Western States (WSER) and Hardrock (HR) 100-mile races are both challenging to get into unless you’re a) an elite or sponsored runner (WSER), or b) have a history at the race (HR). Many other races have lotteries, but not nearly as daunting as these two (for now). Both WSER and HR have recently introduced geometric lottery systems, “doubling” the number of tickets for each entrant each year. The idea is that persistent applicants will eventually prevail, but after a few years, the geometric system eventually gets flooded with huge numbers of tickets, particularly if there is a large backlog. There’s much debate over which lottery system is best, but no lottery will fix this. In spite of this, there seems to still be the mentality that anyone can get in eventually if they just keep trying.
Most applicants cannot be accommodated, ever.
The central problem is that hopeful runners far outnumber the number of available slots. The lottery for 2020 WSER had 6666 applicants for 264 lottery slots. That’s roughly 25 applicants for each at-large slot, so it would take 25 years to process all the hopefuls. For HR it’s about 50 years (2222 applicants for 45 slots for HR virgins), in spite of stiff qualifying standards. I’ll assume here that these races aren’t expanding – obviously, that would have the most direct impact but if it were that easy they would have done it already.
It doesn’t matter much which lottery system is used.
The geometric lottery system has been criticized [see http://joeuhan.blogspot.com/] for incentivizing runners who aren’t really ready yet, further clogging the system. I don’t think it makes much difference. Even with a simple lottery, runners will still enter every chance they get to increase their chances. And seriously, who knows if they’ll be ready or not in 7 months? The geometric system mainly favors people able to run more consistently than their peers over many years. This isn’t more fair or less fair, it’s just a variant of how to weight the slim odds of getting in. People eventually drop out of the system after one or a few years of attempts through discouragement or failure to maintain eligibility. It’s true that demand for these races accelerated around when the geometric lottery systems started, but not because of that. Rather I think the explosion in demand is simply a result of a huge backlog. Regardless of lottery-type, the backlog growth will continue.
I don’t see anything wrong with the current lottery systems, or previous ones, or newly proposed ones for that matter. They’re all reasonably fair. The only difference is what type of runner has the edge. Regardless, many deserving runners must go without.
What’s a runner to do? My parting message is this: there are plenty of other excellent things to go after. Lots of prime 100-mile races with easier or non-existent lotteries (not to mention other distances, formats). Do some adventures on foot. Crew or pace a friend who was luckier than you. Go ahead, throw your name in the lottery hat with me! But choosing these races as your ultimate goal is likely to end in disappointment.