Like many ultrarunners, Jim Willett likes to design epic challenges. A veteran of such iconic races as the 250K Gobi March and the equally long Atacama Crossing in Chile, Willett’s next adventure will be considerably longer: he plans to run North America’s oldest road race (Hamilton’s 30K Around the Bay, which celebrates its 125th birthday on March 31), then run 875K to Boston in time to run the continent’s second-oldest road race, the Boston Marathon (which is 123) on April 15.
Willett, 45, is a cancer survivor, and his cancer experience taught him that if an idea excites him, he should do it now, because life is short. “What I had gone through created a sense of urgency. Those kinds of races always appealed to me, but there was no urgency. Then your hand gets forced, and you re-evaluate.”
— Jim Willett (@OptimismNinja) November 22, 2018
As someone who had played sports as a youngster but was a relatively inactive adult, Willett’s decision at age 36 to resume running as a way to be healthier coincided with a diagnosis of stage-three metastatic colon cancer. He ran through his treatments as much as he could, ultimately deciding that the half-marathons he was signing up for weren’t going to cut it in terms of life goals. So he decided to race ultras instead. As he says in the above video, “There’s not a lot of journeys that you can go on in a short period of time like that, that will force you to grow the way that will.”
Regarding the ATB-to-Boston project, Willett says: “I thought it would be cool to connect the oldest race in North America with the second-oldest race in North America. In previous years it was always three weeks between Around The Bay and Boston, but this year it’s only two weeks. I thought that would be interesting, and looked at the map. I ran three marathons last year, and qualified [for Boston] at all of them, so here we are.”
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Polar Vortexes and blizzards and ice storms, oh my. The past few weeks have been a wild ride. But when you’re training for an 875km run, you’ve gotta get your ass out there no matter what. Seven weeks to go 😎 #hamiltontoboston #runforsocks #icebeard #mecambassador #mecdarntough #runningmotivation
Willett, who is sponsored by MEC, is also using the run to raise money for socks for homeless shelters. A great lover of socks, he’s also participated in blister research, so he knows how important good-quality socks are for protecting overall health. “I wanted to make sure people were getting socks that would stand up to wear and tear, and those are more expensive.” That’s how he attracted the attention of the sock company Darn Tough, which will match his fundraising in socks. Willett hopes to raise enough money for 875 pairs of socks (one pair for each kilometre of his journey) to be delivered to homeless shelters around the country.
Willett did a similar journey in 2016, running the Fredericton Marathon, then running to Ottawa in time to for the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon. An experienced ultrarunner on the trails, these were his very first road marathons (plus the 1,000K ultra in between). “It beat the hell out of my body,” Willett says. “It was rough. I’d never done that much running before. I had the record for the Bruce Trail for a few years, and had done multi-day ultras… but only in the last few years have I gotten into more road running. It takes more out of you, in terms of the body. Less cuts and bruises but more impact injuries.”
Willett talks about the slope of a highway shoulder being as tough on the body as the hardness of the surface. As a result, he and his one-man crew, who will be riding a recumbent bike, hope to follow the 400-mile (640K) Erie Canal bike trail for the Buffalo-to-Albany, N.Y. portion of the trip, since it’s a wide, flat, gravel path.
Willett trains anywhere from 100K to 180K per week, generally doing two to three weeks of higher mileage followed by a down week.
As a cancer survivor, Willett is motivated more by the personal growth opportunities inherent in long ultrarunning quests than with achieving ultrarunning glory. “Everyone’s driven differently, so you get the runners who are very stat-based, who create spreadsheets and who track kilometres on pairs of shoes, that what drives them–beating their previous times… For me that’s never been that important. There’s always going to be faster people, so I don’t get too caught up in that. For me it’s more a way to experience and connect with places, and with people. I’m around like-minded people all the time, and I get more joy and excitement about doing that.”