Reflections on the Western States 100 Lottery System

Western States 100 logo[Thomas Williams originally wrote this for his blog Twenty-Five Squared, but was kind enough to share it with the iRunFar audience.]

I did not enter the lottery for the 2011 Western States run, and I’m not entered otherwise, so I can claim at least some objectivity for the following critique of the lottery process that follows.

For the 2010 run, it became clear that the “two-time loser” policy for getting into the run – not picked in the lottery two years in a row; you’re in the next year, assuming you qualify – had to go; the numbers became impossible in that before very long the entrants would be entirely two-time losers, and even then impossible in the context of the cap imposed by the Forest Service for the number of runners who can pass through the Granite Chief Wilderness at one time. So there had to be a change. So no more two-time losers. Instead, for every year you did not get selected in the lottery, you would get an additional ticket the following year, assuming you qualified and wanted to enter. If you were not selected one year, you would have two tickets next year; if you were not select the second year, you would have three tickets in the following year, and so on.

This process will not work. The odds for people with multiple tickets never improve as much as might seem intuitive. In fact, depending on how many people enter the process for the 2012 run, it could actually happen, and pretty easily, that the odds for the three-tickets holders are worse than their odds the prior year when they held two tickets. The odds for multi-ticket holders will never be 50 percent, or even close, as was reported at the lottery for the 2011 run.

The Western States lottery fits a type of statistical problem that has the scary name hypergeometric distribution. It is like a binomial distribution (itself, not a very comforting name) except that there is no “replacement,” which means that if your ticket is drawn, you are removed from the process; in other words, you cannot get selected more than once.

For the 2011 run, there were 2115 tickets in the lottery, 1113 for people who had one ticket and 501 times two for people who entered the process for the 2010 run, did not get selected, and wanted to try their luck again. There were 213 slots available before the “had to be at the lottery” selections. If you plug those numbers into a hypergeometric distribution (Excel makes it pretty easy to do that with the HYPGEOMDIST function), the result is that people who had two tickets had a probability of being selected of just over 18 percent, while people with one ticket had a probability of just over 10 percent. These probabilities are from the point of view of being selected once during the entire process, not the same as the probability at any individual draw, so you might say from the cumulative perspective. Put another way, the probability of a person having two tickets not getting selected at all was about 82 percent, and for a person having one ticket about 90 percent, given 2115 total tickets and 213 spots available.

As the special-consideration entrants continue to come into the run, it is hard to tell now how many one-ticket holders got selected, and how many two-tickets holders, during the lottery process. Of the 1113 one-ticket holders originally listed, 963 are now listed, while of the 501 two-ticket holders originally listed, 400 remain listed. This means 150 from the one-ticket holders and 101 from the two-ticket holders, which means that almost 14 percent of the one-ticket holders got in – by one means or another – and just over 20 percent of the two-ticket holders got in – not too far off the statistical expectation. But the total, 251, is more than the total selected at the lottery, 213. So let’s just guess that 120 of the one-ticket holders were selected in the lottery process while 93 of the two-ticket holders got in. That would put the probability very close to exactly the statistical expectation, which might give us some confidence in the statistical analysis.

So, the probability for the two-ticket holders was not as good as we might have thought, but surely, next year, when the new form of “two-time loser” has a third ticket, the odds go up? Maybe not. The odds could go up, but could easily go down, and in any event remain lower than might intuitively seem to be the case. Let’s say that for the 2012 run we have 1000 one-ticket holders, 700 two-ticket holders, and 300 three-ticket holders, assuming that about two-thirds of the one-ticket holders who did not get in for the 2011 run decide to try for the 2012 run and maybe three-quarters of this year’s two-ticket holders decide to try their luck again. How do those numbers crunch in a hypergeometric distribution? The one-ticket holders would have a probability of a little over 6 percent; the two-tickets holders, a little over 12 percent; and the three-ticket holders, just under 17 percent – worse odds for the three-ticket holders than they had as two-ticket holders. Let’s stretch the guesswork out to include 200 people who hold five tickets for the 2014 run and 250 people who hold four tickets; the odds for the five-ticket holders are about 17 percent – still less than their odds as two-tickets holders. This process does not work.

All numbers aside, I find myself more concerned about the purely human effects involved. In a statistical distribution, there are “outliers” – a few very lucky people and few very unlucky people. I am concerned about what is obviously some pretty significant emotional devastation for some really unlucky people who work themselves to the bone year after year to have a shot at getting into the Western States run and do not get in. This problem is well known, used to be solved by the “two-time loser” policy, does not have a new solution, and is not helped when people are just as competitive about getting into the run as they are about running the event.

I don’t have any bright ideas about how to fix the problem, but I think that we need to open the discussion and, for whatever ideas make the initial cut, apply some probability theory to them and see how they shake out. Let’s not forget that people are involved here, and that the system should be as fair as all the people who care about it have brains to make it fair. One thing that I think would help the larger process is transparency about the selections. Each person in the run should have an annotation about the selection method, such as “got in at the lottery” or “selected by Michigan Bluff aid station” or “Montrail sponsor selection” or “won Miwok” or “the Board feels that this runner will bring a lot of good beneficial publicity to the race.” It does not well serve the Western States run the impression shared by many of a “smoked-filled room” of special consideration. Perhaps people could apply for special consideration, make their case in writing, and be subject to a vote of the applicants, of the people.

Call for Comments
I welcome your comments, and especially your ideas on a sound method for statistically improving ‘lottery loser’ odds from one year to the next, so that the odds not only increase from one year to the next but increase significantly, such that the possibility for the truly unlucky never to be selected, year after year, would be very, very small, unlike the current system.

I should mention that, as far as statistics go, I am a hobbyist at best, and I really welcome input from those who are more than that.

There are 63 comments

  1. olga

    Agree with all, esp. the paragraph at the end about devastation of some "lottery-unlucky" folks. And, as the writer of the post, I haven't entered the selection process (for a few years now). I mean, I had run it and had satiated my appetite, so I am speaking purely from perspective of those who came to the sport with a goal of making it to WS, as the "father", "mother" and whatnot of it. Heck, one day many moons ago I had that goal – but you know what, those many moons ago I got in on a first try (and a second, and a third came differently). And to make it a bit more fair – and a lot less crazy with the numbers – tighten the qualification rules! Make it Boston! Why did I have to run 9 hrs, and now you can slog through 11 of the flat road? I mean, I get it everyone deserves to try WS, but really, is what we have now any better than working hard to get qualified, or otherwise run a different event if not? I understand that statistic shows that even though the qual times are softer, approx. the same percentage finish the race. So, may be tighter qual won't raise that number. But may be at least it'll lower the entrants pool and give a chance to more people have hope. Also, if you finish a certain number of times – take a break from entering. Yes, some are going for 10, 15, 20 years. But if you're serious, take a year off from applying, you'll get there some day, let somebody else have a shot! At least for a year, before getting back into the game (elites/top 10 excluded).

  2. footfeathers

    Charging double the entry fee of other high(er) quality mountain 100s is enough to keep me from worrying too much about the disjointed system ws uses for hopeful entrants.

  3. Jeff

    I agree with Olga, I think the qualification standards should be tightened. Make the requirement 50 miles in under nine hours or 100 miles in 24 hours. Western States is Ultra Running's Boston Marathon. And if you can't get into Boston, settle for New York (Leadville).

  4. Larry

    I've entered each year since the Fall of '07 without being drawn so I, of course, have no objectivity. WS was the first 100 I'd ever heard about and the main motivation and goal for getting into ultrarunning. It's not longer my motivation and goal, but has still become an annual ritual of trying to get selected, nevertheless. I'm all for raising the qualifying standard, but, then, the race loses the spirit of intent. I think there are many of us that delay our spring/summer race schedule each year in anticipation of the lottery. This adds to the disappointment when we're not selected, again. We tell ourselves, "never again!", will we put ourselves through the process only to be met with disappointment. And, then, we further antagonize ourselves by mulling over the list of those who did get selected on their first attempt, or even defy statistical odds by getting selected in consecutive years.

    Ultrarunning has gained in popularity over the past few years, which has led to the swelling numbers entering the lottery. It's becoming more common at the popular 100's across the country. Thankfully, there are many beautiful places that we can all run and, hopefully, next Fall, I'll already have my schedule figured out well before December and if I do defy statistical odds and get selected I'll be trying to figure out how to "fit" WS into my already full dance card. In a way, it'd be nice to be able to say, "no thanks". Life goes on…

  5. Michael

    Tighten the qualification standards, shrink the pool of apps, make entrants truly earn their way into WS. Make it a 100 in under 24 hours; that should do it. Most people, if they truly train and push themselves, can finish a 100 miler in under 24 hours…it will make it all that sweeter when you qualify.

    My 2c

  6. Paul Bateson

    I agree with Michael. You have many great 100mile races in the US so if Western States is seen as the pinnacle then qualification should be a requirement. Have your top 10 stars given automatic places and then let the rest qualify with sub 24hour and maybe 3 previous selection qualifier 100's. No first timers to 100mile races would be considered and everyone entering would be capable of sub 24hrs and have at least 3 already done.

  7. Mark

    Not sure you need to go to a sub-24 hour qualifying run. WS has a 30-hour limit, so why not at least one sub-30 hour 100 miler finish within the past year (and maybe at least 3 in total as others have suggested)? One very easy fix for the qualifying standards is getting rid of qualifying with a sub-11 hour 50 miler. Given the substantially greater demands of running a 100-miler, it seems odd to have a not particularly fast 50 mile time count as a qualifying run. As for transparency I am a big fan of the Massanutten lottery system, which to me is both the most transparent and simplest lottery system out there. The number you get is truly random, and I'm not aware of anyone being able to manipulate the closing level of the Dow on a particular day. You could go to as many significant digits as necessary to accommodate the number of expected applicants, so no limitation there.

  8. Starks

    I'm a relatively new runner still training for my first ultra so I apologize if this comment sounds ridiculous. I understand that the logistics of an ultra is much more difficult than a marathon but is there no chance that Western States can accommodate more than ~250 runners? I mean, why is it impossible to admit 500 runners, if not 1000? I really like to know why this is totally out of question.

  9. KenZ

    I have mixed feelings, but do like where the discussion is going.

    Part of me says "yeah, why not make it more like Boston and tighten the standards?" (This would also help me, as I could qualify with a sub 24, or even sub 20 hour standard, yet did not get in this year). The issue I have with this as one of the earlier posters noted that I kinda like the open and inviting-to-all part of ultra-running. In fact, those who finish near the end work way harder than those at the front. That deserves a special kind of respect, and why shouldn't they be allowed in (assuming they can meet the 30 hour WS cutoff of course).

    However, requiring the qualifier to be a 100 miler does seem appropriate. Or several 100 milers (two or three; I think Badwater requires three).

    If someone is feeling like they have a lot of time, it would be interesting to run some stats on the past WS 100 runs and see if there is a correlation between number or prior runs, or types (distances, mountain vs. flats, etc), or finishes (50 miler only qualifiers vs. 100 miler qualifiers and how many 100s they've done), and finishing WS. I'm sure some crafty software person could write a 'bot that would mine and assemble this sort of data from ultrasignup. Something like that should be considered and looked at too prior to changing the qualifying standards. Not to weed out people for the heck of it, but to try to get people who enter to increase their chance of finishing.

    In summary, I don't feel so good about tightening the standard to make it an elite race (seems too exclusionary), but am thinking that the 50 mile qualifier should be excluded, and perhaps a requirement of multiple 100 miler finishes. Time for those finishes, as noted by Mark, might be 30 hours. Or, say, 24 hours for races rated as easier (1-2) on terrain, and 30 hours for those rated harder (3-5) on terrain.

  10. KenZ

    There are some historical reasons and the organizers literally aren't allowed to allow more runners into the race. They would if they could, but the gov't won't allow them. Good question though!

  11. Bryon Powell

    Starks, the cap on the number of Western States runners is due historical political reasons. To keep it short, an area of the Western States course was turned into the Granite Chief Wilderness Area in the mid-80s. Organized events are not allowed in wilderness areas. However, after much wrangling and political posturing the Forest Service grandfathered the Western States race through the wilderness area with the caveat that the five year moving average of starters is no higher than the number of starters in the year before the wilderness designation. If you're interested, last December I wrote an article for Running Times re races and wilderness areas:… .

  12. cheeseman

    A humble suggestion from a Euro:

    Tightening the qualifying standard is the way to go, but it only works if a point-system is used. Compare the Hardrock100 with some flatland hundred miler…

  13. Ian Sharman

    Sub 24hr 100 as a qualifier sounds reasonable and is an attainable goal for many/most(especially on some of the flatter courses), although I'd guess there'd still be a lottery needed, if not now then in the future. I was fortunate to get in on my first attempt in the lottery this year but would have been happy to have had to qualify and it would indeed have made it sweeter to have 'earned' the entry rather than getting it through luck.

    1. Mark

      This sounds like a good idea initially, but I can easily imagine the flatter/faster 100s being overrun by potential entrants using them as WS qualifiers. Take Umstead for example, which already sells out in minutes. We'll then have people complaining that they can't get into WS because they can't get into a "fast" 100 mile qualifier. I like Cheeseman's idea of using a point system for qualifiers a la UTMB.

  14. Mark Ryan

    How about a points based system like UTMB?? Seems to work for that race. Also, to those complaining about race fees, do not come to Canada to run the Canadian Death Race. It is only 125km and the cost is the same as WS100 (ok maybe 50 bucks cheaper), and from what I read about the swag at WS100, it is much better than that received at the CDR. There is a mystique about WS100, but from what I've read in these same forums, it is no where near the toughest race. I also like Wasatch's requirement of volunteer time to run the race, give something back to the ultra community rather than just being self serving and running races.

  15. Bob

    I can appreciate the statistical analysis of this issue. I spent a little time myself working out the numbers. First off though, your example goes from 1614 entrants to 2000 entrants, and from 2000 in your 3 year example to 2450 in your 5 year example, so comparing the odds from one year to the next would be expected to decline because the number of applicants is increasing. Second is that it's comparing now, the first year of the program, to 5 years from now. Your odds now are so (relatively) good as a second year person because there are no 3rd, 4th and 5th year attempters. It's more important to look at the statistics once the number of entrants with each count of tickets has reached a sort of equilibrium. This will take time obviously, but I believe this is meant to be a long term solution, so I believe that's fair. Compare somebody with 2 tickets 5 years from now to somebody with 5 tickets 9 years from now and it's clear that there is a progression. The odds of a second ticket person this year are skewed by the fact that nobody has 3 or more. It'll never progress to a 50/50 chance of getting in, but I don't think it ever needs to. As long as your chances get better from one year to the next I think the system is working. The numbers don't seem to progress well only because the system is in its infancy. (Also it's worth remembering that this year there were a large number of entries allocated to prior 2 time losers, those spot's will be available to the lottery again in future years, next year I believe). Also you need to look at the series as a whole. Using your example of the first 3 years, assuming the number of people with each ticket count remains static for 3 years, your odds of getting drawn if you apply for 3 straight years are a little over 31% (1-.94*.88*.83 … effectively 1 – the probability of not getting drawn 3 straight years). So while your odds that 3rd year itself aren't great, taken as a whole your chances are better. Versus the alternative of no prior years tickets (which works out to over 28% I believe). Using your 5 year example (with counts of 1000/700/300/250/200), there would be a 44% chance of being drawn in one of your first 5 years of applying, with nearly 2500 applicants for a race accepting 213 people (I expect the 213 to be closer to 300 next year but this isn't about the actual numbers, it's about the formula). Using a system with no bias at all, your odds are 19%, substantially worse than in a system with a bias. Your examples both increased the number of applicants over time and was using the initial years where the system was more of an open lottery than a lottery with a bias.

    Regarding changing the entrance requirements, I'm not personally opposed to the idea, but that only tries to mask the problem by reducing the number of applicants, it doesn't address the issue of trying to develop a system that gives preference to repeat applicants while still giving a chance to all applicants.

    I apologize in advance if this was too wordy.

    1. Tom

      Thank you very much, Bob, for working the numbers. You make multiple excellent points and clarifications. I particularly like how you look at the odds cumulatively, as a whole, over all the years tried and missed. Your comments got me thinking about how easy it is sometimes to rig numbers to produce a result. One of the points I did not make as clearly as I would have liked is how much probabilities can shift based the number of people entering for the first time and re-entering in consecutive years. It could happen, if first-time demand increases and second-year demand stays strong, that your chances as a three-ticket applicant would be worse than in your earlier attempts. I made up a scenario, which may or may not be realistic, where the number of applicants stayed constant: 1000 the first year, 600 the second year, 400 the third year, 300 the fourth year, and 200 the fifth year. I set the number of available spots at 300. The numbers crunched like this: first year, 30.0 percent probability; second year, 23.6 percent; third year, 22.0 percent; fourth year; 21.3 percent; and fifth year, 21.5 percent. That is the probability in each year. But if you accumulate those probabilities over the five year, your chances of getting selected in one of those years are almost 75 percent, or 1 – (.70 x .764 x .78 x .787 x .785). This is to say that, in this rigged example, you had a three in four shot of getting selected once in five years – a marketable result, at least for a person of patience.

      I think that overall a numbers game is complicated to execute fairly, more complicated to explain, and of little avail without transparency. We would also need a “code review” for the selection algorithm. This “black box” element of the lottery introduces the same questions that we are right to ask wherever computers are involved. I am about as far as a person can be from being anti-computer, but we always need to check results against what we asked them to do for us.

      People are basically good, so transparency can only force positive change. We would not need the machinations of numbers, at least for now, if we had the power of transparency. Overly concentrated power and secrecy, even unintentional, will result in favoritism and frustration. I think that the single most effective immediate change that we could make in the Western State lottery system, while we work out other details, is to know how each person in the list of entrants earned an entry. Everyone should see those reasons. Transparency is an essential element of a fair system. It is also a necessary consideration for organizations that face basic supply-and-demand challenges.

  16. grae

    I think the qualifying standards should be changed and be by age catagory, male/female. Sub 24 hr. 100 on anything other then a flat course gets to be a little stiff in to your 50's and 60's. Throw out the "flat" 50's and 100's.

  17. Speedgoat Karl

    Ken Z, "In fact, those who finish near the end work way harder than those at the front". I'm not so sure about that Ken. :-) they are out there longer, and it's inspiring to see back of the packers finish, but it's a race too, those guys and girls out front are running pretty hard.

    WS should only have 100 mile qualifiers, after all, it's a freakin' 100 mile race, not a 50. They don't get it. Also time qualifications are a good idea. yah, it'll take some people off the start line, but like mentioned above, it's the Boston Marathon of Ultras of 100 miles. Noone complains about not getting in Boston if they don't qualify, do they?

    Maybe I'll see if I can run a fast 50 next year so I can run 100 miles at once.

  18. mayayo

    I also join that line.

    WS100 might have been the cradle, but it does not mean it will be ultrarunning reference for long, the way it is beeing handled.

    Clearly, on a global scale, UTMB has far surpassed it: Greater atmosphere, wilder scenery, and far more international crowd.

    In fact, I anticipate Leadville surpassing WS as the national reference in a few years, due to its wider appeal to popular ultrarunners, far more international crowd, and -what the heck- that "Rocky Mountains magic", quite unique to it.

    1. Bryon Powell

      I can't imagine Leadville ever surpassing the WS as the top US 100 for a few reasons. First, it's the oldest true 100 and has been around for ages… and has never been even close to being as competitive as WS. More folks may run Leadville, but WS will continue to have more prestige. Second, to run Leadville well, one MUST acclimate for AT LEAST a few weeks. When I placed 6th in 2006, not a single runner in the top 15 was from low elevation. (My address was a low elevation town, but I lived at 2,100 meters that summer.) Not all the elites can spare the time to acclimate for that long and no "championship" race should be dependent on such a need for acclimation. Third, while I dearly love Leadville, it's a road race aside from Hope Pass. That does not have the universal appeal of the Western States course (although WS is a faster course).

      1. mayayo

        Sound arguments, Bryon.

        As usual, the beauty of complex issues lays in weighting each argument-counterargument. This WS versus LT future is sure a tough nut.

        I believe with current status, WS will become more and more irrelevant to future ultrarunners, and will gradually step down. "Old cowboys never die, they just…."

        Quite some other runners also share my view on LT surpassing WS as national reference. Time will tell, and we shall all learn from it :-)

        1. mayayo

          Thinking it over…seems a perfect issue for the ultra community to join a specific discussion, is it not?

          I sure will be fascinated to hear many more points. (The "NY Marathon vs Boston" case has been going on for years…)

  19. Mark Swanson

    A race like WS needs to honor its tradition and it has traditionally allowed runners of various levels, not just sub-24 types. And it has let in older runners who can no longer go sub-24, so I don't agree with that fix. The best change that doesn't mess too much with tradition (obviously any change is a change) would be to require a qualifying 100. Boston is the "ultimate" for many who run marathons; it shouldn't be for someone running their first or only marathon. So WS. You have to finish a qualifying 100M under the time limit in the prior 18 months.

  20. Brian

    Just in case this reaches the level of an actionable outcry I would add my vote for the requirement of one or more 100-mile official finishes on set of specified courses such as Hardrock requires. I’m not so keen on requiring a sub-24 100 because it seems like it would put a lot of pressure on the “easy” races and runs the risk of starting to edge the sport in the general direction triathlon has taken, finding ever flatter and faster courses, which in my opinion simply means races that are increasingly generic and boring.

  21. Blake

    This is simply a problem of increasing numbers of consumers chasing a limited and fixed resource. Unless you can reduce the number of runners who WANT to enter (by increasing the entry fee) or CAN enter (by tightening the qualifiers), you have a zero-sum game – any change you make to improve the chances for one group has to come at the expense of a different group. So put yourself in the place of the RDs: which group will you toss overboard to make it so more first-timers can get in?

    1. Mark

      To me this is a super easy decision. If the choice is between allowing in only people who can afford it, or those that have proven their ability to finish a similar distance/course, I'll go with those that have proven their ability every time. Mark Swanson's analogy to the Boston Marathon is right on, and same with Hardrock, UTMB, etc. There are dozens of great hundreds out there now, so I can't see how asking people to qualify at a higher level for the arguably most historic hundred miler out there is unfair or elitist (in the positive connotation of the word)

  22. james varner

    i'm no math wiz but if the problem is that the lottery system doesn't adequately improve the chances of getting in the race for the lottery loser from the previous year/s then it seems, to me, the issue should be to tweak the lottery to improve chances for those one year loser, two year loser, etc. Again i'm no math wiz but to me it seems like a simple soloution: give the losers more tickets than they're already getting. how about an exponetial increase? (first year lottery entrant gets 1 ticket, 2nd year entrant gets 2 tickets, 3rd year entrant gets 4, 4th year gets 16 tickets, etc.). or maybe that will overly favor the losers vs. first time entrants? so then maybe go with something like this: 1st year= 1 ticket, 2nd year= 3 tickets, 3rd year 5 tickets, etc.

    by the way, i am biased when it come to 100 miler lottery systems since i'm 0 for 6 in the hardrock lottery! (i did get in the race twice however off the waitlist so i guess i'm not totally unlucky.)

  23. Ryne

    Keep in mind though that the auto-qualifier for New York is harder than Boston though! The lottery does allow a lot of sensibly paced runners into NYC though.

    Leadville isn't a bad second option at all. Technically Leadville is the oldest 100 miler out there as Western was an 89 and 93 miler until 1985. FWIW.

    The other solution is find a way to get more runners through the Granite Chief Wilderness so 369 on the start line become 750 on something.

    Happy trails!


  24. Mark

    It will take a lot of work to fairly reflect the needs of every dreaming runner. If race management can't honor the commitments of the past, then let's step into the present. Use a points based qualifying system and let them "compete" their way in. Some special considerations would still be possible.

  25. Andre Blumberg

    I think the chances in future of getting into the WS100 assuming the given lottery method is bound to decline simply by the very significant gain in popularity of ultra races year after year. I would not be surprise to see 3,000 or 5,000 or even more applicants within a few short years, so no matter how you "skin the cat" for repeat entrants the chances to get a slot will decline. The "easy years" to get in are simply history! Agree with the many other comments to have a / multiple 100 miler entry requirement. This however is not entirely without disadvantages either, e.g. in Asia (outside of Australia) there are virtually no 100 mile races (yet), so it would disadvantage an international audience that currently is able to benefit from the 50M or 100K race qualifiers. So a UTMB-like point qualification system would be fairer in that instance. It would be nice to one day have a globally recognized point system, perhaps administered by an internationally recognized "federation" of ultra events of sorts, that is used as the qualifying standard for the top events, as opposed to UTMB, Badwater, Hardrock, Western States all having different models. You would loose the unique character of some of the races though, so no easy answer and solution here …

  26. Nick

    It seems like the solution the author is wishing for is an ordered waiting list, doing away with the traditional lottery completely. Here's how it could work: all of the runners not included in this year's race would be added to a permanent waiting list for the race, in random order. Each new year at application time, only runners not currently on the waiting list can apply. They will be shuffled then added to the end of the wait list, and the number of runners allowed in the race will be pulled from the front. Presumably there could be a small application fee so only serious runners apply.

    Think about the consequences of such a system. Runners wouldn't get "lucky" and get in their first year while other runners having applied several years in a row still don't get in. There would be a maximum bound on the number of years you don't get in, instead of having the possibility of not getting chosen for 10 years or more (which is currently possible). There would also be far less uncertainty, and runners would know years in advance so they could actually plan for the race (how many runners do you know that apply not planning to get in, then get in and it throws off their racing calendar?) The issue of decreasing odds in successive years if the number of applicants increases also becomes irrelevant. You will always be ahead of runners that apply in years after, so in a sense, each year you will be guaranteed better odds of getting in.

    If we stick to a traditional lottery, no change to entry requirements, ticket systems, or the like will ever solve some of the issues discussed. It will only push around the odds, favoring certain runners over others but always leaving the (statistically inevitable) chance that some will get lucky and others will not.

    1. Marcy

      Nick, I really like this idea. It would sure make my life easier if I could plan ahead and estimate which year I'm likely to get into a race, instead of wondering and hoping and then having to make alternate plans year after year. It seems much more fair, letting many more people experience the race and not leaving that up to chance. I'd love to see a race try this (doesn't have to be WS).

      Of course, I'm the type of person that wants to try many different things, accomplish something once and then let's go see what other adventures are out there. Unfortunately I sometimes set my sights on getting into a race that makes it difficult to get to the starting line, and then I'm stuck playing by their lottery rules.

      As a side note, I agree on requiring a 100-miler qualifying race for WS.

      And I agree with the poster that mentioned the auto-qualification for the top 10 runners. That makes it not only a competition for the win, but also for the top 10 places which adds a lot of excitement to the front of the pack.

  27. Speedgoatkarl

    Hey, they run Bandit in Boston, why not WS? The trails aren't closed, noone can stop people from being on the trail right? Everyone qualifies as a bandit, no silly increased fee. The challenge at WS is crossing the river…..Is it illegal to float the American River? Probably not. It could be worked out if we wanted it to, and not illegally. When we all finish bandit style, we can thank the organizers for marking the course for us. I bet they'd love that.

    We can't increase fees to weed poeple out, the entry would have to be at least a grand, and I would be willing to bet there would be 500 people willing to pay that…for some silly reason.

    Mark, I like being able to "compete" to get in, but I'll ask again, where are those 100 mile qualifiers? If there were about 10 of them that we could use, it would make more sense to me. Problem is, Columbia (Montrail), bought out some agreement to only let runners in that qualify in their 50 milers ( something like that). Contracts, Contracts. Which brings it all down to money…..and Western States has no prize money…..that's another subject all together. UTMB doesn't have prize money either, but at least they don't allow pacers or do their best to allow ALOT of runners.

    Maybe one way to let in all the best runners at 100 miles would be to have an elite race with only 100 runners the day before?, no crew or pacers, just single people running on the course. It would be pretty minimal in terms of impact. Or maybe that's the bandit race I'd love to see.

    Western is a great race, no doubt, and some day I'd like to actually see what I can do there. Unfortunately, it'll end up being on my own. I guess I better start to learn how to swim. :-)

    There is no solution…..

    Blake, well said, a zero-sum solution…someone has to lose.

    Brian, qualifying under 24 hours is ok, and like you said, it has to be certain select courses. WS is not a hard course, if the record is a blazing 15:07, it's not hard. It's just hot.

    This post is always a winner for conversation. I think the WS committee is set in their ways, stuck with the qualifying Montrail style, so they just roll with it and let us all complain. After all, they do have one cool thing about the previous top 10 autmatically accepted. That will always bring back a good race. Even if it were only Geoff, Tony and Killian next year, we'd all love it, cuz' it's those three that make the race.

    Bandit is the way to go. We'll call it the Fat Ass 100!

    All mumbo jumbo really, it's just ultrarunning. It is what it is.

  28. Lisa

    This presumes that the WS Board actually WANTS a higher % finish rate including more sub-24 finishers. From the Board's perspective, more sub-24's = more silver buckles = more expense. For more reasons than the spirit of the race, I don't think they will raise the qualifying standards with a goal of excluding the less experienced runners, slower runners, or 100-mile virgins from toeing the line on race day.

  29. Tom

    The WS Board should develop and publish a five-year lottery plan. If we run long, we should think long.

    The Board should model the egalitarian approach at the core of the run’s tradition by modeling an open and transparent approach to entrant selection.

    Year One:

    The current option to qualify with any 100-mile run on the list of qualifying runs within the race’s official cutoff becomes the single race requirement; there is no option to qualify using a 50-mile run or multiple 50-mile runs.

    The qualifying period expands to August of two years prior to the race to December of the year before the race. Rational: you don’t have to run a 100-mile race every year in order to enter the lottery. How many of our bodies really hold up well to running a 100-mile race every year?

    For the 2012 lottery, maintain the system of biased tickets, but change the bias, based on the number of applicants, to give the current two-time losers (not selected for either the 2010 run or the 2011 run) at least a 40 percent probability of being selected. Publish the statistical method and open it for comment. Publish the selection algorithm and open it for comment.

    Change the current “special consideration” rules such that how every entrant is selected is public information. Ultrasignup is the ideal forum for this.

    Year Two:

    Keep the “special consideration” pool at the current approximately 25 percent but continue to make the selections publicly transparent.

    Reserve 25 percent of the available slots for three-time losers. Continue this in future years, and include the even unluckier (four-time losers, five-time, etc.), until there are no “even unluckier” people (no one who has missed more than three years in a row).

    Open the remaining 50 percent of available slots to a lottery in which two-time losers.

    Years Three and Beyond – to be developed – some ideas:

    Add an incentive for multi-time runners to step out of the lottery, to skip a year, maybe two years.

    Additional thoughts:

    Any ideas on what to do with the “special consideration” selections? Too hot to handle?

    Is it out of the question to change the start of the run to Ice Lakes Lodge in Soda Springs and bypass the Granite Chief restriction altogether?

    I like the idea of a point system, and Andre’s idea of a globally recognized point system fits well with a long-term plan. I like Nick’s idea of an ordered waiting list. The two-time loser rule was a form of that. I think that when we abandoned the TTL method entirely, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We could have changed the policy instead of abandoning it; we could, for example, have taken a long-term approach, and bought ourselves time to consider change that would stick in the future, by going changing from two-time to three-time or even four-time policy. Yes, that system ultimately is not workable as such, but sometimes hasty and abrupt change creates more problems than we had before the change.

    Unless we, the runners, weigh in with the Board, the Board will only conclude, as it could only conclude, that there is no real problem.

  30. James Elson

    From a UK point of view, the WS board have to change the qualification level to bring down the number of applicants. It is currently too easy. This was my second year applying from the United Kingdom and got a place, however for me, a cross section of the Badwater, UTMB and Hardrock principals is the fairest way to approach this problem.

    UTMB publish a full list of races from all continents with a grading system based around the same principals employed by ultrarunning magazine creating a firm standard. You must accumulate in the 18 months prior to the race, 5 points from a maximum of 2 races. UTMB entrant levels ballooned in 2010 to over 4000 applicants for 2300 places. The same issues as WS but not to the same extreme. Their initial reaction was incorrect, allowing all those who didn't get a place in 2010, to run in 2011 (wow this blew up on them when they cancelled the race on us rightly after 20 miles). They have now scrapped that and have instead increased the qualification level to 5 pts from a maximum of 2 races. You can see the list of the races and what points they earn on the UTMB website. As a race director myself I upload the information on my course and they grade and list it. This has the benefit for me of attracting people to run my race if it is an official qualifier, something that would surely benefit races everywhere if WS permitted the same program. Example, my 100 mile race with 12000ft of non technical gain is graded 3 and a 50 miler with moderate climb would be a 2 therefore earning you 5 points and enough to enter.

    Therefore Point 1: You must earn a minimum of 5 qualification points from a maximum of 2/ 3 listed races or something along those lines anyway.

    Badwater has just upped one of it's qualification standards from 'must have finished 2' to '3 x 100 milers within cut offs'. For me that was difficult as we are short of 100 mile races in the UK, I had to fly twice to races in order to qualify. That system is therefore expensive and thus flawed but the principal of not asking people to run under a certain time and simply to finish, works. That way you keep the original WS100 intention of allowing all standards to run and more importantly, all ages.

    Therefore Point 2: Each point scoring race requires only that you finish the race within the imposed cut off.

    Lastly Hardrock's list of races you have to have run to qualify is too exclusive. As much as I would dearly love to, I can't enter the lottery for it despite having run Badwater, multiple 100 milers with the 'hardest' at 17000ft of gain, the 4deserts series, MdS etc etc. Now they do have a provision where I can write them a letter and may be accepted but I'd rather earn it properly. If you allow a points scoring system for a race that is significantly less hard than Hardrock (WS) and includes races from all over the world you get a happy medium. I am not suggesting hardrock do the same, let's be honest if you haven't done one of the races on the Hardrock 'must have run' list then you prob don't deserve to be there and I don't have a problem with that at all.

    Ultimately because of the cap on entrants people should have to qualify, the growth in the sport will only see the lottery numbers go up and up.

  31. Sharron Clemons

    It will take a lot of work to fairly reflect the needs of every dreaming runner. If race management can't honor the commitments of the past, then let's step into the present. Use a points based qualifying system and let them "compete" their way in. Some special considerations would still be possible.

  32. Donnie H

    I think what gets lost in this debate every year is the progression of the sport. No one can argue that Western States is the one that started it all, and has done a top notch job of organizing and stewarding one of the best 100’s in the sport. But my question is,” When are the companies like The North Face, New Balance, Montrail, Inov-8, La Sportiva, Patagonia, Pearl Izumi, Nike, Go-lite, Hoka, Brooks, and others going to sit down at the table and say were making a killing and we want to make more! Why don’t we come up with our own circuit of 3 or 4 races say East coast, Midwest, Rockies, and West Coast. Put our sponsored runners up against a qualified field of opponents; have the top notch tracking so everyone can follow at home, heck charge $5 bucks for each race or $15 for the whole series. Most of all Prize money!! The North Face has show it can be done, but why not add twist like winning runner that’s sponsored gets paid out of a pot from the losing team sponsors( you pick your twist that would work?)”.

    That would up the ante for top talent on a team to maybe get paid to stay on a team instead of jumping to another sponsor that would pay for there service’s or wins (contracts). Marketing talent would lead to more sales from the consumer because of the product they use, but hopefully most of all it would lead to progression and promoting the sport for years to come. Most of the teams have runners that have organized races before so they can help with ideas and logistics, also with large sponsors coming in that could lead to endowments or payments to the national forest service to preserve and maintain our running trails so these selected courses could hold larger fields. I have no idea if this all sounds crazy, but it would be awesome to see top talent get better, new trail races get promoted. Happy holiday!!

  33. henry Bickerstaff

    What about the logistics of a race where all qualifiers need to be able to run 100 miles in 24 hours? If a higher number of runners have the potential of finishing within a compressed amount of time say from 23 to 25 hours, I would presume they would run close to each other over the entire course. What does this do to the logistics of trying to run an aid station, perform medical checks, traversing a river, etc. More runners wanting aid, etc. at the same time could easly cause some rudeness among cranky runners. I am not even sure this is a legtimate concern but I thought I would throw it out here for comment.

  34. Jim

    It seems to me that the way to implement the lottery is to bias it towards those that have qualified, entered the lottery, and lost the most consecutive times. A simple way to do that would be to reserve the first 100 places in the race to the people who have entered and lost the lottery the most times.

    After the first 100 names are drawn from the electronic Gu bucket, every remaining applicant's name gets thrown into the hat too and the remaining spots in the race are drawn randomly.

    Assuming everyone qualifies and throws their name again into the hat, I suspect there will be no more than 400 two-time-losers in December 2011 – the following year there will be no more than 300 etc etc, eventually everyone will get into the race, much like the ordered waitlist. Once the remaining class of 2009 applicants is exhausted, start on the class of 2010 etc etc.

    Seems simple, workable and everyone who keeps qualifying will know with certainty that they will end up with a spot. Eventually.

    1. LMyles

      Jim, I think my idea is the same or similar to yours. WS should hold a separate lottery for 2X losers and beyond (3x etc as the years go by). Which is very similar to how they currently reserve 5 or so spots for lottery entrants present on the day of the lottery selection. Everyone in the room gets a final stab at lottery selection just between who is in the room in Auburn on the day of the lottery. But they still had a chance in the overall lottery selection as well.

      That will do away with the automatic 2X loser slots given away in the past and still leave your luck to the lottery, but your chances sure go up if you don't have to compete with 'everyone' for all lottery spots. I am not going to calculate specific odds, but imagine if you have a 15% chance overall and then for a smaller specificed number of 2X+ loser spots you increase your chances to possibly 25% or greater.

      I lost two race lotteries this month, it sucks. I have not yet entered the WS lottery, hopefully next year. My happiness requirement for race lotteries is that they at least post how many slots go to the lottery and how many automatic runners will be hand picked based on other criteria, so I know how good or bad my odds really are. I think WS100 details that, so that is good. But Way Too Cool and Miwok seemed like too many spots 'might' have been hand selected by race directors.

      My overall response. If I don't get selected in a lottery and if I want to run the trail bad enough, I just need to get a map and run the courses self-supported. My long term goal for WS100 is to run the course official or unofficial (not as a bandit, but maybe days after the event while it is still well marked). I run because I love the outdoors and enjoy challenging my self. Races help push me to train harder and set/achieve goals.

  35. PB

    WS is rigged for the house. Those that keep pulling the arm on the slot machine are the victims. The numbers on entrants are high enough to justify a % of refund.

  36. Brad Nicholson

    Lots of good comments here to go with a most excellent article. At the end of the increased demand will result in limited supply, and more expensive. Unfortunately for those out there like me who are very unlucky – I didn't get selected for any of the three race lotteries I applied to in 2009/10 the chances just suck.

    I agree that WS will probably eclipsed by LT here in the US as it already has by UTMB. Although WS will always hold a special place in ultrarunning , esp domestically.

  37. Lazaros Rigos

    Hi from Greece,

    Living our own experience in Greece, as a part of the “Olympus Marathon” (OM) Organizing Committee -actually I’m the Race Director- we had to face the problem of limited number of participants in our race, as through the last years number of Greek applicants was growing more and more. Last year we applied successfully a complicated but fair system, partly based on the UTMB point system. There is no doubt that only few newcomers could complain for this system. In fact the Olympus Marathon system was nearly 100% successful!

    We count on all Greek races and international as well, by composing a ranking table for all applicants and we take the top 400 as participants in the next event. The concept is to count the whole racing experience of the applicant for the last three years, accumulating points for this.

    The system works as follows: Each applicant can fill the application form with a total of six races (the maximum) happened the last three years. The longer the race, the higher the points given! Adding finally these points, a ranking table is formed including all the applicants, even those who declared a single race.

    How we rate the races? Each race takes points as follows:

    1. Based on UTMB’s system, the race takes the total of points given by adding distance & altitude gain (e.g. 50K + 2600m = 76pts). We don’t categorize events in further range categories, like “from 70 to 120 gives 2pts” etc. but we count exactly the original points (75, 38, 139 or 87 etc).

    2. Then we rate other things like: a) time (decreasing percentage bonus starting from 100% for the winning time and ending in the double time) , b) gender (bonus 15% for women), c) age (percentage bonus increasing by the 40th year of age and further), d) ascent ratio*(the steepest the ascent the higher the bonus) and e) age of the race (old, mid or new, according to which one of the three years happened). (*) Ascent Ratio is the result of dividing Ascent by length (e.g. +3000m : 50K = Ratio 60)

    3. A complicated mathematic type was created, including the total of these parameters, which results automatically the points for each race apart and for the total of the six races (or whatever 2,3,4,5 races)

    Most of all, we count only the “mountain” or “trail” races. For us in OM, the rule for a “mountain/trail” race is based on our “Factor-20”. So, “A Mountain Running event must have at least 20% real trail or path, at least 20% ascent ratio* and 20% at most asphalt road”. Any race not fully complies with these three parameters it is not considered as a “mountain” race and is excluded from OM’s list of qualifying races.

    This system secured us justice and no more headaches with lotteries or traffic jams during the inscription date. Back in 2009 with a simple qualifying system we received 500 applications in a period of just 2 hours and this fact forced us to conceive a new system which would secure that in our race will participate the athletes have the REAL qualifications!

    So, why the WS Committee or any other race Committee don’t apply a system like this?

    Best regards from the town of Litochoro, at the foothills of Mount Olympus, Greece

    Lazaros Rigos

  38. Joe Pham

    I have mix feeling about this subject. I had entered lottery 8 times, got select twice via 2-times looser and I am still looking for my first finish @ WS. My suggestion is having 2 WSs: one for fast end elite runners with very high qualification (an Ultra championship type) and one at later date with current qualification. That will make WS available for more runners, both fast and back of the pack, and still meet the maximum quota restriction.

  39. Bryon Powell

    Unfortunately, WS can't have two events unless they heavily modify the course. The maximum quota is for a single event and short of legislation, another event cannot be added at another time during the year.

  40. Conno

    WS should make it so that they take the top qualifiers. Have a series of 50/100 miles around the country that are considered qualifying courses. Then take the top 369 time or how ever many entrees are allowed. No lottery, no tightening the qualifications just the best runners racing. Leave your 10-15 spots for the elites and fill the rest.

  41. Jessica Lynn Barney

    i think that there should be a certain standard of time they shold reach inorder to get the serious runners first prioritys rather than the ones who are doing it for their own pleasure and then they should reserve about 3.7/4 of the spaces for people who dont make the qualification time and then allow them to do the lottery system so that way priority runners have first served and pleasure ones have 2nd served.

  42. George O

    Why not just go out and run 100 mile at your local trail. Have we forgotten the true and real reason we consider ourselves ultra runners? Do we not run just for the love of it, for the nice warm feeling we get from it, the feeling of freedom that it provides us, an escape from the chaotic world we live in? It seems like people are stressing so much about getting a spot into WS that if not accepted it will forever ruin their life! Do we really need to have our names posted on a website indicating that we ran 50k, 50 miles, 100 miles in order to feel fulfillment? Do we need a buckle as proof that we ran 100 miles? Would one not feel the same level of accomplishment if one were to go out and run 100 miles with a couple of buddies or on your own during the course of a weekend? No one would have to know you did it except you and anyone that came along for the ride (or run :)

    I go out and run everyday, most weeks I log 80 plus miles and I go where my body can take me for as long as it can take me. Sometimes I run up and down steep mountains for hours and then go home take a shower and head to work. At the end of the day, I have no buckle or award, or even anyone cheering for me at the finish line (wherever that may be) but I am satisfied with myself feel fortunate that I (my body) was able to provide me once again with the love and joy of running.

    Run free


  43. Jared Friesen

    The problem though with a sub-3 hour qualifying time is a race like Hardrock. What if a person runs Hardrock in 32 hours, they can't use that for a WS qualifying time? Seems unfair. I say keep the qualifying time in place, get rid of the multiple ticket rule, decrease the chances for automatic entry (like Hardrock), and most of all, go AROUND the forest service area so you can increase the number of starters.

  44. Jared Friesen

    This goes back to Gordy's take on it, go AROUND the forest area! This alone could very well increase the starters by more than double since the forest area is the whole issue. Sure it would involve a course change, BUT, how many would be in favor of that for the reward of more starters?

  45. Jared Friesen

    The other option is WS could get rid of all automatic qualifyers (such as Ultra-Cup) and only hold 20 slots for top 10 male and female of previous year, plus say about 10 more for board discretion. The rest could go to lottery for those who have not finished the race in the past 5 years.

    But I say, change the course and go around the service area, that is really the big issue with the number of starters. Maybe push to get a similar course that could do 500-1000 runners. You could even go for broke and get 1000+ and do it UTMB style.

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