Wait Listed: How to Train When You Don’t Know You’re Going To Race

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By Corrine Malcolm, CTS Ultrarunning Coach

With the growing popularity of ultrarunning, races are selling out faster than ever before. More races are moving to lottery formats – or already have them – to distribute entries, and those who don’t get in through the lottery are often placed on a wait list. While wait lists offer hope you may get into your goal race, the uncertainty can make it difficult to plan training. To help you out, here’s some data you should know about wait lists, as well as guidance on how to train depending on where you are on a given wait list.

I’m Wait Listed, Too!

December 2, 2017 was “Lottery Morning” for two of the biggest 100-mile races in the country, the Western States Endurance Race and Hardrock 100. I had forgotten to wear my Leadville belt buckle the day before for good luck, and only started with two tickets in the Western States lottery. I had a whopping 4.6% chance of even getting my name drawn, but still I was glued to the live feed. I squealed when friends’ names were drawn. I ran around my kitchen yelling when one of my athletes and one of my fellow coaches were selected. When the general lottery ended, my mind turned to the work I had to do and my run for the day… and then my phone blew up. My name had been drawn, 7th on the wait list. I was maybe running Western States! Between lottery day and mid-January I’ve moved up to 2nd on a shrinking list, but it may be a month or two before I get that, “You’re in, sign up!” email.

How Waitlists Really Work

Just like anything else, there is a lot of individual variability when it comes to how runners move up a particular wait list. After talking to race directors from races ranging from 50km to 100 miles, the biggest changes in wait list positions happen around deadline days for a partial refund or deferment. The upside of this is that it’s very easy to track. In 2017, the largest movements in the Western States wait list, 18 of 27 entrants, happened in April (a 75% refund) or between May 2nd and June 9th (a 50% refund). This trend is reflected elsewhere in the country. At the Vermont 100 and Chuckanut 50km, most of the drops from the start list happened within 48 hours of a partial refund deadline. The downside of this is that if you are patiently waiting for others to pull the plug, it might not happen until we hit the 1- to 2-month-to-go mark.

The other major factor for moving up a wait list is other people ahead of you removing themselves from that list. In the first year of the Western States lottery, even though only 27 runners made it off the wait list, the final runner had been Number 39. Coincidentally, most of those who removed themselves from that wait list did so in April and May, as well.

Just as you would study the course, terrain, and weather details of an ultramarathon, it’s also important to dig into the details of the specific wait list you’re on. If it’s your dream race, don’t give up on it. So do some digging and talk to folks who have watched these wait lists in the past. Each race and each wait list has its own idiosyncrasies… yes, I’m looking at you, Hardrock!

The trick is, how do you stay motivated and train while you are playing the waiting game? How long do you wait? Do you create a plan B? Go all in? For some, it may be a good idea to opt out of a poor position on a wait list early on, in pursuit of another race goal. For others, sticking it out might be the way to go. In general, there are three important zones on any wait list: you’re in and it’s virtually a guarantee; you’re on the bubble and you remain cautiously optimistic; or the odds are not in your favor but it could happen anyway. 

Zone 1: You’re in; it’s virtually a guarantee.

You’re at the front of the wait list, in the first 10-20 names, and have an expectation of getting in with more than a month’s notice. Your choice is pretty clear: you go all in and train as if that’s the race you’re doing. Motivation should be easy to come by, because all evidence points to you getting to step on that start line. You are training for that day. Nevertheless, it’s wise to at least consider a Plan B, to lessen the shock if the lottery gods decide to deal you a bad hand.

Zone 2: You’re on the bubble, but cautiously optimistic.

Your odds are a big question mark. Historically, you may have a 50% chance of getting to pin on that race bib, but you might not know until one to three weeks before race day. For many that giant question mark causes their motivation and drive to waver, and this is where I highly encourage you to find a Plan B that inspires you just as much. This could be another race at nearly the same time in the year, an FKT you can attempt at that same time, or an adventure run that offers similar challenges in terrain, elevation gain, or distance. This way you are ready to either toe a start line or take advantage of your fitness when the time comes.

Being underprepared is the number one reason people cite for dropping out of an ultra. Do not fall into this trap, and instead take action early on so you can adapt to the unknown in the months ahead. It’s much easier to back down training and slow your progress than it is to accelerate training at the last minute. If you are on the far end of the bubble, close to Zone 3, consider opting for a Plan B you can fully commit to.

Zone 3: So, you’re saying there’s a chance…

In Zone 3 the odds are not in your favor, but if it’s a race you dream of doing there’s no reason to give up hope. It’s a gamble, but to hedge your bet it’s wise to commit to a Plan B event around the same time as the wait list event. If it’s not an event that sells out, take note of when the wait list event stops entering racers from the list so you know when you should pull the trigger on signing up for Plan B. If it’s unlikely you’ll get in to your goal race this year, but you still want to participate in some way, consider volunteering at the event. Some races reward volunteers with improved odds of getting in through the lottery the following year, and you’ll gain valuable insights about the race by being there as a spectator, pacer, or volunteer.

The uncertainty of a wait list can be agonizing, but don’t let it paralyze you into inaction. No matter what happens, being more fit will give you more options for adapting to changes in your schedule.

Corrine Malcolm is a CTS Ultrarunning Coach and a professional runner for Salomon. She has a B.S. in Health and Human Performance, and she’s a Masters candidate in Biomedical Physiology. In 2016, Corrine won the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships and represented the US at IAU Trail Running World Championships.


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