The Ultra of Lotteries

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Walking briskly to make the start, I funnel into a crowd of runners entering a high-school auditorium. Many fellow racers sport the stock trail runner’s garb of a puffy down jacket and trucker cap, and their parked cars display stickers or plates referencing ultramarathons. This looks and feels like an ultrarunning event, except for one big difference: We’re about to sit, not run, for hours.

We’re all part of an early-morning pilgrimage to watch the live lottery for the 43rd running of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, in Auburn, California.

Optimism clashes with anxiety in my gut, as if I await medical-test results. I have lost out in this lottery for three years.

Curiosity compels me to see the sorting process up close, while superstition irrationally whispers that I might improve my odds if I’m here in person.

I wave across the room to some friends as my husband, Morgan, and I snag a couple of seats three rows from the back. I’m glad to recognize faces in the crowd, as those at trail-running events seem more numerous and less familiar each year.

My heart rate spikes when I look at the bingo-ball spinner propped on center stage, which contains the pile of tickets.

“I really feel like I’m at a starting line,” I tell Morgan.

“The bathroom is right over there,” he replies dryly.

The race director welcomes everyone and displays an image on a screen that spells out the long odds: This year, 3,510 people applied for spots, a 37 percent increase. Organizers will draw 270 names today.

Only 270 out of 8,291 tickets.

Applicants get extra tickets for each consecutive year they’re not picked. The 2,233 first-timers with one ticket each have about a 3.6-percent chance. I have eight tickets, or about a 1-in-4 chance.

Ann Trason, the 14-time Western States champion, takes the stage to pull out the first set of names and hand them to another past champ, the 25-time Western States finisher Tim Twietmeyer, who reads them out loud. The crowd feels electric, as if we’re at an Apple convention witnessing the second coming of Steve Jobs.

Twietmeyer prefaces each picked name with a descriptive phrase, such as, “Our first Canadian … our first Oregonian … our first South American …” Each one nicks away at hope. Will it be death by 270 cuts?

Someone nearby suddenly jumps up and hollers, and the auditorium erupts in cheers. Witnessing joy up close is so satisfying compared to hearing the name of an absentee.

We’re up to 90, and soon I turn to Morgan and wail, “We’re at 100 already?”

“You’ve still got time,” he coaches. “Don’t give up.”

This event is becoming an endurance test that taps skills honed on the trails, like patience and staying positive. I struggle with doubt and a churning stomach.

Nearing the halfway point, Twietmeyer intones, “Another Year Two ticket holder, our first from Poland …”

I close my eyes, disassociating from disappointment.

“… and a Year Four,” his voice says, “from Piedmont, California …”

My eyes fly open, and a shriek escapes my mouth, as he says my name. Like a game-show winner, I sprint to the stage and embrace the race organizers.

Reclaiming my seat and brimming with gratitude, I tone down my outward glee out of respect for those still waiting anxiously. In this contest just to start the race, each of us covets a spot more each year we are left out, while the disappointment also deepens annually.

After the final name is drawn, a young girl one row in front of us throws her arms around a man next to her, presumably her father, and looks as if she may cry.

He tells her, “Next year.”

Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor at Trail Runner. She has begun experiencing anxiety dreams that involve tripping and falling on a trail between Squaw Valley and Auburn, California. This article originally appeared in our April 2016/DIRT issue.

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