How Races Use Online Registration and Lottery Systems to Determine Who Gets In
Getting to this start line in the Western States 100 can be more difficult than getting to the finish line.
This year, the Boston Marathon entry process had something unprecedented happen to them. The field closed only 8 hours after they started accepting applications for their 2011 race.
What took months to fill now took mere hours. A lot of runners who wanted to do this race who qualified now couldn't get in to the venerable race and felt slighted in the process. Running clubs and running forums around the country lit up at what had transpired.
The Boston Marathon is seeing a surge of runners that they have never seen in its much fabled history. And it's that "problem with success" that will certainly need to be addressed with next year's registration process.
As for the individual runner, sometimes scheduling next year's racing season includes one or more of these popular races. And if you want to get in, you're going to have to do some homework on how they select their field on order to get the best chance of getting in.
Around this time, the autumn, I start to determine which races I'll be doing next season. For this year, I've taken a liking to a couple of very popular ultramarathons that have a lottery process to select their fields. What I've found out is that there are so many different lotteries and selection processes that I had to list them down in my organizer so that I make the deadlines on each of the races I try to enter.
As a consequence of "doing my homework" on some of these, I've taken the time to look at several races' methods of determining who gets into their race. I've found that each race has a totally different set of circumstances that determine their method of selection. I'll be examining several endurance races, the circumstances they face, and the selection process they use in response.
One of the givens in most races is that they allow automatic entry for those elite runners who placed high in their standings last year. Race organizers would definitely want the people who won their race to have a chance at defending their title against his/her worthy opponents. In other words, the organizers want the best of the best in their race.
But since most of us are average Joes who are either just looking to finish the race or set a new PR, we would have to go through what is usually the lottery process.
Since the New York City Marathon was on the minds of many this week, I might as well start here.
New York City Marathon
The NYC Marathon is the largest marathon in the world, and it actually looks to get even larger. This year alone, 45,000 people started this year's race. The organizers, the New York Road Runners (NYRR), are publicly saying that they want to eventually start 60,000 people. So they are one of few races where they are pretty much open-ended in attendence. The organizers go out of the way to attract international runners to its race, guaranteeing entry to those who submit their athletes through their Official International Travel Partners program, which is understandable because this race is one of the tourism industry's biggest events and the city tends to make millions of dollars of tourism dollars off this event alone. The small amount of spots that are left are then drawn through their lottery program.
Still, it's the open-ended nature of the race that allows their next option to be available...and to get the support and money for other NYRR races that they put on. There is a guaranteed entry to all those who support the NYRR by completing 9 of their races and volunteering in one of them in the same year as the NYC Marathon. It's quite a committment to undertake, and it costs a lot of money, but if someone from the NYC area really wants to do this race, they can.
Lastly, there is the guaranteed entry for those "losers" who are just plain unlucky in the lottery. If a runner doesn't win the lottery in 2 consecutive years, they are guaranteed entry in the third year. Several races I know do have these. But for one of the races below, this process has its drawbacks and had to be phased out. That would be the Western States 100 Mile Ultramarathon.
Western States 100 Mile Ultramarathon
For those who don't know about the world beyond 26.2 miles, this race is THE original 100 mile ultramarathon. This was originally a horse race, but in 1974 one of the participants, Gordon Ansleigh, had his horse pull up lame before the race. So he decided to run the entire 100 miles on foot, finishing under 24 hours. And that started the 100 mile run phenomenon.
That reason alone makes Western States the "Boston Marathon" of ultramarathons (Boston Marathon is one of the oldest marathons in the US) and a desire for all ultra runners to do.
But a lot of trail races are run through parks, and most parks nowadays either ban organized events or cap the limit of people running in the race to protect sensitive areas. In this case, the organizers were faced with both. As their website states:
"Our permit with the U.S. Forest Service limits us to 369 runners. Why this odd number? In 1984, Congress enacted the California Wilderness Act, which created the Granite Chief Wilderness. The Western States Trail crosses the Granite Chief Wilderness, at about miles 6-10. Normally, organized events are not permitted in wilderness areas but, as Western States pre-existed the wilderness designation, we were able to get the race "grandfathered" into the legislation, with the proviso that we have no more runners than we had prior to the passage of the act. In 1984, it happened that there were 369 starters and that has been the magic number ever since."
Unlike the New York City Marathon, which has an open-ended policy, the Western States has to regulate and cap the number of people who enter their race. So their selection process would be a bit different.
Guaranteed entry of course will go to the top males and females of the race, as well as other notables for elite runners.
The rest will go into a lottery that is usually picked on the first of December. But because a) this is an extreme race and b) the number of entrants is severely limited, the organizers want to limit the number of people entering the lottery as well. Unlike the marathon, which is long in its own right, the organizers really want to know that the people entering the lottery are fit enough to enter their race. So they set the standards that only people who have done a 50 mile ultra in under 9 hours (or 10 hours with difficult 50 milers) and those who have completed a 100 mile race under the cutoff time specified be qualified to enter their lottery. Still, over 1700 people entered last year's Western States lottery. so the chances of getting in are around 20%. Projections are that they might have over 2000 lottery entrants this year.
The lottery entry is online, and they do take your credit card information but do not charge anything unless you win the lottery, which is fair (I'm very partial against "processing fees" some races take out when entering some lotteries; if you lose you only get some of the payment back). The actual lottery is the old tried and true one, with names thrown into a "hat", in a public forum in the first week of December. The names picked would then be placed on a list on a website.
As for the "Two Time Loser" option in which people who failed to make the lottery in two consecutive years can be automatically guaranteed in this year's lottery, they will be discontinuing that option starting next year because the sheer number of people that have signed up for the lottery has dramatically increased the past couple of years. Think about it. If 1700 people sign up for the lottery for the next 2 years and in each year there are 350 winners, that would be over 1000 "Two Time Losers" ready to run the race in 2013. This puts them way over the mandated 369 runner mark set by the US Forest Service Law. It turned out to be untenable, so they discontinued it.
In the second segment, I'll be describing other races lottery, like the Massanutten 100, Ironman Hawaii's lottery, and Ironman Lake Placid's entry process. I will also mention what happened with the unprecedented turn of events that happened with the 2011 Boston Marathon's entry process and what they might do to help mitigate their situation.
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