variables with a dependent variable (applicants) result: an adjustment “X” yields in a change of “Y”. 

But indeed, it is just a correlation that is impossible to prove. 

Additionally, one could argue that growth in Western States also correlates to overall growth ultrarunning. 

Here is that data comparing Western States applicants and the total number of hundred-mile finishers in North America. 

A cursory look would say that the Western States applicants fairly neatly correlate with overall growth in 100-mile finishes.

They do, early on: before the weighted lotteries began.

But looking closely, at 2015 and beyond - when the geometric lottery system really took hold at Western States:

And what you’ll see is that, despite an ever-increasing number of new hundred-miler races in North America (not all of which are Western States qualifiers -- thus this group can grow, independently), Western States lottery applicants have grown at nearly double the rate of the rest of the 100-milers on the continent.

Something else is driving that additional growth.

Has Western States gotten that much cooler since 2015? 

One could argue that the modern “documentary era” - from films such as Unbreakable (2011) - can spike interest in Western States more than the rest of the sport. However, two counter-points:
  • Other (and equally compelling) documentaries for other races abound
  • Western States has always had (and initially cornered the market in) cool documentaries
It is unlikely that media exposure explains the growth disparity. 

Have any other changes to the race occurred in the last five-plus years to account for the growth?

The biggest change: an incentivized lottery system. 

One compelling experiment: abolish the weighted system, and track the next five years of applicant data. I predict applicants would drop precipitously - by jettisoning the premature entries - and once again align with the overall growth trend in 100-mile finishes.

Returning to the geometric data and the frightening right side of the chart:

If this growth continues at the same rate - far exceeding the growth of all other hundred-milers - we may see this year’s record number of applicants double in four years

It’s worth considering if the very system devised to handle growth, is in fact, the overt cause. 

I hope I’m wrong. But if I’m not: 

Eliminating a weighted system would potentially decrease the rapid growth in lottery applicants by all-but-eliminating two substantial cohorts of "premature runners":

A. First-Timers “Getting in Line”.  After running his/her first qualifying race, current prospective first-time Western States runners face a dilemma:

enter the lottery now, regardless of readiness or willingness to run this year
wait, and face worsening first-year ticket odds with each passing year

That is the reality, as single-ticket odds have plummeted in the past five years: on average, shrinking in half with each passing year.

In fact, for today’s new entrants, the geometric lottery has become a version of The Red Queen’s Race: It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place!”

The second group of "premature" entrants:

B. “Fatigued but Compulsive” Multi-Year Applicants. Even if a prospective runner is fully prepared and hungry to race when entering the lottery their first year, life happens.

As you can see in the data, there is always a drop off from year one to year two of entrants (that cannot be solely accounted for by being selected). But in those early years, the ticket growth is rather linear:

Year 1: 1 ticket
Year 2: 2 tickets

For runners who have applied in three consecutive years, the incentive to continue applying becomes more palpable:

Year 3: 4 tickets
Year 4: 8 tickets

But preparation and desire to run is neither linear, nor geometric. Sometimes it goes down: for various reasons, after several years of commitment, an entrant might lose either the physical or mental ability or willingness to enter. 

Yet the geometric ticket doubling continues, gaining real steam:

Year 5: 16 tickets

But life goes on, too: kids, family, work, injury illness. The new once-in-a-lifetime Lottery Bye provides a one-time year of respite from the grind of qualifying.

But once used up, multi-year applicants get stuck in a position of "accrue it or lose it": either continue to apply, year after year, or "crap out" and lose all of your "ticket earnings".

This fear of ticket bankruptcy creates another cohort of "premature entry": veteran lottery losers who are compelled to qualify, apply and accrue (often in very large, high-end geometric volume) during years in which they may not be willing or able to run. 

Some examples include top Masters runner (and friend) Bob Hearn:

WS veteran and timed-run national team member, Bob Hearn, upon entering the 2020 lottery: “I do not want to run it next year! But the lottery forces me to apply anyway”
I don’t fault Bob. He’s an accomplished runner with a lot of other goals and priorities. But his hand is forced: he either keeps applying (with hopes he “won’t get picked” this year, but maybe next), or give up and lose everything.

Preparation and desire are not linear. Besides injuries, illness, and the rest of Life, sometimes "qualification fatigue" -- the drain of having to plan for, gain entry to, and finish a Western States qualifier -- is too much and folks want a break:

A common refrain from first-timers, compelled to enter before they truly want to run: “Please don’t pick me”, followed a few years later by “qualifier-fatigue”
“Stopped caring”, but has to keep applying, anyway.

But should they give up, and give it all away? 

With no recourse other than to continue to apply until they either “win or bust”, “qualifer-fatigued” runners are compelled to trudge onward, even if his/her will or readiness to run has waned. It’s better to continue than to unceremoniously lose all the tickets you’ve worked to “earn”. 

Or, a runner incurs multiple illness or injury. Or multiple children. 

Or, the finite list of qualifiers – and their restrictive lotteries – shuts them out. 

After that Bye is used up, runners must let it ride each year and hope for the best. Or give up and lose it all. 

What becomes of the runners who finally “crap out”? This is another elusive data set. Who is talking to them?

Coaches like me are. The nearly decade long “win or bust” of the Western States lottery has soured a lot of runners on Western States. Having never experienced the race, they’ve given up. At best, they’ve simply let it go. At worst, they’re jaded and bitter. 

Precisely the opposite of what the race was intending to prevent.

(It’s worth noting that HR100 has unlimited lottery byes. This allows muti-time losers to take respite in any given year without losing tickets. But more importantly, it allows them to defer from a lottery when they don’t truly want to run that given year)

The Purest Kind of Persistence is Un-Incentivized. A weighted system was intended to reward commitment and persistence to the effort of qualification and entry. And The Race has stated they wish to “reward persistence”: a characteristic worth reinforcing. 

But which type of behavior is more admirable?

A runner who applies year after year, incentivized with a “reward” of more (and more) tickets?
- or -
A runner who applies each year, with zero added incentive for repeat entry, motivated simply by the love of the race?

In a system stripped of artificial incentive, runners enter only when they’re all-in to run that year, knowing this year’s entry has no bearing on the next (or any subsequent) race year. 

One ticket, one year. No incentive, no reward, no punishment. Just be ready to race, that year. 

2. Create a stratified, multi-lottery system.

According to the mission of the race, WSER wishes to create a quality event that caters to a wide variety of runners, ranging from first-time hundred milers, to elite international runners, to veteran multi-time (10-Year Buckle) finishers. 

A stratified lottery consisting of various sub-categories could distribute entries to these desired groups, without distortion from an incentivized, geometric system. Like other races (including HR100), WSER could adopt the following sub-categories of prospective entrants: 

Never-Started. No WSER starts. (This is a notable distinction -- as opposed to finishes. See below). 

Why: of course, the event wants to include first-time runners - whose energy and excitement provide the fuel for a special day. That said, the race also does not want to be flooded by the sheer volume of first-time applicants. 

Veterans. Runners who have finished Western States multiple times. This could be five or more (as in the HR100 system), or, perhaps as many as eight finishes. 

Why: Valuing veteran finishers is an implicit mission of the race. Who, exactly, they value and encourage to continue running is up for debate, and at the discretion of the Board. Under the current geometric plan, a notable and venerated group, the "Ten Year Bucklers" will become extinct. Unless you're an elite runner (gaining entry via a "Golden Ticket" qualifier, or previous Top Ten finish), or gain entry through repetitive sponsor, volunteer, or other Special Consideration entries, it will become exceedingly difficult to win the lottery enough times to gain ten starts. 

Super-Masters. Over the age of 50. (No starts, or less finishes than a Veteran)

Why: This category recognizes that Super-Masters runners can run strong and compete well. This senior cohort also adds a degree of intrigue and magic to Western States. It also acknowledges that 50-plus year old runners simply cannot wait the five-to-ten years the current system demands.  

Everyone Else. This group has run the race at least once, but less than Veterans (and is younger than Super-Masters). 

Why: This cohort comprises all runners that have previously started Western States, yet does not have enough finishes to be considered a Veteran. 

Benefits of a stratified System

Consistent and pre-determined race diversity. One of the earliest concerns that prompted the new weighted lottery system was that new, first-time runners would overwhelm the lottery and crowd out the veteran runners.

Unlike a weighted system, where even multi-year entrants are drowned out by the glut of extreme ticket volumes, a stratified system protects the various cohorts of runners: race composition can be set by race leadership. Like Hardrock, Western States could appropriate a set number of entries per category, and run separate "mini-lotteries" from these groups. Doing so would allow each year's event to have a desired distribution of runners.  

Moreover, this composition could be dynamic and based on the unique composition of the entrant pool from year to year. For example, if there happen to be very few Super-Masters entrants, those entries could be shifted to a different sub-lottery. 

Such a system could also be employed to keep lottery odds consistent: entries could possibly shift from one cohort (say, Veterans) to another (Never-Starters) should demand in the latter increase far more than the former. 

Values runners’ Experience instead of “Tickets”. In a situation with such extremes of supply-and-demand, more thought should go into what types of runners should be prioritized for such limited entries. 

The current system is based solely on “tickets”: based solely on the number of years a runner has applied since his/her last race. And in this system, a single-ticket Never Starter entrant is on equal footing as a single-ticket runner with, say, three starts (but not quite a “veteran”, by number or character). 

The entry system for Western States would be far more equitable in a stratified lottery system based on both number of runs, and age, versus an arbitrary ticket count.

This is possible in a stratified system without making the overall entry standards – either by qualifier options, distances, or speed – increasingly stringent. Separate sub-lotteries preserve opportunities for these different groups. 

Indeed: it's impossible to award every interested runner an entry to Western States. However, the Board must decide the type of entrant it wishes to prioritize: First-Timers, or runners on their third or fourth run? Having already experienced Western States, why place a runner with several finishes equally amongst the Never Starter? This applies to any situation where a (1-to-4-start) “veteran” runner has the same number of tickets as a first-timer. 

That's for the Board to decide, but it would seem to me, if the goal of Western States is to capitalize on the energy of new runners and their fans, while retaining the wisdom and magic of the veterans, the Board should adopt a "Barbell Strategy" that prioritizes the extremes: 
  • Never Started (0 starts)
  • Veterans (at least X finishes)
  • Super-Masters
while giving relatively less priority to Everyone Else (1-X finishes, but at least one start). 

Premature starts (& DNFs) become more costly. An interesting facet of a stratified system is it allows the race to differentiate from a Never-Starter and Everyone Else. 

In the current system, there is no differentiation between tickets and experience. That also includes number of starts versus number of actual finishes. (While some websites such as track Did-Not-Finishes, I don’t’ believe Western States compiles this data in their lottery repository)

Note the distinction between “Never-Starter” (never run the race) versus “Never Finisher (X number of starts, but a possible DNF): A first-time runner who races, but fails to finish, would now transition to the Everyone Else cohort. 

Why This Plan.
  • It is simple. It reverts to a basic lottery format.
  • It is discerning. A stratified system allows a diverse, balanced entry field based on experience (not consecutive qualification) that guarantees no single cohort of runners will overrun race entries. First-timers, veterans, and - for the first time, older runners - will be prioritized and protected groups under this plan. 
  • It removes complexity and second-order effects. This system eliminates premature entry and in doing so, should significantly decrease the number of annual lottery applicants. Community wide, it frees runners from the bondage of perennial qualification, and takes tremendous second-order strain off qualifying races. A runner enters the lottery only when s/he is most interested. This is the way it should be.
With this system, future Western States races regain an intangible quality characteristic of the first three decades of its history: a totality of qualified entrants who are unquestionably ready and passionate to run that year.

Why Other Ideas Won’t Work (or Won’t Be Heard)

Over the past several years,  I’ve heard a lot of different ideas about reforms to the Western States entry system. The vast majority of these ideas can be categorized in the following groups, and rather summarily dismissed:
1. Linear Solutions to a Geometric Problem. These ideas try to apply a “linear solution” - only a small number of increased entries - to a problem driven by a large (and geometrically-growing) demand.  
2. Cultural/Philosophical Changes. These ideas would potentially result in a substantial and pervasive cultural/philosophical shift away from the current, historic, Western States as we know it.
3. Exclusivity/Anti-Egalitarian. Similar to the cultural changes, these proposals invariably increase exclusivity and strip away egalitarianism, a core value of the race. 
4. Increased Complexity. These ideas add even more complexity to an already over-complex system. The more complexity, the harder it is to control, let alone anticipate unintended consequences. Thus any such idea will only make things worse. 

Examples include:

Argument: “Make the race bigger [somehow]” / “Have [multiple] races”
Category: Linear Solution, Cultural/Philosophical, Exclusivity/Anti-Egalitarian, Increased Complexity

This is the most often-cited - but extremely low-probability - solution. Most who make this argument fail to realize the origins of the 369 entrant limit. 

Accepting that, the second-most common suggestion it to have multiple editions of the race: one for elite runners and one for everyone else. Assuming permits could actually be obtained for two races (highly unlikely), sequestering elite athletes from the every-day runners would be a tremendous cultural sea change: increasing exclusivity and losing the egalitarian purity and powerful magic that is “Everyone from Squaw to Auburn” on the same day. Such drastic change is one of the least likely to ever occur. 

Lastly, even if the race could expand, it would need to expand at least one order of magnitude to make a palpable dent in current demand (“Linear Solution”). And if it did? Said “magic” hardly ever scales. 

Argument: “We need to do away with [insert non-lottery entrant group: sponsors, aid stations, elites, Special Consideration, international]”
Category: Linear Solution, Cultural/Philosophical

For one, the race now has over 6600 interested and qualified applicants. While the non-lottery entries number close to a hundred, a mere hundred entries is spitting into the wind when talking about 6600 entrants, and growing. 

Secondly, the race values the diversity that different entry methods bring. Separate arguments can (and should) be made for each of these non-lottery entrant groups, but I will refrain from doing so, here. 

Argument: “We need to make it harder to enter by [insert more challenging entry standard: race distance, time qualification, entry fee]”
Category: Linear Solution, Cultural/Philosophical, Exclusivity/Anti-Egalitarian

Simply making it tougher to qualify or otherwise enter won’t stem the demand. It may create a temporary dent (as did tightening qualifiers in 2013-2014), but it would do very little to sustainably curb the demand that a geometric system generates unless taken to an extreme

If taken to an extreme, it would create a powerful - and likely negative - cultural and anti-egalitarian impact (Charge $5000? Only sub-24 runners?). In doing so, you risk decreasing relevance of the race, and increasing negativity and bitterness. 

Runners of all abilities running from Squaw to Auburn is a big part of the Western States magic. Any “make it harder” strategy decreases race diversity and detracts from that magic. 

Argument: “How about two-to-the [insert even bigger number]?” The “Even More Tickets Argument”
Category: Increased Complexity. 

Too many tickets - and the complex second-order effects that came with them - is what got us here. More tickets won’t make it better; only worse. 
Transition Plan.

There’s no easy way to transition out of the weighted system. But the potentially least-painful way would include:

1. Immediate cessation of all ticket compounding. While no more tickets could be accrued, all runners who had previously accrued more than one ticket would retain them until:
  • they are selected, or 
  • they fail to re-qualify (having already used the Lottery Bye). 
In essence, in order to be fair and minimally painful, the old ticket and qualifying system - including the requirement for consecutive qualification - would have to continue until all the multiple-ticket applicants are processed through.

For example:
  • A runner with 64 tickets and no Western States starts would retain his/her 64 tickets and enter the “Never Started” sub-lottery.
  • A runner with 4 tickets and one Western States finish would retain his/her 4 tickets and enter the “Everyone Else” sub-lottery
Of note: previous circumventions employed for lingering high-ticket entrants - such as giving away (in-person lottery or raffle) entries, or adding them to the top of a waitlist - will no longer occur. 

2. Immediate implementation of the stratified system. Regardless of ticket numbers, runners would be sequestered into their applicable cohorts. Thus, a 64-ticket “Never-Starter” is no longer competing against an “Everyone Else” with the same ticket quantity. This immediately improves equity, as the preferred cohorts will have relatively better (pre-set) odds, while “Everyone Else” will have similarly worse odds. 

3. All new applicants receive only one ticket. In this transition plan, the new applicants will unfortunately bear the brunt of absorbing the impact of the multi-ticket applicants. In year one, there will be no difference (as in the current system, first-time applicants get only one ticket). Second- and third-year applicants will no longer receive the weighted “benefit” of additional tickets.


There is no perfect solution, including this proposed alternative. Pure equity and fairness cannot exist in a situation with such a stark difference between supply and demand, and so many competing notions of who is most deserving for inclusion.

The first step toward the most coherent solution is a community-wide acknowledgement and acceptance of the following points:
1. Not every interested runner will be able to run the Western States 100, even once. Many will never get a chance to run.2. “Deserving runners” will be left out, and “less-deserving” runners may get to run (multiple times).
Once accepted, we can arrive at a solution that - while not necessarily “fair” (by the standards above) - is still simple, coherent, and - most importantly - free of far-reaching consequences and unintended side-effects.

As such, a third point must also be acknowledged:

3. “Persistence” - measured through consecutive application to the race lottery - cannot be incentivized 

Persistence is still rewarded, but without incentive to continue, nor punishment for stopping. In its place is increased optionality and freedom: runners can apply as many times as they want, as consecutively as they want, without invoking complex second-order effects that ripple throughout the ultrarunning community. Over time, as with the first three decades of the lottery, persistence will eventually reward them with entry, over time. 

It seems pretty simple, but - finally - a runner can simply run a race because they truly want to run that race. Including Western States. 

Dance with the one that brung you. 


In this proposal, a first-time runner - prioritized in the Never-Started cohort, in a lottery not over-run by premature entries - has the best chance to quickly run his/her first Western States. 

But after that, compared to the current system, will get much more difficult to get back in. One-and-done will be the most common thread connecting Western States runners. 

But that gives that one-timer - hopefully armed with a shiny buckle - an opportunity to give back: to spread that love and Western States magic and experience the race from all facets as volunteer, crew or pacer. Perhaps through those other avenues - volunteering, sponsors, or even elite performance - they earn enough finishes to be a Veteran. 

Best of all, it accomplishes the three-pronged objectives that motivated the original lottery idea:
  • to expose fresh blood to this iconic event
  • to reward and recognize veteran runners for what they have to offer
But above all, most importantly:
  • to create generation after generation of people - not just runners, but his/her friends and family  - that are positively engaged with the race, and thus become, in perpetuity, part of the Western States Family
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to any ongoing discourse that promotes the perpetual growth and improvement of this truly special event.


  1. I have to read it over again, but awesome stuff, thanks, Joe.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Not sure what this is, Ross, you'll have to elaborate.

    2. I think this means a "non-male" stratum.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Your passion for the sport--and this race in particular--is in abundant evidence. Thank you for your efforts.

    I was excited to read this...until I saw that you are basically proposing a Hardrock solution...the one race that maybe makes WSER look easy to get into. And only if you get into the actual mathematics can you tell if you would increase the odds for various people. But you don't, leaving it to the race organization...

    But, one aspect of your proposed solution is based on the ideas that groups of unprepared first-timers would hold off application until they're really ready because of what amounts, in your proposed system, to a penalty for never-finishers/DNFs.

    Among the many interesting statistics that WSER keeps is the finishing rate of first-time 100 runners (and by extension, a sub-set of first-time WSER runners). In 2018, *all* of these first-time 100 runners finished WSER. To me that suggests these "Never Runners" were prepared; i.e., if they entered not expecting to get in but felt compelled to enter just to keep their tickets going, they should have failed in greater numbers. But their finishing rate was 100%, way better than all groups of much more experienced runners. Maybe 2018 was an anomaly, but it certainly doesn't fit with your analysis.

    I could go on, but I'm not sold. I don't know what a better solution is and I appreciate folks like you taking the time to analyze the conundrum. Maybe further discussion will yield something.

    1. Hi, "Ts"

      Thanks for the comment. I'll respond "in line":

      1. Hardrock.

      In some ways, HR is a superior lottery than WSER. In others, it's much worse due to its maddening complexity.

      What the HR system does: it allows a way to "earn" entry and, really, "prove" you want to run. And in doing so, they do one thing that's a key selling point:

      - they get not-yet-runners to show up at the race, volunteer and become a part of the family

      By giving incentive through WORK, they accomplish this. So while it may seem like bribery, at least it is a way for prospective runners to TRULY take in the event, and decide how badly they really want to do it. But more importantly, it ignites a positive relationship between prospective runner and race that can far precede (if not supercede) actually racing.

      That's a huge advantage; WSER has no such system. Instead, folks quailfy and apply at a distance. Of the dozen+ athletes I've coached (or are close friends with) who have applied multiple times and now given up...none of them has ever actually come down to the race to experience it: either as a spectator, or crew/pacer, let alone volunteer or trail worker.

      So...yes it is complex (if not opaque), but least Hardrock's incentive is EARNED (beyond the qualifer).

      2. First-Timer finishers.

      I addressed this above:

      given an extremeely rare opportunity - REGARDLESS of preparation and "appetite" - will you NOT show up, and NOT give your all?

      Of course you will. And they do.

      But is "finishing rate" a metric for (the elusive, admittedly intangible) "ready to race"? Often, no.

      In my (anedotal) interviews of folks, many (including 2x 7-year "losers that finally got in in 2019) said, after the fact, that - despite finishing - they wished they HADN'T had to run in 2019: they were injured and not fully ready. That data is hard to come by.

      This is Group #2 of the "Prematures":

      1. 1-ticket winners (acutely "less prepared, don't really want to run")
      2. "Many tickeyt" (many-time losers) who are now burnt out, injured, or otherwise less willing to run -- but cannot defer (beyond 1 year) or else they lose ALL their tickets

      (Another hat tip to HR100: unlimited deferrals)

      So in conclusion: I don't care that first-timers all finish. It says nothing about their true willingness or preparation: only their willingness and tenacity to get a buckle -- even if slower, with more pain, or a belt of a different color.

  4. Appreciate your thoughts and effort you put into the posts, however, I'm also not sold that your proposed solution solves the problem of those entering the lottery who aren't ready or don't really want to run that year, especially for first time entrants. I think the majority of runners who run a WS qualifier (even for the first time) understand the history of the race, how hard it is to get in, and have a desire to run it. Even if they aren't fully committed, I believe they would still put their name in the hat, just for the chance to get selected. If they beat the odds and get in, they will prepare and run the race. If not, there is nothing lost by putting their name in the lottery.

    Also, the Hardrock solution doesn't seem to solve any problems (race is still really hard to get into) other than provide a preference for certain runners (veterans, multiple time finishers), which is often the biggest complaint against Hardrock.

    The ideas I do like are the unlimited deferrals and possibly requiring a multi-year qualifying process for first time entrants (proposed by someone else). WS could also charge a entrance fee, which people would obviously complain about, but would make people think twice before submitting an entry if they aren't committed to running the race.

    1. Anon-

      Thanks for the comment.

      There's two layers of "premature", 1-ticket first-timers:

      Layer 1:
      + "I really want to run this year (or any year), but
      - "I'm not fully ready"

      I was this guy in 2011. (I won the lottery off of ONE career ultra! I was not "ready" with enough experience, but I was 100% ready with enthusiasm, logistics, as well as general fitness).

      The problem cohort is Layer 2:
      - "I'm not fully ready", AND
      - "I am NOT physically, mentally, or logistically ready or willing to run it THIS YEAR"

      (These are the "Please don't pick me!" / "Not this year" folks identified above)

      This is the problem cohort. It could be that they got a qualifer in Feburary, but got hurt in summer/fall; or they experienced some life event whereby they want to run "sometime" but "not this year".

      It's pervaisive.

      The problem I identify is now with the Layer 1. I had a rollercoaster ride in 2011 and, admittedly, should have been patient and waited to run more than "a" ultra. That said, I, too, managed to finish, and learned a lot along the way.

      The issue is with Layer 2. If you don't WANT to run, but are putting in just for tickets, that's a major flaw in a system with SO many interested runners and so few slots.

      My belief: even ONE SINGLE RUNNER that says "Don't Pick Me" means this whole system is flawed and needs to be replaced. One is one too many.


      Hardrock: no plan (other than unlimited entries) will "sovle the problem". But a HR plan would at least allow the race some control to determine who they want to see enter.

      * Do you value first-timers, or 13-timers? Or 3-timers?
      * Given the (SIGNIFICANT) amount of non-lottery slots, shouldn't we be encouraging 1-time finishers to get subsequent entries through volunteering, sponsorship, or elite entries?

      In the current system, there's zero awareness or control. No options is an inferior system.

      Your other comments:

      * Unlimited deferrals would take out the "burned out, but I can't stop applying" serial runner ('til they're ready to return)
      * WSER has stated numerous times they're against adding any fees. (Again, see the counter-arguments above).

      Thanks for the commemt and constructive discourse!

  5. Lottery is luck. Chance. One ticket per qualifying event. Period. You don't always get what you want. That's life. Doesn't need to be so complicated. You might spend you whole life trying for entry and not get in, so be it. I'm positive you'll experience so much along the way. Aren't we all out there for the experience in the first place? Isn't that the spirit of it all? I think so.

    1. "Parpia"-

      I believe a huge strength of my system IS that it returns to a more basic, simplistic system that you describe.

      More complex is hardly ever better.

  6. "We need to make it harder to enter by [insert more challenging entry standard: race distance, time qualification, entry fee]"

    Boston Marathon has done both of these things. They've lowered (made faster) the BQ times while at the same time fund raising requirements for charity entry is at least $5000 and upwards of $10000 for some charities.

    The Boston Marathon remains as popular as ever.

    This situation reminds me of a visit to the coastal red woods. There is a tree there called "Big Tree" which is in fact quite big and it has a plaque and picnic table. People go see Big Tree. There are other trees near Big Tree that don't have plaques or even names that are bigger than Big Tree but much less popular. The park service has a sign encouraging people to check out the other trees. They are just as good as Big Tree but don't get nearly the attention.

    My point, don't get caught up in the WS hype. And don't play up the Western States hype. There are plenty of great 100s out there that are easy to get into.

  7. I can't imagine the pain for those who have worked so hard for so many years to be told "poof" your tickets and years of work are gone! DISTRESS and ANGER would be prevalent. Seems like once you start the 2*N+1 system you are stuck with it, you have made somewhat of a good faith verbal contract with folks and instructed them to plan and invest for the long haul. This system, by it's very nature, inherently tells the logical person that it's creators meant for it to be there for decades. Eliminating the weighted system seems akin to reaching age 65 and being told, "sorry, we're ending social security due to x,y,z problems. Thanks for your lifetime of yearly donations that went up in smoke"
    The solution is clear: "give someone else a chance rule": you gain entry and you revel and cherish it as a great life moment; here's your big chance. Whether you toe the line or not, you then can't enter the lottery for the next 5 years. Boo hoo, there are only hundreds of other incredible races to go explore, with the freedom to not care whether its a qualifier now. I would honestly feel downright awful running this race a 2nd time knowing others will never ever get one chance despite a decade or more of massive effort and expense trying! After 3 or 4 years of this, the compounding effect of mitigating the ticket count becomes really significant, as most finishers likely start trying to accumulate tickets immediately with a 5-10 year plan of getting in again. So after 5 years of this you have eliminated a LOT of folks who would have been in there with 16 tickets! (perhaps 1600 tickets if 100 would have entered 5 years, but likely this is a low estimate) But you also prevent a lot who would have had even longer streaks in the coming years, so you put a HUGE dent in the ticket count after a few years of this rule.
    And you can also give a bump in some way to those over 50 (not me yet) who have never run it (maybe more so for age >60 and 70 too, again IF they have never run it) Keep your 5-10 automatic entries for fastest finishers, those speedsters can be the lone streakers of this race, no big sacrifice if egalitarianism of any degree is a goal of the board of directors.
    This system still rewards persistence and patience, still maintains the buzz and thrill of the lottery and being picked, and creates a larger pool of faithful alumni that will come back to support and volunteer at the race in the future. This "give someone else a chance" rule is strongly supported by all major philosophical systems of ethics, justice, and fairness, and thus should not create any vitriol against the institution.

    1. HI, 'unknown"-

      Thanks for the comment. As you might have read, your suggestions align with my proposal. Some comments:

      1. The Transition Plan *would* allow for the weighted system to continue -- only you wouldn't be able to accumulate MORE tickets. As such, in the transition plan, to be faiur, you'd have to have('til they're gone) a DUPLICATE of the proposal:

      Never-Starter: separate lottey for 2020+ (1 ticket only); separate for pre-2020 (weighted)

      Same for Veterans, Everyone Else, Super-Masters

      Thus, the only way you'd "lose" your tickets when this system was phased out is if you WIN or stop trying (don't qualify). But the key is: NO more earned tickets. So if the weighted system is killed in 2021 and you current have 4 tickets, 4 is your number 'til you're gone (and you compete not against the whole pool, but your category: Never-Run, Veteran, etc)

      2. "out for 5 years" aligns with my proposal, where Everyone Else has FAR lower odds than any other group. Make it harder to get back in, or encourage folks to gain entry via volunteer/AS spots, sponsorships, or elites

      3. "bump to 50" = Super-Masters sub-lottery.

      So.....I like the way you're thinking. :-)

  8. I'd like to see the championship nature of the event emphasized. Automatic entries now awarded to Golden Ticket and UTWT could be expanded to bring in the very best talent from across the country or abroad. Standards could be imposed for each qualifying race for non-winners to entry into the lottery based on their finish. This could be modeled in a similar fashion to the ultrasignup age rank. No system is flawless, but it would lower the lottery tickets to entry and allow more people ready to compete at a higher level to enter that year. Personally, I may never make the cut in the system in which I propose, but I'd be less upset not to make it based on a rationale than the current random chance.

  9. Happy one-and-done WSER finisher here. I got in after four years in the new lottery, with a 25% chance of getting in that year, and I took my entry and training seriously. I don't know if I would have been willing and able to keep up the qualifying and entering regime for another few years, and I am lucky to be in the 50% of the population who didn't have to worry about factoring childbearing into the mix.

    I would be interested to see some analysis by some WSER data geeks to show the number of entrants in each of your proposed categories, and the resulting odds. I think that the most interesting and equitable part of your proposal is instituting a low probability of lottery success for previous race starters, whether they finished or not. I know that injuries and other bad things happen, but if you were given a chance to start, you should be given a lower priority for starting again than someone who has never gotten the chance. Take care of yourself and make the most of your opportunities.

    It's too bad that non-"veterans" (e.g. two-time finishers) end up with low chances of entry via the lottery, but something has to give. People like certain blog authors who are obsessed with the race and really want to run again can find a way in through volunteering, sponsorship, or otherwise giving back to the race.

    When I was younger, I never volunteered at races, wanting to get as many finishes as possible. As I get older, I find myself doing more aid station and sweep work, and loving every minute of it. If I lived closer to the WSER course, I would volunteer there every year (now that I have my buckle).

  10. 1. "Lastly, even if the race could expand, it would need to expand at least one order of magnitude to make a palpable dent in current demand (“Linear Solution”). And if it did? Said “magic” hardly ever scales. "

    It's ok for things to change. It would suck but the current situation sucks more. Sitting in your bungalow and complaining about how the neighborhood has gone to hell because there's a duplex has never been beneficial and never will be. Holding on to the past and ignoring the present (and future) will always be seen as curmudgeonly stubborn. Savor what it was. Be excited for what it will be.

    2. Is it completely appropriate to consider only 100 mile finishes when comparing the sport's growth to WSER? The RDs intentionally include 100ks when making qualifiers to allow runners the opportunity to have WSER be their first 100. We know before the comparison is even made that the race is designed to include more people than just 100 mile finishers, correct? I'm sure WSER gets more growth than the standard, but it seems inaccurate to only compare to 100s.

    Thanks for all the work and data. This is a fun conversation.

  11. Joe, thanks for pushing this discussion, and the point you made of people applying when they don’t really want to run just to accrue or hold on to their tickets is spot on. But the proposed solution seems to add a lot of judgement calls by the board, i.e. how many nevers, how many veterans, etc. It seems the board goes to great lengths to make things as universal and even as possible, and having a certain number of slots allotted to each group would add and require constant judgement calls as to which group is most deserving. The conversations would be endless. Additionally, I would suspect that the “everybody else” group would quickly balloon up so large that the number of people who would be added to the veteran group would be almost nil, as how long would it take to accrue 5 or 8 or even three finishes under any system?

    It would seem that a simpler solution would be to keep the current system in place, which views everybody equally, and expand the bye system. I don’t think it would be reasonable to allow people unlimited byes, but maybe requiring a qualifier and lottery participation every other year instead of every year would help alleviate some of the stress?

    Western States is the Super Bowl of ultrarunning, and as many people have pointed out, an elite race for many of the participants. The people who race or work their way in are the people who “deserve” to be able to run. Maybe we can look at the lottery as a way for the rest of us to get an opportunity to run with the elites, not as a spot we earned. Compare it to a random lottery to allow 25 sub 3 marathoners to run in the OT race, nobody would say they were “deserving” but rather that they were given an awesome opportunity that not many people get. I look at WS the same way.

    Again, thanks for putting yourself out there on this, both as an athlete, coach, and person. It takes a lot of guts to be the flash point on something that drives passion in people.

    Sean Ranney

    1. I like the idea of allowing more byes. This would decrease total applicants on years where they were not interested in running. If it were prevented from gaining tickets on bye years, even in cases of completing an additional qualifier that could help too. However that latter part may contribute to a situation where people still apply when they don't want to run in order to double their ticket count.

  12. Could requiring 2 years of qualifiers help? Remove the 1 year applicants and possibly some people who are only applying because they completed a qualifier that year.

  13. Joe, this is a fantastic and detailed breakdown of the first and second order issues with the lottery and I really enjoyed hearing about it not the Pain Cave podcast as well. Outside of the lottery issues, I think people that want to run Western States should consider fundamentally shifting their mindset. Yes, it is absolutely a bucket list race that most ultra runners would not turn down. However, if I have learned anything about ultrarunning, it is about enjoying the journey rather than destination. There is still life to be lived before and after Western States. My approach now has been to find qualifiers that excite and challenge me so that at the end of the day, even if I never get to run WS100, at least I have series of 100 milers to look back on that have been fulfilling in their own right. And if my name ever gets picked out of the lottery bucket, than it will become another peak moment to look fondly on.

  14. Hi Joe, thanks for putting so much thought into this complex issue!

    I'm skeptical of your claim that a significant portion of WSER runners toe the line reluctantly, but perhaps an anonymous poll of all entrants would shine some light on this issue. WSER would be well served to research this topic when they conduct their annual survey on shoe choice, watch choice, etc.


    The reality of Western States is that, with 800 new applicants each year, there is no solution that guarantees every applicant an opportunity to run the race, no matter how persistent they are. An exponentially growing demand and a static supply are inherently incompatible.

    Hence, the beauty in your solution is that it doesn't tether an ultrarunner's short career to a race that they are unlikely to ever enter. Runners can decide on a year by year basis whether they want to take the time to qualify for and enter the lottery.