Break on through: Ultra runners push the limits of human endurance

Andy Jones-Wilkins runs for hours every day to push himself physically, quiet his racing mind, and enjoy the outdoors. Photo by Ron Dressel Andy Jones-Wilkins runs for hours every day to push himself physically, quiet his racing mind, and enjoy the outdoors. Photo by Ron Dressel

“Runners to the starting line!”

Excitement ripples through the Wintergreen parking lot as dozens of Spandex-clad men and women, all of them solid muscle, take final swigs of Gatorade, kiss loved ones, and make their way toward a giant inflatable archway.

“On your mark; get set—”

A few runners stoop as if about to sprint, but when the race director shouts “Go!” the group takes off not at a sprint, but with light shuffles through the chute and up the first steep incline. The whole thing happens surprisingly slowly.

But don’t let the pace fool you; these runners have a long day ahead of them. It’s 7:15am on Saturday, September 29, and the 46 athletes making their ascent are the second group of the day to begin the annual Ultra Race of Champions 100K, a 62-mile trail race around Wintergreen Resort and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even the fastest runners will be on the trail for nearly eight hours, and competitors for the other upcoming races—a 50k and half marathon—stand by in awe, many hoping aloud to eventually be in their shoes.

Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports hosted UROC for the second year, and race director Francesca Conte, a local ultra runner herself, said she was thrilled to see so many runners return.

It’s nearly impossible to to drive through Charlottesville without passing at least a handful of runners. From cross-country teams to middle aged marathoners, runners take to the sidewalks and trails here every day—but it hasn’t always been that way.

When Ragged Mountain Running Shop owner Mark Lorenzoni moved to Charlottesville in the 1970s, hardly anybody ran on the streets. Only two or three races took place in the area each year. Women had minimal involvement in the sport. Ultra runners were almost unheard of.

Charlottesville’s running culture has exploded since Lorenzoni and his wife Cynthia opened the store in 1982 and took to the city on foot themselves. Now, local runners have about 85 races a year to choose from, from 5Ks to 100-milers.

According to Lorenzoni, the average pace of the Ten-Miler in 1984 was 7 minutes, 30 seconds per mile; now the average is about two minutes slower.

“I think that’s wonderful,” he said. “It means it’s opening up, and people are realizing that anyone can run.”

While more and more people are trying their hand at jogging and entering playful races featuring muddy obstacle courses and buckets of colored powder, the sport of running has also spawned a smaller, elite group of athletes who are obsessed with distance. Ultra marathon runners compete in races longer than traditional 26-mile marathons —typically 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and 100 miles. And with its scenic mountain ranges and enthusiastic running community, Virginia has become one of the most desirable East Coast destinations for ultra runners.

Ultlra marathoners and 5K runners may wear the same shoes and train on the same trails, Lorenzoni said, but the two sports are about as alike as squash and tennis. They both require a racket and a ball, but the similarities end there.

Many ultra runners build their schedules around training and racing. Some even go as far as to move to a new city just to join a running community. All of these athletes must have supportive, understanding families who don’t mind not having them around for hours and days on end. Charlottesville is home to an unusually large population of these ultra runners, three of whom stand out in the community as elite competitors and stewards of the sport.

Survival of the fittest 

Andy Jones-Wilkins knows pain. He also knows how to fight through it, and not just survive, but win. The local, Patagonia-sponsored elite runner has competed in 28 100-mile races—five of which he has won—and has dozens of other ultra races under his belt. He describes himself as naturally competitive, and though his first-place days may be over, he thrives on chewing up endless miles of wooded trails.

The 45-year-old father of three boys and head of the Tandem Friends School wasn’t always into intensely competitive sports. He said he was a “250-pound frat boy” when he graduated from Hamilton College and took his first teaching job in Philadelphia. He loved playing golf and hanging out on Cape Cod with his buddies during the summer —until he met his wife, a water polo coach whom he describes as an “ultra woman.” He initially scoffed when she invited him to join her on a cross-country bicycle trip, but as a 22-year-old who was falling in love, he eventually caved and bought a bike.

“I lost about 30 pounds and started feeling really good about myself athletically for the first time since high school,” he said. So to stay in shape during the winter, he started running. He quickly caught the bug, and worked his way up from shorter races to marathons.

“I realized the longer I went, the better I did,” he said. “In a half-marathon I’d finish in the top 100, and in a marathon I’d be in the top 50.” His competitive urges got the best of him, and he came to the natural conclusion that longer must be better.

When Jones-Wilkins and his wife moved to Arizona in 1996, he immediately took to exploring new trails and began meeting fellow distance runners. A running pal suggested he attend a 100K race as a spectator, and he was hooked. The thrill of doing something most people wouldn’t dream of trying sucked him in, and he immersed himself in the small but growing world of ultra running. He slowly built up his endurance and distance, beginning with a 50K and ultimately running his first 100-miler in 2000. He advises other runners to train safely and not rush from one distance to the next. But the long distances are addictive, he said, and one race is just motivation for the next.

“They say the worst thing about doing a 50-miler is that it’s a gateway drug to a 100-miler,” he said with a laugh.

Having completed every race he’s ever started, Jones-Wilkins said he’d rather limp through the night to the finish line than ride back in a car.

“I’d rather just walk it in and turn it into a big hike than ride home in the car. The pain of the race will last 24 hours, but the pain of riding home in a car will last a whole year,” he said. “I’m sort of a finish-what-I-start kind of guy.”

As a natural extrovert who interacts and socializes at work all day, Jones-Wilkins sees running as a solitary sport, and loves separating himself from the world as soon as he steps onto a trail. But running a race of any length is a family event, he said, and he couldn’t do it without his wife and three boys.

“At the races they’re like a NASCAR pit crew,” he said proudly. They surround him in the aid station and everybody has a job; his oldest son mixes up the drinks, while the younger two take care of ACE bandages and pain killers and stick energy gels into his pockets. Jones-Wilkins’ sons grew up going to races on the weekends, and when he screeches to a halt in an aid station they have him polished up and back on the trail before he can say “Gatorade.”

Jones-Wilkins has thousands of miles under his belt and always thought of himself as indestructible, but even he is not immune to the toll a 100-mile race takes on the body.

“You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said. He almost invariably vomits during a race, and even after 12 years of ultra-running, his legs feel like cement afterward. And from developing plantar fasciitis to losing entire toenails, he said ultra-runners often go through cycles of injury and recovery.

In 2005, around mile 85 in the Angeles Crest 100-miler in California, Jones-Wilkins spotted a headlamp atop a steep incline at an aid station ahead of him. Despite screaming pain in his quadriceps, he charged up the hill and hammered out the remaining miles at full speed on a high only a runner can understand. Immediately upon crossing the finish line he was rushed to the hospital with his first substantial injury: a seriously damaged quad  that led to acute renal failure.

“It’s not like I just had blisters,” he said. “I think it was my body’s way of telling me to take a break.”

Doctors knew they wouldn’t convince him to quit running, he said, so they warned him to listen to his body and either slow down or train harder to build up muscle endurance. Jones-Wilkins chose the latter, but said the week in a hospital bed and two months off the trails taught him the valuable lesson that he is not invincible. To this day, he has his blood tested after every 100-
miler, and has scrapped races he’s signed up for in order to keep himself healthy.

Earlier this year, 58-year-old internationally renowned ultra-runner Micah True, nicknamed Caballo Blanco, was found dead in the wilderness of New Mexico days after he took off for a solo run. He died of heart failure, and studies after his death show that running as long and as hard as ultra-runners do can cause irreparable heart damage. Jones-Wilkins knew True personally and was shocked by his sudden death, but said he isn’t concerned about the health of his own heart.

“While I certainly know there is risk in running ultras, I believe that by taking care of myself and listening to my body when I am out there I am ultimately doing more good than harm,” he said.

Jones-Wilkins loves  running and being outdoors, and  the thrill of competing against the top ultra guys in the nation draws him back to races. If he wants to continue running into his later years, he said, he knows he needs to listen to his body, pay attention to his limits, and cross-train—and “overcome his aversion to chlorine”—to avoid further serious injuries.

He’s been running ultras for 15 years now, and hopes to continue running well into his 60s. If a doctor tells him he can never run farther than three miles at a time again, he said he’d take it in a heartbeat. He’d miss the thrill of running 15 hours on end, but the simple joy of running, despite a desire to cross the finish line first, will always be enough.

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