TJ Wilkinson ran both cross-country and track in junior high and high school. He readily admits that he was not very fast but enjoyed the sports for the camaraderie.
“I also didn’t try very hard, which is probably why I wasn’t fast,” he says. “When I say I ‘ran track,’ I really mean I was a high jumper, and I spent many practices laying on the high jump mat watching the girls run by. Needless to say, my running didn’t transition to college.”
Wilkinson never did improve his speed. His friends like to tease him about a local 5k he entered. “I was beaten by a guy wearing snorkel gear, including the flippers. Seriously.”
A Not-So-Fast Runner’s Ultimate Dream
A Running Rebirth
After high school, Wilkinson hung up his running shoes for about 15 years. Then during Christmas 2012, his brother mentioned that he would be running a half marathon in the spring.
“I was carrying a little more weight that I’d like at the time, and found myself huffing to walk up the steps at work, so I thought – what the hell, I’ll run too,” he recalls. “Plus, he was wearing some sweet new running pants and I like gear. Except I don’t like gear unless I need it. So, it was a win-win. I could get sweet new running pants and maybe lose a few pounds in the process.”
Wilkinson never did end up buying the running pants but he did complete the half marathon. His running plan wouldn’t meet the standards of most running coaches. He ran once a week on Saturdays, starting with six miles, then building up a mile at a time until he finished 11 miles.
“Then I got pneumonia and didn’t run again until the week before the race when I ran eight miles,” he says. “A ridiculous plan, I know, but at that point my only goal was to finish 13.1 miles. I finished, but I hit the wall pretty hard at mile 8. When I finished, I instantly knew I wanted to do another one. I was hooked. Then I promptly ate a fried bologna and cheese sandwich, and drank a couple beers, undoing any calories I’d just burned.”
Wilkinson has not returned to 5ks since his “running rebirth.” He did finish a 10k with a sub-8-minute pace — “for me that is smoking fast.”
Like many runners, he was intrigued by the idea of a full marathon. After completing another half in the fall of 2013, he began training properly for a full marathon, set for the spring of 2014. “At this point, I actually enjoyed the running and I was following a training plan that involved running more than once per week.”
Marathons, then ultras
But Wilkinson learned that nothing comes easy when marathon training.
“On my 19-mile marathon training mile run, I was bitten by a dog 10 miles in and ran the remaining nine miles with blood dripping down my leg and went on to get a rabies vaccine,” he says. “Fun stuff. Then I hurt my knee (I think it was IT band trouble) during the next run and I was off for about a month before that first marathon.”
Even though his knee wasn’t ready for 26.2 miles, Wilkinson is stubborn and set out to finish. He ran the first 16 miles really well, then walked the majority of the rest of the race. “I finished, and again, I was hooked,” he says. “I needed to do another marathon. No bologna this time. Just beer.”
Several months after that first marathon, Wilkinson decided to aim longer. “I started thinking about running an ultra,” he recalls. “Again, just to see if I could. For some reason pushing myself further seems to be more of a hook than trying to get really fast at any one distance.”
With his mind set on ultras, Wilkinson sought out magazine stories and movies to get motivated. “During the remainder of 2014 I read more about ultras — Rob Krar’s Western States win, an article about Timothy Olson’s Hardrock race where he passed out on a mattress in a trash pile, both stuck with me,” he says. “I also watched Billy Yang’s ‘Western Time’ about Sally McRae’s first Western States (and damn near cried) and a video on the Fat Dog 120 from Project Talaria.
“After all that, I was completely hooked on the idea of running an ultra and set a goal for running my first 50-miler in 2015.”
He didn’t quite achieve his 50-miler goal, as training got the best of him. He completed the 50k at last year’s Marquette Trail race and vows to “finish all 50 miles” at this year’s race.
Why ultras? “The short answer is: I love the challenge. Everything I love about what I read and watched had to do with the challenge. And the adventure. And spending time outside staring at the stars.”
Strong Commitment to Family
On his blog, he writes about commitment to family, work and of course running. He has two toddler daughters, ages 4 and 2. “Family’s always first for me,” says Wilkinson, who looks forward to breakfast with his daughters after his weekend runs. “Work is a close second, and running is third. When I remind myself of those priorities, it helps me keep things in a good place, mentally, if I have to miss a run for whatever reason.”
Wilkinson — who goes by “Darkskyrunner” on Twitter —manages his time by running early on Friday and Saturday mornings.
“I’m generally a morning person, so it’s a bit easier, but I don’t think anyone’s a 3 a.m. morning person, so it’s still a struggle for me at times,” he admits. “I think 1:50 a.m. is the earliest I got up for a run, a 20-miler on a Friday morning before my first ultra. There isn’t much going on with the world at that time of day.”
He also includes his daughters on his shorter weekday runs. “When it’s nice out, I’ll push my daughters in the jogging stroller for my shorter mid-week runs. They constantly ask me to run faster so the dragon / lion / cheetah / monster / alligator doesn’t get us.
“Oh, and I let them decorate my drop bag — they got a kick out of that.”
‘Training the Mind’
Some day he hopes they will be decorating his bag for one of the most prestigious ultra races, the 100-mile Western States. Even though his wife doesn’t understand this quest and his daughters are too young to comprehend it, Wilkinson is serious about the pursuit.
“I was instantly drawn to it when I watched ‘Western Time,’” he says. “My plan is to run the Indiana Trail 100 next year, and continue running WSER qualifiers each year until I’m picked in the lottery.”
No doubt he will continue to learn more about running, training and himself as he pursues this quest.
What I’ve learned is that my mind is way more powerful than I would’ve ever thought — both from a positive and a negative perspective, depending on my mindset,” Wilkinson says. “It’s powered me through some tough miles / weather / early mornings / injuries. On the flip side, it’s also kept me in bed mornings when I should’ve run when my mindset isn’t where it should be.
“Training for ultras needs to include training the mind because that’s what carries me through those late race miles.”
Name: TJ Wilkinson
Hometown: I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio, but now live in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Number of years running: 3.5
Point of pride: “Sitting down for breakfast with my girls after a weekend long run – I’m proud of myself for the run and for doing my best to raise two awesome daughters.”
Favorite race distance: 50k
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: PB&J washed down with Tailwind.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I don’t listen to music when I run. I have a playlist of some really chill / calming music that I listen to while stretching before a race. I like to start a race totally relaxed, in an almost zen-like state.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra or saying: “ ‘Just deal with it.’ Whatever ‘it’ is, deal with it and move on.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: You can follow my journey at www.darkskyrunner.com or @darkskyrunner on Twitter.