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Race director and California ultrarunning icon Greg Soderlund passed away Monday, April 11, after a three-year battle with kidney cancer. He was 68, and had been a part of the sport for over 35 years.
In the ultrarunning world, Soderlund is best known for his 13-year tenure as race director of the Western States Endurance Run, the most prestigious and competitive trail 100-miler in the country.
Soderlund, who retired January 1, 2013, played a large role in making Western States what it is today.
“He believed in what the race did for people—the running, but also the social part of it, the way we are a big extended family,” says John Medinger, President of the Western States Endurance Run Board of Trustees. “He wanted to extend that to as many people, in as many countries, as possible.”
On April 2, Soderlund came out to watch the American River 50. He stayed long enough to see his friend Tim Twietmeyer cross the finish line in 7 hours 49 minutes. Later that day he got the results of a scan, which showed that his latest treatment had failed. He made the decision to turn off dialysis. Nine days later he passed peacefully at home, with his wife Mary by his side.
A Legacy That Lives On
When Soderlund began as race director, in 2000, Western States drew just a few hundred applicants. Today, well over 3,000 runners enter the lottery each year for those coveted 369 bibs.
Twietmeyer, the WSER Board Vice President and a five-time Western States champion, credits much of that growth to Soderlund’s efforts to attract a deep field of elite athletes every June.
“Greg knew that in order to grow media attention and get sponsors, you want fast guys that will have a total throw down,” Twietmeyer says. Soderlund secured Montrail as the race’s main sponsor, and worked with the company to produce the Montrail Ultra Cup, a series of competitive qualifying races that offered top finishers automatic Western States entries.
But anyone who interacted with Soderlund knew that competition was not his priority, not by a long shot.
“Greg was someone who really respected the traditions and history of Western States,” says seven-time champion Scott Jurek. “He made sure the race had the same atmosphere it had been known for, while at the same time making it possible for top runners to enter the race close to race day.”
“He treated runners individually,” says Twietmeyer. “He tried to meet everyone at every race, and he was just as worried about the last runner to cross the finish line as he was about the winner.”
Twietmeyer adds that after he completed his 25th Western States, Soderlund created a commemorative display case for him.
“I’ll always remember Greg as the very busy race director who was never too busy to walk across a crowded room, shake my hand and say, ‘Thanks for coming,’” says coach and six-time Western States finisher Ian Torrence.
From Passion to Career
Soderlund’s relationship with running began in the early 1970s, when he was drafted as an army medic during the Vietnam War. One of his fellow medics was a cross-country state champion, and the two started running together as a way of staying in shape while overseas.
After the war, he stayed on as an army reservist, a role he held for 20 years, and continued in the medical field, establishing a career as a surgical assistant at an orthopedic clinic in Sacramento.
He stayed a runner, too. “Greg really loved being out running on a trail with his friends, being out there for hours,” says Mary, his wife, also a longtime runner. “Those are special memories to him.”
In the late 1990s, Soderlund took over the Sierra Nevada Endurance Run, a 52-mile race in Sacramento that was on the brink of collapse. At first it was just a hobby. “It was a cool event,” Mary recalls. “There wasn’t a big field. I think we actually lost money.”
Soon enough, Soderlund found himself in charge of some bigger races in the area, like the American River 50 and the Way Too Cool 50K.
“It was just a labor of love,” Mary says. “He wanted every runner to have a great time. In those early days, at the end of a race, one of Greg’s right-hand men used to say, ‘Greg, we made a lot of people happy today.’ That meant that it was a successful day.”
By the time the WSER Board approached him about becoming the next Western States race director, in 2000, Soderlund had already transitioned from a full-time medical career to full-time race directing. He had run Western States three times himself (and finished once), and knew firsthand the impact that it had on the life of every person who ran it.
“Greg loved the ultrarunning community,” says Jurek. “It was a second family to him. He loved coming out to the local Northern California races and connecting with the runners.”
During his tenure with Western States, Soderlund spearheaded trail-work initiatives that improved the course by replacing several miles of jeep roads with new sections of singletrack, namely a four-mile section after Robinson’s Flat and a three-and-a-half-mile stretch between Dusty Corners and Last Chance.
He also encouraged the development of the Western States medical program, establishing a procedure by which outside groups could apply to conduct medical research at the race. “Some people probably get better medical care in those 20 or 30 hours than they do any other time of the year,” Twietmeyer jokes.
Despite all of Soderlund’s on-paper accomplishments, Mary thinks that his kindness, humility and generosity will be his true legacy.
“He made everyone feel special, even if they came in after the final cutoff,” she says. “He directed Western States for 13 years, and in all those years, he was still moved by every single person who crossed that finish line. He was still wowed by it all.”