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The City Journals

West Valley runner hopes to motivate others to explore Utah mountains

Feb 17, 2020 03:06PM ● By Jess Nielsen Beach

Jill Wilkins admires the sunset after conquering Lake Blanche. (Photo courtesy Jill Wilkins)

By Jess Nielsen Beach | [email protected]

You see them every time you drive down the street: runners, of all shapes and sizes, pounding the pavement in snow or shine. For Jill Wilkins, a West Valley resident, you’re more likely to see her at a more elevated level.

Wilkins, 39, grew to love trail running after a prolonged childhood illness.

“I was really sick my whole life,” Wilkins said. “I missed four years of school. I had to have daily nutritional IVs, and I was very unhealthy. I was always ‘the sick one.’”

Rather than let her illness defeat her, she used it as a way to better herself.

“I always loved the strength of runners. You’ll be driving and see people running in bad weather and think, ‘Wow, good for you!’ I wanted to be the strong one, because I’ve always been the sick one.”

Although the fitness guru now has years of training under her belt, it didn’t come easy. Her first 5K was with her uncle, who was nearing his 50s. Her only goal was to not let him beat her—which he did, sooner than she expected.

“We started running and an eighth of a mile in, not even a half mile, my uncle takes off,” Wilkins said. “There’s nothing more humbling than seeing your older uncle take off and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

After finishing that race, Wilkins was determined to get better. Being beaten by the race wasn’t something she wanted to become habit. She began to train and love the workout, and, as a mom, she wasn’t about to pay for a sitter.

“It’s so simplistic,” Wilkins said, explaining her routine as a parent who loves to run. “You don’t need a babysitter for the gym, you’re not stuck in a room with sweaty, smelly people not knowing what to do and being intimidated. You just put one foot in front of the other.”

Once her love of exercise was cemented, Wilkins began to explore the nearby mountains.

“I’ve always loved hiking and running, and then I found trail running, which just combines it all.”

Along those stunning trails, Wilkins found another love: photography. Her social media is filled with breathtaking images of all the Utah landscape has to offer: cliffs, waterfalls, forests, and several otherworldly views of the Salt Lake valley from the tallest peaks. 

“I have an iPhone 6, so it’s nothing fancy,” Wilkins said. “We live in such a pretty place, and I usually happen to be in the right spot at the right time.”

Last year, Wilkins was thrilled when KSL found one of her photos on her Instagram and asked if they could feature it on their website. 

“I didn’t enter a contest, I just tagged them on social media. They reached out and asked to use it, and I was blown away.” The mention on the news outlet’s page brought more people to Wilkins’ platform, which she uses to show others that they, too, can get out in nature.

In addition to the scenic views and fresh air, Wilkins is grateful for the easier toll trail running takes. Rather than the flat, monotonous pavement on roads and sidewalks, the dirt and snow acts as a cushion to not wear you down as much.

“I like the mountain running because it’s very hard to do, but it’s much easier on your body. It’s less impact. There’s also trail variances, there’s rocks, roots, ups, downs; you’re using all the parts of your legs and all different tendons.”

With that being said, Wilkins is quick to mention that it’s important to pay attention to what your body is telling you before, during and after a run. When times get rough, she has even had to ground herself from hitting the road.

“I recently did a track run on the junior high track for 40 miles for a fundraiser,” Wilkins said. “Myself and a bunch of other ultrarunners were raising money for the food bank (they raised $15k) and we ran from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. The flat running beat me up more because there’s no variance. And running in a circle, I kind of got some tough tissue on the insides of my feet.”

Whether you’re a seasoned runner or lacing up a pair of your first shoes, make sure not to overdo it.

“I listen to my body,” Wilkins said. “If I feel tired or fatigued, I will take a break. Or if I feel a little ache or pain. It’s not worth pushing through that and getting an injury and then taking a month or two off.”

What new runners and moms should know

If you’re looking to start trail running, or running in general, don’t be scared. According to Wilkins, there is one important factor if you decide to get outside, even in the snow.

“Running is not for everybody, but hiking is for almost everybody. You can get enjoyment out of it and you don’t have to do hard hikes. It’s putting one foot in front of the other. If you have to take a breather, do it. Get yourself out and enjoy the mountains. We are so lucky. There are so many people who pay to travel here and experience our trails, and they’re right here.”

As for fellow moms with young children, she added, “Most people think it’s complicated to get kids out, but it’s really not. It’s no different than going sledding or seeing the lights at Temple Square. Warm clothes, snacks if they’re hungry and hand warmers.”

The first few times might be difficult with children, but Wilkins encourages people to push through.

“Your kids need to be taught how to be in a backpack or carrier,” Wilkins said. “It’s just like being in a car seat. When you’re driving and your kid is screaming, you leave them. You aren’t going to take them out on the middle of the freeway.”

She recommends that, while the first few times might be miserable for children and they might cry or throw a fit, try to make it a positive experience. Talk them through it, explain where you’re going, and perhaps even point out animals along the way. 

“Boundaries at the beginning,” Wilkins said of trail-training kids. “They learn that once they’re in the backpack, they’re not getting out. Just make it as fun as possible, sing songs, play games, etc. When they get a bit older, they can walk with you as long as it’s safe.”

A few items that Wilkins will not leave home without may seem like no big deal, but they can be the difference between misery and fun.

“Things I keep in my backpack at all times are sunscreen, ChapStick, and my salt tabs. I also take ibuprofen along, because you can get an elevation headache if you aren’t used to the elevation. Also, if you have kids, always pack a diaper or two, because guaranteed your child is going to need a change at the top of the mountain.”

However, for those who intend to invest in this sport, Wilkins has several recommendations that will be helpful in terms of equipment. While some heavy-duty items are a must, she has a few hacks for those on a budget.

“With my gear, I don’t spend the money and buy waterproof shoes,” Wilkins explained. “I do the redneck hack: I just put plastic bags on my socks. Almost every single winter picture you see of me, I’m wearing my plastic bags. I do wear wool socks, but the bags work great.”

Another must-have trick from Wilkins is simple gloves from the dollar store.

“There’s no tech or anything,” Wilkins said, showing off several pairs of simple matching gloves. “They work great. They keep my hands warm and almost all of my runner friends use them.”

Also recommended are shoes with an aggressive tread, which work for both winter and summer sports. Regardless of weather, such shoes are able to grip slick rocks or snow patches along the trail. 

“The one investment I’ve made is more for steep or technical trails, and they’re called micro spikes,” Wilkins said. “I can tell you right now, don’t scrimp. If you want to get outside, invest in the Kahtoola ones. They just slip right over your shoes. I’ve bought cheap brands online, but they rust and just don’t last. You won’t replace the Kahtoola ones every year—I’ve had mine for three years so far.” 

Tips to stay safe while hiking

If you’re ready to get out there, Wilkins recommends checking online for avalanche dangers as well as consulting the app, All Trails. 

“All Trails will filter hikes, show the distance, elevation gain, etc. That way you can see oh, this will be an easy trail versus something more challenging,” Wilkins said. “If you have a pair of hiking boots, you’re fine. Just pick a trail that doesn’t have a lot of steepness. I like trekking poles, they’re great for balance. In the snow, you might be a little off, so pull out your poles and get going.”

One last safety tip Wilkins offers is especially for women planning on running or hiking alone or with their small children. 

“First off, just be brave. It’s okay. It’s not dangerous,” Wilkins said. “There are no creepers in the mountains, I promise. Especially being a woman, I go alone a lot. I have been doing this for a long time. A lot of times, I have to go alone.”

Wilkins encourages people to pay attention and use caution at popular trailheads and bathrooms. If possible, carry a self-defense tool that you can access quickly without it posing a danger while not in use.

“I have a little necklace that’s a knife that I hike with when I run alone. I got it at Cabela’s and I can just pop it out when I need. I’ve never, ever come across anyone questionable in the mountains. A creeper is not going to take time to hike up a trail and hide in a bush. It’s not predictable.”

Although she is cautious and aware of potential problems, Wilkins is determined not to let hypotheticals keep her stuck at home.

“My husband works in sex crimes and whatnot. He’s a special victims detective, so I hear about all the things, but I’m not going to let that stop me,” Wilkins said. “I just make sure I’m not on a predictable schedule, I always keep my knife on me and I’m aware. I don’t zone out to my music and I pay attention. It sucks that, as a woman, you have to be so hyper aware of that. My guy friends can just go out. They never have to worry about it. It sucks, but you have to keep yourself safe.”

Wilkins has one last piece of advice once you’ve done the research, gathered your gear, and are ready to explore the Utah scenery.

“It’s okay to make goals and do hard things. It’s okay to fail. I didn’t get this distance, I didn’t finish this race. It’s okay to feel that way, but be brave. Take that step and you’ll realize how fun it is to get out there and try something new.”

What mountain of a goal will Wilkins climb next? She is currently in the lottery for the Wasatch 100, with the Bear 100 being her backup plan.

“They are both very, very difficult 100-mile races and I’m terrified. The Wasatch goes from Kaysville to Heber, and the Bear goes from Logan to Bear Lake. They all go through the mountains, and I’m legit terrified, but I’m turning 40 next year and I want to do this crazy thing. I feel like I’m pretty legged up and if I can continue doing what I’m doing, I’ll be ready for it.”

For more of Wilkins’ journey of fitness, tips and tricks, and photos of Utah’s most captivating views, follow her Instagram page: jillrwilkins.