Supply and Demand at the Western States 100

A look at the Western States 100 lottery problem and what to do about it.

By on November 11, 2011 | 73 comments

AJWs TaproomThis Saturday morning at 12:01 a.m. PST, the application period for the 2012 Western States 100 opens. From that point on, for the subsequent two weeks, hundreds of hopeful runners will be plugging their data into Ultra Signup in the hope of gaining a spot on the starting line next June. Then, on Saturday, December 10th, Race Director Greg Soderlund will preside over the lottery and the names of the lucky few will be chosen. Some will go away happy while many more will be deeply disappointed and forced to wait another year for entry into the race.

What more can possibly be said about the immense popularity of this race? And, how can race management effectively deal with the ever-increasing popularity of their race? Below are a few of my thoughts on the matter:

What they should not do:

  1. Raise the entry fee – While it could be tempting to do so, maintaining the inclusive nature of the race is essential. As it is, race weekend costs many runners thousands of dollars. Increasing the entry fee would only add to the elitist reputation the race has in some circles and would be perceived as an attempt to turn one of the great non-profit ventures in the sport into something else entirely.
  2. Expand the field – While there are other 100 mile races with larger fields there are none with as much tradition, mystique, and charm as Western States. Expanding the field would not only water down the experience for those who do make it to the starting line but it would also lead to increased environmental degradation of the Sierra High Country. As it is, the event puts thousands of people into the wilderness every year and the costs, over time, will be quite high.
  3. Change the course – The history and charm of the WS Course is unassailable. Changing the course to accommodate more runners could be attractive to some. But, I believe it would cheapen the experience. As it is, the course changes during the past two “snow years” have left many people wondering if the race will ever move back to the true High Country between Lyon Ridge and Robinson Flat. Further course changes, in an attempt to allow more access to the event, would essentially change the race forever.

What they could do:

  1. Make a 100 mile finish a prerequisite for entry in the lottery – I have written on this previously (original and followup articles) so I will not re-hash the argument. However, I will say that with over 80 100-mile races available in North America and countless others internationally there are ample opportunities to run 100 miles prior to Western States. While I know that some insist this goes against the heritage of the event (Gordy didn’t have to run a qualifier), I believe it would make it a better race and make the lottery playing field more level.
  2. Tighten up the qualifying standard – The WS100 is the Grandaddy of all 100 milers. Make it a challenge to qualify. I could see a sliding scale based on age and gender (like the Boston marathon) that would allow for accessibility and selectivity simultaneously. I am not suggesting the race become elites-only but, rather, that it become something that is not only highly sought after but also the result of a truly aspirational goal.
  3. Create more automatic entries for past performances – The Montrail Ultra Cup series has been an excellent addition to the Western States experience and has allowed elite runners to qualify for the race outside of the lottery. I suggest an expansion on this theme to include older runners. How much more difficult would it be to declare a couple of sub-100 mile races as Masters and Seniors qualifiers? Increasingly, young runners are crowding out older runners at WS and while this has done much to perpetuate the race brand it has narrowed the exposure many have to the race. And, this has also made those age-group records that much tougher to break:)

So, there you have it, on the eve of the application period, my unsolicited suggestions. Now, get out there and run!

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Call for Comments (from Bryon)
Here’s a simple call for comments… do you think any changes need to be made to the Western States 100 in response to the demand for entries and, if so, what changes should be made.

Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.