It’s refreshing to know that at 43, I’m not too old to find new heroes in my life. This past weekend, I had a chance to spend some time with a runner that is truly extraordinary. In July, he became the first Vermonter to ever win the Vermont State 100 Mile Endurance Run. He’s finished 3rd at the Wasatch 100, arguably one of the toughest races in America and he’s a finisher of the Grand Daddy of all ultras, the Western States 100. On a more personal note, he kicked my ass on his way to second place at this summer’s Nipmuck Trail Marathon. Despite all of his impressive credentials, he only started running 8 years ago. His name is Jack Pilla and would you believe, he’s fifty-one years old!
A couple of months ago, I thought he would be a good candidate for a profile in Running Times and so I made the pitch and asked Jack if he was interested. He said “sure” and invited me up for the interview and a run on a few of his home trails in Charlotte, VT.
Preparing for the weekend, Lulu razzed me on more than one occasion about how excited I was to meet “my friend.” I laughed at myself but made no effort to hide my feelings. The truth is, running had gotten very hard for me over the summer with the Lyme disease and my groin and I needed a little outside help to get me going again.
Jack proved the magic elixir. Meeting up first thing Sunday morning, we headed out into the Vermont frost with Lake Champlain and the surrounding mountains as our backdrop. For ninety minutes we rolled through a wildlife sanctuary, over Puke Hill and through several bumpy miles of rugged forest. The pace was reasonable, the conversation easy and the benefit to me: enormous.
Jack has in spades what I have only scraps of. No dilettante in the great outdoors, he’s an avid skier, surfer, skydiver, biker, hiker, you name it, he’s done it… lots of it. As he put it, he just likes to see, “how far his body can go.”
He runs 70-100 miles a week. When the sun goes down early in the fall, he puts on a headlamp and runs the trails in the dark. His long runs might go anywhere from 26 miles (the day before we ran together) to a casual 45 he felt like doing on a whim a couple of weeks before. To test himself for his “A” races, he heads over to the White Mountains and runs the Presidential Range. For those of you unfamiliar with the Granite State’s “little mountains” they’re known for having the “worst weather in the world.” And a good day of running there can easily bring over 10,000 feet of elevation gain. One day this summer, just to see how far his body could go, Jack ran 20 miles, stopping only once to drink.
All of this was passed on to me in a wonderfully understated way. Jack was only talking because I was asking questions. He seemed more eager to tell me about his garden and the two hundred pounds of potatoes he harvests every year than he was in recounting the 88th mile of the Vermont 100 when he took the lead and never looked back. Like most of the big “doers” I’ve come across in my life, Pilla wasn’t much for tooting his horn. I’m guessing here but I believe he knows his actions do all his talking for him.
More than anything, what I took away from my morning with my hero was how important it is to surround yourself with people that support your passions. Jack’s significant other is a trainer/running coach/ultra champion. He belongs to the Green Mountain Athletic Association that boasts over 500 runners and he’s got a group of about 18 plus50 year old guys that he trains with regularly. But there’s nothing regular about them. They are a freakish group of aerobic performers. One of them, at 55, just ran an indoor 5:01 mile. Working together, several of them including Jack, recently won the National Masters 5K team championship. If you’re looking to take some old men to the woodshed, these are not the guys for it. They push each other and they perform on a level that begs you to rethink what it means to be an athlete for life.
After a big post run breakfast, he sent me on my way south with a couple of pumpkins from his garden for the kids and a totally energized attitude about running. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the fitness level he’s at but it’s damned good to know that the time limit on getting there is a lot longer than I thought.