Western States: It’s All In The (Extended) Family

AJWs Taproom

While long-distance running is, at its essence, a solitary pursuit, one of the great joys of preparing for and running long ultramarathons is sharing the experience with others. Over the past week I have been reminded, again and again, as I have gone through my final preparations for Western States, of how much of this sport is, for me, a family affair.

Last weekend, for example, I had the honor and privilege of being crewed by two of my three sons at the Highland Sky 40 Mile in West Virginia. While that may seem rather unremarkable to some, to me it was quite wonderful, especially in the context that the first time these two young men ‘crewed’ for me they were in a baby jogger and a backpack! As I ran across the high country of West Virginia that day, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that ultramarathon running has truly brought our family together in extraordinary ways and along the way made us stronger as a unit and better as individuals.

As we look ahead to Western States next week, my kids are thrilled to once again be out on the dance floor with all of the players. They will savor the high-country respite at Robinson Flat, the joyful camaraderie in Carol Hewitt’s backyard at Michigan Bluff, the organized chaos of Foresthill, and the serene beauty of Green Gate. Then, as they have nine times before, my wife and kids will triumphantly greet me at the Highway 49 Crossing before my 14-year-old son, Logan, now replete with a sweet new pair of red Pearl Izumis and a fresh headlamp, will pace me in to the Placer High School track. I am certain it will be a day to remember.

In between taper runs this week and my last full week of work before leaving for California on Saturday, our house has been abuzz with activity. This annual ritual that is Western States seems to have become as much a part of our family as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Packing the familiar backpacks and camping gear, making reservations at our favorite campsites, firming up arrangements with pacers and friends, and planning out, down to the minute, our pre-race routines, has become something the Jones-Wilkins family shares and savors. This year, in particular, it has been tinged with added emotion. Needless to say, our collective familial energy level is sky high.

In addition, over this past week I have enjoyed the company of my extended running family as well. I was able to spend quality time at Highland Sky with Dr. David Horton, a man who I have long admired as one of the legends of our sport. I must admit, it gave me chills when he greeted me at the finish line of HS40 with a quietly simple declarative comment, “AJW, you are ready! Godspeed.” Additionally, I got out for a send-off run this morning with local running legend Sophie Spiedel, herself a veteran of the 2006 ‘hot year’ at Western States.

Everyone in the Jones-Wilkins family also looks forward to getting out west to spend time with our adopted uncles. For years our boys have thought of our dear friends Craig Thornley, Bryon Powell, and Scott Wolfe as members of our clan and in various ways these three fine men have shared in the journey of bringing up Carson, Logan, and Tully even if, over time, they have kept them awake past bedtime, played immature games with them, and, in many cases, taught them naughty words. Then again, I guess that’s what uncles are for, right?

Finally, three emails have popped up in my inbox this week from three of my mentors in this game and I would be remiss if I did not also add them to the list of ‘family.’ If I have my kids and they have their uncles, these three are the fathers, the paternal men who have played a large part in getting me to 10 Western States starting lines and hopefully a 10th Western States finish line on the morning of June 29.

First, there was the note from Scotty Mills, himself a veteran of many Western States and a great ambassador for the sport. Scotty has, over the years been a steady source of inspiration to me and hearing from him this week with his strong words of confidence and faith meant the world to me.

Then there was the note from Tommy Nielsen. I have written about Tommy in this space many times before as he has truly been a mentor like no other. Tom’s steady encouragement and longstanding friendship has been a touchstone for me over the years and his email once again reminded me of the power of the ‘brotherhood of the trail.’

Lastly, there was a note from Roch Horton, the patron saint of the Patagonia Ultraunning Team and one of ultrarunning’s true greats, in classic Roch form, he wrote the following to me:

“AJW, As you fine tune your high-performance racing engines, I just wanted to send you truckloads of fuel rods to power you through WS. Run your very best amigo, take some chances and don’t forget to check your demons at the door. June 28 is your day.

“This is living…”

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Mountain States Brewing Company Almost Heaven Amber AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Mountain State Brewing Company in Thomas, West Virginia. One of the best things about the Highland Sky race is that Race Director Dan Lehman’s son is the owner of Mountain State Brewing. As such, their beer plays a central role in the weekend’s festivities. This year, during the pre-race dinner, they had kegs of two varieties from Mountain State, their IPA and amber. I must say, having sampled 24 ounces of each, their amber is outstanding! The Almost Heaven Amber Ale truly lives up to its name! It is smooth and silky with none of the stickiness of some ambers and a great, just-hoppy-enough aroma.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How is ultrarunning a ‘family’ affair for  you and your family/friends?
  • What kind of rituals do you and your tribe engage in ahead of ultramarathons?
  • How does it feel for you to be able to join other ‘families’ to support someone in their ultra endeavor-ings?

Bonus Video

No words needed; just enjoy!