Thank ‘SuperDave’ for diverse Bend race scene

If you’ve run a race or two in Bend, you know Dave Thomason’s work

By Markian Hawryluk / The Bulletin / @markianhawryluk

If you’ve run more than a race or two in Bend, chances are you’ve experienced the work of Dave Thomason. And chances are, you’d know him as SuperDave.

Flexing his superpower — a unique ability organize races with a fun, low-key vibe that keeps people coming back for more — he is the logistical force behind some of the region’s most iconic races. With his wife, Carisa, an elementary school physical education teacher, the power (running) couple has arguably done as much as any other to keep both young and old in Central Oregon fit and active.

Born in Eugene, Thomason, 42, moved to Bend after high school to study at Central Oregon Community College and to ski at Mt. Bachelor.

“Well, a lot more for skiing than for school,” he admits. After two years, he left to complete his degree in exercise science at Oregon State University but returned to Bend after graduation in 1996.

That’s when he met his wife, 40, also a Eugene native, who ran long-distance races while studying at COCC. She had just returned to Bend, after having left to complete her degree and run for the West Virginia University cross-country team, specializing in 3,000-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. Carisa began teaching PE for the Bend-La Pine school district, while Dave worked the floor at the FootZone running shoe store in downtown Bend, hitting the trails and the slopes in between work shifts and school days.

It was in the late ’90s, when Bend was half the size it is today, that Thomason pondered the lack of an intermediate-distance trail run in Bend.

“Dude, I totally know where to put a trail race in Bend,” he recalls telling a friend, and proceeded to plan the very first Dirty Half race, a half-marathon trail run that has now become a staple of the Central Oregon running scene. “It was very humble beginnings.”

The first Dirty Half attracted a mere 150 runners, most of whom Dave knew personally. Much to his surprise, it turned a profit, which the organizers donated to charity.

The second year, they lost money. But by the third year, they had worked out the kinks and started a relationship with the Deschutes Land Trust, which now benefits from the race proceeds.

Now the race generally sells out its 800 slots.

Building off the success of the Dirty Half, Thomason organized the Horse Butte 10-miler with similar casual beginnings after a run with a friend.

“Hey, it’s 10 miles. Hey, it’s Horse Butte,” he said, recapping his thought process. “Let’s call it the Horse Butte 10-miler.”

Scheduled for April each year, it kicks off the running season for many local runners.

Year after year, his portfolio of races grew, not so much by design, but organically. Visit Bend asked him to stage a 50K trail run as part of its campaign to promote Central Oregon as a trail running mecca. That become the Flagline 50K.

There’s the Twilight 5K Run/Walk, which starts and finishes at the Deschutes Brewery, where runners are treated to the brewery’s Twilight Summer Ale. And, there’s SuperDave’s Down & Dirty Second Half, whose logo bears its namesake’s big-chinned, big-eared mug. Just this year, he added the Mastadon, a 12-mile run through the Maston trail network on BLM land between Tumalo and Redmond in early March.

Local runners say while the races are never glitzy events, they are well-organized and a good value. Where other race organizers routinely charge $30 to $40 for a 5K, sometimes more than $100 for a marathon, Thomason has always tried to make races affordable for families.

“The way I go about it, I give you a pretty good deal, a good race course — I give you a lot for what you pay,” he said. “It’s pretty low-key. You can certainly race as hard as you want. It’s all professionally run and stuff. But I’ve heard they have a different feel.”

Case in point: the I Like Pie run held each Thanksgiving morning.

The idea for the pastry-inspired run emerged from some half-baked chit-chat with a customer he was helping find new running shoes.

“We were like, ‘Turkey’s cool, but it’s really all about pie,” he recalls. “You know what? We should start a race and call it the I Like Pie run.”

As part of the event, people can bring pies for judging or for eating. The run has a suggested $5 or five cans of food donation to NeighborImpact as an entry fee.

“We just put a donation bin out there and people stuff it with money,” he said.

What started off as a way to burn some calories before sitting down to the holiday meal has grown substantially over the past nine Thanksgivings. Last year, it attracted nearly 1,100 runners.

“There are going to have to be some changes,” he said. “It’s really logistically challenging.”

Thomason acknowledges the race scene in Bend has shifted significantly since he staged the first Dirty Half. Fifteen years ago most of the runs were either short 5K runs and longer half or full marathons. Now the racing scene has diversified, adding more intermediate and ultra-long-distance runs, over more varied terrain. Charity 5K runs on paved paths are interspersed with dusty trail runs and outright filthy mudders. There’s at least a local hat-tip to Thomason in that.

“When he started putting on the Dirty Half, for example, there weren’t things like that going on,” said FootZone owner Teague Hatfield. “There just weren’t middle-distance trail-type events.”

Bend’s running community has evolved as well, finding a greater diversity among its runners ranging from hard-core elite athletes such as Max King and Stephanie Howe, to casual enthusiasts who run with a friend, chatting the entire way.

“The Dirty Half is a great example of that,” Thomason said. “We have a front wave of guys who are racing; the middle group, guys who have lost a step or two; then we’ve got these people in the third wave, (for whom) racing is the furthest thing from their mind.”

This year the Dirty Half was postponed so as not to interfere with emergency crews’ access to the Two Bulls fire raging that weekend. It was rescheduled for July 6.

Such bumps in the road are minor compared to the tragic turn of events during the race two years ago, when 40-year-old Billy Tufts died of a heart attack on the course.

“That’s really the worst-case scenario,” for a race organizer, Thomason said. “There’s no good place for it to happen. You don’t ever want it to happen, but it happens.”

Thomason is thankful that the tragedy spurred the community to come together to make racers safer. A group of emergency-room nurses responded by starting Racing to the Rescue to provide racing events with defibrillators along the race course and trained emergency personnel in case anything goes wrong.

While Bend’s racing scene has grown significantly over the past decades, local runners say there is still a strong sense of community here.

“SuperDave is a huge part of that,” said Jill Duncan, of Bend. “He might not think of himself as a relationship guy. I think he’s simply doing what he enjoys.”

Duncan believes the races are successes in part because of Thomason’s ability to connect with participants and the broader community. Race organization requires cooperating with the U.S. Forest Service or city officials, managing a cadre of race volunteers and working with local businesses.

“We see the same guy from Longboard Louie’s grilling salmon for burritos at many of Dave’s races,” Duncan said. “He seems to enjoy working at Dave’s events, and I’ll bet it’s because Dave has built a great relationship with that guy.”

Carisa Thomason, a high-energy, diminutive PE teacher, shares her husband’s gift for getting her charges excited about fitness. Several years ago, a pair of her students wanted to show off their unicycling prowess to their classmates. Carisa not only let them showcase their skills — she learned to unicycle herself and launched a unicycling club for kids at the school.

She opens the gym for students before school four days a week — the only exception is the day she must supervise the kids playing outdoors — to practice their unicycling.

She started buying unicycles on Craigslist to accommodate kids who wanted to learn and didn’t have a wheel of their own. Soon the numbers swelled so much, she had to limit participation to kids in third grade or older, or younger students who could bring their own unicycles.

By the end of the school year, she had 78 children in the club. Some days are designated for beginners, and others for intermediate riders. She secured a $1,200 educational foundation grant to buy 13 unicycles for the school. Combined with the six cycles she bought herself, and the kids who bring their own, she can accommodate, on average, 30 or so children who show up each day.

She’s taken the club to ride in several parades. “That’s one of my goals, getting kids to know how to get involved in the community through the things we learn in PE,” she said.

The Thomasons say their competitive running days are mostly behind them. They still enjoy hitting the trails and have become avid CrossFit participants. They have their hands full just keeping up with their 7-year-old son, Clay, already a dead ringer for his lanky dad and quickly giving his mother a run for second-tallest in the house.

“When I was racing, I was trying to drop on my friends, ‘I will punish you. I will rip your legs off,’” SuperDave recalls nostalgically. “Now I’m the second-fastest person in the house.”

Now about that name. Thomason said it all stemmed from a mountain bike ride he took with a friend in his younger days.

“When the ride ended, he said, ‘You’re not just Dave; you’re SuperDave!’” he recalls. “He is a very loud individual. It just stuck.”

Indeed, most runners in town can’t come up with his true identity.

“I’ve had checks written to me as SuperDave because they don’t know my last name,” he said.

Does the bank cash them? You bet. •