Andy Jones-Wilkins checks his crystal ball for Western States
By Henry Howard
If it’s May, then Andy Jones-Wilkins’ stoke level is as high as some of the climbs on the Western States course.
“My stoke level for Western States is high this year, for three reasons: First of all, I'm a volunteer there,” says Jones-Wilkins, who oversees parking at the Duncan Canyon aid station. “There's just a lot more excitement this year than last year on that side of the race because we’ve done it. After we came out of the cancellation year everybody got back into the swing of things. Now everyone is really looking forward to a typical classic Western States.”
His second reason is because he’s coaching eight athletes who are in the race. “That's going to be a busy, busy weekend for me with eight athletes, but six of them are going to the Memorial Day camp. And, they're all doing their heat training and all of that.”
Of course, being able to return to Olympic Valley for the race is also exciting for the 10-time finisher who has placed in the top 10 seven times.
“It's just the highlight of my year every year,” he says. “I think this year will be particularly fun and I'm going to stay an extra day because my schedule allows; because on race weekend itself I'm pretty busy. I wouldn't say it's a job because it's definitely not a job. I'm just busy, talking to people, meeting with people, volunteering, the whole thing. The stoke level is definitely, as you can probably tell by just enthusiasm in my voice, it's pretty high.”
AJW is the premier ambassador the nation’s first 100-mile race. Last week, we talked about some expectations heading into this year’s race. The answers are edited for brevity and clarity:
Question: Let’s talk about the elites in the men's and women's fields. Let's start out with the guys. Without Jim Walmsley there, it seems like it's an open race. Who are you looking to win or finish in the top 10?
Jones-Wilkins: Well, it's always fun when the defending champion would come back. It's also always fun when the defending champion doesn't come back. I remember just personally being in that role back in 2006 when Scott Jurek didn’t come back after winning it seven consecutive times. The race was wide open. I had the unfortunate privilege of having finished second the previous year so I felt like I had a target on my back.
Without Jim, Tim Tolefson is definitely high on my list of returners because he's local, because he really learned his lesson last year. He’s got to be high on anybody's list as well as Tyler Green, the second place finisher from last year. He ran a textbook, late-charging race. And Cody Lind who surprised everybody in fourth place and is from the Lind family legacy. So of the returning guys, I would put those three as my top.
And then — geez — for the new guys, this Adam Peterman, you got to keep your eye on him. He's been running great and I expect him to be somewhere in the mix and same with Jared Hazen. Jared's had some ups and downs in the past couple of years, but he still has the second fastest Western States on record. And even though he's still in his 20s, he first ran the race when he was 18 so he knows his stuff.
And then I'm really curious to see this kid from the Midwest who won Javelina, Arlen Glick. Oh man, he's a fascinating story because he's got foot speed and he seems to be a smart runner and he trains huge volume and he's probably going to be heat trained. I think the winner's going to come from those six.
Question: You referred to heat training. Obviously, every year at Western there's a lot of speed and weather will play a role in how the race goes. Do you see a fast pace to start? Or what do you think as far as the strategy is going to go in? What should we look for?
Jones-Wilkins: If it's not hot I could see it going out pretty hard, but I don't think the leader at Robinson Flat is necessarily the obvious guy who's going to win. So a lot of those guys I mentioned — especially Tyler, Tim and Peterman — they're smart runners and they're not going to get sucked into being over in a too hot of a pace. I think you could potentially have Hazen go a little early. Cody won't be. You could have Hayden Hawks go a little quick because he likes to start off pretty hot. But, in general, I don't think there's going to be much thinking about course records. I mean maybe if it's a cool day and if Peterman really is on his game he could be there but I could see 14 flat on a normal day, 14:45 winning it.
Question: Let's talk about the ladies, another stacked field, even though the defending champion is not going to be there either. But there's still a lot of competition. Who are you looking for on the women's side to come out on top?
Jones-Wilkins: No number one from last year and no number three, which is pretty unusual. No Beth Pascall and no Ragna (Debats) but Ruth Croft was awesome last year. I see no reason why she won't be awesome again. And Brittany Peterson; it could be third times a charm for Brittany. She knows the course like the back of her hand, runs smart was in her second place year went toe to toe with Clare Gallagher so I certainly see the two of them in the mix as well as Katie Asmuth and Keely Henninger. So I'm going to take those four finishing in the top six again.
You've got one previous winner who is coming back, Courtney Dauwalter, so it would be hard not to bet against Courtney. She is racing a lot, but that's Courtney's style. If she goes off hard like she did at UTMB and stays away, it'll probably be a race for second. (Editor's note: As of June 3, Courtney is no longer listed on the participant list for Western States.)
And then Camille Herron. Camille eventually is going to get the race right. You know she finished last time, which was great. She admits that the trails aren't necessarily her thing, but there's no doubt she's got the speed. She did a great non-technical 100-miler in Javelina, running away from everybody. So of the people who didn't run it last year, Camille, along with Ruth, Brittany, Katie and Keely would be my top five.
Question: What are some other story lines we should be following?
Jones-Wilkins: There are a lot of intriguing stories. There are a larger than normal number of overseas runners in the race this year, largely because they exercised the COVID rollover, which was last year. So you take, for example, former third-place finisher, Lucy Bartholomew from Australia, or from Great Britain, Tom Owens. These are folks who come with a lot of pedigree and could certainly turn some heads. And I think people are haven't necessarily remembered them because of this overseas rollover.
Last year, Drew Holman got third and surprised everybody. He and Cody kind of came out of nowhere. Same with Kyle Curtin, they got top 10s which no one really expected. I think they could very much be in the mix. And then this guy from France, Ludovic Pommeret, he wouldn't be a dark horse because he's a total stud. He's from France and hasn't run Western States but I think he'll probably go out pretty hard. He'll probably feel like the trails are easy. So, that could add an interesting dynamic to the whole thing.
Question: How about some others to watch on the women’s side?
Jones-Wilkins: You know who really impressed at the Canyons race? Jazmine Lowther from Canada and Leah Yingling, first and second place from Canyons. Of the Golden Ticket people, they could really make some noise.
Question: It's too early to really know what the weather's going to be like on the day. But I believe California's in a drought right now, which makes me think that snow is not going to be a factor at least as much as it has sometimes in the past, but that's just my real cursory view.
Jones-Wilkins: No, you're right. The snow levels are down. I had a friend who ran from Robinson Flat back to Duncan Canyon, so literally mile 30 back to mile 24, which can be snowy in a normal year and there were some patches of snow in the shady part. This was last weekend. There were some patches of snow in the shady part and otherwise it was pretty clear. It could be a little bit sloppy in the high country with melting snow and so forth, but I think it'll be a pretty clean course snow-wise.
Question: Last year, the women as a group had a really strong showing. With Camille and Courtney in this race, both of whom have been overall winners of races in the past, could this finally be the year that a female is number one overall?
Jones-Wilkins: I think just because of the depth of the men's field, probably not. The race to which I was referring to 2006, Nikki Kimball finished third overall. That was just as close as any woman had been at winning overall since Ann Trason, who had a couple of second places overall in the 90s. And the reason was is it was extreme conditions. It was hot and the number of male DNFs (did not finish) was so much greater. The important stat about last year, of the first 26 finishers, 13 were female. So half of the top 26 were female. It just so happened, of course, that a lot of them were in the second half of that 26. I could certainly see as many as four in the top 10. Let's just give Courtney and Camille top 10 spots, and then let's give Brittany and Ruth top 10 spots. I think that could happen because we've seen in the men's field, a fair amount of DNFs and a fair amount of spread between the first place time and the 10th place time, especially in the hotter years.
Question: Anything else we didn't touch on that you want to mention? Some story lines beyond what to watch at the front of the pack?
Jones-Wilkins: Oh my gosh, yes. I'd love to give you some. For I think the fourth year in a row, over 80% of the starting field has zero finishes at Western States. So this race has truly become for many people, a once in a lifetime experience. There are two people in the race with more than 10 finishes. And then there's a couple with seven and a couple with five and a couple with four and two and a bunch with one. But 311 of the starters have never finished Western States so it's a newcomer's race and I think that adds a real dynamic to the event and, especially coming out of COVID, it's part of why there's such a festival atmosphere about the whole thing.
And then two older folks. I've got to mention Meghan (Canfield) Arbogast. She's back in the race after a couple years away. Meghan has run the race under 20 hours a bunch of times. And the 60 and over record is held by, of all people, Diana Fitzpatrick who is the current chair of the board. Her record is 23:52. And I can tell you right now, I'm going to have my eye on that. I think Megan could beat it by like two, two and a half, three hours. No disrespect to Diana since she's the only 60 and over woman to ever run under 24. But I think Megan's got to be thinking more along the lines of 22. She has the chops to do that. So that's an age group story on the women's side and then age group story on the men's side.
Jim Howard (no relation) first ran the race in 1978 and he won the race in 1981 and 1983. He ran again, I think finishing in about 25 ½ hours in 2005. And his now 67 years old. Were he to finish, that would be the longest span between Western States finishes from 1978 to 2022 by 44 years between the first time and the most recent time he ran it. He's got two replaced knees. He ran 17 hours at Canyons, so he can do it.
Man, I can't wait to see those two age group stories and how they go. As you know, they're 385 stories at Western States and we love looking at the front of the pack and justifiably so. It's one of the most competitive ultras in the world. But these stories, Megan and Jim — I can't wait to see them and hopefully when they round the track, they'll get the applause they deserve because they're both symbols of you never really retire in this sport.
Question: Maybe a good place to finish up is the Golden Hour. Tell me what that means to you as a spectator in that last hour. When a lot of those people who don't have that finish yet are going to be realizing their dream as they round the track.
Jones-Wilkins: My goodness there are something along the lines of 30, 35, 40% of the finishers finish in the Golden Hour. That hour between 29 and 30. You got to love a sport where the last place finisher gets louder cheers than the first-place finisher. And that's, and that's really true. That's really true at Western States. I tell anybody, if you want to get a lesson in human perseverance and just raw emotion, and triumph just go to the Placer High School track for that one hour. Just set up a chair and watch these people stream into the track and stream across that finish line.
It means so much. It transcends the sport and you see lives changed in a moment's notice as these people are racing the clock and their crews are there. And John Menninger's voice is over the loud speaker and they're just willing them around the track. There's nothing like that hour. I wouldn't trade it for the world and I will say that to this day, the most unforgettable moment I've had in sports is watching Gunhild Swanson circle the track in 2015 and get it with Rob Krar and flip flops by her side and finishing with six seconds left on the clock. It gives me goosebumps just talking about it now.”
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