Rugged Individualist. Certified USA Triathlon Coach & NASM Personal Trainer, Men's Self Improvement Coach. President of Go Farther Sports. National Ranked Triathlete & 100 Mile Grand Slam Ultrarunner, only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Are You Lucky? Your Chances of Getting In To Your Favorite Race - Part 3

How Races Use Online Registration and Lottery Systems to Determine Who Gets In

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

In the first two posts I took a look at the registration process for your chances to get into the New York City Marathon, the Western States 100 Mile Ultramarathon, the Hawaii Ironman, and Ironman Lake Placid.

In this last segment, I'll start with the Boston Marathon's predicament, and how it can be easily remedied through a fair system. Then, I'll highlight what I think is the most open and fair registration process I've seen for a race.

Boston Marathon

OK, so the Boston Marathon had their registration process for years, and it served them well. The system was pretty straightforward. You needed to qualify under a certain time in another certified marathon within 18 months of the Boston Marathon, then send in the application with that time, and you're in! The qualifying times were based on your age and gender; your qualifying time can be easily searched on Google or on their website.

In previous years, it used to take the Boston Marathon months to fill. Last year, it took them two months. This year? A mere 8 hours. 26,000 entries in 8 hours. That's 54 entries per minute!

Ahhh, the wonder of online registration! When an old race such as the Boston Marathon hits new technology like online registration, interesting things happen. Such is the case here.

Luckily, they chose a pretty good period (18 months) for the shelf life of a qualifying time. Registration filled for the Boston Marathon in October, so this gives those who qualified in a fall marathon after Boston's registration closed (like NYC Marathon) a chance to get into the 2012 race. Some people are dismayed that they had to wait a year to qualify, but hey, they at least have the chance to do it.

So here are some suggestions that the organizers might want to do to try to remedy the situation: 

They can keep the present system going, making sure that anyone who did qualify have at least a chance to enter within the next 2 years. Now of course, there will always be complaints with this system. First come, first serve always seems to cause angst against those who procrastinate on getting in. Secondly, the sheer volume of people accessing a website to get into a race might cause those with slower internet connections to be locked out of the process entirely. I've unfortunately seen that with other races. I have no sympathy with procrastinators, but I do have sympathy for those who cannot lock on to a website to register for the race; their complaints are valid, in my opinion. The "first come, first serve" method might not be a good method for a race of this magnitude. After all, they have a reputation to uphold and don't want to have anything negative influencing it.

The second solution would be to drop all the qualifying times by at least 5 minutes. This would definitely thin the applicants a bit and gain some semblence of what they had before, when it took them a month or two to fill the race. But, this does have its drawbacks also. By lowering qualifying times, the race can develop a reputation as being very elitist, only allowing the faster runners into the race. They will have a higher number of quality runners on the field, but will lose out on a lot of the "regular Joes" that come to do the race to just finish. This option would definitely carry some risk as well.

The third option is to hold a lottery. Yeah, I know. A lot of people hate a lottery system. But I think it's the most fair, and perhaps the most civilized system out there. Everyone has a one month period to enter the lottery. The lottery is held soon afterwards, and the runners are picked. But there is no waiting until 12 midnight with lightning-quick reflexes and a supersonic internet connection to register ahead of the thousands of people. There is no change in their qualifying times that could cause the Boston Marathon to be accused of holding an elitist attitude. Just get your entry in during the one month window at your convenience, then patiently wait for the lottery results online.

What's is amazing about the lottery is that it is now totally digitized. A computer can pick out 26,000 names and automatically post the lucky winners online within seconds. Those days of "picking a name out of a hat" is over, thanks to technology.

But some people are still skeptical. Computers can be hacked, they say. And the organizers can program prejudices into the selection process, favoring some runners over others. How can they tell if the electronic process is clean? These questions are definitely valid.

Well, enter the Massanutten 100 and the Bull Run Run 50 Mile Ultras. Their lottery system is the most open and the most fascinating that, unless the organizers know huge Wall Street traders with big-time connections to Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, they themselves cannot influence the lottery process.

Bull Run Run 50 Mile Run and the Massanutten 100 Mile Run

The lotteries of both the above races are identical, although held on different days. This is the most open and transparent system that I've seen any race have.

The lottery goes as have a 1 week window to send in your application to enter the lottery. The organizers then give you a number from 0-999. The lottery is then based on the DOW industrial average closing at the given date. The field is then picked based on the last 3 digits of the DOW industrial average on up.

For example, say if I'm entering the Bull Run Run and my number given is 245. The organizers will pick 350 people from the list, so let's say I avidly watch the DOW industrial average close at 12,150. The organizers will then pick the person numbered 150, the last 3 digits of the DOW, and count up 349 more people. In other words, people who have numbers 150-499 would be in, including me! On the other hand, if the DOW closed at 11, 250 and I hold 245, I would be out of luck as they would start counting from 250 on up.

This process takes the control of the lottery out of the organizers' hands and keeps the process open and honest.

Even if I do lose the lottery, there is still a good chance to get in. If I pay the organizers the race fee, they will put me on the waiting list in the order given by our numbers. Because of the extreme distance of these races, a lot of people do bow out of the race beforehand, leaving spots open for the race. In 2009, as a matter of fact, everyone who didn't withdraw from the waiting list were moved into the field, so there is still a good chance of getting in.


Every race has a different way of filling their races. Some have a lottery system, some are first come, first serve. If you really want to enter a race, you need to do your homework at least a year before the race. Find out what the important dates are, and follow their instructions to the letter. This is the best way to increase your chances of getting into your favorite race.

As for the Boston Marathon, I would suggest you check up on their website at least once per month if you're trying to get into the 2012 race. They "might" change their registration system, so you need to try to stay in the loop as much as possible.

And if you didn't get in, do not dispair. There is always another year. In the meantime, there are lots of other races you can do that don't fill as quickly. And who knows, you might get to love some of the smaller races. In my 20 years of participating in running and multisport races, I've been pleasantly surprised many times at the quality of the small races. I'm sure you would too.

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

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