A Look Inside The Western States 100 Mile With Race Director Craig Thornley

Trail runners around the world eagerly anticipate the annual race lottery for the chance to run the historic Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Next year’s race will be held June 24 and 25, 2023 with the lottery slated for December 3. The Western States 100 is one of the premier trail ultramarathon competitions in the United States, and also one of the most difficult to get into.

As of the time of writing, there are nearly 42,000 tickets in the lottery and only 369 participants will be accepted into the race. For many trail runners, it is the opportunity of a lifetime to run this race, even if just once in their career.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Craig Thornley, race director of the Western States 100, at the 2022 US Trail Running Conference. During this time of much anticipation surrounding the Western States 100, I thought it would be an opportune time to share my interview with Thornley. We discuss what it’s like managing an internationally recognized race, how the event continues to prosper, what makes Western States different from other large-scale ultras such as the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), and much more.

Photo: Peter Maksimow.

[TAYTE POLLMANN] What are your main motivations for being here at the US Trail Running Conference?
[CRAIG THORNLEYI have much respect for event director Terry Chiplin and I want to support what he’s doing here every year. I enjoy being exposed to new ideas, such as the way I had the opportunity to moderate the “Diversity—Focus On LGBTQ+” panel this year. That was a great learning experience for me. I love hearing from the newer younger race directors committed to diversity and sustainability. It’s easy to continue doing the same thing year after year, but we are committed to growing our event. I find myself interested and energized with many new ideas I’m bringing back to our board at Western States.

[TAYTE] The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run has established itself as one of the most historic and prestigious ultramarathon trail races in our sport. As the race director of the event, how do you preserve what makes this race so special while also adding new life to it each year?
[CRAIG] We recently updated our mission statement this past spring. One of the major values is to maintain history and traditions while at the same time progressing and balancing the tension between these two things. This is something I have to do every single day. It’s challenging. I have a full board of people and volunteers with their own input that I need to consider in addition to my own thoughts.

Photo: Peter Maksimow.

[TAYTE] Volunteers are essential to the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (there are over 1,500 every year). How do you organize so many volunteers and keep them accountable to their roles?
[CRAIG] I have my key leaders, which is around 35 across the course, aid stations, and the start and finish areas. These leaders recruit their own volunteers. The aid stations are primarily clubs composed of a pool of volunteers from the clubs that they belong to. This makes them much more committed and accountable because they are not random people but established groups of people that are already used to working together. It’s risky to put volunteers that you don’t know in key positions where it could be detrimental to the race if they don’t show up.

[TAYTE] Both the Western States 100 and the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in France are regarded as two of the most important trail ultramarathons in the world, yet are very different in terms of race structure and feel. As someone who has run in both races, what has been your experience of each event and the most important realizations for you as a race director?
[CRAIG] I absolutely appreciate both Western States and UTMB. I’ve been at UTMB nearly every year since 2014. I’ve run many of the UTMB races including UTMB, CCC, and PTL. I have also attended Ultra Trail World Tour meetings that were hosted at UTMB.

I appreciate the intimacy of the races in the United States and Western States specifically. This past year there were 369 runners and 1,500 volunteers, which is a very different kind of experience from 2,700 runners and 2,000 volunteers at UTMB. The intimacy, the “John Wayne” style shotgun blast to begin Western States, and the history are things I love about our event, but there are things I’m learning from UTMB that I’d like to bring back to the states. The runner tracking and live-broadcasting of UTMB is driving us to be better. We’ve done two years now of thirty-one hours of live broadcasting and you will continue to see that improve over the next few years. This has been something that we’ve learned from UTMB that we realized we could be doing much better. The UTMB timing system, UR-time, is also another investment we’ve made in the past year that we will continue into the future for better runner tracking. I know that we’re also behind on promotion of our event and the UTMB marketing machine is unbelievable. I think we do need more of that to remain valuable to sponsors. Overall, UTMB is pushing us to be a better event.

Photo: Peter Maksimow.

[TAYTE] The Western States 100 is also partnered with UTMB as a part of their world series. Could you describe this relationship and what it means to be included in the series?
[CRAIG] It’s been valuable to be partnered with UTMB. They respect us tremendously and we respect them. We’ve had a seat at the table since 2014 at the Ultra Trail World Tour. It’s a good dynamic. We’re not trying to change each other, but we can influence each other to do things better. We are the only race in the series not owned by Ironman/UTMB, which shows their level of respect for the way we do things here and the style of race we put on. We could easily fall off if we didn’t continually evolve and market the race.

[TAYTE] The Western States 100 is definitely one of the premier stages for elite trail runners from around the world to compete, yet it also holds true to its small, “backyard” feel. How do you manage a race that has such a strong draw for both elites and the everyday runner?
The tension between the elite part of the race and the “Golden Hour” finishers or the everyday egalitarian is something we try to balance very carefully. I used to believe before I got this job as race director that you had to choose: you want to be an elite race (a world championships, US championships, etc.), or you’re an everyday race, but that’s not true. You can resolve the tension between these two in any way you want. You could be like Run Rabbit Run and give high prize money to attract elites, or you could be like a Vermont or Wasatch 100, where there is no attention to the elite field and it’s more about the everyday runner and that’s fine. We’re trying to resolve that tension in the sweet spot so that we provide an incredible experience for every runner coming to the race. We also need to realize that if the race is not interesting enough, you really can’t be influential in the world unless you have an elite field. The attention of Jim Walmsely’s records or the depth of the women’s field in recent years, those are powerful stories. We want to make sure we don’t stray too far in every direction.

[TAYTE] You have said “If more people spent time at the finish of The Golden Hour of Western States, the world would be a better place.” What do you mean by this and why is this such a special place to be?
[CRAIG] I believed this even before I was a Golden Hour finisher myself back in 2017. You see humanity. These are people with jobs, families and are not necessarily gifted athletically but I love seeing that struggle in the final hour. It’s this juxtaposition between human exhaustion and human achievement. If you’re not crying during the golden hour, there’s something wrong with you. It’s glorious. In many 100 milers, the final hour is special but with Western States in particular because many people realize they might never be able to get another chance in the race. They put everything out there to get to the finish line and it makes it that much sweeter. You can see it in their body and expression and amongst all of their crew they bring with them. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. To be providing the opportunity for them as a race director to experience that is something special. I get a lot out of that.

[TAYTE] What are you looking forward to most about the 2023 Western States?
Continued development of technology. Live tracking and broadcast is something we’re investing in much more this year. We want more accurate tracking for ultralive.net. With the tracking, we bought one StarLink last year and we now bought a second one. We can use it in a variety of ways but primarily for video in places where we don’t have cell service, as well as for communication with aid stations out of cell service. That’s the most exciting thing I’m looking forward to.

Photo: Peter Maksimow.

[TAYTE] There have been fires in Michigan Bluff and other areas the Western States course crosses through. Will the fires affect next year’s race?
[CRAIG] The fire earlier this year that burned sixteen miles of trail will still give us much work to do. We’re working with the forest service to mitigate all the hazards from the fires. We have good relationships with the US Forest Service and state and I’m confident we can have the course ready in time.

Editor’s Note: Can’t make it the Sierra Nevada mountains to watch Western States in person? You can see every inch of the course on Google Maps thanks to ATRA’s 2016 Western States Trekker project. Check out our trekker webpage for street-view links to all the aid stations and other notable points on the historic course. Watson Monument / Emigrant Pass Marker embedded below.

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