It was with deep sadness that I learned of former Western States Race Director Greg Soderlund’s passing earlier this week. Greg had been suffering from kidney cancer for several years and finally succumbed on Monday evening at the age of 68. He will be sorely missed.
I first met Greg in 2001, at my first Western States. Seeing him preside over the pre-race meeting, I was immediately struck by the glint in his eye and his calm demeanor. Greg had an effect on people that was at once assuring and challenging.
I look back fondly on many memories I have of Greg: running a few miles with him at the Quad Dipsea, taking in the drama of the Western States lottery, regaling one another with stories of the new ‘young guns’ who came to his beloved Way Too Cool 50k every year, and, of course, our shared ribbing of mutual close friend and current Western States Race Director, Craig Thornley. However, my fondest and dearest memories of Greg Soderlund took place in the same place every year between 2004 and 2011, the Placer High School track in Auburn, California.
As my obsession with Western States grew, so too did my joy in receiving my finisher’s medal and belt buckle from Greg every year. There was something so familiar and warm about his presence at the race each year that made me overcome with emotion each time I rounded the track during each of those wonderful seven years. Three of the years, in particular, stand out and are worth sharing.
2005 – My friends will undoubtedly rib me about this one because pretty much not a week goes by in my life that I don’t talk about the 2005 race. And, it is not because I finished second that I like to talk about it. Rather, it is because on that day the planets aligned for me and I had the single best running day of my life. Even today, 11 years later, I have a visceral reaction to thinking about that feeling I had rounding that track. And, as I shuffled through the last 50 meters there, underneath the finish-line arch, was Greg. When I crossed the line he flashed that trademark smirkish grin, shook my hand, put the medal around my neck and said simply, “Pretty close.”
2007 – In this, my fifth Western States finish, I battled hard all day, coming in fourth, just behind defending champion Graham Cooper. This time, when I crossed the line, I was overcome with excitement and adrenaline. In fact, there is still a YouTube video around that documents my overzealous reaction. After jumping around like a crazy man for a minute or two, I looked over to where Greg was calmly waiting with my medal. I walked over to him, grabbed his hand, and said, “Thank you, father.” To this day I don’t quite know why I said it that way but it seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. And then, quite characteristically, Greg called me out during the awards ceremony by telling the crowd that, “Contrary to his finish-line celebration, AJW did not win the race. He only finished fourth.”
2011 – This was my eighth and final finish with Greg as race director and it was also my fastest time. 2011 was a particularly stressful year for Greg as heavy snow in the high country required significant course adjustments. And yet, as with every other year, by the time I got around that track there he was, smiling knowingly, welcoming me home.
Greg Soderlund presided over some of the most extraordinary days of my life. The gift he gave me and thousands of others can really never be repaid. As for me, I will miss Greg so much. His legacy, of course, is secure. But not seeing him every year on the fourth Saturday in June every year leaves a little hole in my heart that will likely always be there.
Rest in peace, Greg.
There will be no Beer of the Week this week.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
The rest of the iRunFar family sends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Greg. Greg made foundational impressions on a lot of us. Would you like to comment with a story about Greg to help us remember him? Please feel welcome to do so.