Classic U.S. Ultras: Waldo 100k

AJW's TaproomTwenty years ago, the Oregon Trail Series of ultramarathons was a thriving series of races in the U.S. Pacific Northwest lacking only one thing, any race over the 50-mile distance. In 2001 and 2002, a group of Oregon ultramarathoners began scheming ideas for putting on a 100k or 100-mile race in the state. Several ideas were considered including a 100 miler from Eugene to the Pacific Crest Trail and a 100 miler along the Umpqua River Trail. Craig Thornley, an accomplished ultrarunner from Eugene, suggested the idea of staging an ultramarathon at the Willamette Pass Ski Area where he was a longtime member of the ski patrol. From there, the Waldo 100k (called, at the time, the Where’s Waldo 100k) was born!

Thornley solicited the help of Curt Ringstad, a long time Bend ultrarunner who loved to create training routes, to design the racecourse. Equipped with old-school paper maps and an eye for adventure, Ringstad, who would co-direct Waldo with Thornley for the first 10 years of the event, drew up a beast of a course which summitted three classic Central Oregon peaks and tied together previously untapped routes between the Pacific Crest Trail and no fewer than six beautiful mountain lakes. The route in those early years required significant trail work and route building, and Thornley and Ringstad, along with a slew of loyal volunteers, have worked those trails for the better part of two decades.

Thornley, who was a Waldo 100k co-race director for 14 years, is the unequivocal heart and soul of the event. Even after he handed over the reins for the last time in 2017, he’s remained an essential cog in the operation and today serves as the president of the non-profit Waldo Ultras Board of Directors while Elizabeth Reese is the current race director.

Craig Thornley (left) and Curt Ringstad at the 2018 Waldo 100k. Photo courtesy of Craig Thornley.

Over the years, Waldo has attracted a long list of ultra luminaries including Dave Mackey, Meghan Arbogast, Andrew Miller, Joelle Vaught, Erik Skaggs, Krissy Moehl, Jeff Browning, Kami Semick, Timothy Olson, and, perhaps the most accomplished North American ultrarunner of all time, Ann Trason. Waldo has served as both a USATF 100k Trail National Championships and a Montrail Ultra Cup race all while maintaining what your columnist lovingly referred to back in 2004 as “its old-school, boutique-ultra feel.”  It is as a result of this family atmosphere that many come back to the event year after year including the three 10-time finishers of the race, Mike Burke, Steven Greuel, and Chris Thornley, Craig’s brother.

As a beneficiary of the race, the Willamette Pass Ski Patrol provides extraordinary support for the race including full access to all of the ski-area resources at no charge, HAM radio infrastructure, and medical support. This, in addition to the relationship Thornley and his team have built with the Forest Service in the area are, to me, quintessential trademarks of a Craig Thornley event. Craig knows more than just about anyone else I have ever met how much relationships matter and the time and energy he has put into building and maintaining strong relationships with those people and groups who support his events are a major reason why they are so successful.

Dave Mackey running the 2011 Waldo 100k. Photo: Michael Lebowitz

Of course, like any other ultra, Waldo is not without its stories. In 2010, they faced a cease and desist order due to the original name, Where’s Waldo, and changed the name to Waldo 100k. In 2012, they faced cancellation within three days of the race start before Thornley deftly and quickly altered the course and literally pulled a rabbit out of the hat, a magic act you can read all about here. And, as far as anyone can tell, they were the first race to essentially break UltraSignup when the race filled within seconds in 2014 prompting Mark Gilligan, UltraSignup’s president, to demand that Waldo move to a lottery system or find another registration provider.

Of the many things that I think make Waldo unique, perhaps the best are the special awards they present each year. These three awards, Find Waldo, Wet Waldo, and Show Us Your Waldo, epitomize the offbeat nature of the event but also exemplify the egalitarian nature of the race. Find Waldo is essentially a “preem” that is awarded to the first man and first woman to the top of the first major peak of the race. Wet Waldo goes to the race finisher who successfully submerges him or herself in all six lakes that the race passes by. And, Show Us Your Waldo is a subjective award determined by the aid-station volunteers and annually goes to the runner who “shows or has the most or best Waldo.”

Toward the end of my conversation with Thornley earlier this week, I asked him if he ever wanted to run the Waldo 100k again, especially now that he is finally not the race director.

“You bet I do! I am thinking that whenever I decide to finally run my 10th Western States I will run Waldo as my qualifier. Maybe you can run it with me!”

I paused and for a moment and remembered the last great thing about Waldo, the fact that they offer an early start to anyone who thinks they might need 18, rather than 16 hours to complete the course.

“I’d be willing to do that, as long as we can take the early start.” I finally offered.

“You’re damn right we’ll take the early start!”

And, as usual, Craig got the last word.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Lewis Taylor’s (six-time Waldo finisher and current Waldo board
Beer of the Week

One of our consistent favorites has been Sticky Hands from Block 15 Brewing in Corvallis, oregon. It’s a big imperial IPA at 8.1% ABV that AJW would be proud of!

Call for Comments

Calling all Waldo 100k stories! Leave yours in the comments section below.

Waldo Lake as seen from the Fuji Mountain, the first summit of the race. Photo: Teri Smith

There are 9 comments

  1. Joe Z

    I enjoyed crossing paths with thru-hikers on the PCT during the race. The race was clearly one of the most interesting things they had encountered in a while and the encouragement/cheering went both ways!

  2. Tim B

    The year it broke Ultrasignup, my friend and I both entered right as registration opened. He got the dreaded ‘actually you aren’t registered’ email shortly after his registration confirmation email. Race day was ideal, soft mulchy trails, and steep climbs up Fuji, Twins(twice), and Maiden. Each climb was unique, causing me to reflect on their volcanic origins. Cruised the last 10k downhill off Maiden joining the well maintained PCT, crossed the finish and was handed an ice cold bottle of water and a Waldo hat from Meghan Arbogast, the RD that year. Finish line vibe was family-like, enjoyed barbeque and a beer while we watched fellow runners finish amd earn their Waldo hats.

  3. Mark M.

    The first time I talked with Craig Thornley at the 2014 Waldo 100k was at The Twins aid station. I mentioned to him that I was going to try to get a WS100 Qualifier despite being a little behind the pace. He provided encouragement and a preview of his plans to increase the number of slots available in the general lottery (e.g. reducing the number of aid stations and therefore the automatic entrants slots that goes along with each one). Such a nice guy and genuinely excited for everyone running and everyone supporting – volunteers and crew.

    The next time I talked with Craig was hours later at the finish. After congratulating me for getting my Qualifier he was helping me find a visor I had lost on the trail that day. I couldn’t have cared less about the visor and told him so. But the fellow runner and new trail friend who found it and turned it in insisted that Craig track it down for me. Craig proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes walking me all over the ski area talking with all the volunteers and staff he could find – each time pointing to me and asking if they’ve seen my visor…often asking me to describe it (it was plain and white). I was mortified by all the attention and the odd looks of “Really, a visor?” each person would shoot at me. I suspect he noticed the pained look on my face and was having some fun at my expense. Never did find the visor and I still haven’t gotten into Western States (7-time lottery loser!). Good times. Thank you, AJW and Craig!

  4. Jacob Rydman

    In 2012, I remember camping by Waldo Lake (prepping for the race) and running on the Bobby Lake Trail a few days before the race – and after breathing in quite a bit of smoke – realized “man, there’s a fire out here!” …. I appreciate Craig’s incredible communication to us runners during that time (not to mention the effort of the numerous amount of firefighters I’d see on Waldo Lake Rd as I’d drive by) and the “growth mindset” Craig had to still find a way to make it happen. I definitely felt that extra 5k/1000’ of climbing on the course due to the re-route! Memorable year as well battling newly-crowned WS100 champ & record-holder Tim Olson to the finish! :)

  5. Andrew Miller

    AJW, I’m glad you included Waldo in your list of classic US ultras. It’s definitely one of my favorite races. The course is awesome as it features endless miles of perfect single track and significant climbs up three peaks. But I think it’s the community that really makes the race special. I’ve been around Waldo a few years, either helping or running, and have got to know some of the individuals who are responsible for making the race happen. They are amazing people and do a whole lot more work that most runners realize.

    Here’s a few memories from race day:

    2013: This was my first 100K and as I climbed Mt. Fuji, I saw David Laney flying down from the top. He’d just showed up on the ultra scene that year with a course record at Chuckanut. Despite that, I thought he was going too fast because he was just flying down Fuji! It may have been a little too fast because I heard afterword that he was really suffering along the Rosary Lakes around mile 59…..but he did set the course record which still stands today!

    2014: I ended up spending almost the entire day with Joe Uhan and Ryan Ghelfi. I don’t think the three of us were separated by more than a minute until Charlton Lake (mile 32). Things started to spread out a little more after that but we all ended up within 15 minutes of each other at the finish. Having Joe and Ghelfi so close the entire race made it was one of the most fun races I’ve run! That day is one of my best running memories.

    2012: I have to include pacing Co Jones…and thanks for letting me join you Co! I met Co by running few 50Ks in about the same time as him. He was typically a little quicker downhill and I was quicker uphill so we’d change spots frequently throughout the race. Anyhow, when I paced him at Waldo, Co was going for “Wet Waldo”. That the first person to jump into all 6 lakes. Well, Co finished first, but at the finish line there was a little discrepancy whether he got in all 6 lakes or not. The lake in question was Found Lake (this was before I started pacing at the Twins). Co described “submerging” in Found Lake as a little challenging as he had to roll around in 6-8 inches of muck. Unfortunately for Co, that was Found Lake swamp and not the lake itself. Wet Waldo went to Todd Temple that year, but Craig gave Co a Waldo skirt for his efforts!

  6. Sean Meissner

    Although only a few years after I started running ultras, 2004 Where’s Waldo remains one of my top-5 ultra performances. Duking it out with you and Tim was FUN!! It really brought out the best in all of us. Great times at a classic-in-the-making race!

  7. Lewis Taylor

    Great write-up, AJW. Sorry I’m late to the celebration. Here are a few of my favorite Waldo memories:

    * In 2009, an itinerant traveler named named Trevor Van Vliet who was on a long-distance biking adventure contacted Craig and asked him if he could run the race as a late entrant. He was not an avid runner, but he calculated the average pace per mile of the previous year’s winner and was pretty confident he could win the race. He had no money and no gear so Craig gave him a pair of old shoes and comped his entry. After a blazing start, I saw him doubled over a rock on the way down to Gold Lake AS. He dropped somewhere around the Mt. Ray Aid Station (mile 20.5).
    * 2006 Krissy Moehl passed me on the climb to Maiden Peak and put 8 minutes on me during her run to the finish for the outright win.
    * 2005 AJW and Jeff Riley dueling off the Maiden Summit. On the way down, Jeff instructed his pacer, Tom Atkins, to punch his quads, which were seizing up on the descent, but to no avail. AJW for the win!
    * 2007 was the year the course was sabotaged. I stupidly went off course and it was not the best year ever for me, but it was one of the wildest, most inspiring races I’ve ever been a part of. Meghan Laws went out of her way to help reroute the course and still won the race outright, beating Jeff Browning by nearly two minutes. After leading the race, Neil Olsen went way way off course and then gutted it out for a 15:21 finish. Joe Grant haunted me from behind throughout much of the race with the sound of his trekking poles. “Click, click, click.” We yo-yo-ed back and forth for position for miles. In the end, he beat me by 48 seconds.
    * Thornley ran in 2006 to experience the race he built for himself, finishing in 8th place. I don’t remember his exact words, but he was indeed humbled by the degree of difficulty. He ran again in 2016, finishing in 46th place and gaining a 2017 WS qualifier.

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