A conversation with: Craig Thornley

The next Western States race director talks about his ties to the region, race
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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The Western States Endurance Run has been in the capable hands of race director Greg Soderlund for well over a decade. Late last month, the Western States Board of Trustees announced Soderlund will retire after the 2013 race and Craig Thornley will take over as race director. Thornley will serve as assistant race director this year and in 2013.
Journal Sports Editor Todd Mordhorst spoke by phone with Thornley last week. The following is a portion of the conversation:

AJ: How did you first get involved with Western States?
CT: I’ve been passionate about the race since 1978. I worked at Dusty Corners (aid station) for 10 years. I ran the race eight times. I never thought I was going to be an event director for a living.
AJ: What led to you landing the job as race director?
CT: I never thought about it until about 1 ½ years ago. There were some changes in the board of directors and I talked about getting on the board. That led to talk about Greg Soderlund retiring and some of the board members asked if I might be interested in that. I started to think about it and I said, “Maybe I could make this work.” It was a lot to contemplate. It was a big decision even to apply for it.
AJ: What is your background in running, and ultras?
CT: My family moved from the Bay Area in 1977 to Cool. I went to Golden Sierra High School. It was a brand new school, so we got to set traditions and it was a lot of fun. I ran track. I still have the 1,600 and 3,200 school record 30 years later. I also played basketball for three years.
When I saw Western States for the first time it was 1978. We had just moved to Cool and we were camping at American Canyon Creek, which was about mile 83. We had no idea what day it was, but we kept seeing runners going by and we eventually pieced it together that they were running from Squaw Valley to Auburn. I saw that crazed look in their eyes and I said, ‘I’ve got to see what this is about.’
I thought old people ran ultras. It wasn’t until 1997 that I came back and run my first 50-miler. I ran my first Western States in 2001. I found that I was better suited for 100-milers. I do regret that I didn’t start running 100s earlier.
AJ: As a race director, what is your philosophy?
CT: The thing I focus on is, helping each runner have the best race experience they can have. Western States should be the best experience they can have at any race. Whether they’re out there for 15 hours or 30 hours, we want to provide an incredible experience. It’s a big deal. When you run 100 miles, you remember it for a long time.
AJ: What do you do for a living?
CT: I’m a software engineer at the University of Oregon in the geological sciences department.
AJ: Western States is a huge undertaking. Where do you get started on such a daunting job?
CT: As soon as I got offered the job I’ve been getting CCed on Greg’s emails. The details are definitely numerous, but it’s a lot of the same stuff I’ve had to deal with for the Ski Patrol (as the Oregon region director for the National Ski Patrol). It’s the same stuff, there’s just more of it. There are 29 land-use permits we need for Western States — that’s a lot of little pieces. None of those details can be dropped. It’s definitely daunting, but once I’m in Auburn I’ll be totally immersed in it and I think I’ll be more comfortable.
AJ: What will the transition period be like for you?
CT: I will be shadowing Greg for the next two races. It’s a long transition period, but I think it will work out best for the race. I’m learning a lot from Greg. He’s been very helpful. He wants me to succeed. I’ve got a lot of support. It’s not like I’m just being thrown to the wolves.
AJ: I have to ask about your nickname: Lord Balls?
CT: In 2004 at Western States I was running pretty well. I was 15th or 16th at Foresthill and I was going for top 10 — that’s always my goal. My pacer and crew were all excited. I ate some beans and drank a Coke. I started out running too fast and I ended up puking. I did well, I think I was 11th overall. I talked to my step-grandmother after the race and she had been at Foresthill. She said, “You ran by like you were Lord Balls!” I was self-absorbed when I was running by her. Within a month or so after that, she died. I took Lord Balls as my trail name.