Last night (while running of course) I listened to Jamil Coury and Jubilee Paige’s new Trail Currents Podcast about ultrarunning lotteries. I would encourage anyone interested in running in one of the races they discussed (Hardrock 100, Western States 100, UTMB or Leadville) to listen to this episode also.
They raised a lot of points worthy of mulling over during your next long run. Currently it takes seven years of not being drawn in the Western States lottery in order to have lottery chances higher than 50%. (Six years gets you a 52% chance, seven years of missing out gets you a 77% chance assuming I’m understanding everything correctly). With only 261 names being drawn from 4909 applicants, a one-ticket applicant had a 2.3% chance of being drawn for this year’s Western States. Still better than Powerball odds!
But what might this look like five or ten years from now if the growth of our silly sport continues? Will it take ten years of missing out on the lottery for a near-automatic entry? Fifteen years? Twenty? Will the field be a small group of elite top-ten runners and Golden Ticket entrants alongside a mass of fifty-something ultra veterans who have been patiently waiting out the lottery? What happens if someone gets injured after six (or twelve years) of entering the lottery and has to reset their ticket count? Are they effectively never going to run Western then? What happens if a runner decides to start a family and is pregnant during one ultra season? This current system can’t be helping the gender inequality in the sport.
Selfishly, when I see a runner doing Hardrock for the tenth, or twentieth time, I feel that initial hot blast of envy and think, “why do they deserve that spot more than a first-timer?” Of course, every time that I or another keyboard warrior types that into the safe anonymity of the Internet, we are overlooking the amount of time/money/energy/soul that those veteran runners have contributed to the organization, family aspect and overall feel of the race.
Like life, no one ever claimed that ultras were fair.
Would Hardrock or Western have the same feel to it without the people that go there year after year and base their summers and their training around it? They’ve dedicated themselves to it for those ten to twenty years and I haven’t. Can any prospective first-timer claim anything remotely like the connection Andy Jones-Wilkins has to Western States or Kirk Apt to Hardrock? Imagine yourself on the Hardrock board, who would you want to be part of your race? When I’m hosting a party I generally prefer to invite my friends instead of strangers.
Picture a Venn diagram of Hardrock, Western States and UTMB qualifying races and hundreds specifically. The races that are part of all three circles are now becoming the determining factor of many an ultrarunner’s racing plans. If we all end up basing our schedules around these races, are they going to be the next ones to start implementing the same sort of lotteries and qualifiers? To some degree this is already the case. Are we going to be trying to qualify for our qualifiers or entering a lottery to try and get in another lottery?
Jamil floated the idea of letting supply and demand correct these issues. If these races doubled or tripled their entry fees surely the number of entries would drop off to a near-corresponding ratio. I think he was half-joking, but why not? Use the excess money for public lands projects and/or advocacy. It could be argued that this is just as discriminatory against newer runners who might be less financially able to afford it, but there are new races every year that could benefit from this.
For myself, as someone who hasn’t finished a 100-miler (yet), where do I go from here? I’m entered in Run Rabbit Run this year, and I’m excited because I love Steamboat Springs and can’t wait to try a hundred again. Obviously, the fact that it is a qualifier factored into my decision too. I’m fully planning to do the lottery dance in the years to come, but I don’t want it to dominate my decision-making either. If I never run Hardrock or Western States, that’s totally okay with me. There are dozens of other races that I want to experience.
Here’s what I propose for myself and others in a similar position.
Run any of the qualifiers because you want to run those races anyway, not just because they are qualifiers. Find local races or new races to run that you can become a part of and help grow into something special for you and the running community. Ask the Race Directors how you can help out on years you don’t run their races.
I may never get to run Hardrock or Western States. I may never get to do the classic Grand Slam of Ultramarathons. I may never run UTMB. But even in my state of New Mexico there are several new races that don’t sell out that I could run. And it is cheaper for me to drive to Santa Fe than it is to fly to Chamonix anyway.
Find new races, low-attended races or near-to-home races and make them special. Give them your blood, sweat and tears and develop your own history with them. Then we’ll all be lottery winners.