Race Lotteries are the Worst (Except for All the Other Options)

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Editors’ Choice: October Blog Symposium on whether lotteries are the best way to manage admittance into popular trail races


Editors’ Note: The original version of this piece appeared at Sometimes I Run and is our top pick among entries into the October 2014 Trail Runner Blog Symposium: “Are lotteries a good way to manage admittance into popular trail races?” Other highlights from this month’s topic can be found below.

We’re finally getting to the end of this year’s elections and, in light of all the junk I’ve seen on TV and received in the mail, one of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes has been on my mind a lot:

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

The same could be said for the lotteries that decide who gets to run the most popular trail races. Lotteries are certainly the worst way to choose race participants … except for all the others.

Lotteries are merely a consequence of our sport’s popularity. Every race is going to have a limit on the number of entrants, and lotteries are an increasingly popular way in handling the growing demand for those spots. Ideally, everyone would be able to run every race they want, but that can’t happen. There has to be some method for choosing, and I think race lotteries are the best choice among all the horrible options for selecting entrants.

Still, there are a lot of complaints about the lottery process:


Lotteries Don’t Reward Our Loyalty.

Many of us form emotional connections with particular trail races, and our feelings can be quite strong. Lotteries fail to take these deeply personal connections into account, and they frustrate our expectations. A lottery means that even if I’ve done my favorite race every year for the past five or ten years, and sacrificed a lot in training for it, some newbie is going to have the same chance as me at getting into next year’s race!

But … isn’t that how it should be? We talk about how great our sport is – how the weekend warrior can toe the line right alongside the very best runners! We’re all part of the same big community! If those sentiments mean anything, then a first-timer should have the same chance as I do at getting in.


Lotteries Aren’t Entirely Fair.

Most often race lotteries are a simple one-person, one-entry affair. But, in others, the process combines a lottery with other means of admission (like guaranteed slots for past winners, race pioneers, volunteers, sponsors, etc.), or conducts the lottery process in a manner that makes it more likely for prior lottery losers to get drawn (like Hardrock and Western States). These hybrid lotteries seem to have their share of haters, too, with claims that some of the slots are being allocated to runners who somehow aren’t deserving, or that first-timers actually don’t have a fair chance of getting in.

The short answer, of course, is that the race directors can run their races in whatever way they see fit (in accordance with their permits). For example, some use qualifying standards for entrants, while others don’t. Some racers want to reward volunteers and sponsors, or recognize specific individuals, while others don’t.

It’s all good!

Different race organizations have different ways of doing things, and I believe that it’s healthy for races to have different personalities, different feels and different competitor profiles. If every race felt the same, then there would be little reason to choose one over another.


Lotteries Are Too Random.

At their core, lotteries are inherently random, and to some that might seem wrong. Our ability to prepare for and compete in a race we love shouldn’t depend on the vagaries of whether our name is drawn out of a hat, right?

The truth is that there’s far more randomness involved in whether we’re actually going to make it to the starting line of our favorite race and how we’re going to perform on race day. How many of us have gotten injured the week before a big race? Or eaten the wrong thing the night before? Or done something else that led to a horrible night’s sleep just before the race? Or suffered unseasonably hot (or cold) weather on race day that completely threw off our well thought-out pacing and fueling strategies?

Stuff happens. Our sport is a crazy combination of large amounts of training and planning and structure, together with a healthy dose of uncontrollable randomness.

A lottery should be the least of our concerns.


The Alternatives Are Worse.

Besides, isn’t a lottery drawing preferable to a first-come, first-served process that, when a race becomes popular enough, becomes a race to click a registration link within the first few seconds after it goes live? You might get lucky with your mouse, but is a lottery really so bad in comparison?

And, at least with a lottery, you know what you’re up against. While I love everything I’ve ever heard and read and seen about the Barkley Marathons, I’m glad that no other big races follow their less-than-clear entry process.

Finally, while it hasn’t become an issue (yet), another way a marquee race might conceivably fill their slots and avoid a lottery would be to keep upping their entry fees until demand and supply match up. That might drive most of us away, but as long as enough paid entrants show up the race would still go on. I’d certainly prefer a lottery to a purely market-based approach.

Even if you’re still a lottery hater, don’t forget that new races are popping up all the time, and these events generally don’t have an overcrowding problem for at least a couple years. If you don’t get drawn to run in your first choice race, then congratulations – now you have the opportunity to go try something new!

Are race lotteries perfect? Not even close.

Are they the best option for dealing with a crush of race applicants? Probably.


Jake Wyatt is a recovering attorney currently studying to become a massage therapist. He resides with his family (and pug Charlie) in Longmont, Colorado. Find his blog, Sometimes I Run, here.

Other highlights from the Symposium on this month’s topic:

  • “It was only a matter of time until the lottery reached us.  Because of the current demand for joining trail races, I think it’s a good idea.  It allows the directors of the race to fairly and equally distribute entries to runners.”
    Joe Granat, Health Lush
  • “Your first instinct may be that lotteries are a fair system to allow everybody the same possibility of taking part in a popular race. You don’t have to take a whole anxiety-ridden evening sitting in front of your personal computer, tablet or smartphone, hoping it (or the organizer’s website) does not crash.”
    —Terence Roth, Solomonic Gobbledygook
  • “An ultra isn’t about speed, it is about mental strength. It is hard to tell by statistics alone who will be able to successfully complete 135 miles of torturous terrain and unpredictable weather and physical reactions … lotteries are a vital part of endurance races, because there are incredible athletes at every end of the speed spectrum who deserve to be on the course of some of the world’s biggest trail races.”
    Jessica Kuepfer, Laces and Lattes
  • “As for those runners that do not want to deal with lotteries at all, well there are always woods, trails and mountains. Those are always there – ready and free for your next adventure.”
    Emir Dedic, Japod Runner
  • “Of course, if you are just unlucky in lotteries from time to time, fat-asses and smaller low-key races that don’t fill can still be found around the country.”
    Rachel Kelley, Trail (Wisp)erings

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