Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Head of the Class - An Interview with Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is a school principal by day, but put him in a pair of trail running shoes and he will show you a talent for ultrarunning that few can match. His ultra performances have improved over the years to world class finishes in 2004-05, including a 2nd place overall against a challenging field at the Western States 100, 2nd overall at the Angeles Crest 100, 2nd overall at the 2005 Rocky Raccoon 100, and 1st overall at the Wheres Waldo 100k. If he isn't racing, he is probably pacing for the likes of Vasque team member Rob Edde, friend Joe Kulak, or just out doing some insane mileage in the heat he loves.

I caught up with Andy in between the Angeles Crest 100 and the Quad Dipsea to comment on his season to date.

(Andy Jones-Wilkins at the Western States River Crossing, 2005)

First, congratulations on an amazing ‘05 season! Your 17:07 2nd place finish at
Western States is one for the record books. Was that your peak race?

Absolutely! My entire year was geared toward Western States. I spent hours in the canyons and dragged myself to the track for 8 weeks. Since Western States I have basically been running on fumes although I am itching to begin ramping things up next month. I like an 8 month lead up to a bit 100 miler.

(Andy cruises in for 2nd place at Western States in an impressive 17:07, 2005)

Did you change anything about your training in the last year to get these great performances?

Yes, I actually made three significant changes to my changes in 2005: First, I traveled to the race course 5 times during the three month period leading up to the race. I ran specific sections of the course aiming at certain split times and I practiced my nutrition and heat plan on those runs. Second, as I said earlier, I made a point of getting to the track once a week for hard speed sessions. Basically, I stuck with 8x800 in 2:40 with 2 minutes rest. This built up my turnover for the "runnable" sections of WS and kept me from getting to "power-oriented" as a result of all the hills I was doing. Third, I built up my weekly mileage to 130 miles per week without getting injured. This volume gave me expanded capacity and actually made 50 mile training runs seem short (I can't believe it but it's true).

When did you start trail running? Have you always been an athlete?

I started running trails when I moved to Arizona from Philadelphia in 1996 and did my first ultra in 1997. I jumped into 100 milers in 2000 and I have now completed 10. That is definitely my preferred distance. I played soccer, basketball and lacrosse in High School and then transitioned to golf and beer drinking in college. I actually became interested in ultrarunning after completing a series of cross country bicycle tours with my wife. I needed to do something in the winter to keep me in shape. Now, my bike is gathering dust in my garage and I go through a pair of running shoes every month. Funny how that happens.

You are a principal, correct? What school? What do the kids think of their ultra-principal?

I am a middle school principal at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, CA. It's a great job for an ultrarunner because it's so intense and people centered. The kids here at school really respect the fact that I do what I do and the cross country team, in particular, is psyched that I am "one of them." I think the thing that the kids think is really cool is all the stuff I get from Vasque and my other sponsors. It's not exactly a Tiger Woods type deal but I think they like to think their principal has "another" life.

What does your family think? I hear you have three kids famous for stealing your snacks.

My races are definitely family events and everybody has a prescribed role. My wife Shelly is my coach and psychologist and keeps my training focused. My oldest son Carson (7) is responsible for fluids, my middle son Logan (5) is responsible for gels, and my youngest son Tully (2) takes care of electrolyte tablets. And, you are correct, on more than one occasion I have caught the boys out in the garage eating my energy gels.

What inspires you to keep up the training?

I am inspired by a love of the trails and a passion for pushing myself hard. The competitive side of ultrarunning is certainly a motivator but truly the training and the hard work are what keep me going. I just love being out on the trail, far away from everything. It breaks down life to its core values and all else goes away. To me, it's intoxicating.

Do you have regular crew and pacers, or do they change from event to event?

My crew is my family. Without them I would not have enjoyed the success I have enjoyed. My wife Shelly knows just when to push and just when to lay off and knowing that my kids will be waiting for me at the finish line always puts a bit of spring in my step. At the risk of offending anyone I will say that I have enjoyed all of my pacers. Obviously, the pacer/runner relationship is a complex one and there are subtle nuances that must be acknowledged. I will say that the pacer combo of Andy Roth and Craig Thornley was just about perfect at Angeles Crest this year.

(Andy at Michigan Bluff with crew John Pearch, Shelly Jones-Wilkins, and son Carson, 2005)

Do you train with a running club, or have a group of other ultrarunners you train with?

I am part of the Vasque Ultrarunning Team and they are my running family. But, as far as training partners, I like running solo. I do hook up with folks for the big runs on the Western States course and I have had a blast up there with Craig Thornley, John Ticer, Jeff Riley, Ed Willson, Tom Lyons, Mark Richtman, and Tim Fitzpatrick. I have also been inspired by my ultrarunning mentor Tom Nielsen who I don't train with often but his words continue to guide my racing. By and large, however, I train long and solo.

What are some of your favorite races/locations?

Western States and Angeles Crest are my favorites and I also like Miwok and Where's Waldo. Over the past year I have become more intrigued with the Big Mountain venues and I am hoping to get out to Wasatch, Leadville, Hardrock and a few others over the next few years.

Lastly, a few training questions. Whats a typical training week look like for you? How many miles? When do you add in speed work?

I run 100 miles a week year round and try to peak at 130 a month before a big race. 80% of my running is on trails with the remainder on the roads leading to the trails and the track. I try to get to the track for 8 weeks leading up to a big 100 in order to get my turnover going. Much more than that drives me crazy.

What are your favorite foods/race snacks?

I try to balance protein and carbs throughout a long race and as such I try to eat a diverse selection of food. I start out with turkey and avocado sandwiches early in a race and switch to soup later. I try not to push gels until that last 5 hours because once I start I can't stop. I am OK with just about any drink mix and I do drink a lot (80-100 ounces and hour depending on heat). My favorite post-race meal is a burger with fries and a cold Sierra Nevada.

(Why is this man smiling? Because a burger, fries, and beer is just around the corner!)

A lot of the blog readers love to hear about lessons learned (ie, things that didn’t go right that perhaps they could avoid). Any you would like to pass on?

Well, I ended up in the hospital with Acute Renal Failure following the 2004 Angeles Crest so I would definitely urge people to listen to their bodies and try not to run outside of their abilities. Obviously, fluid and food are key but the mental aspect that comes into play during the second half of a 100 mile race cannot be overlooked. The truth is that just when you are becoming stupid is when you most need to be smart. It's a fine balance but one that the most successful runners understand. Obviously, I am still learning.

Any tips you would like to pass on to somebody trying their first ultra?

Train smart but hard. Use races to build up for your big events. Stay in control of those things you can control. Accept that things will go wrong. Run the downhills as fast as you can. Lose weight so the uphills are easier. Be physically strong and mentally stronger.

Whats next on the race/run agenda? Do you plan on doing more/less races next year, or try different races?

After Quad Dipsea in November I will chill out until Rocky Raccoon in February. Then I will build up with Way Too Cool in March and Miwok 100K in May. That will all be to build up for WS 2006. I'd like to run the best race of my life out there next year. It won't be easy. I hope it's hot.

Thanks for a great interview!

- SD


  1. This guy is amazing! How does he find time for everything? I can't imagine 3 kids, being a principal, running 100 miles per week, AND competing at the level he does. Thanks for doing the interview Scott - I feel like going out and running! What an inspiration!

    - Susan

  2. I saw this guy at Western States and he was so chill at Foresthill. He and all the Vasque guys seem to have a great attitude when they race. Eric

  3. Another great interview, Scott. Thanks for tracking these folks down! I don't think I would have heard of Andy if I hadn't checked out your blog.

  4. Actually, you can read about Andy in the September Ultrarunning Magazine, and rumor has it he will be featured in the upcoming Trail Runner Magazine too. I can just scoop these guys since I don't have to print/distribute.


  5. When Andy does a typical 100 mile week, is it the same mileage every day? Or is he doing 1-2 long runs that make up the bulk of it?

    He's clearly got his A game ready for 2006! I hope he has a fulfilling season.


  6. Great interview, Scott. Thanks.

  7. Emma,

    Just saw your post. Thanks for the question. During my typical 100 mile week I run 10-13 miles Monday through Friday integrating hills, tempo and speed and then about 45-60 miles on the weekends. I do back to back runs pretty much year round since I feel the Sunday run trains me to run tired. If things go well through the winter I am going to try to get up to 150 MPW in May as a lead up to WS. For me, there is no substitute for high mileage.


  8. He's always smiling! I bet that has a lot to do with how he gets through the second half.

  9. Second place no more! On 2/4/06, Andy won the US 100-mile Championships.


  10. Another article on AJ, getting ready to attack the Wasatch 100 on Sept 9, 2006.


  11. Mr J-W used to be my principal (before he moved to Idaho... MR J-W WE MISS YOU) hes awesome

  12. I give Andy all the merit he deserves. Hope he is a little humble and at least returns a "hi". I race in his same age group, and finished 3th in Rocky Raccoon and 2th in Leadville. And when I approach him to say "hi" or say "good job" on the trail hi ignores me. Hey Andy, ultrarunning is suppose be friendly...

  13. Luis -

    Andy is often "in the zone" when running. I don't think he can hear his own thoughts much of the time. Be sure to catch him after a race, where I have no doubt he would love to meet you and talk about the race. He's quite the socialite once he's across the finish!



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