No action in this post I'm afraid, just a bit of reflection - so you've been warned if you stick with it!
This week I got confirmation that I have a place in two of the events I was hoping to participate in next year, the West Highland Way race and the LDWA "Heart of Scotland" hundred. Although I had sort of assumed that my entry for both of these would be OK (the statistics are definitely in the entrant's favour, so the hotels for the WHW were booked in September!), it still comes as something of a relief that the plans are going to work. It set me thinking about just how the maximum number of entrants in any event is arrived at and then how any potential oversubscription is managed. I'm certainly not about to complain that this or that event organiser does it wrong, I am more than grateful that they spend so much of their time setting up challenging and enjoyable adventures for us, but it is a subject that has caused some heated debate over the last year or two and I think it's interesting to reflect on how and why we have got to where we are now. I still have some uncertainty for next year because I decided in August that I wanted another go at the UTMB (of course!) but I won't find out whether I have a place until late January - should I feel dissatisfied with this situation or is it inevitable?
When I started running ultras three years ago there was no problem. I entered the West Highland Way about six weeks after entries opened and was I think about number twenty on the accepted entries list; it didn't fill up until after Christmas. Even for the UTMB it took a month or so before the number of available places was filled. However there seems to have been an explosion of interest in ultra running over the last couple of years or so; nowadays for popular events you have to add a third journey to the two that the wise old heads told me were involved in long races (getting to the start line in good enough shape, then doing the event) - getting yourself on the start list.
So what governs how many runners an event will comfortably stand?
I think the first consideration is the physical constriction of the actual trail you run; predominantly the width but also pinchpoints such as stiles, gates and so on. There is no doubt that the superb organisation of the UTMB could support a lot more participants - after all they manage to run three other major events in the same place at the same time - but with the present numbers the trail is simply full. This year I started somewhere near the back because I didn't want to stand out in the sun for an hour or so, and it was over ten minutes after the start before I could progress at anything above a slow walking pace, more like the start of a big city marathon than a trail race. Overtaking is hard work for the first few hours because you have to move off the trail to get around people.
But most events don't attract antwhere near the 2000+ starters of the UTMB, so how are they limited? There is a distinct difference here between events where you don't need a support crew (ie the checkpoint marshalls provide water and maybe food, and there could be a "drop bag" facility, but apart from that you are basically on your own from start to finish) and those where you do. Many of the "unsupported" events in the UK, particularly those that run through (relatively!) benign territory seem to get by without restricting numbers, for example the Wuthering Hike in Yorkshire and the Rotherham Round draw two or three hundred competitors which the trails will absorb easily enough, so they seem happy to accept entries up to the day of the race. Longer unsupported events such as the Lakeland 100 would probably hit a limit if and when the numbers started to cause problems to either the overall organisation or the local residents, but they don't seem to be anywhere near that yet.
Supported events are a different deal. Each runner has to have a support crew, and the support crew has to have a car. This takes a bit of work off the shoulders of the organisers, as they don't have to provide food and drink at regular intervals, but the consequence is a lot of cars fighting for space on often narrow roads and restricted parking spaces. Inevitably the numbers that can be allowed in the race will be a lot fewer. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against this style of race, it's just that it's different. Good for the competitor, who can have exactly the food and drink that suits them and don/shed clothing at each checkpoint rather than carrying everything you might need from start to finish. Races like this are great to run in because you carry a minimum of stuff, you get personal encouragement all the way, and they produce oustanding times. In a race like the West Highland Way which sees a high proportion of runners coming back year after year you get the added advantage that the support crews get to know each other too, which contributes to making it the special event that it is. But not so many people will get to run.
I could argue that specifying (or allowing) support crews in shorter events (say around 50 miles or less) may restrict numbers unnecessarily in races which can be run quite easily using drop bags or basic food/water at checkpoints, as they are normally completed within one phase of daylight. The counter argument is that these are the very races in which runners may be "trying out" ultra running and so feel happier with some support in their early attempts.
Whatever, if these are the limiting factors on numbers, how do you choose who gets a place? It used to be "first come first served" but when interested numbers greatly exceed places this may not be fair. The first time I entered the UTMB I had never run an ultra of any sort, but was accepted because I got my entry in relatively early and there was no entry qualification; I probably had an almost zero chance of finishing (I didn't of course) and may well have denied a place to someone much better qualified. A couple of years ago this event reached the stage where whether you got in or not was probably dependant on how fast your broadband connection was. But we've moved on, and most oversubscribed races nowadays seem to have settled for a modified form of the entry system used in the popular American ultras; a fixed "window" for sending in your entry, from a couple of weeks to a few months, followed by a ballot if demand exceeds supply. A qualification may be required, mostly as a demonstration that you are potentially capable of a finish, and the ballot may be weighted or bypassed to give preference to (eg) newcomers, foreign competitors, or long time supporters of the event.
So overall I think the principle is difficult for anyone to complain about, and if you don't like the details of how it is applied to a particular event, you always have the option of going somewhere else - there are plenty of races to choose from now!
This last thought is also interesting. Am I imagining it, or does it seem to be getting slightly easier to get your place lately? A lot of new events seem to have sprung up to spread the demand caused by the increase in ultra runner numbers. This is clearly the policy of the Chamonix guys, providing four events now where there was originally one so more people can join the party overall. Are we about to get into a period where entry levels in the traditionally popular races start to drop, as runners turn to events where they can get guaranteed places?
It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next year or two.