If you would have met Jill Wilkins in the fifth grade, you would have never thought she would become the athlete she is today. On a daily nutritional IV from the age of 10 up until 14, Wilkins struggled with severe Celiac disease. As she grew older, her illness progressed, and due to the lack of information at the time, Jill’s digestive system was constantly at risk of shutting down altogether. What came to follow were years of unmatched energy to physical capability, developing an eating disorder, and the moment that changed her life, discovering running.
Wilkins slipped on a pair of running shoes at the age of 33. Though this was something that she wasn’t able to do as a kid, running became a means of gaining confidence in her abilities and trust in her body. Oddly enough, becoming so active helped Wilkins with her Celiac as well as her eating disorder. “Running gave me something to put my mind towards to get better and to get healthier. It’s opened up the door and given me so many amazing experiences and now being an Ultra Runner, I never thought in my wildest I would ever be able to do some of the things I’ve been able to do.”
Fast forward to September of 2020, Wilkins was set to run her dream race, Wasatch 100. With life stressors triggering her eating disorder once again, Wilkins was overtraining and under-eating, and come time for the race, weather conditions were extreme. From high temperatures in one segment to hail in the next, 54% of racers chose to DNF. Coming up to mile 72 Wilkins hadn’t been able to keep anything down for the last 20 odd miles and began to feel pain in her ankle. Reaching mile 94 with two hours left to finish, dehydrated, and with bouts of losing consciousness, Wilkins had to call it.
In December of 2020 Wilkins’ ankle was still bothering her from Wasatch. After going in for an MRI she discovered that she had a 2-inch tear in a 3-inch tendon. Wearing a boot for the next 6 weeks was a requirement, running for at least the next 6 months was out of the question, and surgery was going to be a must if she ever wanted to get back to running ultras. The time that was now forcibly cleared in her schedule gave Wilkins a chance to reflect, “this gave me an opportunity to do quite a bit of self-reflection, and I realized that I was using running too heavily to cope with some of my anxieties and life stressors. Running can be an amazing thing but there’s a fine line of overdoing it.” Wilkins realized there was work to be done, this time would give her the chance to lean into the mental blocks that were causing her anxiety and get to the root of them so that she no longer had to run away.
Without having to commit to a training schedule at the start of 2022, Wilkins was approached by her daughter’s school to spearhead an after school running pilot program. The success of this run club would determine if every school in the district would receive funding to host this after school activity the following school year. Thinking a handful of kids would sign up, Wilkins accepted and came to find she had to train a whopping 78 kids from Kinder-6th grade to run a 5k. “I’ve read a million books, I trained myself to run my ultras, I don’t get a coach, so it’s easy for me to be dedicated and go hit the miles. It was really a challenge for me to be able to motivate these kids because it was an after school program! They want to go home, they don’t want to go run in the heat of the afternoon!”
So what do you do with 78 kids in the peak of Utah’s highest temps? Make it fun! Wilkins would play red light green light, sharks and minnows, and set up an obstacle course that taught the kids traffic safety. After their 30 minutes of fun, Wilkins addressed weekly goals and invited guest speakers from her community to come and tell motivational stories to the kids. “ A lot of the lessons you learn from running can be used in daily life. You’re always going to come across obstacles, so what do you do? Do you sit back or do you figure out how to get through it to continue towards your goal?”
Still, in a boot, Wilkins walked alongside kids running their laps giving them words of encouragement and highlighting their progress,
On the final day of the run club, a sudden heat wave hit and Wilkins thought this surely would be a disaster. Out of 78 kids, 55 kids showed up to run their 5k and 38 finished. In tears, Wilkins was so proud to see how far her little trainees had all come in the last few months and it was evident she had made a lasting impression on them. “ I had told this story about a girl whose boat sank in a lake and she had to get to shore. Well she would start swimming but she would get tired, and so this little girl thought to herself, I have two choices. I can sink or I can swim. So she kept telling herself just one more stroke, just one more stroke. The final little girl running in said ``I'm not going to sink coach, I'm going to keep going!”
After running a successful run club, the school district decided to offer this program to every school in the district, and Wilkins walked away with a new sense of inspiration. “ Watching these kids do something that was so hard for them was beyond inspirational. These kids started from absolute scratch with non-athletic backgrounds and had never done anything like this in their lives. Seeing them grow and seeing them progress it validated my views on how amazing the human spirit really is. If those kids can come and do something that was so scary and so foreign and can finish, then we can do anything!”
Wilkins was cleared to run on the day of this interview and was given the green light to race in the next Wasatch 100. Though her family may be relocating, she plans on pitching the idea of a run club to her children’s new school.