John Wiygul can claim something few StumpJump 50K runners can: He’s run the event every year for the last 10 years in a row. (It’s true, he didn’t participate until year five of the event, but considering he was 16 years old when he completed his first StumpJump—which was also his first 50K—this is understandable.)
John's arrival into the world of trail running happened by innocuous chance. When he originally signed up for the StumpJump, it was nothing more than a whimsical decision to have some great big adventure. He'd done some road running with his older brother up to this point, but nothing too substantial or abnormal for a 16-year-old kid. Then, as fate would have it, he saw a flyer for the StumpJump at Rock/Creek's old storefront on Frazier Avenue, and said to himself immediately and simply: “Yeah, I can do that.”
The race challenged him, especially on the nutrition front. He “winged it” and ate gels, bananas, and honey buns—all of which were pretty smart choices. But he had a lot to learn about himself and his body: “I really didn't know what I was getting into,” he says. After the race he drove back home, took a long nap, and dreamed about running. That's when he realized he was hooked.
His high school cross country coach signed him up for the team once he learned about John’s foray into ultra-distance trail running. And his family continued to support him in sporting pursuits that included climbing—where at 11 years old, he “first found his passion for sports”—biking, swimming, and more running.
“Rock climbing is the exact opposite of running,” John says. “You can't zone out; you have to stay in the moment and be completely focused.” And yet, it's running that's helped him with a different kind of mental strength: “It’s unmatchable in teaching you patience. You have to be wise with how you use your energy.”
For the most part, John has coached himself, relying on a “power from within,” a drive and determination that led him to participating in the Chattanooga IRONMAN last year just one week before running in the far-from-easy StumpJump 50K. If you know John, you know this is hardly a surprise, because the guy lives for physical challenges: “I’m not the strongest runner, but I have a hell of a lot of determination,” he says.
For not being "the strongest runner," he's still pretty damn fast. To this day, he holds the state record for the fastest 50K for someone 18 and under, and a look at his results for local trail running races in the Chattanooga area shows consistent Top 10 finishes over the last few years. But he would never tell you any of this. And that's one of John's most endearing traits: his unequivocal humility.
In spite of John’s reticence when it comes to talking about himself, make no mistake, he is a highly accomplished man. He’s a recent college graduate, a newlywed, a successful business owner (opening High Point Climbing and Fitness in 2013), a triathlete who has been to the 70.3 Ironman World Championships in 2011, 2012, and 2013. And as earlier mentioned, he recently competed in Chattanooga’s first full IRONMAN just 6 days before finishing in the Top 10 at the 2014 StumpJump 50K.
Matt Sims, StumpJump 50K founder and former race director, IRONMAN triathlete, climber, and talented multi-sport man himself calls John: “One of the most incredible all-around athletes I've ever known."
In spite of all the other sports and activities he participates in, he is clearly hooked on the StumpJump, calling it the “ultimate hometown race.” And his training approach is simple (and sadistic): Working on speed with mile repeats. Then he gradually progresses to the half marathon, then marathon and ultra-distances by the fall. The key for him in building strength, keeping speed, and avoiding injury is to slowly increase mileage. He first focuses on keeping his speed and high leg turnover, and then begins incorporating longer distances as the year goes on. It took some time to arrive at this strategy, but over the years, John has learned “to run with a bit more wisdom” including coming to the acknowledgement that staying injury free is the most important way to train.
Owning a business takes up a lot of his time these days. But when he does find time to train, it's normally alongside his wife, Molly, who is quite an accomplished athlete herself. Additionally, having specific events to focus on is helpful, and it's no surprise that the StumpJump is always a fixture on this list.
Over the years, since that first StumpJump finish as a gangly teen, John has fostered a love for every aspect of the sport—from the early morning speed workouts, to the gorgeous places it's taken him, and of course, to the fantastic running community in Chattanooga that he's proudly called family for the last 11 years. “Those are some of my best memories,” he says, referring to the past StumpJump races he's run through the woods of Signal Mountain and Walden Ridge. And it doesn't seem like the memories will abate any time soon.
(And to answer the question you may be wondering: yes, John will yet again compete in the Chattanooga IRONMAN six days before this year's StumpJump.)