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Ten years after AJW’s ‘most stressful experience’ at Western States

For Andy Jones-Wilkins, the Western States Endurance Run is full of fond memories. Amid his string of 10 consecutive top 10 finishes, the race a decade ago stands out for several reasons.

Of course the 2008 Western States had been cancelled due to fires. In 2009, the gang was back again after a brief hiatus.

“At that point, Western States had been a lot like homecoming for me but there was something really interesting that happened right out of the gate,” Jones-Wilkins recalls of the 2009 race. “In the predawn dark, you start going up the fire road and about 40 runners in the front pack took a wrong turn. They turned right for only 40 or 50 yards before they realized they took a wrong turn but it was kind of funny just to start it out where people kind of just went off track right away.”

As for Jones-Wilkins, his goal was to continue his current streak of four top 10 finishes at Western. At the start line, he had no idea just how close it would be.

“It was electric at the starting line, we were going to be doing the full course,” he recalls, saying it would be an about average year for both heat and snow. “The high country was relatively loose on snow and it just felt like this is going to be a great day. It was a lot of fun and it was kind of exciting, electric feeling to be there.”

See you back at Squaw

In 2007, AJW finished fourth behind Hal Koerner, Eric Skaden and Graham Cooper. Since that race, Jones-Wilkins won his first couple of 100-milers at Vermont and Grand Teton.

“So I was certainly a little bit more confident runner but I also realized that with two years’ worth of Golden Ticket recipients in the race, and frankly two years of kind of pent-up energy about not being able to do the race, I kinda knew it was going to be really competitive right from the get go.

Not only was it unusually competitive, that year’s race appeared to signal a change of sorts.

“When I look at the field that year, it was made up of Golden Ticket runners, previous year’s top 10 runners,” he says. “It was a big year, one of the first big years for international runners. There were two international runners in the top three (Tsuyoshi Kaburagi in second and Jez Bragg in third). It was really the beginning of the international boom at Western States as well.”

The finisher’s rate in 2009 was about 60 percent, which is, for that era, on the low side. Jones-Wilkins attributes that to the lead pack starting out too fast.

“In general the group started out way too fast so there was quite a bit of attrition in the early miles, including some big names like Scott Jurek. He was coming back after not having run since 2005,” AJW says. “Dave Mackey dropped out and a lot of people had their eyes on him. It was a hot pace from the start and I don't want to say it was benign. I think that it just caught people off guard. It stayed hot late into the day for whatever reason. Even for 24-hour runners, it was still relatively hot going down to the river.”

Enter the blisters

Early on, Jones-Wilkins had work to do. He was in 22nd place at Robinson Flat (Mile 30).

“Trying to make a top 10 in my experience went from in the mid 2000s, one was really able to hover even in the top 30 or 40 at Robinson Flat before you could make a move on people and count on attrition,” he says. “It had changed a little bit by 2009, so 22nd felt about as far back as I could be and expect to make top 10.”

His goal was to move into the mid-teens by the time he reached Devil’s Thumb (Mile 47.8). “I just hammered, absolutely hammered those downhills. Some of my splits, between Dusty Corners and Last Chance, and Last Chance and Devil's Thumb, and Devil's Thumb and El Dorado were really fast.”

AJW rolled into Michigan Bluff (Mile 55), around 15th place, and thought, “Well, now I need to find a way to get five more guys.”

But he had another issue to deal with: blisters.

“It was really wet in the first 11 miles from the start to Lyon Ridge,” recalls AJW. “A lot of the snow had melted literally in the last week before the race and so the wet/dry cycle that's so much a part of the first 30 miles of Western States was particularly acute as was the dust through Duncan Canyon, and the dust through Deadwood Canyon and even the dust through El Dorado, so by the time I got to Michigan Bluff, I could tell I was starting to get hotspots.”

With his top 10 goal in mind, there was no time to heal the feet. The mental game was on.

“There was no stopping to fix feet or change shoes,” he says. “I was just going to have to gut it out, and so I did and really it wasn't until some of the rolling downhills after the river that the blisters popped and really started to affect my gait. I was limping a little bit and favoring it and that sort of thing. I was able to manage them for about 30 miles. For the last 20, it was definitely just gutting it out and trying to ignore it.

“I tried to stay positive, tried to do the self talk, ‘You've done this before, they're not going to get any worse, just suck it up.’”

At the next aid station, Forest Hill (Mile 62), Jones-Wilkins regrouped for the final push.

“I spent time at the creek, at the bottom of Volcano, I was doing lots of dousing, I was just really trying to get psyched up for the big descent to the river after Forest Hill,” he recalls. “So I got to Forest Hill and regrouped. I felt really good and I really left Forest Hill thinking I should be in the top 10 by the time I get down to the river and it barely happened. Another runner, I believe it was Leigh Schmitt, dropped out there. The fact that he dropped out put me in 10th place.”

A change in mindset

Jones-Wilkins had pushed and persevered, finding himself in the top 10. With that coveted spot, he was now in position to receive an automatic entry into the next year’s Western States.

It also meant that he went from the hunter to the prey.

“I’ve got my pacer with me and I was focused on holding my spot,” he says. “At this point, I had no idea what was going on behind me. My crew, my wife, my kids, were mainly just focused on the people who were in front of me. I ate and drank a lot from the river to Green Gate, knowing that I was in 10th place.”

After leaving Green Gate, AJW needed to hold onto 10th for just 20 more miles. As he approached Brown's Bar (now Quarry Road Aid station), 10 miles from the finish, he could hear aid station volunteers cheering runners ahead of him.

“I didn't know who they were, but I thought maybe I could squeeze into ninth place or something like that,” he remembers. “So I kind of pushed from Brown's Bar to Highway 49, which is always a grind of a section, especially the final climb up to Highway 49, hammered the downhill to No Hands Bridge. You usually hear cheering at No Hands Bridge, didn't hear anything and so I started up No Hands. My pacer, Jeff Hudson, was with me, at that point was typically the time in the race where I would be thinking about my finishing time.”

At that point, Jones-Wilkins knew he wouldn’t best 18 hours so he told Hudson that he wanted to try to finish before midnight. The final push would give AJW “my most stressful experience ever in a 100-mile race.”

That headlamp is running

AJW crested the hill at Robie Point, just 1.3 miles from the finish line. At the aid station, he met up with his first pacer, Scott, his son, Logan, and others.

Suddenly, Hudson spotted a headlamp approaching. It was bobbing — meaning the headlamp’s owner was running, not walking.

Jones-Wilkins knew that he would have to run the final hill. With his headlamp turned off, he also came up with another idea. He told Logan to head up to the top of the hill, where the 99th mile party was in full swing, and “tell them not to cheer so that the person behind me wouldn't hear that I was so close.”

That best-laid plan didn’t quite work.

“They saw this cute little kid running up to the aid station and they all started cheering and yelling and screaming and everything, so it kind of ruined that,” he says. “I resolved to not turn my head around but I knew I was going to have to run every step of that uphill and then run the downhill, literally like I was running a 5K. I had both my pacers in front of me, I had my son in front of me, I said you guys, we're just going to have to hammer this. It turned out to be the fastest I'd ever run from Robie Point to the finish, not surprisingly because I'd never run that scared before.

As Jones-Wilkins was cruising toward the finish, another headlamp appeared. This time in front of him. At the time he was uncertain whether it was Anita Ortiz, who was leading the women’s race or the ninth-place male.

“Maybe we can try to catch that person and if this headlamp behind us, catches us, we'll still have a cushion,” he reasoned. “I hammered that final downhill, running scared. I dropped my water bottles, took my headlamp off and entered the track.”

At that point, he heard John Medinger announce that Mark Lantz was closing in on the finish.

“Then literally when I got to the first turn, he announces that Victor Ballesteros has entered the track, Jones-Wilkins recalls. “I've known Victor really well. I had not heard or seen him all day. I think he was like 26th place or 23rd place at Forest Hill. He literally came out of nowhere and I ended up holding him off by the smallest of margins. I finished and promptly threw up all over the finish line.”

AJW finished 10th male with a time of 18:46:52, less than a minute behind Lantz and a mere 23 seconds ahead of Ballesteros. Ortiz won the women’s race, about 20 minutes earlier than when Lantz, AJW and Ballesteros finished.

Jones-Wilkins and Ballesteros embraced after the hard-fought sprint to the end.

I just gave him the biggest hug and asked, ‘Where the hell did you come from?’ He had his crew running across the infield and he looked fresh. He ran the perfect race. The only regret I had is that he never got back that close again. He came back the next year and finished somewhere in the teens. But man, he ran an absolute textbook race from Forest Hill to the finish which is basically what I told him. We hung out for a while in the medical tent and it was amazing.”

‘I learned a ton’

The race and the finish itself have had a lasting impact on Jones-Wilkins.

“There's always a lot of stress at the front of the race or there's stress when you're on the top 10 bubble or on the 24-hour bubble or even making the cutoffs,” he says. “Of course in the years since we've seen much more drama like when Gunhild Swanson finished with six seconds to go in 2015. But just the idea of 100 miles coming down to a matter of seconds just kind of blew my mind at the time. Now looking back on it 10 years later, I feel like learned a ton. I learned a ton about myself. I learned a ton about what it means to race 100 miles; there are no sure bets.”

That time frame helped define the AJW that the ultra running community loves today.

“Reliving it now, it is something I'm very proud of,” he says. “I look back on it mostly with pride and a little bit of awe in myself. Gosh, I actually did that. It was in 2009, 2010, 2011, where running, ultra marathon running became inextricably part of who I am as a person. Not only what I did, but who I was. It was in those years that I found my voice as a writer. First with my blog and then I found my voice as an ambassador to the sport, which is something that I still like to think of myself as being today — no longer a fast runner but someone with a joy and a passion for running long. That fire was ignited in those years.”

As AJW looks back through the Western States scrapbook in his mind, he puts that 2009 run into context. He says his best run was in 2005. And 2010 was his fastest Western States (ninth overall with a time of 17:31:25).

“The 2009 race was certainly my most confident run,” he explains. “Even though my confidence wavered a bit going up from Robie Point, I was able to prove to myself, that if I have to dig deep, I can dig deep.”

That Western States finish was also part of an incredible summer. Thirteen days after Western, AJW raced Hardrock and six weeks later he ran the Leadville 100.

“I look back now and I can't believe I did it,” he says. “It was the most satisfying summer of racing. My family left the awards ceremony and we drove directly to Silverton. It was really a summer to remember. We were just having a great time camping out. My kids were old enough to think how cool it was that Dad was running 100-mile races and not so old that they were cynical about it like they are now. It was lightning in a bottle that year.”

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