Go to the store and you stand in line to checkout. Go to the bank or post office and you take a number and wait for your number to be called. Apply for a passport or to adopt a child and you wait your turn. All of these are first-come first-served systems, and dare I say, what we all would consider fair. If one of these were to use a random selection process where names were just randomly pulled out of a hat (or an e-hat) it probably wouldn’t go over very well. You go to the store and don’t know when or if your name would get called to checkout. You might not make it home in time for dinner. There would likely be many complaints and cries of “this isn’t fair, I got here before she did.”
When it comes to games of chance such as Powerball, selection of jury members, or conscription, a random selection process is implemented. These lottery solutions don’t care how long you have been trying to win, each ticket or name has equal chance, same as every other ticket or name. You could have played and lost the lottery every week of your adult life and it won’t change your chances in the next one. We generally accept that a random solution is fair in these domains, regardless of how many times somebody has won or lost previously.
When it comes to registering for ultras it is interesting what we perceive as fair. As a race becomes more and more popular and fills up in weeks, then days, then hours, and finally minutes, people start asking “when are you going to a lottery?” Somewhere along the way we have come to believe that a lottery, or random process for selection is more “fair,” more egalitarian. But because it really isn’t a fair way to choose applicants, especially as the number of applicants greatly exceeds the available spots, races have to go to great lengths to try to make it fair, to make it less random. We end up giving additional tickets to multi-year losers, people who have volunteered at the race, runners with previous finishes, or whatever type of applicant “deserves” to have their chances increased. Seems pretty obvious to me that because we have to go through these machinations to make the selection process less random, a random lottery process is not inheritantly fair.
I don’t know how we got to this point with ultra race selections. Or why there is this perception that lotteries are more fair than first-come first-serve solutions. Why not have a big multi-year queue? Runners can register at anytime of the year. When an RD wants to choose the field for the next race they simply go down the big wait list and let people in as room allows (and assuming they are still qualified when their turn comes). When a runner is chosen and runs the race they can choose to be added to the back of the queue and wait their turn for another try. Obviously, there might be alternate routes of entry for elite runners or whoever the race deems should be let into the race, but this would be for the general population.
So help me out. Do you think that lotteries are more fair than a first-come first-serve solution to ultra entrant selection, and why?