Monday, December 5, 2016

The Lotteries

In the San Juans during my 2008 CT thru-hike

Disclaimer: Please note, that whatever you may insinuate or infer out of this post, my objective was to be as candid as possible. I wrote the majority of this post shortly after the drawings for both related lotteries were completed.  Needless to say, I was quite disheartened by the results, and I wanted to capture my raw emotion before it faded. I was particularly excited going into the lotteries this year, and as you will read below, the results were quite tough for me.  Please also note, that however upset I may seem in this post, that I respect and cherish both the Hardrock and Western States races IMMENSELY. I am perfectly content to wait my turn just like everyone else has. When my day does finally come for either or both of these races, it will be so incredibly special for me.  With that....enjoy the post....

First...a story:

In the Summer of 2008, I set forth on my second ever thru-hike. I had just finished my first year of graduate school, and had spent 4 weeks in June processing Ice Cores in the Denver Lab. After my work was done, I spent 20 days hiking along the rugged Colorado Trail.  It was breathtakingly wonderful. This was my first ever real experience doing an Alpine hike, and my first ever experience dealing with A LOT of snow. 2008 was a rough year for snow in Colorado, and I started my thru-hike early, on June 18th. I post-holed a lot, but also learned a lot about safe traversing on high mountain trails in snowy conditions. It also ended up being an invaluable experience with regards to my 2010 PCT thru-hike which had similar snowy conditions in the Sierra.

Near the end of that hike, I passed through my last mail-drop town: The small mountain hamlet of Silverton. I happened to pass through Silverton just days before the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run.  At the time, I had no idea what it was, but I remembered seeing small trail markers up on the CT before getting into town and wondering what event was being marked.  In June of 2008, I had never run an ultra. I had only just completed my first true marathon. I met several of the runners in town that one evening I spent mulling around Silverton, and I was simply fascinated by the sound of this event. I told myself that day, that even though I didn't do long-distance mountain or "ultra" running, that some day I wanted to take part in the Hardrock.

The very next year, in 2009, I ran my first big ultras...the Vermont 100, and the Leadville 100.  After narrowly squeaking out a finish at the Leadville 100, I applied for the first time to Hardrock. I remember that I had to mail it in and send proof of my Leadville finish.  I also tried to apply to another famous hundred-miler...the Western States run, but it was the year following a fire cancellation.  Because of that, most of the slots were guaranteed to previous year's runners that didn't run. While Western States wasn't quite as appealing to me, it was still a race I had hoped to be a part of as it is essentially touted as the birth-race of ultrarunning in the US.  

And so began my epic journey for entrance into these two races.

If someone were to ask me what my favorite mountains or my favorite scenery in the United States is, I'd really have to think about.  I've seen quite a few poignant and moving places over my 40 years.  Specifically though, there are two general areas that I can definitively say have brought me to tears just be their shear beauty and awesomeness.  Those areas are the North Cascades of Washington, and the San Juans of Colorado.  

With regards to the San Juans, they have become a very special place for me for so many reasons. Every year that I go to Colorado for lab work, I make time to visit and hike amongst these mountains. I still have vivid memories of my thru-hike...smiling at the fact that the San Juans were the icing on the entire CT cake (the "Best Part of the hike" as it were). In addition, I have spent many days tucked away in these mountains with people that are very important or close to me.  Quite simply, these mountains are special to me.

On top of Mt. Sneffels (San Juan 14er)

Hiking Uncompahgre (San Juan 14er)

Parked on Engineer Pass (San Juans)

Wild Elk seen near Silverton (from CT thru-hike)

Parked with San Luis Peak in the background (14er)

Going back to my story. After 2009, I took a year off from running in 2010 in order to thru-hike the PCT. Because of this, I failed to run any qualifiers for Western States so was not able to reapply. But, my PCT hike also gave me a closer connection to that race as I spent a few days hiking right along the Granite Chief Wilderness area near Squaw Valley (The Western States Starting Line).  I went through that area on June 30th, just 4 days after Geoff Roes battled out his first place finish (As shown in the documentary "Unbreakable").  There were still visible course markings in the snow that hadn't been removed yet.  Without my qualifier though, This meant my ticket count was reset and I went back to zero for my next application.  I didn't care though.  During my PCT thru-hike I decided that just like with Hardrock, I now had a personal connection to Western States and wanted to run them both one day.  

Thankfully, with Hardrock, a qualifier is good for two years, so I was again able to apply for the 2011 race still using my 2009 Leadville finish (unlike Western States).

As my years through graduate school progressed, so did my passion for running ridiculous and extreme distances and events.  Beginning in 2011, I managed to complete at least one significant 100-miler every subsequent year.  Each year I thus applied to both Western States and Hardrock religiously.  Both races had competitive lotteries...and both races unfortunately had yearly increases in the number of applicants.  When I applied to Hardrock in 2010, there were about 500 applicants. For reference, this year, there were 2000.  Likewise with Western States.  Back in 2010, there were about 1200 applicants.  This year, there were over 4200.

Each year around November, since 2011 I have placed my name into each of these coveted lotteries. Over the years the metrics have changed a few times, the lottery algorithms have been tweaked, but ostensibly, my odds for selection have gone up each year.  Each year as I've put my names in and eagerly await the drawings, I get excited and hopeful. Each year, I wasn't selected. I always felt moderately disappointed by the results, but I knew my odds were terrible and didn't necessarily expect to get selected.  But it's hard not to hope, when you hear of many of your friends who get selected on just the first or second try....just lucky!

Western States yearly applicant pool increase...

A picture from PCT hike along the WS course

Another picture from PCT thru-hike along the WS course.

As the year's progressed, so too did the limitations of each races' approved qualifiers. It used to perfectly fine to run an easy road 50-miler as a qualifier for Western States. Now, only 100-milers (with the exception of a few 100k events) are allowed.  For Hardrock, I always used Leadville as my qualifier, but eventually, that race was even scrapped.  Now, there are only about 15 domestic 100-milers that count as adequate qualifiers for Hardrock, with just a few being east of the Mississippi.  Still, despite these limitations, thousands of people are qualifying and applying.

Approved Hardrock Qualifiers

One of the toughest restrictions is the one placed on the Western States race.  This restriction (which I noted previously) states that you MUST apply each subsequent year, to maintain your ticket count in the "lottery hat".  For both HR and WS, the ticket counts are increased exponentially by an order of 2.  In other words each year your ticket counts double.  For example you start with 1 ticket, then 2, then 4, then 8.  As you can see, after about 5 or 6 years, your counts starting getting really high (i.e. 128 or 256...).  This algorithm means that your odds of selection increase sharply after the first few years.  But again, each year more and more people are also applying.  With the aforementioned restriction though, if you qualify for, and apply to, the WS race for 5 straight years and accrue 32 tickets you have a good chance of getting in.  However, if bad luck prevails and you don't get selected, you must run (and finish) a race that falls on the WS qualify list sometime within the next year or you forfeit all 32 of your tickets and start all the way back at 0.  This can be a very big source of anxiety for someone with several years of tickets accrued.  If you have a bad or injury year, you may not be able to run a hundred-miler...and boom, just like that you've lost 5 or 6 years worth of waiting.

For me, I have managed to qualify every year and thus keep my ticket counts accruing.  Each year however, bad luck has prevailed.  Despite increasing odds of being selected, my golden entrance lottery ticket has thus evaded me. Every year thus far I have been forced to watch  the race unfold and cheer from the sidelines.

With Hardrock, thankfully, if you miss a year of applying to the lottery, you DON'T lose your tickets. For me, I was not able to run one of the very selective races on that above qualifying list during the two years surrounding the finish of my PhD program (2014 and 2015).  I simply didn't have the time to train for, or resources to run one of these specific events (despite being able to squeeze in the necessary race to at least qualify for Western States and run many other ultras).

Last December after again coming up short on the Western States lottery after 6 years, I knew going into this year, that my odds were finally looking incredibly good. While I didn't apply to Hardrock last year due to my lack of a qualifier, I had not lost my 5 years of tickets and was determined to finally run a new qualifier.

Everything changed after last year's lottery.

I made the decision that since I was not able to yet run Hardrock (still the run I was most eager to participate in), then I could at least volunteer at it during the 2016 run.  I spoke with the volunteer coordinator and was able to secure a spot captaining an aid station.  This was fantastic because not only would I be able to help the runners, and be there during the event, but by captaining an aid station, I would accrue another "year" of lottery tickets.  (The Hardrock rewards the dedication of HR aid station captains with another year of lottery tickets).  This means that I would jump right from 5 years of applications to 7 years.  

The experience at Hardrock was magical.  I saw many of my friends and witnessed the event from start to finish.  As I sat there during the race meeting, I got goose bumps. I called home to my other half and said, "There's no doubt in my mind.  I want to be here next year running this event. I've never wanted it so badly".  I could feel it coursing through my veins.

During the race, my aid station was the finish line station, which also meant I was responsible for cooking full finish-line style meals for over 36 straight hours. I maybe slept for 2 hours during the entire event.  It was an ultramarathon in itself just keeping that station running, but it was soooo worth it and I wouldn't have traded it for a second.  It was simply an incredible experience.

I walked out to the finish line rock...literally a giant painted rock that marks the end of the run, and stared at it for a very long time. Tradition dictates that during the actual run, in order to officially finish, you must "kiss the rock".  I stared at that rock thinking of the day that I would run up to it and finish out my race with a well-deserved kiss. I walked back inside never even setting my hands on the rock.  In some way I think it would have felt unearned even touching it.

Inside I spent hours talking at length with Hardrock legends.  Often people wanted to talk Barkley, but all I wanted to hear about was Hardrock.  So much history in this event...and I wanted to hear it all. It felt like even though I only spent a few days there, that somehow slowly, I was being welcomed into the HR family.  

Within hours of the event being over, I signed up for the Grindstone 100, determined to get a qualifier and apply for what would be my 7th year.  In addition, Grindstone would act as my Western States qualifier, keeping my count for that also at 7 years.

Runners starting the 2016 Hardrock

The finish line Rock

Some bacon and potato "mish-mash" for the runners

Come October, I toed the line at the Grindstone, moderately underprepared, but ready for a finish and a qualifier. Despite never having tried Grindstone, and the reputation it had at being a fantastic course, I was honestly there really for the one reason:  To get my name in the hat again for both WS and HR. The weather was predicted to be horrible, and the forecast proved true. I spent over 24 hours slogging my way through awful rain and mud...the whole time thinking in my mind...."This is for Hardrock....this is for Western States!".  At mile 92 I went off course for almost an hour and I truly thought I was gonna get myself lost end up blowing my qualifier.  I was so morally deflated but kept pushing.  Finally, after finding my way back on the course, and after 32 long hours, I crossed the finish with the biggest smile on my face. I'd be applying to both WS and HR again!....and this time, with GREAT odds.

slogging it out at Grindstone

When the lotteries opened this year, I submitted my name on the first day for both races and then waited patiently for the odds calculations to be published. I wanted to know my chances. Unfortunately, both races again had record number of applicants.

But, I was optimistic. The odds were published first for Western States and I was elated.  I was one of only 31 applicants applying for my 7th year (6 previous applications), and I would have a 55% chance of selection.  Out of 4200 applicants, there were literally only 2 people with more tickets than me, and 30 with the same as me.  Everyone else had lower odds.  I would be at the top of the pyramid.

A few days later Hardrock odds would be published, and my elation was somewhat quelled. Despite the fact that I was one of only 10 people with 64 tickets in the lottery (with only 1 person having 128), my odds would still only be about 32% of getting selected.  The reason for such low odds is that the specific lottery for "never" applicants only selects 45 total runners. The lottery for "never" applicants is always notoriously difficult to get in through.  Once accepted to the race at least once though, you become a member of the "else" lottery for future drawings and your odds immediately increase an order of magnitude.  It truly does become easier to re-race Hardrock once you've been there. The problem is getting there that first time.

I would have a 55% chance of getting selected to WS, and
I would have a 32% chance of getting selected to HR.

This means that the probability that I'd get into AT LEAST one of the two events was (1 - (.45)(.68)) or (1 -.306) or 69.4%

I would have a 69.4% chance of getting into at least one race.  The fact that my hardrock odds were 32% didn't worry me too much because I was actually sort of fearing I might get into both events. In this case, I would HAVE to run WS.  If I didn't, I would lose all my tickets.  The problem is, mentally, I would want to run HR so much more and the two races are only a couple weeks apart.  I just didn't want to do both.  The other issue is that I REALLY want to go after the grand slam of running which includes Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch. I cannot do the grand slam AND Hardrock.  So believe it or not, my preferred outcome was to get into just one of the two races...but whatever. If I got into both, so be it!

On lottery morning, I turned off my phone, and instead chose to not stress about it. I'd wait till afternoon and learn the news.

When I finally opened up my laptop and logged in, I was shocked at the outcome. Despite dozens of my friends posting excited messages about their acceptances into WS or HR....I was again, not selected outright for EITHER event.  0 for 7 years.  0 for 14 races.

This year....this year really stung. I was admittedly very saddened and disheartened.  I felt like after 7 years, I'd finally be able to show up on one of the start lines. I thought with my time at HR last summer, that maybe somehow I had appeased the Karma gods.  But I guess it just wasn't meant to be.

What's worse is that I checked the statistics for outcomes.

For Western States, of the 2 people (out of 4200) with more tickets than me, one was selected outright and the other is #1 on the ostensibly they will both be on the start line.  Of the 31 of us with 6 years of past tickets, 18 were selected outright. A 19th runner is #33 on the waitlist, and then there's me.  The one silver lining in all of this is that I was drawn #39th on the waitlist.   This number is out of 50 total wait listers, and it is incredibly unlikely that the list would ever go that deep. Last year, only 25 people withdrew from WS.  If I were high on the wait list, I would simply sign up for the slam races and assume that I'd move up.  But with #39, I can't do that and risk not getting refunds from those races if I don't get in.  The other issue here is that the wait list is brand new this year so no one really knows how much it will move.  So essentially I'm in Western States limbo, but effectively just not selected.  Even if somehow I DO get selected off of the waitlist, it probably wouldn't be until VERY close to the race date...meaning I'd have to either scramble to prepare and travel, or simply decline and go into the lottery again next year (and qualify again). Assuming I'm not selected off of the waitlist (which is highly likely), I will one of a possible maximum of only 13 runners next years with 7 years of previous applications.  I will be at the absolute top of the pyramid with a selection probability over 80%.  There will probably be upwards of 5000 applicants next year as well.  It's simply incredible to think that I will be that guy who has tried for 8 attempts to run WS........but there it is.

Where I was this year (6 past applications)
18 of 31 were selected
2 of us were waitlisted (I'm #39 on the waitlist)

With Hardrock the story is truly heartbreaking.  There were 10 of us that had 64 tickets (6 past applications), with only 1 single runner with 128 tickets.  That one runner was selected, and I was extremely happy to see that he was.  Of the 10 of us with 64 tickets, all but 2 were either selected outright or waitlisted; 8 runners total. There were only 2 of those runners that were not selected at of which was myself.  This means that next year, I will probably be 1 of only 2-3 runners with 128 tickets out of 2000 (depending on how the waitlist goes this year).  If I end up captaining another aid station this Summer at the race, I would actually go all the way up to 256 tickets and probably be the only one.  I would be the lone person on the top of the pyramid of 2000+ runners.

I was one of 10 applicants of 1726 with 64 tickets.
Next year I'll have at least 128, if not 256 and be all alone.

It just seems so incredible to me how improbable the odds have been for me to be 0 for 7 in both lotteries.  I spent many long hours thinking about how I've been going after both of these events for literally the entire time I was in graduate school and now beyond.  Since 2009, when I ran my first VT 100, I have been thinking about these two races.  Since my thru hikes on the CT and PCT, I've thought about running these events.  And now 8 years later, I've just turned 40 years old....and I come away from the 2017 lotteries so disheartened again.


I have had a long day to reflect on this and the smile on my face has returned.  First off, I have been lucky in the past with other races. In 2015 I was selected on my first try into the HURT 100...a notoriously hard lottery.  And of course....there's Barkley. I know many who've been trying to get into Barkley for years, and I am forever grateful for being selected multiple years for the experiences I've had there. The bottom line is that if my experiences at Barkley were to mean that I will never be able to run both WS or HR...then I'd be ok with that.  To me, Barkley has been more important and more transformative than any race I've ever run....or ever will run.....even Hardrock.

Also, I think of all of my friends who will toe that line at WS and HR and I am truly happy for them.  I know my time will come and there are plenty of other races to go after out there.  I eagerly look forward to the opportunity to go back to Silverton this Summer and be a part of the wonder that is Hardrock again. With a little luck and even better odds, I will be running one of these events in 2018!

Now...time to think about a 2018 Western States and HR qualifier. There's a few races I've been thinking about over the past few years that I've really wanted to have a go at.  The Plain 100, Cascade Crest 100, Fat Dog 120.....But I think I've made up my mind for what I'll go after.  Maybe see some of you out there??? 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Decade

Still excitedly running forward...with a smile
(pic: from the Tasmanian Trail Festival in Feb of 2016)

Ten years. Let me say that again more slowly. T e n....Y e a r s.....

Two weeks ago I celebrated my 40th birthday. I suppose a part of me should be panicking at the thought of "mid-life".  Perhaps I should be keenly aware of the associated impending "crisis" that is now assuredly coming at any moment.  Honestly though, my first though was, "Cool! I get to be a masters runner now!".

I chose this above picture to act as the cover for this post, because I thought it was just such a fitting capture of what I truly feel when I think about the past 10 years...and what may come of the next 10. I'd like to think that I'm moving ahead, with purpose, with determination, and with a whole lot of excitement and fun. It's almost as if I'm saying in the picture, "Damn this was a fun course and a I can't wait to see what's around the next turn!".

In many ways I just can't believe it's been ten years.  It seems like yesterday that I was hanging out in Cleveland, going to work everyday as a computer engineer, and dreaming of visiting faraway places of the world.  But yet, when I think of all that I've been able to do these past 10 years, it almost seems like my life in Cleveland was truly a full lifetime ago; a past life in a sense.

So much has happened in the past ten years that it's hard for me to really focus on any one thing.  I could turn this post into a very long "Decade in Review" post....but I won't.  Instead, I thought I'd keep it simple with a few words, and a few pictures. I figure for specific memories, I have my  "year-in-review" posts that I do each year that really highlight my new experiences along the way.

On my 30th birthday, 10 years ago, I had just made it through the two worst years of my entire life...barely...and was desperate for something new. On that day, it was the first time in a very very long time that I actually felt a tiny sliver of hope. I remember thinking that the dark fog had cleared a little bit that day. I wrote these words in my journal:

"Well today I celebrate two things.  First off, at 9:57 this morning, I officially became an adult.  My wild and crazy twenties....are now over.  I am a man of thirty years.  I am as old as the first Apple computer.  I was born only months after the country was celebrating its 200th birthday.  I have seen many good and many bad things in these thirty years.  These last few years, worse than any.  I am going to look forward to the next thirty with hope and excitement.  There are many accomplishments yet for me to go after, and I start tomorrow. Before I know it...I'll be 40!. Today I think I'll rest though. As far as the second celebration, and probably the more important one.  Today I mailed off all of my graduate school applications.  I made my deadline of Nov 30th. Now I sit back, and wait.  I was very surprised at the difficulty I faced doing these apps.  I really thought they'd be a breeze.  But it all doesn't matter now.  No more proof reading, no more editing, no more worrying. Now I am going to get a coffee and enjoy the rest of my birthday.  I think I've earned it dammit."

And that was it.  The next day the sun came up and I felt a little better.  I went out that night and celebrated my 30th with friends as I hosted a 3 hour acoustic set at the local bar.  I played over 30 songs, laughed for the first time in ages, and was finally able to enjoy the company of good people.

Celebrating my 30th at the local bar in Cleveland

My friends coming up to help me with a few songs

A few months later, I'd get the news that I'd been accepted to the Penn State graduate program in Geosciences, and I knew my life was on a brand new path, that would open so many new doors to me. And to say it has...would be an enormous understatement.

There's been the thru-hikes, the crazy runs, the Antarctic deployments, the traveling, the new friends, the new relationships, the new hobbies, my Barkley family, new jobs, and so much more.  Shoot, just in those 10 years, I managed to somehow make it down to Antarctica SEVEN times!

7 deployments in 10 years!

But I think of all the things I could highlight in this post that I've managed to experience over these ten years, there's really just TWO things that I come back to which I believe have made this entire new life, and the departure from my old life, all worth it.

First: In May of last year after not even being sure if I'd get a decent score on the GRE in 2006, let alone be accepted to a prestigious graduate school program like Penn State, THIS happened:

Graduating with my PhD in Geoscience

Celebrating 8 long years of hard work in graduate school

I wrote these words below in a post about my graduation and I think they really still say it best:

"One of the most anticipated, important, poignant, and memorable experiences I've had, was my graduation from graduate school. I had spent almost 8 years of my life back in school trying desperately to finish...and at many times I was honestly worried I wouldn't. Working towards a doctorate in any field takes an incredible amount out of a person, and I have a profound respect for anyone that survives it. When I started graduate school in 2007, all I had my sights set on was a Masters Degree...and even that seemed lofty. Through the many years, many classes, many hours in the lab, and countless months deployed in the field, I had somehow worked my way up through a doctoral program. I barely survived my candidacy exam, and eeked my way through my comprehensives. In August of 2014 I stood in front of my committee, friends, and family, and somehow successfully defended my dissertation. I'm pretty sure the old man was there that day too. I had countless hours of edits to work through before all of my committee would approve my work, so I missed the cut-off for a December graduation. This meant that I had to wait almost a full year to actually walk across the Penn State commencement stage, and be addressed as "Doctor" for the first time. was entirely worth the wait. I will never forget, for as long as I live, that moment walking across that stage, being handed my doctorate, looking out an enormous crowd, and knowing that my 8 years of hard work was finally over. It was the hardest, longest, and most trying ultramarathon I had ever made it through....and somehow I survived. I have so many people to thank for their support, which ultimately allowed me to actually finish; mostly my family and my wonderful C. I was there with you on your day, and I will always be grateful you were there for me on my day."

Which brings me to the second most important part of the past decade. Wherever anyone's life may take them, or whatever sadness they may have experienced along the way, what makes hope possible, are the people that we meet along the way; the people we share our experiences with. I have been so incredibly fortunate to have met some really good people over these ten years, but most especially you C. Because of you, I continue to hope for the future...and I continue to head into it with a smile, and as always...with a requisite amount of "silly-ness".  Thank you for keeping my life goofy, fun, and full of surprises.  I can't wait for the next ten, and where it brings us.

I wish I had some profundities I could spew forth onto these pages, but honestly, I'm really just content in my writers block.  There will be no poetic waxing, or quoting of Thoreau.  Just a few fun pictures to leave with you highlighting a couple of other fun memories from the last decade.

Looking back at the line in my text about "Before I know it, I'll be 40!",  makes me wonder if I could go back and talk that version of me now...what that 30-year old John would ask me. I'm sure that version of me would love to ask "So how have I done?" Well 30 year-old John, this is the 40-year old version of you telling you that you did good kid. You took risks, and you came out so much more fulfilled that you could have possibly imagined.

So, Here's to another amazing 10 years...and I look forward to quoting this text on this day in 2026.

This year at South Pole....realizing I was days away from turning 40...

Some fun Glacier traversing for my birthday near McMurdo and Mt. Erebus...

And I'll leave you all with this fun walk down memory lane...

In 2006, I hiked the Quehanna Trial in Pennsylvania wearing this blue Go-Lite Shirt.
This was my first true "multi-day" hike and gear shakedown, before my AT thru-hike.

6 years later, I finished Barkley in that same shirt....