Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Taking Ultrarunning to Heart - An Interview with Craig Thornley

Taking Ultrarunning to Heart – An Interview with Craig Thornley

If you’ve run the Western States 100 in the last 25 years, you’ve probably seen Craig Thornley’s smiling face. Since 1978, he’s been crewing, pacing, volunteering (10 years at Dusty Corners), and since 2001, racing in Western States. This last July, this Eugene, OR, resident finished 10th overall in 18:25, winning a silver buckle and a guaranteed spot to come back again next year. Craig is also a co-Race Director of the Where’s Waldo 100k, a beautiful and challenging course in the Oregon Cascades that starts at ends at the Willamette Pass ski resort where he is on ski patrol in the winter.

(Craig at the White River 50-mile, 2005, photo courtesy of Glen Tachiyama - see more of Glen's awesome photos here)

I caught up with Craig after another successful Where’s Waldo 100k, and he was happy to provide an interview.

First, congratulations on being top 10 at
Western States. You’ve been very close in the past – what was it that made the difference this year?

Nikki Kimball wasn’t there! I was 10th man last year but Nikki edged me out for 10th overall in the last 7 miles. I did run faster this year by 21 minutes and the difference was I ran a good Cal St. In each of my other States I’ve had a relatively poor split from Foresthill to the river. In 2001 I had blisters, 2002 my quads were shot, and in 2004 I puked just after leaving Foresthill and had to slow down to get food and fuel back in the system. This year, I went from 15th place in Foresthill to 10th place at Green Gate and ran the downhills on Cal St like I never have before.

Who crewed for you this year?

My brother Chris, my friends Jeff Riley, Gary and Lynn Stott (formerly Nelson), Greyson Murdoff and Renee Kempke. My wife, Laurie, was unable to help this year due to work. Normally she is my crew chief, but this year Chris took the reins and did a great job.

I saw the name Chris Thornley on the Where’s Waldo 100k finishers list too. I guess ultrarunning “runs” in the family?

Yes, my brother actually ran ultras before I did. He did two 50 milers when he was a teenager and then stopped running for more than a decade. It wasn’t until recently that he began running again and when he did Waldo last year he was DFL (the last finisher). This year he came back after spending lots of hours in the Grand Canyon near his home in Flagstaff, AZ, and finished 3 hours faster. He has paced me in 5 out of the 6 100 milers I’ve done. He is running his first 100 miler at Javelina Jundred this year.

My wife, Laurie, also runs, but not competitively. She has done one marathon and 2 50Ks (maybe 3 by the time this gets posted). She crews for me at most of my races. She also has spent many days waiting for me to finish long runs in the mountains since my runs usually take many more hours than hers.

My mom doesn’t run but could probably be called a Western States groupie. She lives in Cool, CA near the 85 mile mark of the course. She has been working, crewing, or just watching the race since 1980. She has always been a big fan of Tim Twietmeyer and Ann Trason. She also liked Doug Latimer. She has crewed for me, but it now is too much for her so she goes to a few places and watches. Crewing for States is hard.

What were the highlights from this years Where’s Waldo 100k?

Both the men’s and women’s races were really close this year. My training partner Jeff Riley led the race until 4 miles to go when Andy Jones-Wilkins, who I’m pacing at Angeles Crest 100 next month, caught and passed him. Both were under the previous course record. It was Andy’s first victory after many seconds. The women’s race was equally exciting with Kami Semick and Meghan Arbogast passing Bev Anderson-Abbs with only 3 and 2 miles to go. All three women were in the top 5 overall! Watching my brother run so well was also definitely a highlight for me.

I’ve really enjoyed your race write-ups on your web site. You have a great story about how you found out about the Western States race – can you share again?

Sure. My mother and step dad moved us from San Jose to Cool, CA in my 8th grade. My brother, stepbrothers, and I often camped down in the American River Canyon right near our new home which we thought was really cool (sorry). One of those summers, I think it was 1978, we were camping at American Canyon Creek when a very dirty and tired looking guy in running shorts came by and asked where the next aid station was. We had no idea what he was talking about. Several more came by before we got the story that they had been running for 85 miles and were headed to the finish of a 100 miler in Auburn. We stayed up the rest of the night watching runners come by and I knew that night that someday I was going to have to do this thing.

(Craig at the Western States river crossing, 2002, photo courtesy of Greyson Murdoff)

What other ultras have you done, or are you targeting?

I’ve run McKenzie River 50K in Oregon for the last 7 years, since I started running ultras. McKenzie and States are my favorites. I’ve also run Arkansas Traveller and Angeles Crest 100s, White River, LeGrizz, PCT, and Mountain Masochist 50 milers, and Way Too Cool, McDonald Forest, SOB, Sunmart, Pemberton, and Peterson Ridge 50Ks. Not that many really. My running year has been totally focused on States since 2001. When I didn’t get in in 2003, I ran Angeles Crest instead. My thoughts now are that I will do 10 States, but if my motivation wanes I’ll stop short of that.

What is it that draws you to ultrarunning?

Have you always been a runner?I have been a runner since high school, where I was a mediocre miler (4:33) and 2 miler (9:46). After stopping running for 5 years while I was in college, I took it back up when my wife and I moved to Arizona for work and then ran road races for 10 years or so. My marathon dreams of qualifying for the Olympic Trials never happened (I only ran 2:33) and I kinda got tired of running out of glycogen and running on the roads. When we moved back to Oregon in 1996 I got into hiking and climbing mountains again and that seemed to be the transition point. So, I guess I’m one of those ultrarunners that come from a running background.

One thing that draws me to the 100 milers is the mental aspect. Sure, we can train and get really fit, but if you don’t have the right mental attitude and strength going in you just aren’t gonna make it. I also love being out in the woods.

Much like the world of track, Oregon seems to produce some great ultrarunners like you, John Ticer, Sean Meissner, Kami Semick, and more. What is it about Oregon and runners?

It rains here all the time. Don’t move here. Seriously, I’m not sure what is going on in Oregon right now. We have an Ultra Series, of which Waldo is part, and there is definitely a family feel to our races as generally the same people are at all of them, but I don’t know if that is contributing to the competitive folks. I do know in Eugene we have a regular group that trains together and that is helping all of us. Ticer is obviously back to the form of his earlier years, and you’re going to be hearing more about Jeff Riley in the future.

How about a few training questions…what does a typical week look like for you in terms of mileage and types of workout?

It all depends on the time of year. I generally only run about 3000 miles a year at this point in my life. My biggest months are April and May when I’m ramping up for States. Those weeks are generally right around 100 miles and include a track or tempo run and a long run of 30-50 miles. We do track work at about 5:30 pace per mile and tempo work at around 6 minute pace. One of our favorite workouts is the Goodman Creek workout which is a 5 ½ mile uphill run on a gravel logging road which gains 1500’, rest for a few minutes and then hammer back down. We also do a hilly 10 mile tempo run on a local trail called Ridgeline Trail. We think we’re fast when we break 65 but the local track guys come and run sub 60 all the time and put us in our place.

Does that interfere at all with your teaching schedule (U of Oregon Computer Science Dept) or work with the Willamette Pass ski patrol?

No, I really don’t work that much. I generally only teach 1 class a year in the fall and that is the beginning of my down time with running. Ski patrolling each winter bites into my training time for States but I love doing it and my quads get really strong (I patrol on telemark skis).

When you do a 100-miler, how do you devise a strategy in terms of splits, calorie consumption, etc.?

I try to eat my “normal” foods early and I plan for those. Late in the race I know I’ll be on the edge with the stomach so I rely on gels, Pepsi, and soup for my calories. I don’t count my calories but rather just go by feel. For States, I definitely have splits planned for the whole day. I’ve yet to run faster than my projected splits, but I’m usually not far off them.

What are your favorite race day foods/snacks?

Pork and Beans are my favorite. I try to get two 8 ounce cans down early. They are a great food for ultras and I learned about them from Bruce VonBorstel, who I helped crew/pace at States in the 80s. There is protein, fat, and carbs. They taste great and are easy to eat. And, yes, I eat the pork fat chunk. Near the end I am usually looking for Pepsi and potato soup. That is what brought me back to life at Browns Bar (90 miles) this year.

What’s the best part about volunteering for a race? About being a Race Director?

Running ultras is such a selfish endeavor. Everything on race day is about me. Training is all about me. It feels really good to give back. With Waldo, what I’m finding is that the runners really do appreciate all the work I put into it. Today is 4 days after the race and I’m having trouble keeping my Inbox below a 100 messages. 99% of them are very positive and appreciative comments. That feels really good.

What would you recommend to runners targeting their first ultra?

Respect everything about the race. The hills, heat, distance, food and fluid requirements, competition, etc. Do your homework and train specificity.

Any other tips or words of wisdom?

Get your mind focused on the finish before you start. Don’t let dropping out even enter your thoughts. If your mind is set on the finish, you will finish.

Thanks for a great interview! -SD


  1. You know, Oregonians are the only ones that aren't getting fatter in the US according to this study. Maybe it's the spirit of ultra? ;oP

  2. That's a killer photo! Is that Mt. Rainer? - Charlie1

  3. Charlie1 -

    In response to your question, here's Glen (the photographer):

    "Yes, it is Mt. Rainier! A gorgeous day and plenty of light made for great shooting conditions."


  4. I see that Glen Tachiyama was given credit for his photo of Craig at White River. Who shot the photo of Craig crossing the Amercian River and why wasn't s/he creditted?

  5. Good catch! I had a bad link that was hiding the photo credit. I updated the caption so you should see it now - Greyson has some other great photos at Craig's Western States 2002 trip report (also a great read).

    Link ->

  6. He's smiling waaaay too much for the river crossing. Maybe because it's cool and refreshing?

  7. Apparently Oregon's weight plan is "all about the bike".

    Maybe it's one of those laws of averages where Thornley makes up for ten Krispy Kreme-eating couch sloths like me!


  8. Just passing by, I'm really digging the blog, btw.

  9. right on man!!

  10. Just found your blog. I love to trail run too, though on a less intense level.

    I just went on Windy Hill OSP last Saturday in Portola Valley and loved it.

  11. I absolutely love to run and although I know longer run competitively as I did in high school and part of college, it is still such an exhilarating activity. I was inspired by your site! Thanks!

  12. Great page! As a mountain climber, I am glad to see a blog like this out there. Keep it up, more pics and so on!


  13. I've gotta freaking try one of those. They look awesome.

  14. silly robbot! Tricks are for kids!!!!

  15. Hey,

    Great site.

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  16. far out blog. plz post me a comment

  17. "At 6:29 PM, Jin Kazama said...
    just one question: how do people get there blogs to be in the "BLOGS OF NOTE" category so that other bloggers could easily search it?"

    Well it is a pretty simple system: some google dude decides what to put up. Some really are interesting and good, but a few are actually mostly add based pages! I frankly think that the google people who put these pages up might be putting up the pages of friends etc...

    This one is a good page, however, it should be on the list. But others? Maybe not so much. I cant remember which one it is right now, but one of the new ones in the list totally doesnt deserve to be there, maybe the lawyer one? Arg my memory is horrible, but one was a bad pick I think....

  18. No its the fasterslower one, not the lawyer one (sorry lawyer dude).

    That page is all about selling phone cards, it is a pure add page, which frankly represents what can be wrong with free blogger when people dont care about adding to the community. Whoever put that page on the list might have to consider taking it back off again.


  19. beautiful site! i will think of you tomorrow morning in my little mileage. you are an inspiration!

  20. To Jin and Alex -

    I can see why you're interested in the "blogs of note". My traffic has been through the roof since they put it there! I really appreciate everyone stopping by.

    I don't have any secrets for getting on "blogs of note". Forbes had selected my site as the "best health and fitness blog for summer 2005" much to my surprise, and I sent a thank you note to the folks at for making such a great tool. I thought it was great that some normal shmoe blogger could be selected over big, professional sites.

    That being said, this blog wouldn't be anything without the generosity of people like Craig (interviewed here) who graciously grant interviews and send ideas. I'm having a ton of fun with this blog!



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