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.