Three ultra running dads share their passions with their kids
By Henry Howard
On Father’s Day, dads and their children often indulge in sports. Taking in a baseball game. Playing hoops in the driveway. Or perhaps going on a bicycle ride together.
For ultra and trail runners, they might encourage their sons and daughters to explore the great outdoors. In this Father’s Day tribute, I chatted with three dads who have a passion running trails, exploring nature and competing in endurance sports and have passed — or are still passing — it down to the next generation.
Here is how three dads who run ultras — Andy Jones-Wilkins, Ryan Ploeckelman and Gabe Joyes — are transitioning their love for the outdoors to their children, who are at different life stages.
From Western States to gravel cycling
Andy Jones-Wilkins raised his three sons on trails, often while he was racing his beloved Western States and other ultra marathons. While all his sons remain active, Logan is the one who has incorporated endurance sports into his life.
“All three of our kids grew up, literally from the time they were toddlers, attending endurance events,” Jones-Wilkins says. “Mainly my 100-mile trail races, crewing for me with my wife. They were around endurance sports literally from birth. Interestingly enough, they all chose sports other than running. While they did run cross country and track a little bit in middle school and high school, it was never their passion.”
But it resonated with Logan, who Jones-Wilkins recalls developed a love of cycling as a first-grader in the Lance Armstrong era. “Logan might have been the youngest subscriber ever to Pro Cycling Magazine, a glossy magazine published in England.”
Question: How did Logan get started with cycling?
Answer: He started riding competitively. At the time that this passion was being ignited, we lived in Sun Valley, Idaho, where there was snow on the ground for half the year. And so his first real endurance sport love was cross-country skiing. He was quite good at it. And he raced with the local team and traveled to races. This was when he was like 8, 9, 10, 11. And then when we moved to Virginia, he really got locked in on cycling and that's been his passion ever since. He continues to race competitively, gravel cycling these days. His first job post-college is going to be as a journalist in the cycling industry.
Question: I'm sure you're proud of all your kids, but it must be extra special to you that he is forging a career in the endurance sports world. What's that mean to you?
Answer: Oh, it's tremendous. You can't make decisions for your kids, but seeing that he has a passion for it just means the world to me. He's driven and focused, very much like I was, and am. We're not pushing him. If anything, there's times that we need to pull him back. But everything from hustling for sponsorships to trying to comp race entries to races in exchange for writing articles about the race, he does it all. He reminds me of me in that way.
Question: That's awesome. What advice do you have for younger parents? There's that push and pull where you'd love for them to follow your passion, but you also don't want to push them into something that it's not part of their DNA. How do you balance that?
Answer: I have two other kids who also grew up as athletes but aren't currently passionate endurance athletes. Carson's my oldest son, his favorite sport these days is ice hockey, and he plays that a lot. And Tully, my youngest, is much more of a backpacker, mountaineer, adventure-type person. Not really as interested in competition. So saying that, the advice I would give is really meet your kids where they are. As young parents, we certainly want them involved in activities, we want them involved in things that bring them joy, that keep them healthy, that provide social interaction for them other than school. And then just sit back and see where it goes and when that opportunity comes.
Question: What is your first memory of Logan at one of your ultras where you thought that maybe he does have a passion for endurance sports?
Answer: Oh, that's easy. It was Western States 2005, my best year at the race. Logan was 8 years old at the time. One of the things that my wife, Shelly, started doing in 2004, which was the first time I finished in the top 10, is waiting at Michigan Bluff. She took a little notebook and took little notes on everybody who came through ahead of me. Just little notes like, ‘Hal stopped here and changed his shoes. Paul looked great. Killian hardly even stopped.’ She would hand me the paper as I was leaving Michigan Bluff. And at the first uphill when I started walking, I would take the paper out and read it.
In 2005, she did the same thing, but Logan ran about a quarter-mile up the trail and met me when I got to the top of the climb coming out of El Dorado Canyon with the paper and started reading me the notes that Shelly had written. I was like, ‘Logan, you're really into this.’ And he says, ‘Dad, yes, I'm really into this. We could win.’ And I mean out of the mouths of babes, this was an 8-year-old boy and he was as caught up in the excitement and the competition of that day as anybody. I knew then that he had a particular passion about the competitiveness, excitement and what it means to be in the mix.
A perfect Father’s Day: crewing his son
Ryan Ploeckelman’s son, Koen, has not only embraced trail running, he’s competitive in the sport. A year ago, Koen completed 35 miles at the Mid-State Mile, a last person standing event. And, just last month, Koen placed second in both the 5K and 10K at the Queen City Road Race. (Ryan’s daughter, Ava, recently began PT school, perhaps as a way to help her brother and dad heal their running injuries.)
Question: As parents, we're incredibly proud of our kids. But to have a child follow your passion must be particularly meaningful to you personally. What does it mean to you for him to have found running, embrace it fully and also find some success with it.
Answer: Seeing your son follow your passion is incredibly rewarding. Going to college cross country meets and cheering him on, running races together only to have him finish way ahead of me, it’s all bittersweet and wonderful. I love that running is bringing joy to Koen. It’s also showing him important lessons about hard work and mental toughness. I couldn’t be more proud.
Question: Talk about the balance, as a parent, between the push and the pull — encouraging your kids to discover/embrace nature and running while allowing them the freedom to follow their own passions whatever they must be?
Answer: I never wanted to push him or force him to run. I exposed him to it, answered all his questions, encouraged him, but never forced. I think when we force our passions on our kids more often than not it leads to rejection.
Question: Describe the perfect Father's Day, or feel free to share plans with the family.
Answer: It looks like I may just get my perfect Father’s Day this year: crewing Koen at the Mid-State Mile.
Exploring and learning as a family
Gabe Joyes, along with his wife, Jenny, have made the outdoors part of their lifestyle as they raise their daughters in western Wyoming.
Question: Tell me about how important it is to you personally for your girls to follow your pursuit of exploration in the great outdoors.
Answer: If we want people to value the outdoors they need an opportunity to experience the magic for themselves. This is of course true with our own children as well! Exploring and learning as a family is fun for all of us, but it also shows our children that we believe outdoor spaces are special, that they are worth our time and care. We regularly make time for all sorts of outdoor activities, whether that is a steep scramble up a mountain, or an evening picnic by the river, we regularly include time to enjoy it all.
Question: Your girls are younger than other endurance athletes I'm interviewing for this. But my guess is that you have already seen a spark in one or both of them — a moment when they truly full on embraced the exploration that you love. Tell me about that.
Answer: Our kiddos have grown up hiking, exploring and crewing 100-mile races — they literally don’t know life any other way. I think they have a spark and passion that probably matches our own … sometimes they like to challenge themselves and run up a huge hill, and other times they are happy to play in a creek for hours. There is a balance and appreciation of all the paces and all the different ways to enjoy outdoor spaces.
Question: Talk about the balance, as a parent, between the push and the pull — encouraging them to discover/embrace nature and outdoor sports while allowing them the freedom to follow their own passions whatever they must be?
Answer: I know few, if any, people out there who really became high achievers in life because somebody else pushed them — ambition just has to come from the inside. We try to model the mental skills it takes to do hard things and to overcome adversity. That might be things like creating and maintaining a positive outlook, self-management of your own physical needs (i.e. eating and drinking enough), managing emotions in all situations, celebrating successes, learning and finding the positives in disappointments, etc. If individuals have these mental/emotional skills and they feel supported and safe in taking on challenges, then ambition and motivation usually follow.
Question: Describe the perfect Father's Day, or feel free to share plans with the family.
Answer: Oh man that’s easy. Waffles, family hike, pizza. However that is a fairly common day in my world … I’m a lucky guy!