In this interview, which was part of the iRunFar Live at Western States show, Western States 100 race director Craig Thornley talks about how he learned about Western States for the first time as a kid, his nine previous finishes of the race including last year while also directing the race, some of the challenges of helping lead a large and influential organization, and what his race day(s) will look like this year.
For more on who’s running the race, check out our men’s and women’s previews, and, then, follow along with our live race coverage on Saturday!
Craig Thornley Pre-2018 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar—Meghan Hicks: We are here in the Coffeebar in Olympic Valley. We are with race director, Craig Thornley. Your hosts are Dylan Bowman and myself, Meghan Hicks. This is part of iRunFar’s Live at Western States three-show set. If you are here in Olympic Valley, we’re back live at 4 p.m. today for another five interviews. If you’re with us online, that’s at 4 p.m. Pacific Time. We also have a store you can buy stuff from, iRunFar.com/store or back there. We’ve got a couple sponsors to thank really quickly. We want to thank Drymax, Buff, Jaybird, and the Coffeebar for hosting us today. Let’s do this interview. We are with the master himself, Craig Thornley. Hi.
Craig Thornley: Hello. How’s it going?
iRunFar—Hicks: How are you?
Thornley: I’m pretty good.
iRunFar—Dylan Bowman: Have you slept in a few days?
Thornley: Yeah, I slept a bit last night.
iRunFar—Bowman: You better bank those hours while you can.
Thornley: Yeah, it’s easier than last year.
iRunFar—Hicks: I want to ask you… this 15-minute interview could be five hours, but you have a really interesting story about how you encountered the Western States for the first time. We actually published it on iRunFar, but it’s several thousand articles back. So I want to bring that story alive. How did you meet the Western States?
Thornley: I met the Western States in 1978…
iRunFar—Bowman: That was the second year, wasn’t it?
Thornley: 1978 or 1979. My stepfather and mother moved us to Auburn Lake Trails. We were about a mile-and-a-half from the aid station there. My brother and I were camping right in the middle of the trail near Hoboken Creek. It’s between Green Gate and ALT. We see this runner come by, very dirty, very tired, and wanted to know where the aid station was. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then another one came by and another one came by, and then we realized, Holy cow, we’re at mile 83 of this 100-mile race. I remember distinctly looking at their eyes—other than the fact that they were really dirty—but that blank stare, I said, “I want to experience whatever they’re experiencing.”
Thornley: Oh, absolutely—my brother, too. I don’t know what that is, but I want it. I was young. Yeah, that’s how we found out about the trail.
iRunFar—Bowman: That’s great. You’ve finished nine times now… including last year where you were able to run and finish your own race?
Thornley: Nine times, yeah.
iRunFar—Bowman: I’m curious how that race was as the race director. Did the perspective of being a runner in your own race lead you to thinking about changing anything in particular, or did you notice anything while you were running that you wanted to implement in this year’s race?
Thornley: Yeah, there’s no way a race director can go to every aid station unless we had a helicopter. So, I got to see every aid station, and I saw some things that I wanted to improve on. But I think what I was struck with was that I ran significantly slower than I had in my previous days, so I got to see the aid stations at the end. And I was amazed that the volunteers were still incredibly enthusiastic even though I was 50 minutes from the cutoff. I don’t know. How do you improve that? It was an incredible perspective. That 99-mile party—I live right near there—it was way better than midnight or 1 a.m. Everyone is awake. They’ve already been drunk and hungover and have already sobered up.
iRunFar—Bowman: It is one of the most incredible things, what Craig is referring to, at Robie Point in the Golden Hour—what they call the last hour before the 30-hour cutoff. Just being on the road there between Robie Point and the finish line, it’s an incredible experience.
Thornley: It is. It’s worth it. If you’re going to finish in 28-something, just slow down a little bit and finish in the last hour. They’ll love it.
iRunFar—Hicks: Best hour, right?
Thornley: It is the best hour in ultrarunning. Hardrock’s last hour is pretty special, too.
iRunFar—Hicks: They both are Golden Hours, right? You became the race director of Western States in 2012, is that right?
Thornley: I think I was the assistant in 2012, and 2013 was when I first…
iRunFar—Hicks: Is when you took over?
Thornley: Yeah, so this is number six.
iRunFar—Hicks: Before that, your relationship with the race started the year I was born, so you’ve had a long relationship with the race. You’ve run it nine times. I think you were involved with pacing, crewing, maybe volunteering when you weren’t running. Talk about Western States circa 1980s and 1990s.
Thornley: We started working at Dusty Corners because my mom knew the aid-station captains there. I was just a day volunteer which was super fun because I didn’t have any responsibility. I just showed up and my brother and I were runners, so they let us do… if someone was cramping, we were the experts somehow. We paced and crewed over the years, and then I finally ran it in 2001 my first year.
iRunFar—Hicks: Then I guess you just kind of went at it. You racked up eight finished by 2012?
Thornley: Yeah, it was close. Before I took the job I had trained 10 times, so I would have finished with AJW (10 finishes goal), but in 2006 I got hurt 21 days before the race and couldn’t start. Then in 2008 there was the fires. So that’s why I’m scrambling to get my last two in as a race director. If I wait until I retire, my wife keeps reminding me, “You’re going to be a lot older. You’d better make it your last years.”
iRunFar—Hicks: But in fairness, racing and directing the same race has to be almost an impossible ask. To be able to put in enough miles in the months leading up to the race that you’re organizing?
Thornley: I thought I could run 22, 23 hours, but the race week didn’t go as planned because of all the snow and trail conditions. With the high country having been put to bed—with the American River Conservancy having purchased 10,000 acres of and, and it’s now in wilderness, some of it, but they’d pulled out all the culverts and gotten rid of all the roads to return it to natural watershed—it was put to bed right before the winter snows, and we hadn’t seen it until Tuesday before race week, and there was no trail.
iRunFar—Hicks: That’s right. You guys were building trail.
Thornley: Yeah, it melted on Tuesday, so I ran from here to Lyon Ridge on Tuesday and it took me four hours.
iRunFar—Hicks: To get through the snow?
Thornley: Yeah, and find the trail. There was nothing. It was just mud. So we scrambled to get teams out there and scratch it in. So that week was terrible.
iRunFar—Hicks: You were so tired at the starting line.
Thornley: I was so exhausted at the starting line, and I did have a one-hour night on the Thursday night [before the race].
iRunFar—Bowman: Speaking of other adversity as the race director, I’m curious if there’s one thing you can point to that would seem like a small detail to an outside observer or a runner in the race that takes you in your team an inordinate amount of time or an inordinate amount of stress to prepare…
Thornley: I could give you a couple names of people, but I probably shouldn’t do that. You could guess. Yeah, it’s dealing with some challenging personalities. Sometimes they derail you and they take a significant amount of emotional energy and time. And then they show up at my door an hour-and-a-half later, and I just lost an hour-and-a-half of work. It’s probably those types of things. We had one yesterday if you were paying attention.
iRunFar—Bowman: I didn’t see.
Thornley: Okay. There was one yesterday, and we got it resolved, and it took time.
iRunFar—Bowman: I’m sure it’s a difficult position to be in, and I think one of the things that people really admire about you and that you’ve brought to the race is radical transparency in how all the decisions are made. Can you talk about the transparency component and how that’s become your philosophy and how valuable it is?
Thornley: Well, I was a runner of Western States. I never expected to be the race director. I had a career in computer science. I have a couple degrees in computer science. I never thought I would be a race director.
iRunFar—Hicks: You would just like to talk to computers all day, right?
Thornley: Yeah, so I came at it from someone who was in the lottery, and I didn’t like what I saw. So when I got the job, that was the first thing I was going to do. Everything was going to be transparent, and that forces us to do the right thing. If you’re not transparent, then you can kind of, This guy got in this way and this woman got in that way… but when you’re transparent, you can’t critique us for doing anything.
iRunFar—Hicks: It’s all out there.
Thornley: It’s all out there. We can make mistakes, obviously, but we spend a lot of time making sure we don’t make mistakes.
iRunFar—Hicks: I think the Western States 100 is rightfully said to be the grandfather of American trail ultrarunning, and there are a lot of eyes also outside of America as a leadership race and a race with a really good story line. But being in the leadership position, we all know, can be a blessing and a curse because you receive the great stuff from the community, but you also have to make hard decisions or following the moral and ethical line is difficult. You guys are a group. You’re a board. You’re a group of people who make these decisions together which doesn’t necessarily make them easier. Take me into your head for a minute. What do you think about as you’re making these hard decisions that will make little ripples throughout the world community?
Thornley: I think I always want to do what’s best of the event and best for the runners and the runner experience. If that ever zips from the priority, then I think we’re going the wrong way. I always think about that. There are plenty of examples of where runner experience wasn’t in the forefront of the decisions in other races, and I think that’s a huge mistake.
iRunFar—Bowman: You tweeted yesterday something to the effect of, I’m paraphrasing, but, At the end of the day, your job is to give people the best experience you can from Squaw to Auburn, and you voiced your gratitude that that is your job. That’s so incredibly cool.
Thornley: Absolutely. That’s it.
iRunFar—Bowman: Your phone luckily has not rung in the 10 minutes we’ve sat here.
Thornley: Oh, I’ve got a text here, but it’s Monkey Boy.
iRunFar—Hicks: Hi, Monkey Boy.
iRunFar—Bowman: One last question just to close it out—what does your day look like on Saturday? What does your whole weekend look like?
Thornley: The day is changing. The day’s plans changed this morning. I was going to go to Lyon Ridge, Red Star, Dusty Corners, and then the finish line. Now it looks like I’m going to the finish line right away, which… meh… for Net Control because Ted Knutson, our Ultralive.net guy, is running the race this year, so I’ve got to fill in for him for a little bit.
iRunFar—Hicks: Somebody has to be the…?
Thornley: Then I’ll be there at the finish line for the first finisher and I’ll stay there until 4 or 5 a.m. until I get a couple hours of sleep. I’d love to stay there the whole time from 7 p.m. until 11 a.m., but it’s pretty hard to stay awake that long. Then I’ll be back for the Golden Hour and the awards. Most of it is really just pressing ‘go’ on Saturday. You just press ‘go’ and all the infrastructure hopefully works. We have decision-making trees in place and everyone has practiced and been drilled. It shouldn’t be too hard for me. It shouldn’t be.
iRunFar—Bowman: Great. I hope not. Thank you so much for taking a short bit of time out for us. I think you’re a widely respected and admired race director on the circuit. Thanks for everything you do for the sport. We’re all rooting for you this weekend. Good luck!
Thornley: Thanks a lot. I love this new addition here and all the coverage you do on race day not just on our race but all the races all over the world. It’s cool. I actually admit to looking at Twitter instead of my Ultralive on race day. I will probably be following your Twitter.
iRunFar—Hicks: Ultralive is awesome for following the entire pack or tracking your runner. If you want to know what’s happening at the head of the race right this second…
Thornley: I love you, Ted…
iRunFar—Hicks: We all love you, Ted.
Thornley: Until he makes an app for Android… he’s got an app for iOS.
iRunFar—Bowman: Round of applause for Mr. Craig Thornley.