Western States Stories with Race Director Craig Thornley

Statesmas is here! At 5 A.M. pacific time today we all should be watching the start of the 47th edition of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious trail ultramarathons. Unfortunately race organizers had to postpone the race until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The iconic Western States race runs along the Western States trail which is recognized as one of the most historic and challenging routes in trail running. It follows a 100.2-mile point-to-point path through wilderness, high alpine ridges, deep canyons and a swift water river crossing en-route to a night-time finish on the illuminated all-weather track at Placer High School in Auburn.

To pay homage to this historic trail running race, I’ve written a four-part article series covering each quarter of the Western States course. On Tuesday I wrote about 2009 champion Antia Ortiz’s experiences during the first 25 miles of her race. Wednesday’s edition featured 2016 champion, Kaci Lickteig racing from miles 25 to 50. On Thursday Matt Daniels talked about the third quarter of Western States and his 4th place in 2019. Yesterday Nike Trail athlete Brittany Peterson talked about the final 25 miles of her race and head to head battle with eventual winner Clare Gallagher.

Today I speak with Western States race director, Craig Thornley, who talks about his experiences as race director for the past 8 years and the kind of effort and organization goes into this event year after year.

Craig Thornley Western States

Craig Thornley with Western States Trekker team member Max King near Robie Point in 2016.

[TAYTE POLLMANN] Could you take us through race day from your perspective as the race director? Your favorite parts of the whole experience?
[CRAIG THORNLEY] I’m up early and head down to the start area. Hopefully, I don’t have to do anything other than say hello to runners, crews, and volunteers and grab some food and coffee. However, you never know what issues might come up.

After the gun goes off at precisely 5 A.M., the start area infrastructure is taken down and is moved from the start in Squaw Valley, CA down to the finish line in Auburn, CA. I usually leave Squaw Valley immediately after the start and drive to several aid stations before getting to the finish in the early evening. I never know what will come up in terms of issues, but I have a radio in my truck and my cell phone, so I’m always reachable.

We have somebody at Net Control (in Auburn) that fills the role of “Race Director 2” for the duration of the event. This person makes decisions on my behalf and only brings issues to me if they are important. Ideally, I don’t have to make any decisions on race day (which is how I was able to run the race in 2017). I hang out at the finish and give out medals and hugs from the first finisher to sometime in the early morning (3 A.M. to 5 A.M.). I usually fall asleep on the infield of the track for an hour or two! In the morning, when it gets more crowded The Western States Endurance Run board members help me hand out medals.

When the last finisher finishes at 11 A.M., myself and a couple of board members go to my house (half a mile away from the finish), review the race stats and prepare for the awards ceremony, which is 90 minutes after the 11 A.M. final cutoff. Then we conduct the ceremony.

By the end of the awards ceremony, I’m pretty exhausted. After a nap, we usually have a few folks come over to our house to eat and drink…then we nap again! Personally, I don’t have to do much cleanup but I do have email/social media tasks to deal with. If there are any results issues they must be resolved in a timely manner.

I love the whole race weekend but I am always especially moved by the Golden Hour finishers (participants who finish in the final hour of the race before the 30-hour cutoff). These are the normal people making extraordinary accomplishments. I have referred to the finish of Western States as the juxtaposition of human exhaustion and human achievement. That is no more evident than in that last hour from 10 A.M. to 11 A.M.

Rob Krar 2015 Western States

Rob Krar leaving Robinson Flat aid station in 2015.

[TAYTE] What kind of preparation goes into preparing the course before race day? (Flagging, aid stations, etc.) How many volunteers?
[CRAIG] Trail work on the Western States trail takes place over the months leading up to the race. We have a stewardship program so individuals have responsibility for certain sections. This involves logging out blowdown, brushing white thorn and other fast growing vegetation, and other trail work. Sometimes we can’t get to the highest parts of the course until the week of the race because of snow. Total volunteers for this trail work is relatively small (less than 100), but they work very hard. The trail marking crew starts marking about two weeks before the race. That team is around 6-10 folks.

The 20 aid stations on course pick up their non-perishable supplies two weeks before the race. They buy perishable supplies (fruit, etc) on their own and we reimburse them. We have an aid station coordinator, 20 plus captains (or co-captains) and volunteers that work at each station. We also have 10 medical captains and their respective teams. Total volunteers is upwards of 1,500.

[TAYTE] After coming to Western States last year, I was struck by the anticipation and energy in Squaw Valley the week before the race. How would you describe the pre-race atmosphere?
[CRAIG] There are plenty of activities in Squaw Valley and a lot of hype around the race. In my first years as a runner I used to stay away from the race start in the nearby town of Alpine Meadows, so I could avoid the hype. However, after about 5 finishes I started staying right in Squaw Valley near the start and just embraced it. As a race director the energy is super fun.

[TAYTE] Any special moments for you over the past eight years as race director?
[CRAIG] 70 year old Gunhild Swanson’s finish 6 seconds shy of the 30 hour cut-off in 2015 was definitely a highlight.

The Golden Minute – Western States Endurance Run 2015 from Western States Endurance Run on Vimeo.

[TAYTE] What unique challenges do runners encounter on the Western States course? Tips for runners preparing for the race?
[CRAIG] Heat and downhills are probably the biggest challenges. I point first-time participants to our web page Training For Western States.

[TAYTE] What will you miss most about the race not happening this year? Have you already started planning for 2021?
[CRAIG] I’ll miss seeing all the runners and the volunteers. Yes, we’ve been working on the 2021 edition. One of the reasons the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run comes off successfully each year is that we spend 363 days planning for race weekend.

[TAYTE] Any advice for runners dreaming of one day participating in the race?
[CRAIG] While it may take years to get into the race, there are many ways to enjoy the race. Volunteering, crewing, pacing, or spectating can be equally rewarding as racing.

Are you ready for a deep dive into the Western States trail? See our Western States Trekker page with Google Street-view shortcuts to sections of the course like the “Mile 99” sign at Robie Point (Google Street-view below).

Read iRunFar’s interview with Western States Trekker expedition leader Richard Bolt and all the Trekker team’s daily recaps of their 2016 journey from the Squaw Valley to Auburn carrying the 80 pound street-view imaging system.

Shortcuts to course information on the Western States 100 mile website:

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website.

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