Race Lotteries: May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

imageSlots, craps, black jack, road race lotteries: they’re all the same. At the outset, they fill you with hope and anticipation. The thoughts of winning and being able to toe that starting line are exhilarating. You begin to plan your life around your winnings. In your mind, you know luck is on your side this time. Sure, logically, nothing is a sure shot, but for whatever reason, you feel that deep down inside, this time, that jackpot is yours.

A few months ago, this was my state of mind. My fall race plans revolved around the Medtronic TC 10 Mile, the sister race to the Twin Cities Marathon. The 10-mile option is wildly popular, as runners can experience the race day excitement and the phenomenal fall colors of an October day in Minnesota, without the added burden of an additional 16.2 miles. Having run a full marathon in the spring, I decided months ago that the TC 10 would be my fall goal race.

Womp. Womp. 

I know! How could I plan to be in a race that I wasn’t guaranteed entry? Well, part of the reason is that I’m spoiled. Last year was my first time entering the lottery, and I did get in. I assumed I had the magic touch. I mean, how could I not get picked?

... despite trying to stack the deck.
… despite trying to stack the deck.

I wasn’t picked. Lottery selection day dawned with a groggy check of my email. Nada. Obsessive and relentless as I’m known to be, I opened my inbox and hit refresh no less than 100 times that day. I stalked the race’s Twitter and Facebook accounts and I looked nervously at the clock, seeing my fall race slipping further away.

My TC 10 Mile story ends before I even got to do my first training run. And I’m still bummed.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do runners put the fate of their race plans in the hands of some robo-selection system and pay for the privilege no less? I can’t answer this for sure, but I’d venture to guess playing the odds makes it a little more thrilling than signing up for a sure thing. After all, we tend to be a competitive lot who always up for a challenge, and when we are told we might not be able to have something, we feel even more driven to win.

The thrill of gambling can be fun, and entering a race lottery is generally low risk, with the potential of great reward. If you get chosen, it can make that race and that training cycle even more exciting and meaningful. It’s like you were meant to run that race. The flip side of this is when you find yourself on the other end and out of luck.

So what do you do if you don’t get into your goal race?

Hopefully you had a backup race in mind. Sure, it’s not the magical, sought-after race you wanted, but you probably had a B or C race in mind. It’s time to embrace the new race goal and try to convince yourself that perhaps fate is pushing you to run the backup race for a reason.

Remind yourself that there is always next year.

Sure, you’re sad you weren’t selected … but won’t it be an even greater, more intriguing challenge to enter the lottery next time around?

Maybe I’ll have better luck this time.

Maybe there’s another way!

If you really are desperate to run that goal race, there may be other ways to get in the race beyond the traditional lottery system. I received an email the day after the lottery that indicated I could run the race as a charity runner or purchase a registration through several non-profits who are partnered with the race organizers. This is an attractive option to people who may have some extra cash to pay for that registration or who feel passionate about fundraising for a worthy cause. The caveat is this may require an added level of commitment, both financial and time-wise, that might not work for you.


Just because you aren’t running the race, you can still be a part of the action. We are all so grateful for those who work along the race course during our own races, that this could be a great opportunity for you to provide that same service to other runners. It feels good to give back, you can still soak in the excitement and atmosphere of race day, AND some races give guaranteed entry to volunteers the following year. You’ll have to check with the race director to know that for sure.


Race lotteries are a shot in the dark, but sometimes the mystery of the unknown draws us to try anyway. I won’t mope too long about my missed chance to run TC 10 Mile this year, because there are a lot of fall races to choose from. Will I enter a lottery again? Absolutely! Next time I’m sure I’ll get in.

What are your feelings about race lotteries?  

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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  1. Obviously I’d prefer to simply sign up for races, but I understand why race lotteries exist. For races that are extremely popular and sell out within minutes of opening registration, a lottery may be the only way to control crowds and allow people to register who don’t have the luxury of sitting in front of a computer right at opening.

    When entering a race lottery, I see if there are different lotteries within that lottery. For example, the NYC Half Marathon separates the lottery entrants into “NYC and surround area residents” and “non-residents.” The odds of getting in as a non-resident are better. If a non-NYC address is available to you, it’s better to enter as a non-resident than as a resident.

    1. That’s really interesting about the NYC half! For some reason I always thought it was the other way around (but I could be thinking of the marathon?), thinking that being a NYC resident actually increased chances. Learn something new every day!

  2. I understand why lotteries have to be there for some races (I actually think it’s less about the people who cannot register at a set time and more about the fact that Active network and other race registration sites can’t handle the work load and sites crash). I think there are pro’s and cons- I think it gives people more of a fair chance of getting in but for me (the pure planning virgo over here) it gives me anxiety when I can’t plan ahead as much. Especially when it comes to travel races where i would typically go with friends- can we bet that we all get in? What if there is a lottery but its at the same time as another and have to wait and see and could potentially miss out on two races that you had in mind. Basically, lotteries give me anxiety…and I say this…having never entered a race lottery probably for that reason.

  3. For all of you law nerds out there, there has been some interesting litigation about race lotteries that charge entry fees and whether they constitute illegal lotteries under various state laws. Apparently this kind of lawsuit was filed against the New York Road Runners in January: http://www.runnersworld.com/new-york-city-marathon/lawsuit-against-new-york-road-runners-raises-questions-about-race-drawings

    I haven’t really followed the progress of this suit so I don’t know if it went anywhere, and I’m not sure the arguments are necessarily winning ones, but I thought they were interesting nonetheless. There are also races, like the Marine Corps Marathon, that have lotteries that are free to enter (you get charged only if you get in), so they presumably don’t present the same legal issues. I do wonder whether the lack of fee encourages people to enter the lottery who are less interested in actually running the race (especially given the MCM’s liberal bib transfer policy). But that’s probably a topic for another post!

    1. I totally forgot about that, I remember reading about the NYC lawsuit but like you, didn’t really follow the progress. Chicago is another free lottery I think right?

  4. I got into the only lottery race I’ve done both times I applied (a trail 50k) and another thing that sucks about lotteries is when you and all your friends get in except one person- that happened and it was tough. That race, however, gives guaranteed entry to volunteers the year after they help and also guarantees entry to anyone who has completed the race 5 times. I love when big lotto races add a guaranteed entry with time qualifying – how I got into NYC last year. True lottery races poke my anxiety too much- not including my superstition about jinxing myself for injury by signing up for a race way to far in advance.

  5. Anyone have any idea how many races have lotteries now? Is it increasing a lot each year? Do you think that some races may seem more enticing to runners simply because they have a lottery and not everyone can get in?