Race Lotteries are the WORST! (Except for all the other options…)

We’re finally getting to the end of this year’s elections and, in light of all the junk I’ve sees 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 me 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’d 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.



The Trail Running Film Fest – Opening Night in Boulder, CO

I was able to get to Boulder last night for the first stop of Rainshadow Running’s Trail Running Film Fest. I’ve been to a number of climbing and mountaineering film festivals over the years, but this was my first opportunity to attend a showing of trail running films. James Varner and Rainshadow Running did a great job of putting on the show.

On the whole, I enjoyed the mix of film styles and subjects. The event consisted of one feature film, a handful of race vids, some excerpts and previews of future films, a couple humorous interludes, and even a couple interviews (Well… one of the interviews felt more like a commercial, but I suppose that’s bound to happen once in a show of this size….)

Regardless of whether it’s climbing films or trail running films, I’m drawn to those that can combine two key elements: (1) showing off the unique nature of a particular event, mountain, or locale, and (2) giving us an honest and open picture of the people involved, without elevating them or their accomplishments to mythical status (even if their physical and mental abilities are otherworldly). I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of runner (or rock climber) celebrities, so films that go too far down the path of “OMG, look how AWESOME this person is!!!” are kind of a turn off. Thankfully, none of the films in the festival suffered from that problem.

If I had to pick my favorite film of the evening, it would be “Depressions.” The filmmaker did a great job of giving us a glimpse of the challenges that one particularly strong and talented runner faces, all while doing so in a deceptively simple visual style that made it virtually impossible for me to blink, let alone look away from the screen.

Other highlights:

  • Having lived in Colorado for the past decade I’ve become a bit spoiled with spectacular and awe-inspiring mountain trails. But the two clips about Alaska’s Mountain Marathon (a short film about the 2013 Race, and a preview of the upcoming feature “3022”) made my jaw drop. I’d never considered the possibility that a trail 5k could be so ass-kickingly difficult, I’m anxiously awaiting the release of “3022.” (I’m not affiliated with “3022,” but if you’re interested in joining me to help get the film out quicker, here’s a link to their online fundraising campaign: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/3022-ft-a-mt-marathon-story.)
  • I’m also looking forward to the imminent release of “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young” (which was also previewed with some exclusive footage). Given the truly unique nature of that race, I can’t help but think the film is going to be something special. (http://barkleymovie.wordpress.com/)
  • The feature film – “Running the Edge: The Colorado Trail” was a great way to end the evening. I appreciated the way the filmmaker stepped back and let the story unfold organically. The trail and the runner were both given their due, and it felt like I was there watching the record attempt rather than watching a glossy hyper-edited retelling of it.

Future dates and locations can be found here: http://www.trailfilmfest.com/tour-dates.html.

Bear Chase Trail Race (50 Mile) – 2014 Race Report

Setting race goals can be tricky. One of the biggest challenges for me is trying to balance outcome goals (i.e., finish time) versus process goals (i.e., pacing). In this past weekend’s Bear Chase Race 50 miler, I had set an 11 hour goal for myself. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to crank out a steady pace over the entire distance, so also set a pacing goal by breaking up that 11 hours into the following target lap times: 2:25, 2:35; 2:50; 3:10. After all, having a course comprised of 4 x 12.5 mile laps made it easy and natural to try to build a pacing strategy.

I was able to run a 10:53 and meet the finish time goal, but the process for getting there was a bit ugly, and I was pretty far off from my pacing goals. I ran both of the first two laps about 12 minutes faster than my goal times. My third lap was turned out to be eight minutes slower than my goal pace. And my fourth lap, for which I originally had a modest goal of 3:10 (which works out to be over a 15:00/mile pace), was run a full nine minutes slower than target pace.

The night after the race I was feeling a little frustrated with my inability to stick to my goal paces, but then I realized that I just pulled those goal times out of the air. Sure, there’s a certain attractiveness to the mathematical progression of the lap targets I chose: slow down 10 minutes from the first lap to the second, 15 minutes from the second to the third, and 20 minutes from the third to the fourth. But those goals weren’t based on my body, my heat tolerance, my level of fitness going into the race, or the countless other real world factors that would impact my ability to run on race day. That realization made me less bummed out.

Having a goal is important, but unless that goal is actually based on something solid it’s probably not fair to beat yourself up too much for not meeting it.

The Course.

The Start

(All pics from RunningGuru.com)

There’s something inherently unappealing about a multi-loop course, particularly when multiple events are being contested simultaneously. But surprisingly, I never really felt bored or mentally challenged by running the same trails four times. And the course never felt crowded or clogged.

The loop course did make it possible to get a good handle on what to expect throughout the race once I’d done the first lap. After the first lap I knew where the faster and shadier parts of the course were, and where the slow and deceptive parts were. This made the task at hand seem much more reasonable.

Besides that, running 12.5 mile laps was good practice for the Umstead 100 I’m signed up to run next March.

The Aid Stations.

Racers from past events have universally praised the aid stations for this event, and I have to agree that the adoration is entirely deserved.

I only carried a single water bottle, so I stopped at every single aid station (15 total stops) even if it was just to top off my bottle and grab a gel. Each time there was a volunteer who came out onto the trail to meet me, offering to fill my bottle and get me food. As a result, I don’t think there was any instance where I spent more than 15 or 30 seconds in any station.

The enthusiasm of the volunteer stayed constant throughout the event. Even on my last lap, there was an energy and enthusiasm at each aid station that helped keep my own energy and levels of enthusiasm high. I think it also must have had the same effect on other racers, too. Over the course of the day I saw precisely zero instances of rude or inconsiderate racer behavior.

What I Learned.

  • I’m getting older. And I’m getting a little thinner… up top. My hair is apparently no longer enough to protect the top of my head from sunburn, as this race left me with some red scalp. Visors are no longer going to cut it for me. I need to wear a full on hat from here on out.
  • The heat of the day led to some nausea on the third lap, and that led to me reducing my calorie intake. It probably slowed me a bit more on my last lap, but it could have turned into a significant problem if the race was longer.
  • I wore two different pairs of shoes during the race (two laps each). The first pair fits pretty true to size, and I experimented with tying them a little looser than normal, just to give my feet a little extra room to breathe. This was pretty successful, as I didn’t have any blister or hotspot issues, although the looser laces meant that more sediment came in through the tops of the shoes on the creek crossings. This is worth further experimentation.

Interesting Internal Chatter.

During the first few miles of that last lap I’d begin walking on flat sections of trail, and my logical brain kept reminding me that walking at 18-20 minute mile pace wasn’t really any more comfortable than shuffling along at 13-14 minute mile pace. And it wasn’t helping me recover to be able to move more quickly later in the lap. The only thing walking was doing was keeping me on the course longer. I had to keep reminding myself of this in order to get the legs back to running pace again.

On the last 6 miles of the race, the negotiations began. I’m not sure if this is something that anyone else ever has to face, but there’s a part of my internal dialogue that went like this:

You didn’t have any good or logical reason for choosing an 11 hours finish goal… why are you going to suffer more just to try to get it?


What’s the difference between an 10:59 finish time and an 11:06 or 11:15 finish time? No big deal…


Hmm…. that left pinky toe feels like it’s blistered. Maybe you should stop at the 47.8 mile aid station and take a look. Maybe get some Vaseline on it…

On the whole I was able to overcome most of this negative/unhelpful thinking, but not entirely. In any case, it was good to experience this “Logical Brain” vs. “Ahh… Screw It Brain” chatter, so that I can perhaps be a little better prepared for it when I attempt my first 100.