Twenty 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.
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.
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.
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