By Heather Sackett
The growing difficulty of getting in, coupled with the way the lottery is conducted (board members pulling names out of a jar at a board member’s house in an event that is not open to the public) has led to a spate of recent criticism and even a lawsuit against the Hardrock 100.
The Hardrock lottery is not public because the board wants to keep the identities of “Dale’s Picks,” confidential. Race Director Dale Garland chooses five runners to invite each year, which are totally his prerogative with no questions asked. According to the website, the intent of these five picks is to correct perceived omissions, such as a runner who has tried for many years to enter or who has given exceptional service to Hardrock or that Hardrock thinks will bring added interest to the run. But not everyone believes the process is fair and the complaints and accusations have started flying.
“There have been a few people on the public forums in the last few years who have said, ‘We think you’re lying and you just let in all your friends,’” said outgoing board vice president and 20-time Hardrock finisher Blake Wood. “It’s actually gotten pretty personal.”
So this year, in response to the complaints, the Hardrock board invited ultra runners and coaches Ian Torrance and Emily Harrison and myself to witness the lottery as independent observers and vouch that it is conducted the way they claim it is.
Background and stats
When the grueling 100-mile race through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains began in 1992, there was plenty of room for everyone who signed up to run the race. Fast forward 24 years. The exploding popularity of ultra running means that for the 2017 event, nearly 2,000 applicants vied for just 145 spots. The only runners guaranteed entry are the last year’s winners.
In 2013, the board implemented a three-division lottery system. This year there were 33 slots for veterans with more than five Hardrock finishes, 67 slots for runners who have completed between one and four Hardrocks (“everyone else” it’s called) and 45 slots for first-timers who have never toed the starting line. Every year a runner’s name is not drawn, their number of entry tickets will double for the next year: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 and so on. The best strategy for getting in is patience as your odds increase each year.
For the 2017 race, the final count was 43 veteran applicants with 404 tickets, 201 everyone else applicants with 747 tickets and a whopping 1,722 never applicants with 7,339 tickets. The selection process clearly favors those who have completed the race since those pools are smaller and applicants receive an additional ticket for each finish. If this was your first year in the “never” lottery, your chances of getting in were a slim .6 percent.
Even though a “never” runner’s ticket count will double every year, according to Wood, the number of entrants has been doubling about every third year, thereby somewhat offsetting the increased odds.
Is the process fair?
Whatever your feelings are about the complicated methodology of the three weighted lottery pools system, I can say it was carried out with precision, honesty, integrity and veneration for the task, exactly the way it is described on Hardrock’s website. It took place on Dec. 3 at board member Ken Gordon’s Albuquerque home. While cutting up the tickets, board members meticulously checked to make sure not one single ticket was accidentally thrown away or had fluttered to the floor. The sides of the plastic jars were papered over so they were no longer transparent and were held above eye level when picking tickets so there was no chance of catching a glimpse of a name.
Each of the three lotteries had different colored tickets so it was easy to tell if a wayward ticket ended up in the wrong jar and each lottery is made up of two different colors; with a glance you could tell if the tickets were thoroughly mixed. Cut up strips of dryer sheets were mixed in so the tickets wouldn’t stick together. Board members and bystanders took turns passing the jar and choosing names, but if someone was entered in one of the lotteries as a runner, they could not choose for that lottery to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. After the selection was over, all the tickets were put into bags and saved for possible future inspection in case anyone questions the results.
The system was designed by Wood, who is a retired physicist with a brain for numbers. And although there are computer programs that can conduct a runner selection like this, Wood and the board choose to keep it old school, partly for fun and partly as another safeguard against cheating.
“If I was doing it on the computer, there would be no audit trail,” Wood said. “There would be no way for anybody else to know I haven’t manipulated the program for a certain result.”
Saturday morning’s first two lotteries — the veterans and everybody else — went quickly. But there was more pomp and circumstance surrounding the third lottery for the never-evers. Board members humbly recognized the gravity of what they were about to do: choose the newest members of the Hardrock family while at the same time disappointing many people.
The system might be imperfect, but it is not rigged and it adheres to the Hardrock 100’s core values
“Hopes and dreams now,” Wood said.
“This is definitely a life-changer,” added board member Roch Horton.
The system might be imperfect, but it is not rigged and it adheres to the Hardrock 100’s core values of a small, egalitarian, rugged mountain run. Board members emphasize that Hardrock is a run, not a race. There are no spots reserved for elite runners and no prize money. Garland says a few words about each finisher at the morning-after awards ceremony, a nice touch that would be nearly impossible if the event were to grow much bigger. According to the board, the course would also have trouble accommodating the crews, friends and families if they were to add more runners.
Wood says the three-part lottery helps preserve what makes Hardrock Hardrock and he suspects the structure will stay the same for at least the immediate future, despite the recent complaints.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said.
Heather Sackett is a Telluride, Colorado-based writer and trail runner. Her recent work has appeared in Adventure Journal, Trail Runner Magazine and Wild Bounds. She is currently working on a guidebook that combines her two passions — writing and playing in the mountains — called “The Best Crested Butte Hikes” for the Colorado Mountain Club. Follow her at www.heathersackett.co.