Western States Warrior: 5 Questions with Craig Thornley

With 11 days until race day, it's al systems go for WS100 race director Craig Thornley. Photo: www.irunfar.com

From racer to race director, Craig Thornley is taking it all in stride.

It’s 11 days out from the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, and eight-time finisher Craig Thornley is not in taper mode. Instead, Thornley, who took on his new role as race director in January, almost a year earlier than planned, due to former RD Greg Soderland stepping down for health issues, is running his own race to the June 29 start, ensuring every last detail is addressed and every runner question answered. Whether he realized it or not, Thornley has been in training for this role for much of his life. He first learned about the race in 1977 when he and his brother were camping at Hoboken Canyon Creek, just past Green Gate on the run course. Runners started coming by and asking them where the aid station was. That introduction led to volunteering at Western States (WS), crewing for other runners, running in the race and serving on the race board. Amid his WS focus, Thornley also co-founded the Waldo 100K in Oregon – a race that includes elements of WS, such as mandatory trail volunteer days and a remote, predominately single-track course.

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Give us a peak behind the curtain. With 11 days until the race, what’s happening?

We just dropped T-shirts off at a volunteer’s house, but we didn’t have a house number. Cool, Calif., is pretty rural, and you don’t want to go knocking on the wrong door, but we didn’t get shot and I pretty sure it was even the right place.

Aid station supply pick-up happened two days ago. We have 25 aid stations, and great crews to man them all. They now have all of their dry goods, GU powders, water jugs and supplies and just need to pick up perishables before the race.

I also checked in with our course markers and am trying my best to answer last-minute racer questions – mostly about tapering and such. I know what it feels like to be two weeks out of a big race, so I’m happy to answer as many as I can.

Can racers expect any changes to the race for 2013?

We’ve been busy and there have been quite a few changes, some they’ll notice, some they may not.

We’re in the midst of moving our warehouse from Sacramento to Auburn, which is just minutes from the finish line. Volunteers are picking up supplies in Sacramento and returning them to Auburn to help us with the move. It’s working out, but is definitely adding some complexity I could have done without right now!

The website is also updated, first time in about 13 years. Computers and programming are my background, and I wanted to bring my experience to the WS website. It’s now more user friendly from both sides and we are continually tweaking it to make it even better for racers and others looking for information. We are also spinning up some big servers this week to handle the race day coverage on our live webcast site, Ultralive.net.

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We do have two changes I’m excited about for runners. The first is doing away with meal tickets — the last thing a runner should think about after running 100-miles is “Where did I put my meal ticket?” Runners and volunteers get food, and its honor system donations for everyone else. Four-time Western States finisher Jed Tukman is also going to be on-site all night with his pizza truck, which has a wood-fired oven. This is a great food option for sub-24 hour finishers, plus the fire will provide welcome warmth through the night.

How has the transition been from a more traditional business life to full-time race director?

I was just having this conversation with a friend, who asked, “If [you] knew how hard it was going to be right now, would [you] still have made the change?” and my answer is a definite yes. I would like things to be smoother in coming years so I can be out in the community talking about the race and being a positive influence. What I really love is interacting with the runners and I’m having a hard time doing that right now.

I also have a long-term goal, I’ve mentioned it to a few people and my board knows, so I can share. My plan is to get Western States and its systems to a place where I can also participate in the race as a race director. By 5 a.m. on race day, I should be able to hit “play” and have all in place. Plus, it’s not like my crew won’t know where I am! Who knows if that will actually happen, but it’s a level of efficiency to strive toward.

What’s in your big picture for Western States?

With more global awareness of ultras, we’re talking about some changes we could make to allow more international elite athletes to make it to the starting line. We’ll work on ideas this coming year.

And with 1,500 names in the lottery for 369 spots, we are always looking to address the tension around the lottery and race entries. All races define their own set of values. The Hardrock 100 is completely egalitarian in their lottery system. Something like UROC is geared towards elites. At Western States, we’ve tried to find a sweet spot in the middle. We want to be egalitarian, yet also have a fast, elite field from all over the world.

Now that you’ve seen Western States from all angles, what makes it so special?

Oh, wow. There is nothing contrived about this course, it has a completely authentic path with deep history. Add to that all the people who have run this race before and the amazing volunteers who are completely invested in the event and it just doesn’t get any better.

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