Nov 15, 2012 – This was originally published in December 2009, but I think it is still an interesting topic. Definitely read the story referenced below if you haven’t before. And the comments are pretty good, too.
It is lottery season. Ultra lottery season, that is. With the biggies WS, Massanutten, and Miwok already done and Way Too Cool, Wasatch, CCC, Hardrock, and others still to come, there have been some very happy people and many more disappointed people. This whole lottery business is fascinating. Some races still do first-come, first-served, but there seems to be a common belief that lotteries are somehow more fair. For example, whereas getting into Way Too Cool used to favor those with some technical savvy and a fast internet connection as you had to be on the computer at 8:00am (or 7:53am a few years back when it opened early, uh oh) and get all your info entered and credit card approved within minutes, the new lottery levels the playing field. Or at least that’s what race organizers think. If you get selected, then you probably think the lottery is fair. However, if you’re one of the many who don’t get selected, you might think otherwise.
Not all ultra lotteries are the same. Some like Hardrock and Wasatch are weighted, so people with more finishes or presumably a better chance of finishing, have volunteered at the race, or have lost in previous lotteries, have a greater chance of being selected. Others like WS (until next year), Miwok, and Way Too Cool give equal weight to all entries (whether qualified or serious about entering or not, but I digress). But, regardless of whether it is weighted or not, the lottery process must be trusted. Participants need to believe that the process is not rigged or otherwise pre-determined. When WS used to pull names out of a GUBrew bucket it was clear that the selection process was not rigged. People would go up and draw names. The person drawing couldn’t see the names on the sheets of paper, and no names were ever pulled twice. However, we couldn’t know for sure that our name was in the bucket. With their new process, that issue still remains, plus now they are reliant on a random selection algorithm on a computer in some machine room in sky daddy knows where. Transparent and open? Not so much. Fair? Depends on whether you think lotteries should be weighted.
Massanutten uses a very creative, open, transparent, and random process. As entries come in, they are assigned a random number between 0 and 999. 180 names are drawn from those entrants. The seed is based on the last three digits of the Dow Jones Industrial Average at the close of lottery day. The person with that number is selected, and if the DOW closes up, the next 179 people on the list get selected. If the DOW closes down, the previous 179 people get selected (see process here). Creative, transparent, and open? Absolutely. Fair? Again, only if you think lotteries shouldn’t be weighted.
My wife recently forwarded me a short story written by Shirley Jackson in 1948 for The New Yorker magazine, appropriately titled The Lottery. She had first read it in high school, but not being very literary or someone who went to the same school as President Barack Obama, I had never read this story before. It’s good. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you take a few minutes and read it first before coming back to this post (link here).
So what do you think? Pretty dark story, huh? Obviously in this lottery, unlike our race lotteries, you do not want to get selected. But similar to our lotteries, it’s easy to think there is nothing wrong until you are (or aren’t) the chosen one. Poor Mrs Hutchison grew up in this small town and had most likely participated in many lotteries, presumably never complaining until she is selected in the lottery. I can hear her cries of, “It’s not fair.” echoing across the land as this ultra lottery season continues.
I would never suggest there is only one right way to select a field for races, but open and transparent are characteristics I believe must be considered important. Fair is much more difficult to define.
What say you?