Craig Thornley, the Next Western States RD, Interviewed
Last week, Craig Thornley was named the next race director of the Western States 100. We caught up with him the day after the announcement.
iRunFar: How did you first learn of the Western States Endurance Run?
Craig Thornley: The story’s been told a couple times. My family had moved to Cool/Auburn Lake Trails from the Bay area in 1977. My brother and I loved living up in the rural part of California, especially coming from San Jose. It was so much fun. We spent a lot of time at the river just screwing around in the woods. We were camping down at Hoboken Canyon Creek, which is one of the two forks that forms the American Canyon Creek. It’s just past Green Gate on the run course. We didn’t have any idea what day it was and a runner comes by, a dirty, tired looking guy with a crazy stare in his eye, and says, “Where’s the aid station?”
More people keep coming through asking the same question, “Where’s the aid station?” We eventually figured out they had come from Squaw Valley and were at about mile 84-85 in the race and they were going to Auburn. We didn’t sleep much that night. So that’s how we found out about that race in 1978, my brother and I.
iRF: Tell us about how you got involved in the race.
Thornley: My mom knew Judy and Luke Rinehimer, who were captains of the Dusty Corners Aid station for 23 years. She worked with them for a year or two. I eventually joined her and started working the aid station.
I also met Bruce VanBorstel who lived in Kelsey, near Cool, and he asked me to pace him. I paced him in 1985, when he was ninth place in 18 hours and something. I crewed him a couple other times. He had about a 50% finish rate, so there were one or two other times when I was supposed to pace him but didn’t get to.
So I worked 10 years at Dusty Corners on and off and crewing and pacing for Bruce.
iRF: What made you decide to run it for the first time?
Thornley: Well, as I worked at Dusty Corners, they kept asking me, “When are you going to run?” I was living in Oregon, going to school, and I was a runner. I just thought, “Only old people do these. Only old people run Western States.” I wanted to keep running fast. I moved to Arizona and got back into the road stuff again after college, and I’d come back to Dusty Corners and, “Hey, Craig, when are you going to run Western States?” I waited until 2001 to run for the first time. That went pretty well, my debut was 20:20 with some serious blister problems.
iRF: How many times have you run it total now?
Thornley: I have eight finishes. I’ve prepared and trained for the race 10 times. I trained for it in 2006 and got hurt 20 days before the race, and I trained for it in 2008 [when it was cancelled due to fires]. I’ve really done this whole thing 10 times, I just didn’t get to run it two of those 10. It seems like I’ve done it enough times to get a 10-year buckle.
iRF: You and I are both good enough friends with AJW [Andy Jones-Wilkins] that I have to ask this question. How many of those are top-10 finishes?
Thornley: I’ve got two top-10 men’s finishes. One time I was 11th with one woman in front of me. I consider that a top-10; Andy considers that a top-10. It’s top-10.
iRF: Had you ever considered the idea of RD’ing the Western States before you heard there was an opening for the position?
Thornley: When I started Waldo 100k 10 years ago, I was not an event manager by any stretch of the imagination. I did a pretty good job. We had serious problems, but not any that couldn’t be fixed. My wife, who is in event management said, “You know, Craig, you could make a new career in event management.” I thought, “Nah, not really.” It’s too easy to make money as a nerd working half time. So that was probably where the idea started.
Then, when Shannon [Weil] left the board, I wrote her and asked what she thought I needed to do to get on the board. She said to contact Tim [Twietmeyer], so I wrote Tim and we had a conversation and it lead to potentially being the race director and being on the board. It was a year before the position was announced that I started really thinking about it.
iRF: So when was the official announcement of the position made and how did the process go?
Thornley: I think it was made in either September or October. You had to get your resume and letters of recommendation in by December 1. It was not an easy thing to write a resume for the position of a race director, as my professional life is completely different than race directing. My curriculum vitae was worthless as a resume. So it took me awhile to write this resume. I got a bunch of letters written and submitted my material about a week before the deadline.
They contacted me at the beginning of January and said we’d like to interview you on the 15th of January. I immediately thought, “Oh No! I can’t do that because that’s the Olympic Trials [Marathon].” But luckily the Olympic Trials were on Saturday the 14th in Houston, so I had to rearrange travel and head to Davis[, California] for the interview. They contacted me eight days later. I thought the process was very professional. They handled it so well all the way to the announcement. It was very professional and I was very impressed.
iRF: How did they let you know?
Thornley: [John Trent, President of WSER] sent me an email and asked if he could call me that night. He didn’t tip his hand at all. When we got on the phone he asked, “I’ve got a question for you, Craig.” I was thinking, “Oh no, not more follow up interview questions.” We had already done a long interview and then long follow up phone conversations afterwards.
He said, “Would you like to be the next race director for Western States?” I didn’t really have a lot of words to say. I was stunned. I was totally stunned. I eventually said, “Yes!”
iRF: What was the first beer you drank after you said yes?
Thornley: This was kind of frustrating because we had a bottle of champagne that I’d been saving and we couldn’t celebrate the decision. The next day was my birthday and I had a bunch of friends come over and we ran and I wasn’t allowed to say anything to them yet, which was really, really hard. What did they bring over… we had a Pyramid Snow Cap Seasonal Ale.
iRF: What career are you transitioning from and when will you start dealing with WS100 duties on a day-to-day basis?
Thornley: I am leaving a job as a unix system administrator – basically a guy who makes computers work at the University of Oregon Geological Sciences Department. It’s a good gig as the hours are very flexible, the benefits are generous, the pay decent, and the work challenging. All of this at only .5 FTE (half-time). I think I have 15 years at the UO. I’ve also been a software engineer and an instructor in computer science in the 23 years since I got my masters in 1988. Other than a few years when I made some money as a part-time ski patroller, all my earned income has come from computer work.
iRF: You haven’t been shy about posting your fair share of constructive criticisms of Western States on your blog over the years. The board still brought you on so they must be confident you can work together. When you get integrated, is there a particular issue you would actually be keen to raise?
Thornley: In my interview process, I was pretty open about the things that I thought we could do to improve the race. I don’t think I’m ready to share any of those right now. It’s going to take a year and a half or two to learn all the ins and outs of the race from Greg, so we’ll see. The sport is changing, too, so the race may be in a different place in two years when I take over. The ideas I have in my head right now might not even be applicable by then or they may change. But yeah, I haven’t been shy about it, people can go read my blog and find out what I’ve said.
iRF: Any chance there will be a Haggin Cup equivalent at Western States?
Thornley: I would LOVE to implement a Haggin Cup award at Western States. I don’t know how we’re going to do that, but absolutely. I think that’s really important.
I don’t want to name any names now, but when someone has a great finishing time and we celebrate them, but they went to the hospital – I think that’s a really bad thing for this sport. If somebody runs themselves to the hospital, I don’t care how fast they ran, I don’t care if it’s a world record. I personally don’t think we should be celebrating that. It’s not good for the individual race, the person, the family, the sport.
I think we should definitely celebrate those people who take care of themselves. If they run really fast and they take care of themselves, then WOW, that’s what we should aspire to, not running ourselves into the ground and barely hanging on when we hit the finish line. I don’t know how we’re going to do this Haggin Cup thing, but yes…
iRF: For those who aren’t familiar, what is the Haggin Cup?
Thornley: The Haggin Cup is the best-conditioned horse at the Tevis Cup. The top-10 horses are judged the next day with some objective criteria and some subjective criteria. Sometimes the winner of the Tevis Cup also wins the Haggin Cup. That’s occurred a handful of times.
iRF: There are two issues that often come up when folks discuss Western States: entry fee and costs. First things first, what’s your take on the balance of entrants at Western States, just from your own perspective. There’s a balance between letting in the sport’s elite to the race, as a championship venue, versus being completely egalitarian. Right now, it’s a mix.
Thornley: It’s definitely a mix. This is obviously the board’s purview, but it’s probably going to be a mix of both in order to be the world’s premier athletic endurance event, which is in their bylaws. We have to continue to have a great race, that means fast runners from all over the world. But, I don’t think it would be a good race if it was just fast folks. The 29-hour people have incredible stories and maybe even more incredible than some of the faster folks. So I think Western States is going to have to delicately balance catering to elites while making sure that every runner that is qualified and gets selected in the lottery has the best experience that they will have in any race.
iRF: So on the cost front, from the public information, are there any reasonable and prudent ways to reduce the entry fee or make sure it stays the same for a few years?
Thornley: I’m going to put a PayPal donation button on my website so I can just work for nothing… no, I’m kidding. I haven’t seen anything that sort of sticks out.
One area that the Tevis Cup has that we might explore is an endowment program. If we could get that endowment program built up so it might subsidize the cost of the entry fee for runners, I think that’s one way to do it.
The buckle is pretty large component of the entry fee, but they’re special, handmade buckles. I hope to do a post on the buckles in the very near future. I don’t think we want to give those up as they are incredible works of art.
iRF: So you won’t be giving up the Conduct the Juices blog anytime soon or your editorial voice?
Thornley: No, obviously I’m going to be a representative of the race so I’ve got to be careful, but I think I’ve been careful in the past.
iRF: There is a very long transition process before you’ll be the sole RD. How’s that process going to work?
Thornley: Well that’s 22 months from now. I’ll be the Assistant Race Director until December 2013. Leading up to the 2012 race, I’ll help with the Memorial Day Training Runs and the aid station supply pickup before the race. During race week, I’ll be up at Squaw with Greg starting on Tuesday and then probably follow Twiet[meyer] around on race day. Following the 2012 race, I will be in charge of all the aid stations and probably be given increasingly more responsibilities until after the 2013 race when Greg retires. My first responsibility as RD will be the lottery in December 2013. Until then, I’ll be the Assistant RD learning from Greg.
Learning all the details, meeting all the people, which there are a lot. There are 29 land-use permits that have to be secured for the race to go from Squaw Valley to Auburn. That’s a lot of pieces that could go wrong. If any of those go wrong, the race is in jeopardy. You’ve got 23 aid station captains and 1,500 volunteers, the sponsors, the course managers. There are a lot of pieces, a lot of things that you’ve got to keep working and keep nurturing to make sure none of the details get dropped. Obviously, Greg Soderland is very, very skilled at that. I look forward to learning from him. I’ve watched him since he started in 1999 and you just never see him sweat or shaken up. He’s just always calm. Even in the fire year, he was always calm. I’ve got a lot to learn from that man. He’s very, very good. I’m honored to be working for him and learning from him for the next 22 months.
iRF: Greg will have done 14 races by then. What’s his legacy?
Thornley: He took the race organization that was not real dialed in and he dialed it in. He wrote up procedures. He’s got some code red thing that, if something happened to him right before the race, someone could pick it up and make the race happen. He’s taken the race from an event that wasn’t well codified and he’s codified it. I think that will be his legacy, which will allow me to leverage off all of that and take it to another level.
iRF: You have a 10-year bet with AJW regarding Western States and you’re well on your way to a 10-year buckle. You also have quite a passion for running Western States. What’s it going to be like not running the race?
Thornley: Well, actually, when I first thought about this and Greg said, “Craig, you know you’re not going to be able to run the race this year.” I was trying to figure out how I’m going to get the last two. But the opportunity to be the race director… I get so much satisfaction as the race director at Waldo, seeing everyone push themselves and have a great time and just providing the opportunity for them to have an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. I couldn’t pass that up.
I will get my last two when I retire in my 60s. The last two race directors each went 14 years so if I go 14 years I’ll be 64. I’ll have to run like Scotty Mills when he was 60, but we’ll see how many he runs in 3-4 more years.
iRF: Speaking of the Waldo 100k, any thoughts if you’ll continue there of transfer the RD-ship to someone else?
Thornley: Well, Meghan and I are in the process; Meghan Arbogast is my assistant. Curt Ringstad retired after 10 years of being co-RD; he was also the co-founder. We are in the process of creating a non-profit corporation with a board of directors very similar to Western States with a trail-work component and putting on the race. That will allow me to stay on that board and still kind of direct the race and make sure it survives the way I want it to survive. So I’ll probably stay on at least one more year, maybe two more years, but probably not longer than that as race director. Hopefully, Meghan will be up to speed and ready and willing to take over.
iRF: Here’s a crucial question for you. Any ideas of bringing a beer sponsor to Western States?
Thornley: No, we can’t have beer at Placer High School.
iRF: We could rent a building next to it.
Thornley: You could put that up for discussion on iRunFar and AJW’s Tap Room.
iRF: Since you can’t continue on your 10-year race bet, any chance you want to have a showdown with on Placer High school track over 1609 meters?
Thornley: With YOU? Sure, what kind of mile can you run?
iRF: I haven’t run one in awhile, but I’ve run okay. I have a 4:40 PR… but that was a LONG time ago.
Thornley: Sure let’s do it. I’m going to try to run on the track this spring. And there’s the Hayward Classic two weeks after Western States.
iRF: We’re on. The afternoon of the last Sunday in June on the Placer High School track!
Thornley: We’ll give them a show!
[iRF homepage thumbnail photo by Marianne Wedell-Wedellsborg.]