Lessons Learned After A Decade At Western States

AJW reflects on what he’s learned from finishing 10 Western States 100s.

By on July 4, 2014 | Comments

AJWs TaproomIn 10 years at Western States, I have learned much about life, living, and many other things that running 100 miles from Squaw Valley to Auburn can teach. Many of the things I’ve learned have been integrated into my work as an educator and my life as a husband and father. In addition, the accrued experience of running ultramarathons since 1997 has not only shaped my body but, perhaps more importantly, my mind and heart.

Over the past few days since completing my 10th Western States I have, not surprisingly, been in a bit of a reflective place. Thinking back on these past 10 races has allowed me not only to take stock of the accomplishment but also to find some essential life lessons in the experience. So here, in no particular order, are the five key lessons 10 years on the Western States Trail have taught me:

1. There Are No Sure Things
I had a fair amount of anxiety going into my last two races at Western States. My aging body and a series of injuries since my PR time in 2011 had caused a few doubts to creep into my mind. While during the course of each event, I never entertained the idea of dropping out, I did, nonetheless, feel a sense of mortality which, quite frankly, was not part of my experience earlier in my career. I must admit, in the prime of my Western States career, I went into each race thinking top 10 was a given. At the time I simply chalked it up to confidence but looking back on it now it was a bit arrogant. In these last few years, in a classic example of ‘what goes around comes around,’ I have come to realize that there are no sure things in life and this journey to the 10-day buckle is tough, occasionally risky, and fraught with challenge.

2. Relationships Matter
While I spend most of my training time alone and, in fact, feel strongly that the solitary pursuit of long-distance running has deep personal value to me, in the course of running 10 Western States I have established and strengthened some of the most meaningful relationships in my life. There is something profound about both the shared suffering of running 100 miles and the deep value in participating in an historically poignant event that makes the community experience powerful and purposeful. When I crossed the finish line last Sunday morning and was met by the most important people to me, it was one of the most emotionally charged moments of my life. I will never, ever forget it.

3. Bad Things Will Happen
It is a cliché in the sport but there is no doubt about the fact that in the course of a 100-mile race bad things will happen. Quads will give out, blisters will flare up, mental faculties will be compromised, and, as happened to me last weekend, the stomach will go south. Understanding this phenomenon over the years has taught me that the true measure of the successful ultrarunner is the one who openly accepts the fact that bad things will happen and deals with the problems deliberately and rationally when they arise. No drama, no pity parties, just face the problems and move on. It’s pretty simple, define the problem before the problem defines you. If that is not a good metaphor to put into practice in our daily lives, I don’t know what is!

4. Consistency is a Virtue
In today’s modern world, we live in a place of profound inconsistency and uncertainty. While this adds an exciting dynamic to contemporary life it can also be disconcerting and can, taken to the extreme, lead to divisiveness and conflict. Therefore, the virtue of consistency, so much a part of the ultrarunner’s experience, cannot be downplayed. For me, Western States has provided a consistent source of inspiration in my life and, in a strange twist, has made me more consistent in my attitude toward myself and others. As my son Carson points out, in the time we have been running Western States we have lived in eight different homes in four different states and yet one thing has remained consistent: running Western States every June. For that, I am forever grateful.

5. The End is Another Beginning
In the aftermath of my 10th finish at Western States, many have asked what is next for me. Many people have wondered, with Western States playing such a powerful role in my life, how can I fill the void of not running it? This, again, leads to the fifth lesson of this 10-year experience. Each time I have toed the line at Squaw, I have had a different set of emotions, I have faced a different set of expectations, and I have worked hard to achieve a different state of transcendence. While my Western States running career is now over, my career as a runner, and, more importantly, my life as a person, is far from it. This particular ending truly represents to me a new beginning. Much like the refreshing feeling of leaving the 70-mile aid station with a full stomach and bottles topped off with ice, this new beginning for me is filled with joy, hope, and the wonder of possibilities.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Bryon’s Beer of the Week
Mammoth Brewing Co - 395 IPANo beer reminds me more of the Sierra Nevada than Mammoth Brewing Company’s 395 IPA. With piney hops and adjuncts of juniper berries and sage, it tastes like you’re drinking your surroundings up there. For me, those memories are inextricably linked with running from my east-side running adventures during my days living on the west side of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. After a long day in the High Sierra, there was nothing better than enjoying 22 ounces of 395 goodness as twilight fell over Tuolumne Meadows. Now that I live on at the intersection of juniper and sage above Moab, Utah, it makes a perfect companion for an evening by the campfire in the desert.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What have you learned from bearing witness over the years to AJW’s relationship with Western States?
  • Most of us have a deep commitment to some event or place or feeling about our sport; what have you learned from this over the years?
  • When you look toward your own future with running, what do you see?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.