Western States and the Race for a Golden Ticket

Fleet Feet Seattle Owner Brian Morrison runs the Western States 100 ultramarathon in 2009

The second weekend in January marked the first of the Golden Ticket Races: the Bandera 100K. While not everyone raced for the win, the top two runners, both male and female, had the chance to score a golden ticket, which grants entry into the competitive Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in June.

For many ultramarathon runners, Western States is the pinnacle of ultrarunning in North America. It’s also the oldest 100-mile race in the world.

It begins in California’s Squaw Valley—the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics—and finishes at the Placer High School track in Auburn 100.2 miles away. It’s not just about the runners, either. With more than 1,500 volunteers, Western States is a large event with the spirit and excitement to match.

Brian Morrison, owner of Fleet Feet Seattle, is a four-time Western States runner and one-time finisher. “There's something incredibly special about Western States,” he says. “It's so hard to get into now (the race uses a lottery system for entry), but I wish every runner with 100 mile aspirations could have the opportunity to run it.”

Fleet Feet Seattle Owner Brian Morrison hugs his family after finishing the Western States 100 ultramarathon in 2016

Morrison’s experiences at Western States have been both satisfying and heartbreaking.

In 2006, Morrison, running in first, collapsed in the last mile of the race. After attempting to get up and run, he collapsed again. This time, Morrison’s pacers helped him to the finish where he won—until he was disqualified the following day for having been assisted. Ten years after that disappointing event, Morrison returned to Western States.

“It was super important to me to have the opportunity to get that monkey off my back,” he says. “In 2016, it was 10 years from my first attempt and I was without a finish. To go back and finish with so many friends and family in attendance was incredibly meaningful.”

While Morrison doesn’t have any immediate plans to return to Western States as a racer, he’s not counting out a return to the event. “Even though my Western States history has been filled with a lot of heartbreak, I love the race.”

With Western States’ history and lore comes a large number of runners hoping to nab an entry. This year, 6,664 people threw their names into the lottery hoping for one of the 264 spots available through random draw, the largest lottery in Western States’ history. Of the remaining spots, 102 will be automatic entries, many of which will go to the first and second place winners of each Golden Ticket race.

Winning a Golden Ticket can, at times, be easier than getting an entry into Western States through the lottery system. Runners who aren’t chosen during the lottery can test their legs at any of the Golden Ticket Series races. This year’s races include Bandera 100K, Black Canyon 100K, Georgia Death Race, Lake Sonoma 50-Mile and The Canyons 100K.

Those runners lucky enough to place first or second at these races (or third, fourth, or fifth, depending on if the first and second place finishers already have entry in to Western States or choose to defer their entry) will be vying for the cougar—Western States’ iconic winner’s trophy—on June 27, 2020.

For those not able to get into the race, fun can still be had. Fleet Feet Sacramento takes part in Western States every year by hosting an aid station where Fleet Feet Training Programs Director Sean Garbutt—a 2019 Western States finisher— and other Fleet Feet volunteers provide runners with food, water and ice for hot temperatures.

By Jade de la Rosa. Jade is a freelance writer and ultra runner based in Bellingham, Washington. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is working on her first historical fiction novel.

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