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Staying in the Game: Choosing to Stay in the Sport After One’s Competitive Peak

AJW’s thoughts on staying in the game, even when past one’s competitive peak.

By on February 2, 2024 | Comments

AJW's Taproom“As athletes, we have a tough choice: We can exit the sport in peak form, walking away from competition at the height of our powers. Or we can remain in the sport long-term, occupying competition in softer forms. We can deteriorate in public view. I choose the latter.” — Sabrina Little in her new Substack newsletter.

A decade ago, I was about 20 miles into the 2014 Western States 100, when a runner whom I didn’t know came up alongside me and quipped, “AJW, is that you? What are you doing all the way back here with us?”

I was running my 10th and final Western States 100. I was 46 years old, and I was clearly not running as fast as some people expected me to. The comment made me pause, and in the moment, I didn’t really know how to respond.

“You know, this is my last Western States 100, I am just taking it easy today,” I mumbled as they moved on ahead of me.

For the next several hours I dwelled on the comment. Did they think I should be running faster? Did they feel sorry for me? Was there something wrong with me?

Andy Jones-Wilkins - Western States - M9 bib

The author racing the 2011 Western States 100 in the M9 bib, during the years of his competitive peak. All photos courtesy of Andy Jones-Wilkins.

The truth was and is that I was slowing down — “deteriorating,” if you will, and it was on full public display to anyone who cared to notice. I didn’t think about it at the time, but at that moment I had a choice to make — to walk off into the sunset or keep grinding.

Over the years, we have seen countless competitive runners come and go. Highly talented athletes who have, in Sabrina’s words, chosen to walk away from the sport at the height of their powers. For me, when my decline became evident, I realized I had no interest in doing that.

I did not enter the sport for the thrill of competition or of winning, and I was certainly not going to exit the sport when those days were gone.

But, making that choice is not always easy. My pace, these days, is more labored and slow. My form, which has never been all that good, is not a picture of efficiency and grace. And my results, certainly, are much slower than they were before.

AJW and Bryon Powell - selfie

AJW snaps a quick selfie on a more recent run with Bryon Powell.

At times I see people looking at me strangely, almost with a bit of pity in their eyes, perhaps wondering why I am still doing this after all these years, and doing it with much less flair than I once did.

The simple truth is, I love it too much to leave it. While wins and fancy awards are far back in the rearview mirror, my joy for the sport, my love of the community, and the hopeful exuberance that long distance running brings me is as alive in me than it’s ever been.

I certainly don’t blame others who choose to walk away, but as for me, I will continue to “deteriorate in public view.”

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Founders Brewing Company logoThis week’s beer of the week comes from Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dirty Bastard Scotch Style Ale is a rich, dark Scotch ale brewed in the classic tradition. Weighing in at 8.5% ABV, it is quite strong but also remarkably smooth and creamy. A great beer for a cold winter’s night.

Call for Comments

  • What about you? Would you rather retire at your peak or keep going?
  • What can our sport do to be open to the natural aging process in all its members, including those who once competed at the front of race fields?
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.