AJW crests Escarpment in 2010. Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook
There are many big names synonymous with the Western States Endurance Run:
Gordy Ainsleigh (the founder and father of modern trail ultrarunning)
Scott Jurek (7 time champion)
Tim Tweitmeyer (25 time sub 24 hour finisher and multiple race winner)
Ann Trason (14 time champion)
Greg Soderlund (12 year Race Director)
…and a whole host of modern ultra heroes.
But there is one name that really screams Western States at you and that name is Andy Jones-Wilkins.
Like the saying goes, you know you have made it when people know you by your initials alone, and there is no exception with AJW.
On the 28th June 2014, AJW will be running his tenth and (self-proclaimed) final Western States. He has finished inside the top 10 an incredible 7 times in his 9 runs so far.
As a huge Western States fan myself, AJW has been someone I have looked up to since I entered the world of Ultras. He is a hugely popular character and I was fortunate to meet him briefly in 2012 when crewing at Western States and I look forward to seeing him again in three weeks time.
Whilst I am passionate about this race, as are many others, AJW takes it to a different level and quite simply lives and breathes the 100 miles between Squaw Valley and Auburn. He has publically stated this will be his last Western States and I have no doubt it will be a highly emotional experience for him. I thought now was as good a time as ever to ask him a few questions in the lead up to the greatest ultramarathon in the world.
AJW Interviews Timothy Olson after his record breaking 2012 WS victory. Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook
What first caught your eye and made you want to run Western States?
I was a road runner back in the ’90s and, like everyone else, was an avid Runners World reader. They did a small piece on the 1997 race in one of their fall issues and I became fascinated with the event. I was particularly intrigued by that year’s race because Mike Morton won and set the course record. Something about that guy has always impressed me.
How did you qualify for that first run?
Believe it or not I ran my qualifier at the now defunct Crown King 50 Miler in Arizona and then was chosen in the lottery on my first try. Western States 2001 was my 2nd 100 miler as I ran my first at Angeles Crest in 2000.
When you toed the line in Squaw Valley did you just think of this as a run or was it already a life changing experience?
In 2001 when I started the race I honestly thought of it as just another event. However, by the time I limped into the stadium and finished that first WS I knew that it was something I wanted to come back to. However, I also knew that before I did that I would actually need to learn how to successfully race 100 milers. That is why I spent 2002 and 2003 running other 100 mile races and was not convinced I could return to WS and do well until my 2nd place finish at AC in 2003. On the strength of that 2nd place at AC I was able to gain entry to WS via Special Consideration (there were no automatic qualifiers via Montrail Ultra Cup back then) so I thought I’d give it a shot. My 8th place finish in 2004 was a bit of a surprise to me and to many others.
When you came second to Scott Jurek in 2005 were you competitive or was that just the way it played out?
I never in my wildest dreams thought I could finish 2nd at WS and was basically just bopping along running my own race. My only goal, then and now, was top-10. So, when I rolled into Michigan Bluff (Mile 55) in 9th place I was thinking it would be a stressful afternoon. However, 20 miles later at the Rucky Chucky River Crossing I was in 2nd and at that point I started to compete. After all, there was nothing but dust between the 6-time champion and me, I had to go for it! Of course, 2nd was the best I had that day and I’ll take it!
Looking miserable as always. Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook
What makes you keep coming back?
The mystique, the allure of the event, the elegant simplicity of the course, and the history. In addition, Western States weekend has become a homecoming week for my family and me over the years. We have moved 5 times since my first run in 2001 but one thing has remained the same, we spend the last weekend in June between Squaw Valley and Auburn and there is no other place we would rather be.
I have my reasons, but why this race? What does it for you?
This race brings out the best in me. Training to compete against the best runners in the world, even though I am not one of them, is invigorating and inspiring. Being out on the course makes me feel like I am traversing hallowed ground.
Craig Thornley (Race Director) told you this is your last WS. Knowing what it means to you, how does that feel with 24 days to go?
I am completely at peace with it. I have had 10 opportunities to run the most prestigious ultramarathon in the world. Many folks spend a decade trying to run it once. I have had my piece of the Western States pie, and it has been a delicious one, now, I look forward to giving back to the race and the sport over the next 10 years as a volunteer.
For me WS is my dream but also I must remain realistic to the fact it may never happen. If you had to choose three US “next best things” (without lotteries) what would they be?
Angeles Crest, Vermont, and Grindstone. I’ve also heard great things about Bighorn and the Bear but have never run them. I hope to do so in the future!
You love this sport. What is the worst thing about its rapid growth?
I wish that all the new people coming into the sport would make more of an effort to connect with the culture and history of the sport. Many of our storied events and some of our greatest runners are forgotten in the context of the immediacy that has accompanied ultrarunning’s growth. I know you can’t make people study history but if some of these newbies paid attention to it they might actually remain in the sport longer.
What will you be doing in the last weekend of June next year?
Whatever Craig Thornley tells me to do!
Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook
Who will win WS in 2014?
I think it will come down to a race between Rob Krar and Ryan Sandes. Both those guys seem to have found the sweet spot in training and racing and I’d be surprised if both of them ended up running dumb races. After them, there are the usual 20 other names who could surprise everybody. I will say I am predicting now that there will be two top-10 finishers who won’t even be in the top-30 at Robinson Flat (mile 30)
If you could have one running wish granted?
I’d like to finish in the top-10 in the 2014 Western States.
You are sponsored by Patagonia, amongst others, and are a great ambassador for the brand. What’s your favourite bit of their gear?
The Men’s Air Flow Tank Top is my go-to running shirt on a daily basis and the Houdini is, quite simply, the greatest piece ever made!
So much has changed since you started your first WS. What is your fondest memory of the no doubt thousands?
That’s easy, crossing the finish line in the 2005 WS knowing I had given it my best and had run the race I didn’t know I could ever run. It is still the single greatest run of my life!
You mentioned this week you would like to give 10 years of voluntary service at WS to give back, which is great. Whilst you won’t be racing this again, do you have any international races you have your eye on such as UTMB or Spartathlon now WS will no longer be the annual focus?
At the top of my list of international races is UTMB. I hope to go over there with my family to run in 2015 if I can. It simply seems like an extraordinary event in an incredible place.
For those who don’t already know, AJW has a weekly column on the Ultrarunning mecca website irunfar.com and is currently in the middle of his monthly countdown to the Big Dance on 28th June.