In 2006, a 27-year-old ultra runner from Seattle was poised to take first place in the notoriously grueling 100-mile-long Western States Endurance race. Garbled video footage shows Brian Morrison, now the owner of Fleet Feet Sport Seattle in Capitol Hill, struggling to stay upright in the final moments of the race. His body was shutting down.
Over the loudspeaker, an announcer says Morrison is just 50 meters from the finish line. He walks, weaving along the track with a heavy expression. He begins to run, but collapses. With help from his team, Morrison gets up, moves forward and collapses again. This happens several times before he eventually wins the race — his first-ever attempt. An amazing finish.
He didn’t know it yet, but 2006 wouldn’t mark the end of Morrison’s Western States story.
Ethan Newberry, a filmmaker and ultra runner who’s also from Seattle, documented Morrison’s 2016 return to Western States in A Decade On. The 40-minute film was released to YouTube last month and has since been around 70,000 times — striking a chord with runners and non-runners alike.
“It’s about setting a goal and working toward that goal, no matter what it is. Things get hard. Work through it and stay positive. Hard work generally leads to good results,” Morrison said.
A day after the race in 2006, Morrison learned that he’d been disqualified.
Officials said he hadn’t finished the race of his own volition. His team’s help in the final 0.3 miles meant not only did he not win Western States, but that he hadn’t even completed it.
Last summer marked ten years since Morrison’s Western States debut. He was ready to go back — to stare down the race that had haunted him for a decade.
At Fleet Feet, staffers chat with customers about things like arch length, foot width and lactic acid. Running shoes, the store’s bread and butter, line one wall, while other racks hold hydration packs, muscle rolling sticks and activewear.
The Odd Fellows building at Pine and 10th has been Morrison’s office since 2004, two years before his first attempt at Western States. Some things have changed since then. For starters, the store used to be Seattle Running Company. It occupied a large corner space under the Century Ballroom and catered specifically to trail runners. Today, as Fleet Feet, Morrison — now the owner of the shop — carries something for every runner in a space a few doors down from the original location.
“Our customers have gotten a little younger, some having moved to Seattle because of the tech boom,” Morrison said. “With Seattle’s urban density increasing, we’ve seen more people from the neighborhood shopping here. In the past, when parking was easier, we may have drawn more people from outside the area.”
In other ways, though, things are the same as they’ve always been at the hill’s only store for runners.
“Trends and styles change, but people still come to Fleet Feet for shoes. They still ask why running shoes are so ugly; why they’re so bright and flashy — that question hasn’t changed since 2004. And people still find community in running.”
Watching A Decade On, you get the impression that Morrison is one rock and roll runner. Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard completes a leg of the race as Morrison’s pacer between miles 62 and 80, and Morgan Henderson of Fleet Foxes does the same beginning at mile 80.
At the start of their leg together, Gibbard shares a collect of motivational clips he had gathered from his buddies in Pearl Jam. Though exhausted, Morrison’s spirits were visibly lifted. He loves Pearl Jam. He has seen them play more than 30 times.
Pearl Jam played a big role in Morrison’s attempt to conquer Western States. In the days leading up to it, the band’s guitarist Mike McCready stopped in at Fleet Feet to wish him good luck.
“During the race, my wife kept reminding me, “Mike McCready knows you’re doing this.” So, I was doing it for my wife and my kids, but that Mike McCready knew I was running in this race was almost like the overriding theme of the day. I couldn’t not finish.”
The connection between musicians and running is uniquely Capitol Hill, he says.
“Ben and Morgan, they’re obviously both very talented musicians. But I always think of them as runners first and foremost, who also happen to be musicians.”
Today, Morrison does more road runs and run commuting than trail races. He stitches together as many of the city’s green spaces as he can, often making his way through Capitol Hill’s Interlaken Park and along Lakeview Boulevard E. He’s considering an unsupported run this summer around the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile-long route around Mount Rainier.
With the Western States monkey off his back, Morrison looks forward to long-distance trail running for the adventure and the beauty of it — something he couldn’t do when running more competitively. There’s a sense of relief, too, he says.
“I don’t think about the 2006 race every day anymore. I realized that a few months ago. I still think about it, but not every day.”