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In ultrarunning, most athletes gain notoriety from winning a race or setting a fastest known time. Brian Morrison is an exception.
In the early 2000s, the Seattle-based runner was rising through the ranks of the trail ultra world, with podium finishes at the Chuckanut 50K, Cascade Crest 100 and Capitol Peak 50-miler. In June 2006, then 27 years old, he showed up at the start line for the Western States 100 with seven-time champ Scott Jurek on his crew and every intention of contending for the win.
Morrison led for the final 20 miles of the race and arrived at the Placer High School track (where the race finishes) in first place. But he had pushed himself too hard. Just a few hundred meters from the finish line, he collapsed. With the help of his pacers, he got up again, and began weaving forward. He jogged a few steps, and then collapsed again. And again.
He ultimately crossed the finish line in 18 hours 5 minutes, with the aid of several pacers and crew members. Though he was the first person to cross the finish line, his run was deemed a DNF because he had not completed the race under his own power.
Morrison would go on to attempt Western States three more times, in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Due to stomach issues and, once, wildfire closures, he never won—or even finished. Yet his story has become legend.
In 2016, 10 years after that first attempt, Morrison returned to Squaw Valley, California, to once again vie for a coveted Western States buckle. The only difference: this time, he was concerned with simply finishing, not winning.
Los Angeles-based filmmaker Ethan Newberry captured Morrison’s run on film. The resulting movie, titled A Decade On, explores the affect that fateful 2006 DNF had on Morrison and his family, what it was like to fight once again for a finish and, finally, how it felt to put the Western States demons to bed.
Morrison and Newberry chatted with Trail Runner about the experience of running and filming last year’s race.
How was this year different from the previous years you’ve attempted Western?
This was the first year that I went to Western States without a belief that I could contend for a top-10 finish. This was also my first year running Western States as a dad and a business owner, two things that have definitely changed the training game.
There were a lot of motivating factors. My wife needed some closure. [My kids] Jack and Amalia were there. Ethan was making the film, which wouldn’t have been all that great without a finish.
And maybe, above all else, was the fact that Mike McCready [of Pearl Jam] knew that I was running the race, and I didn’t want to waste the fact that he had come by Fleet Feet Seattle [the running store I own] to personally wish me luck.
How do you feel about your finish, almost a year later?
It’s a huge relief to be done. From 2006 onward, there had not been a single day that went by without thinking about the disappointment of that race.
Having finished, I go by lots of days without thinking about it. I have other goals to work toward now.
What surprises you most, watching your race from a viewer’s perspective?
Watching the film gave me a new appreciation for my own accomplishment. Initially, I was disappointed with the time I ran. [Morrison finished in 27 hours 26 minutes, 145th place.]
However, seeing Ethan’s telling of the story really gave me a sense of pride in the finish. Honestly, I’m surprised by how much I enjoy watching a movie about myself. It speaks to Ethan’s talent more than anything.
Why did you choose to tell Brian’s story?
I remember hearing the story from a group of ultrarunning friends on a run in the mountains. It’s just so heartbreaking and inspiring. As I got more involved in the sport and started creating movies, I always felt that telling Brian’s story would be the ultimate honor. It was one that affected me for years, so to be able to tell a story 10 years in the making was an opportunity of a lifetime.
As “the guy with the camera,” were you ever worried about being too intrusive of Brian’s race, and if so, how did you handle that?
As someone who’s documented my own races, I know that sometimes the last thing you want to see is a damn lens in your face when you feel like shit. I told Brian to be prepared for that, and to not try to hide anything. If he felt like garbage, then that’s what would get filmed. He was OK with everything and encouraged as much filming as possible.
How did you capture all the footage?
Logistically, it was a huge challenge, because I was documenting both Brian and also Sage Canaday [prior to getting in touch with Morrison, Newberry had already reached out to Canaday to film his race], with a skeleton crew of just my wife and me. We opted to just visit a couple of the early aid stations and run with Sage as much as possible when he came through, before having to turn back and document Brian when he arrived. As the race went on, the two ended up separating by a significant time margin, forcing Kim and me to separate.
Perhaps viewers will pull inspiration from the fact that this film was created by a single guy with a camera and a computer at home, and no brand sponsors.
What were the most memorable moments for you as filmmaker?
When Brian and his pacer, Morgan, are cresting the hill just after the Robie Point aid station—mile 99—you can see and hear the locals who gather all day and night to cheer the runners in.
There’s one distinctly loud male voice that screams, “Is that Brian? Way to go, Brian!” This gentleman, whom I don’t know and have never met, had been waiting 10 years to see Brian come through his neighborhood under his own power.
What do you hope to convey with the film?
So often, films these days are about the elites and the incredible accomplishments that happen up front. While those stories are fantastic in their own right, sometimes there’s a disconnect in relating with the audience. I’ll never know what running a sub-five-minute mile at mile 78 of a 100-mile race is like. Only a handful of humans ever would.
This story included elements of the elite world, but was also relatable. It was unique and inspiring, and needed to be told in a way that was accessible to as many people as possible—even 5K runners and non-runners. I hope I was able to accomplish that.