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Trail Tips

4 Stages of Lottery Grief

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Awaiting race-entry results will turn the most august of us into jittery balls of nerves, with bouncing knees and jagged nubs where our fingernails used to be. We stare at the computer screen, clicking the refresh button every 10 seconds like love-struck teenagers waiting for our sweetheart to respond on instant message. But this is a different love.

Finally, the email arrives. It might be from Way Too Cool, Lake Sonoma, Miwok, Leadville, Hardrock, Western States, UTMB, Waldo, Cascade Crest …

Thank you for your interest. We’re sorry to inform you …

Sure, it may be a first-world problem, but we all know what a huge let down it is to not be accepted into a race we’ve had our sights on for months, let alone years. It can feel like a mistake, like a joke, like downright heartbreak.

But before you call the race director to demand an explanation, take off on a triple-IPA bender or sign up for an axe-throwing contest (just to get into something), take heart.

Trail Runner chatted with a few veterans of the sport, to bring you a simple four-step program for coping with goal-race-rejection-induced grief.

Stage 1: Denial

It is a risk to dedicate yourself to a race that has a lottery. Yet we all fall victim. We sign up for big races knowing the odds are poor, and yet still find ourselves tagging @Hardrock on our training photos in seeming denial.

When Trail Runner‘s own Jeremy Duncan became a father this fall, his training and racing plan changed dramatically. His window for running shrank to two hours, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., and his racing window shrank to mid-summer, when his wife, a teacher, would have more time. His geographical radius shrank, too: he needed a backyard event so he could be time and cost effective.

The nearby Leadville 100 was a natural choice and Duncan put all his eggs in that one basket, denying that rejection was possible, even likely. Further digging himself into a hole, he began forcing himself to train every night after work in the dark, sometimes in sub-zero temps.

So go ahead, take a nice long soak in the denial pool … but prepare to step out into reality.

Stage 2: Anger

“#@*&ing Nut Bunnies!”

These were the actual words out of Duncan’s mouth when he found out that he hadn’t gotten into Leadville.

It’s bound to happen to us all, sooner or later.

You may find yourself angrily researching the history of the race, convinced of a hidden trend of corruption. You call your friends: Did you get in? Did you get in? Did you get in? You crank up Rage Against the Machine and head down to the bike path to take out your frustration by sprinting against unsuspecting cyclists.

Were all those miles and lunge repeats for naught?

No. They’ve just prepared you to outkick whatever’s next. So scream from the mountaintop, delete your social-media accounts, egg the house of your friends who got in, then move on.

Stage 3: Optimism and Acceptance

In most grief or depression progressions, Stage 3 is something like “bargaining” or “reflection” or “loneliness.” Yet many runners seem to skip straight to the positive: moving on.

Maybe it’s the serotonin, or the childlike color schemes of our shoes, or the regular bowel movements, but there’s something eternally, annoyingly optimistic about us trail runners.

“Yes, but I’ve always gotten in, eventually,” says Stephanie Howe Violett when asked whether she’s experienced goal-race-rejection grief.

“I haven’t gotten in [to Hardrock] the last three years but I will eventually. I love racing but my running career doesn’t revolve around it. The part that I enjoy is just being out on the trails and the experience.”

Elite trail runner Ryan Ghelfi, 28, spent the early part of his career trying—and failing—to earn a Golden Ticket to Western States. “It taught me to look outside of Western States for contentment,” he says. “I’ve realized how many other awesome races there are to do. I think someday I will run [Western States], but it’ll happen when it happens.”

Likewise, Duncan hasn’t completely given up on Leadville, though he knows it may be a ways off. “The best way to get into Leadville would be to volunteer [and then have entry preference next year]. That’s likely what I’ll do,” he says. What’s important, he stresses, is to “never sign up for something on a whim because you are upset about not getting into the goal race. Always have tiered goals. Race A, if not then Race B, etc. and be equally excited about those various goals.”

Stage 4: Crush Everything Else

As a high-school, cross-country runner, David Laney never made it into the state-level meet. “It was always tough,” he says. “But it taught me to be patient and keep working harder.”

Now 28, Laney has earned podium finishes at Chuckanut 50K, Waldo 100K and North Face Endurance 50-miler. In 2015 he earned the title of Ultrarunner of the Year and placed third at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.

“I think being flexible, and realizing there are hundreds of great races to run in the course of a year, is the key to enjoying the sport and not getting hung up on lotteries or certain races,” he says.

So, ask your fellow runners for suggestions on excellent, under-the-radar events, or check out the Trail Runner Race Finder.

To this day, Ghelfi has not run Western States, though he has set an FKT on California’s Mount Shasta and co-founded a coaching business. “My advice to people who don’t get into their dream race is this: go find something else to do—a long trail, a different race. Who knows, maybe you’ll realize your dreams change.”

Axe throwing anyone?