Western States 100 Lottery – Change Is A'Comin (A Draft Proposal)

Matt Hart has already written about entering this year’s Western States lottery, which will be held on December 1. Andy Jones-Wilkins has already reviewed the possible men’s field for next year’s race. (Hey, AJW, after JFK I think you now have to add Mike Wardian to your list!) I’m willing to take things a step further into the future – next year’s WS lottery.

First off, to those unfamiliar with the Western States 100, there is a lottery for entry into the race. Back in 1984, Congress made an area through which part of the existing Western States course passed a wilderness area. Normally, no organized events can be held in a wilderness area, but WS was grandfathered in and permitted to have 369 starters – the number of starters the race had in 1984. As the Forest Service allows WS to have a five year average of 369 starters and nearly 10% of entrants don’t make it to the line any give year, each December roughly 400 runners are selected for entry into the follow year’s race. As many more than 400 runners enter WS each year (about 1350 applicants this year), a lottery is necessary to determine who gets in each year.

That said, not everyone goes through the lottery to become an official entrant. The current Western States entry system is, um, a bit convoluted. Here’s who gets in PRIOR to the lottery according to the WS website [possible automatic entrants via a given provision in brackets]:

  1. Top 10 male finishers from the previous year’s race [10 – duh];
  2. Top 10 female finishers from the previous year’s race [10];
  3. “Two-time losers” (i.e., runners who qualify and apply for two consecutive years and are not chosen via the Lottery in either of those years) who qualify and apply for the third consecutive year will be automatically selected, PROVIDED they did not participate in the Run in either of those two years via a non-lottery selection [400? – possible number for 2008 lottery];
  4. Foreign runners (excluding Canada) up to a limit of 25 [25];
  5. Each running club that sponsors and staffs an aid station at Western States is allowed to designate one runner [22];
  6. Certain sponsor agreements specify a designated runner for the sponsor [36 – top 3 men and women at each of 6 Montrail Ultra Cup races… could be more from other sources];
  7. Members of the Board of Trustees [12];
  8. Winners from the previous year’s Memorial weekend and race weekend raffles [2];
  9. Pioneers: Gordy Ainsleigh, who ran solo in 1974 and Cowman A-Moo-Ha, who duplicated the feat in 1976 [2];
  10. Nine-time finishers going for their first attempt at a tenth finish [~3].

If you tally the automatic entry options above, there could be well north of 100 automatic entrants before there is a single automatic two-time loser (TTL). Granted, it’s highly unlikely that 120 folks will enter based on provisions 1-2 and 4-10, so here’s a more likely count for those provisions:

  • A total of 15 top-10 men and women from the previous year will enter each year
  • 25 entrants for the international slots, as they filled quickly this year
  • I can’t imagine that there aren’t 15 aid station designated entrants
  • I’d say it’s safe to say that 10 entrants will get in exclusively from Montrail Ultra Cup slots
  • I won’t suggest that any Board members will let themselves in
  • The two raffle winners will be entrants
  • We can only hope that Gordy and Cowman are both back for another year
  • To be conservative, I’ll guess there will be 2 entrants trying to go for their 10th finish.

That’s about 70 automatic entrants through non-TTL provisions. TTL entrants can very greatly from year-to-year. Any applicant who doesn’t get in through provisions 1-10 above gets a single ticket in the lottery, except for pairs of people who enter as buddies, who get a single ticket in the lottery and both get in if the ticket is pulled. Lotto tickets are pulled from a large water jug until the race is full. This year, non-automatic entrants have approximately a 16% chance of getting into the 2008 race – and, no, I’m not exaggerating.

If someone wanted to make a more complicated entry system, they could (see Hardrock 100), but this is pretty heavy stuff. In fact, I hear there’s a cottage industry of Western States entry consultants popping up. Too bad I don’t have a PhD in race-enomic computation. Regardless, I and many other’s saw a problem with the current entry system as of last year’s lottery. The problem is that by the 2008 lottery (for the 2009 race) there will simply be more automatic entries than there will be available slots. This crisis has been made acute primarily by automatic entry route #3, the TTL rule. With the growing popularity of the ultrarunning and the huge number of first-time losers (FTL) last year – there was a sense that the TTL rule must go. I haven’t done a person-by-person analysis of the 2007 and 2008 lottery, but with nearly 1100 names going into the lottery, it’s a fair assumption that many of last year’s FTLs will be TTLs by the afternoon of December 1, 2007. In fact, I’m guessing that for next year’s lottery there will be more TTLs and other automatic entries that there will be slots.

As I recently wrote to a friend, WS needs to determine what it wants to be. It can’t be all things to all people anymore. The Board needs to decide whether to retain the old community as best it can, transform WS into a championship race, or be an inclusive race. Obviously those goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but there are only so many entry slots to work with.

While I want to jump right into what I think the fix should be, I need to start with what I think WS should be. I feel WS should be an inclusive race. It is the best known and while there are some folks who dislike the race, it is by far the most popular 100 mile race in the United States. I get more enjoyment and inspiration from watching a guy like Jack Andrish give it all he has in an attempt to break 30 hours than if a deeper field meant that the fifth place man at States were 20 minutes faster or 20 hours earned 30th place instead of 15th.

Keeping the race inclusive does not in any way mean lowering the standards or quality of the race, keep the qualifying standards the same – this wouldn’t be at all like the Boston Marathon letting in charity runners who have not qualified.

So what do I propose? A simple solution. Ditch the TTL rule. Instead, keep the current automatic entry provisions, save one (to be discussed later), and after giving each applicant one ticket give each applicant an additional ticket for each consecutive year he or she has qualified, entered the lottery, and not gotten into the race via lottery or otherwise. This way someone whose named has not been drawn the previous three lotteries (4 tickets) will be four times as likely to get in as someone applying for the first time, but the first-time applicant still has a chance of getting in.

As an alternative, (just thought of this) you could base the number of additional tickets on the number of times a person has applied, but failed to gain entry via any route for a given number of years – let’s say five. This way, someone need not keep an application streak alive. There are many reasons why one wouldn’t – planned birth of child, wedding, school, military deployment, etc.

I don’t like the idea of going to a Hardrock 100 type system, with different numbers of tickets based in part on how many times you finished Hardrock in the previous five years. Hardrock is an entirely different beast… and even with its much more stringent
qualification standards, the extremely small field of starters and ridiculously hard course call for the race to favor those with a better chance of finishing… and previous finishers have that better chance. In my mind, the WS qualification standards are sufficient for determining who can or, rather, who most likely cannot complete the course within 30 hours. Sure there are people who qualify for WS regularly only not to finish within the time limit, but they are often close, so why not give them a shot.

As I suggested earlier, there is only one automatic entry provision that I’d ax – the 25 slot for international (but not Canadian) runners. Before, I go any further, I need to state that I’m all for globalism, international runners at WS, and hope to run some races abroad myself! That said, those 25 slots filed early with the remainder of the international runners thrown into the lottery. I just don’t see why international runners should be given a better chance of getting in than domestic runners. International runners can get in via all the remaining automatic entry provisions, save for provision #9, unless California is international or Cowman is living “abroad.”

If the WSER Board is planning to ditch the TTL provision, I hope they do it before the lottery this Saturday. Otherwise, following the lottery the new TTL will have their hopes lifted by the fact that they are automatic entrants only to have those hopes crushed by a later change in the rules. Please do not wait to retract the TTL provision until next year’s race or a separate announcement on the subject. Even if you don’t have a replacement system in place yet, let the ultrarunning community know that there will be a change (and if you know that is the elimination of the TTL rule, that said provision is gone) and that you will make a future announcement regarding entry into the 2009 race, preferably with an associated date for the announcement.

Ok, I’ve had my first go at this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. What does Western States mean to you? What type of race should States be? What changes to the current entry system would you make to the WSER Board? Please leave a comment.

There are 19 comments

  1. AJW

    Goat,I like your idea with one change…I believe loyalty to the race is important and something like the Wasatch criteria would make sense. In that lottery previous winners and 6 time finishers are granted automatic entry into the event. This, of course, honors the winners as well as those who have been consistently loyal to the race. If one of the goals of Western States is to perpetuate the excellence of the event then providing incentives for past particpants makes sense. In addition, some provision could be made to allow top-age group athletes to have priority.AJWPS — I didn't know Wardian had signed up. That's great! I am hoping that 2008 will be the most competitive WS yet. Mike will certainly add to that.

  2. olga

    I like both ideas: Bryon's on giving more tickets for more "loosing years" and Andy's for narrowing 10 top down and aknowledging loyal runners. May be you should email it to Greg?

  3. Trail Goat

    Andy,I hear you with the loyalty issue. I've had a hard time weighing that. The reason I've been hesitant about suggesting a Wasatch-like 6-time finisher provision is that I'm not sure how large a pool of automatic entrants that would create for any given year. Given the age of the race and its having large field for a quarter century, I'd imagine there are well over a hundred 6 time finishers. Implementing a 6 finish automatic entry provision along with the other auto entries might really cut into the at-large field. I guess I like the concept, but am hesitant because of uncertainty regarding its implementation. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind being automatic after 3 more finishes. :-) Would this rule mean you wouldn't stop if you ever fail to make the top 10?I have no problem with past winners getting auto-entry, especially since there are so many repeat winners. Go idea. I can't imagine anyone objecting to Twiet, Jurek, or Trason being let into the race. Andy, now that you've got me focusing on community, the more important it feels. While I loved the course and history when running States for the first time, I still felt like I was entering a community, and while the race is necessarily a bit NoCal-centric, the community was a Western States 100 community and not a Northern California ultrarunning community with some outsiders. This sense of community really does add something to a race. You see it at Hardrock, at Wasatch, and at Massanutten. It IS something that should be preserved.As for age group winners, I'm torn. Having won the <30 age group twice, an auto entry would have guaranteed me a spot in the 2006 race ( I got in again via the lottery) and had me at the start line in 2007. On the other hand, that's even more slots taken away from at-large entrants. That said, if WS went to a weighted ticket system, I can see age group winners earning an extra ticket.Ps. Wardian got in by smoking JFK in the second fastest time ever (4 minutes off Clifton's CR) having run 2:30 and 2:24 marathons the two previous weekends!? I hope to take Iron Mike out to the mountains for some workouts this spring.

  4. Trail Goat

    Olga,After some more feedback and collaboration I can imagine the WSER Board getting some mail. The system they've had has worked for a long time, but is being overwhelmed by the popularity of the sport their race has helped highlight. They might as well hear what some ultrarunners with varying perspectives have to say, right?

  5. olga

    You know, you're right about 6 time finishers – with WS history, that would take the rest of the tickets:) May be 10 years? But then they have those already…man, I am not sure. I actually didn't mean automatic entry for them, I meant more tickets for lottery – like 1 extra for 2-3 years finishers.

  6. AJW

    Hey Goat,Great topic. You are quite right about the Western States Community. In fact, that's what keeps me coming back year after year even when I'll tell my wife it's time to do something different.And Mike Wardian… I knew he smoked JFK I just had not heard that he had officially entered Western States within the two week window (that ends Saturday). Anyway, before we have the engraver learn his name it should be noted that the Course has not been necessarily kind to sub-2:30 Marathoners. In fact, it seems that 2:38-2:50 is the marathon PR of Western States Champions. Just another detail!AJW

  7. Loomdog

    I say make it a lottery for EVERYONE! The only automatics are former race champions, and the top 3 finishers at the Montrail ultra cup races. After this, every entrant gets one ticket. Every entrant with 6-15 100 mile finishes gets 2 tickets, 16-24- 100mile finishes gets 3 tickets and those folks with over 25 -100 mile finishes gets 4 tickets.This system would weight the lottery towards more experienced ultrarunners and keep Western States special in the way the Boston marathon is special. It SHOULD be a post-graduate event….but the lottery would still allow a first timer a shot at it.All lottery losers should go to Ithaca, NY in the fall for the Iroquois Trails 100.

  8. AJW

    Good point Loomdog but I actually have a problem with the Montrail UltraCup qualifier program. It is possible in that system to qualify for the Big Dance on the basis of a 50K performance. While that certainly makes that 50K a competitive race is it really getting the best out of 100 miler. If you really want the best 100 mile runners at Western States give the spots to people who do well in 100 milers. How about automatics for the top-three at the other four "majors", VT, LT, HR and WF. To me, that would guarantee a fast and experiened field.

  9. "Sherpa" J

    I'm in the lottery and am likely to become a 2 time loser. I get my hopes up for nothing when it comes to the next WS100 or the 2009 Version.My solution… 1st come first served…Or better yet… if you want in you have to run it naked!

  10. Loomdog

    Andy I agree that having the 50k in the Montrail ultra cup is dumb! I really hate that 4 races of the thing are in Calif on the same trails! It should be nation-wide!!! I think it should be a series of tune up 50 milers in the Spring. Say top 3 places at Zane Grey, Bull Run Run, Ice Age, Mt Jemez, and American River or Leona Divide. That way folks all over have the chance at their local event. five 50 milers commonly used as Tune up races already.

  11. saschasdad

    Hey, I like AJW's point about WS champs typically have a marathon p.r. of 2:38-2:50. My p.r. is 2:44, right in the middle. So, if I actually get in, common sense says I would have a 50% chance of winning WS! Nice.

  12. Trail Goat

    Wow, I get busy for 24 hours and THIS is what happens!So, Olga, it looks liek you are suggesting something like a modified Hardrock system with throwing in an extra ticket for those who already have a couple finishes under their belt. Nice compromise as not as many tickets for former finishers as HR, but still help instill that sense of community. A bit of clarification re the 10 year rule, I think runners only get auto entry the first time they go for their 10th WS finish, but not on number 11, 12 and so on. One would hope that they would similarly be let in for number 20 and 25. ;-)

  13. Trail Goat

    Thanks, Andy. I thought people might find this topic provocative. I created this post over a month ago but never had the chance to flesh it out. I figured I needed to get the topic on the table this week as it's all but certain the WSER board will make a big announcement on Saturday. Re the WS community, both the community and individual relationships based on the race are important. The race has as a feel and energy that is unlike any other – I felt that at WS 04 when I was attempting my first 100 and still felt it in 2006 after many folks tried to indoctrinate me to dislike the race. Yeah, there is hype and maybe it's too much hype, but there are so many people that genuinely love the race. You can't escape that feeling. Whiel the community is great, you can observe many friendships that have either been created or reinforce on the trails between Squaw Valley and Auburn. I bet you have a couple stories about Tommy and vice verse and if I had to guess I'd suppose you and Kulak may have shared a beer or two following long days spent en route to Pacer High.In now way did I suggest Wardian would win WS, but he certainly has to be considered a contender. (He is well aware of the two week entry window.) As to marathon PRs, I'd believe that most WS champs haven't run in the low 2:30s. I think two aspects play into it. First, how many 2:20 marathoners have entered States (I'm guessing few) and then adequately prepared for a mountainous 100? (Likely many fewer) Second, I think course familiarity at a 100 can be worth, quite literally, hours. You're half mile splits en rout to Michigan Bluff are a huge advantage as is your ability to tailor your training specificity to meet the rigors of the particular course. I guess my point is that while you can't just throw a 2:20-low marathoner onto the WS course and expect him to win, but I feel that if you put such a runner on the course, he had adequate trail/mountain training and some course familiarity, and conditions were good, you'd see a decent chunk of time come off the actual course record. (That is not the fire-detour route years.) Granted those are a lot of ifs. ;-) I will admit that I'm pleased to know that I'm capable of a WS championship performance based on my marathon PR – a 2:47 as a workout off no speed work. WS win, here I come!

  14. Trail Goat

    AJW and Loomis, It seems there are many people who have problems with the Montrail Ultra Cup races as qualifiers for States. You two are not the only ones. I think the general consensus that regardless which races the make up the MUC, only 50 mile or 100 mile races should garner automatic entries into WS upon the Top 3 men and women. In addition, Montrail could do better at spreading out the races geographically and temporally. As much as I hate to say it and as many problems as there were with the North Face series this year, the three regional races (I believe the fourth was canceled) were a good example of dispersing race series over time and space. I'll give Montrail credit for having two east coast races, but two 50 milers within two week of one another – not ideal.

  15. Jim A

    BP, sorry you didn't get in again this year. The lottery leaves a lot to be desired.That being said I think there needs to be a balance between the sharp-edge of the field all the way through the masses.While a totally different animal in most regards you wouldn't see Ryan Hall not getting into NYC because of a lottery…however after putting together an elite field, sub-elite and local groups there lottery is based off of qualifying and anticipating finishing times Wardian will be an interesting one to watch, but as we know a fast runner on the road doesn't always translate to success @ WSFor those of you Tahoe bound on the 19th, see you there

  16. Derek Griffiths

    I do believe that all the shock of the WS100 lottery has worn off. Now, it is time to decide what to do.First let me say that i think a lottery is not the fairest way to let people into a race. The fairest way is to open registration at 8:00 AM and when it fills, it fills. That being said, the only way to make the WS100 lottery fair is for everyone to get one ticket and one ticket only. Then you have just an equal of a chance to get in as anyone else. Then, set aside auto entries for past winners and 10 slots for entry based on bio (TBD by BOD).However, I did think that the MUC setting aside automatic spots is a good idea. Here is why: WS100 is claiming to be the "World Champs." In all other running events, you need to "quailfy" for the world champs. Example – To make the Olympic Marathon team, you need to qualify at the trials, which means you need to qualify for the trails. So, if you run in the Olympic Marathon you have to have run at least two other marathons in the last two years. When I hear people say that the MUC shouldn't include a 50K, I also think that us hogwash. Especially those that say a 50K is not an indication of a 100 mile performance. Just and FYI – you cn qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon by running a fast 10K on the track. Does a 10K show how well someone will run a marathon? Josh Rohatinsky qualified with a 10K and finished ninth…I think the better way for the MUC series to be included with the WS100 entry system is to give spots to the top 2 instead of the top 3 and then hold the other spots for bios.Anyways, I have been going back and forth "behind closed doors" with a few of the top ultrarunners here in Colorado (you know who they are w/o naming names) about this and also about using a different race as a championship. We all think that the only way to make a change would be for the "elite" runners who got in via the lottery to boycot the race and not run and not give their spots to anyone else. Will that happen? I doubt it, but you never know.

  17. Trail Goat

    Derek,I can't see how a "he who is the quickest clicker" entry system is fairest. I would think that a straight up lottery system, where entry is open for a set number of days and then names are randomly drawn is more fair.I would be more included to agree with you about the 50k MUC qualifier if all the slots were performance based. As it is, they are not. Seeing as there are so few such qualifying slots, I think people are saying why not give those slots to people who perform best at the type of events that BEST predict 100 mile performance. That would be 50+ mile races. Though I disagree with some of your ideas, thanks for commenting. It's great to hear both sides of an issue. I'm glad that folks are talking openly about these things!

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