Last weekend for the first time, I had an opportunity to spectate at a Western States elite-qualifying race. Formerly known as the Montrail Ultra Cup and now known as the Golden Ticket Races presented by Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching, this race series provides opportunities for runners to qualify for automatic entry into the Big Dance at the end of June. The thing is, it’s hard as only the top-two finishers of each gender qualify.
The race I attended was the Georgia Death Race outside Blairsville, Georgia. This third-year event, joyfully and somewhat irreverently directed by Sean Blanton, is a tough sufferfest. The point-to-point course covers 72 miles and has just over 20,000 feet of elevation gain. And, to top it all off, all of the runners are required to carry a long list of mandatory gear including an iron railroad spike.
In the race itself, Andrew Miller and Caleb Denton took the men’s tickets and Bethany Patterson and Maggie Guterl snagged the women’s tickets. Following the race all four enthusiastically accepted their invitations to Squaw. What I found so intriguing about the event was the ‘race within the race.’ While there were over 270 starters in the race, when all was said and done there were probably 15 to 20 of them vying for a Golden Ticket. And, for those 15 to 20, it was a day of high risk/high reward.
With just two spots available, it was high stress right from the start. While the lead runners were chatting and carrying on in the early going, it was clear to me that it was an all-business day. Looking over the elite field there were two runners with previous Western States experience and both of them were seeking a return to the race to take care of unfinished business. Given the difficulty of the first 20 miles of the course, many of the elites pushed the pace hard early and suffered greatly over the second half. Other runners bided their time and were able to push on at the end. In the end, it was clear that given the 72-mile distance, nobody was going to be able to fake their way to a Golden Ticket, they were all hard earned.
The scene at the finish line was euphoric. As each Golden Ticket runner crossed the finish line, their look of relief and excitement was palpable. It was clear to me as an observer that all four of the ticket holders wanted it bad. They had all trained hard through the winter, had faced up to the race-day stress and a small margin for error, and then they each executed their plans. As a long-time lover of Western States, I couldn’t help but share in their enthusiasm. Over the course of a day, the next three months of their lives were completely changed.
And so Andrew, Caleb, Bethany, and Maggie, congratulations on your Golden Tickets. You’ve achieved entry into the most prestigious ultra in the world and regardless of what happens in June, nobody can take that away from you. I hope your recovery goes well and you can jump back into training. Because in a few short months we will all see you in Squaw!
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Bethany Patterson’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia. A booming beer town, Richmond is home to some excellent breweries including my favorite, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. Known for their award winning Ginger Bread Stout and Belgian-styled beers, they also make a great IPA called the Great Return. Served up in four packs of 16-ounce cans, the Great Return is a sessionable IPA often seen in the hands of tubers on the James River in summer.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Have you played witness to any of the Golden Ticket Races this year? Have you seen how the stakes are pretty high for those at the front of the pack?