AJW's road to recovery, return to Hardrock
You are a runner. You have placed in the top 10 of Western States seven consecutive years. Your kids literally grew up at ultra marathon events. You are a competitor, adviser, coach, historian and ambassador of the sport.
Then one day you find yourself in a doctor’s office in Charlottesville, Va., finally consenting to find out what’s causing the chronic pain in your left hip. The doctor tells you there is no cartilage left and recommends a hip replacement. “I remember like it was yesterday,” you say. “It was April 12, 2015. It felt like a death sentence.”
You are Andy Jones-Wilkins. And this is your story of a quick descent from the highs of ultra running to uncertainty then a steady progression back to the sport you love.
‘I am never going to be able to run again’
Jones-Wilkins remembers the pain starting in 2008-09. It limited his range of motion but he was able to run through it as long as he didn’t overstride. The pain hit a crescendo in 2014 when he ran his final Western States. “The following winter, it deteriorated to the point where I couldn’t run more than three or four miles at a time,” he recalls.
That’s when he went to see the specialist at the University of Virginia. “It was tough, especially that period between getting the diagnoses and finding a way through,” he says. “When I got the initial diagnosis, I thought this was it — I am never going to be able to run again. It was definitely a period of low-grade depression.”
But like every experienced ultra runner knows, there are low points and you have to understand how to work through them. Jones-Wilkins focused on his own research. There must be an alternative solution, he thought.
In his digging, Jones-Wilkins learned of another Virginia runner who had hip resurfacing surgery. That runner, Dave Yeakel Jr., ran two 50-mile races eight months after surgery to qualify for the Grindstone 100, which allowed him to qualify for and run Hardrock 18 months post surgery.. So Jones-Wilkins tracked down the surgeon, Dr. Thomas Gross, who has now done more than 5,000 of these surgeries.
Gross confirmed that Jones-Wilkins was suffering from full end stage arthritis in his left hip, essentially it was bone on bone. The solution was hip resurfacing, a general procedure that is similar in theory to having a tooth capped.
When he learned he was a candidate for the surgery, Jones-Wilkins began to work hard again, getting in as good shape as possible and losing some weight. “It was almost like motivating for a race,” he says. “The surgeon was a god-like figure. He was saving my running life. Every single word he said, I adhered to — to a ‘T’.”
During the surgery, doctors dislocated the hip, shaved off millimeters of the femoral head and acetabulum, inserted a titanium chrome cap on the femoral and let the bone grow back and heal itself. There is no glue or staples used.
In September 2015, Jones-Wilkins underwent the surgery and left the hospital six hours later. He used crutches then a cane for about six weeks during which time activity is limited to allow the bone to regrow. By January or February of 2016, he was able to begin running again.
“It’s not perfect,” he says. “There are still pains in there, especially in cold weather, or if I twist it the wrong way. But as a result of the surgery and taking care of myself and doing active recovery, strength work and flexibility — things that were never part of my routine before surgery — I am able to run.”
While Jones-Wilkins may not be able to compete as he once did, his love of running burns bright.
“I’ve lost a step or three,” he admits. “My days of running fast are over. But as long as I can run, I am a happy camper.”
He still has to be extra careful about wearing the correct shoes and monitoring the surfaces he runs on. “Like many of us, I have had to make concessions as I age,” says Jones-Wilkins, who is now 50. “The happy ending of the story is that I am still an ultra runner and I hope to be for a long time.”
The hilly road to recovery
(Andy Jones-Wilkins training in Cunningham Gulch before his return to Hardrock in 2016.)
New Years Day 2016 was a defining moment. Instead of doing a group run as he had in the past to celebrate a new year, he went to a nearby dirt road hill. His task: 3 miles up, 3 miles down, 2,000 feet of gain.
“I wasn’t allowed to run yet but I could hike, and at a pretty fast pace,” Jones-Wilkins says. “I got back to the car and I had no pain. I was brimming with energy. I felt like I am going to come back from this. There was all this symbolism. It was a new year. There was a new me. And this was a place that I had wondered if I would ever be able to run there again. Six miles on a random dirt road meant the world to me. Still not able to run yet, but the sun was rising.”
Jones-Wilkins worked back to once again run ultras. His first one post-surgery was the Dam 50K in Sandy Level, Va., on April 2, 2016 — seven months after surgery.
“The course was a blend of trails and roads, which I thought would be good,” says Jones-Wilkins, who finished eighth overall with a time of 5:10:51. “I started out and got to about Mile 20 and I felt like I was going to be able to finish it. There’s a big climb at Mile 25. I was chatting with a friend and kept bopping along and finished the thing.”
Immediately after crossing the finish line, it felt like any other ultra.
“Then I walked to the parking lot to get to my car and burst into tears. While for all these months I had told myself that I would be back and run again, I hadn’t done it yet. So when I did that I sat down and cried — and made sure no one else could see,” he says with a chuckle. “It was a great moment. It was a great time of content acceptance.”
Jones-Wilkins would run another Virginia 50K later in April as part of his ramp-up to the target: the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run in Silverton, Colo.“When I was working up to the 2016 Hardrock, I was literally feeling like I was reborn as a runner. To this day, I am grateful to Dr. Gross.”
‘Dad, we’re going to do this’
As he trained to return to the 100-mile distance, Jones-Wilkins implemented a weekly strength regimen, focusing on the muscles around the hip — glutes, hamstrings, quads and all the connective tissues that were damaged by the surgery. Another change was saying goodbye to the 100-mile training weeks.
“I guess it’s the old adage, ‘train smarter, not harder,’” he says. “I’ve had to make the easy days easy, hard days hard. And to be honest, I’ve spent a lot of time hiking. The 100-milers are what I want to do. When you’re at Hardrock, you are hiking 70 percent of the time anyway. While running is still the thing that excites me, traveling across the world on your own power is really what it is all about it.”
Key to Jones-Wilkins successful return to the sport he loves was the support from his loved ones.
“My No. 1 motivation was my wife and kids,” he says of his wife of 26 years, Shelley, and their three boys. “She’s been with me for all the ups and downs in my running career and my educational career. Our boys have grown up going to races. They loved it. Every year at Western States, everyone knew them. They believed that I should still run. We hard Hardrock on the calendar. They were supportive through the surgery and the recovery and said, ‘Dad, we’re going to do this.’”
The return to Silverton was his first Hardrock in seven years.
“It was a thrill,” Jones-Wilkins says. “I had no idea what to expect because I didn’t have what I would consider long-term volume in my legs. There were a lot of changes in the seven years since I’ve been there in terms of spectators and stature of the race. It was still the down home Hardrock feel but I also felt like a Hardrock newbie. I hadn’t run a 100 in two years. I had a lot of questions. By Mile 60, I took stock and realized it would be a long day.”
The 2016 Hardrock didn’t go as planned — AJW finished in 41:51:08, due to issues unrelated to his repaired hip. “Rather than having any competitive feeling it was a just-going-to-finish-it feeling, and it was one of my most satisfying finishes even though it took me almost 42 hours. It was really, really good to learn that there was no such thing as a bad race. There might be a race where you don’t achieve that level that you set out to at the beginning but that doesn’t make it bad, just makes it different. That was kind of the ah-ha moment for me at Hardrock 2016.”
In addition to Hardrock in 2016, he ran Big Horn in Dayton, Wyo., last year and completed a 100-miler for his 50th birthday. Now, he is looking forward to Hardrock again in 2018. “For me, coming into it this year, I have a great deal of happiness about the whole thing,” he says, admitting the 2016 result helped frame his current mindset and approach. “In retrospect that was a really meaningful result in 2016.”
As far as his training is going, so far, so good. But he knows he needs to temper it. Jones-Wilkins is committed to cross training and not overdoing it during the tune-up events. “The goal is to arrive at the start line as ready as I can possibly be and just enjoy and savor the day.”
Goose bumps at Western States
Jones-Wilkins plans to continue to go to Western States for years to come — as a volunteer, fan and/or race announcer, but not as a runner.
“Honestly, I got to do it 10 times,” he says. “There are so many people who want to do that race. Every spot is cherished real estate. I think I am done, even if somebody were to offer up a sponsored spot, I’d probably turn it down.
“I still get goose bumps every year on the fourth Saturday of June. That’s always going to be part of me.”
With his PRs likely set for good and his outlook focused on staying healthy, Jones-Wilkins looks to the ultra community for his motivation.
Apart from improving from his 2016 Hardrock experience, Jones-Wilkins sets his goal “to help others love the sport of trail racing and ultra marathons, help connect people to the sport,” he says. “Whether it is through my weekly column on iFunFar.com. Or my monthly conversations with Don (Freeman) and Scott (Warr) on TrailRunnerNation, I think there is a place for somebody who has been around the sport for a long time and has an enthusiasm for it. My goal orientation of pushing and having an aggressive goal — those days are over for me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to finish in the top 10 of Western States for those seven straight years. At the time, as a 42-year-old male, that was the thing to do. But now, I think that was a lot of pressure to put on myself. I’m glad I don’t have that any more.”
With all of the on-course achievements, Jones-Wilkins points to success that has a deeper meaning.
“Success would be every time I put those shoes on that I was running for a reason,” he says. “Whether it was the hour of meditative contemplation that my daily run gives me. Or traversing that loop in the San Juans or running for Squaw to Auburn. Success would also look like leaving a legacy for my kids — all of whom are athletes in different sports — that says ‘My dad laid it all out there.’”
After finishing Hardrock in 2016, photo at left, Jones-Wilkins learned that his son Logan posted on Facebook about how he observed his dad suffering in a way that he had never seen before. “I think on one hand it was scary for him, but on the other hand, it was inspiring for him,” Jones-Wilkins says. “Success would look like leaving it all out there and having no regrets. But by the way, I hope that day doesn’t come any day soon.”
You are Andy Jones-Wilkins. You caught the running bug 27 years ago. You qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon in 1997 but thankfully “quickly got that out of my system,” you say.
You are an ultra runner. Your passion for the sport is unmatched. Your example as a father is inspiring. So too is your recovery from a chronic injury.
“I have accomplished a lot in the sport, 10 Western States,” you say. “I don’t feel as though I have anything to prove to anybody other than my family and me. And that’s the same way I feel two years after the surgeries.”
Name: Andy Jones-Wilkins
Hometown: Staunton, Va.
Number of years running: 27
How many miles a week do you typically run: 60-75
Point of pride: 10 Western States finishes
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Favorite piece of gear: Patagonia Strider Pro shorts
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: No Surrender by Bruce Springsteen
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “I just want to drink beer and train like an animal.” — Rod Dixon
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Irunfar: AJW’s Taproom most Fridays; and @ajoneswilkins on Twitter and Instagram