VIProfile: David Jones

There is a sort of Zen about David Jones. A quiet intensity. It is probably what gets him through the grueling demands he has put on his body as an ultra-marathon runner over the years and during his recent ascent to Mount Everest base camp. 

“I’ve always wanted to climb Mount Everest,” said David. “See it up close and personal.”

He talks casually about grueling physical feats that he has accomplished with an off-hand casualness and buckets of humility; as if he had simply walked down the block and it is no big deal, instead of running a 100-miles in some of the hottest weather in history and scaling the highest and most dangerous mountain in the world. 

The journey to these extreme opposites of hellish heat and bone-numbing cold started about 40 years ago, when David met Pallie Walker. Although he had been running a little bit to get in shape beginning at the age of 30, it was not until David began dating Pallie that he found his drive to become a serious runner. 

“Pallie always says that she released a monster,” said David.

“I do say that,” added Pallie with a smile. 

“When we started dating, Pallie was already an accomplished runner,” said David, “running half marathons. And, I started jogging with her…Then we started doing 5Ks and 10Ks. Pallie had already done a half marathon, so we decided, let’s do a marathon. We both decided to train for [the Rocket City Marathon in] Huntsville because it was close…That was in 1984.”

David and Pallie got married and even more serious about running. They spent most of their vacations traveling to various marathons. They have run in Boston and New York. It was something that they enjoyed doing together.

Their first ultramarathon was the “Strolling Jim” in 1987. It takes place in Wartrace, which they liked because it was close to home. The Strolling Jim got David hooked on ultramarathons. While Pallie ran it three times, this year was David’s 35th time. He did it this year two weeks after he climbed Mount Everest. 

While he enjoyed that first Strolling Jim, he constantly pushed himself to try harder competitions.

“Years ago, I was watching the Wide World of Sports where Jim King was running the Western States 100, and I thought to myself, there’s no way anyone could run 100 miles. And, that kind of stuck with me. Then I thought, it might be something to try.” 

His first 100-mile race was Old Dominion in 1991. 

“I ran a great 70 miles with a marathon mentality,” said David with a laugh. “But, I didn’t finish. It hit me and I couldn’t stand up. Then, I went back and redeemed myself two years later, in 1993.”

Between the two Old Dominion races, David got into the Western States 100. It is a very tough race, and David notes that he had no clue what he had gotten himself into. The race starts in Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley) in Nevada and ends in Sacramento, California, running over the mountains. He did it and finished it, although he was not happy with his time. He went back two years later and received his gold buckle for running 100 miles in just over 22 hours.

David’s father was very proud of this accomplishment, not thinking anyone could run 100 miles in that amount of time, so David put his prized buckle into his father’s casket when he passed away. 

After 1992, David was totally addicted to endurance ultramarathons. He began running 100-mile races all over the country and Pallie became his crew chief. Then he read about Badwater, the toughest footrace in the world. 

“I thought, that’s interesting,” said David. “It’s in Death Valley. I’ve never been to Death Valley… It was by invitation and only 30 runners in the world were invited. I got invited. Went out. Finished second… I just remember it as being brutal…I told myself that I’d never do [it] again.” 

That first trip to Badwater was a family affair. Pallie acted as crew chief once again and Pallie’s sister, Sally, and her husband, Paul, acted as the crew. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. 

“My sister kept wanting to know where the bathroom was,” laughed Pallie, “and I kept telling her that she had to find a cactus, because there was no bathroom in the middle of nowhere. But, they both did great.” 

Although David vowed never to do Badwater again, two years later he went back. 

“I guess I forgot all the misery,” he laughed. “I was fortunate enough to win the race that year. And, I set a course record for day-crossing. Since then they have moved it to a night start instead of a morning start.”

The Badwater race takes 60 hours. 

“You literally fall asleep running,” added David. 

When he turned 60, David ran the Badwater and beat the course record for his age level. He is currently the number one distance runner in the United States for his age group, at 71 and ranked number six in the world. He is the first American over aged 70 to run 100 miles in under 20 hours. 

“I still want to become number one for my age group in the world,” he added.

Although unhappy with his time at Badwater this year, he does admit that the Everest ascent took a lot out of him. He was running with a torn meniscus and had barely recovered from conjunctive eye disease and Khumbu cough. He also had a bacterial infection. 

“There is a lot of disease up there,” added David. “You have to keep your hands clean. And, you freeze. You just freeze.”

He landed in Katmandu knowing no one, but he met up with five other climbers and they became good friends on the dangerous and demanding ascent. The conditions are almost indescribable. There is no heat, no plumbing and minimal medical attention. 

“You have to get acclimatized,” David explained. “You actually hike from village to village, and stay there for a night, then go further up, stay a couple nights. It took us 11 days of acclimatizing before we did the final push to base camp and Khumba Ice Falls.”

He missed Pallie terribly, it took him several days to deal with being apart, and then all he could do until he reached the summit was focus on staying as healthy as possible. He was not always successful. 

“Fortunately, one of the five guys climbing with us was Dr. Jonathan Sugarman,” said David. “He and I got to be really close. He was a retired physician from Seattle. He took me under his wing. He had all these medicines with him because he was going to climb to the summit, but he didn’t have anything for that. But, at the next village, they had a kind of infirmary…and he went with me… and we got some antibiotics. I had to treat my eyes three times a day, but in the morning, after treating my eyes at night, I had to use a hot water bottle because my eyes froze shut. It was just crazy.”

The day before they made the final push, David and his group were blessed by a monk from the oldest monastery in the world. It was built in 1647.

His goal was to get to base camp and on to the moving glacier known at Khumba Ice Falls. He and a couple of other guys hiked up to the Falls with him and then they returned to Base Camp. Khumba Falls is one of the most dangerous parts of the descent.

Altitude sickness, however, is the biggest culprit in causing death on the mountain. So far, 17 people have died this year. Johnathan, David’s physician friend, died on the mountain at Base Camp II. That was rough on David. They had really bonded. 

“It has been [a year of] interesting adventures,” added David. “Everest was one of my life goals.”

Does he have equally adventurous goals for the future? Pallie laughs. 

“I’ve always wanted to go to Italy to see the Ferrari plant,” said David. “And, then there is the running of the bulls…”

“That’s in Spain,” noted Pallie.

“It’s close enough,” added David. “But, I’m just ready to be a normal person, whatever that is…”

Andm Pallie, she looked at David with a knowing smile. 

“Yeah,” she said, “I don’t think we’ll be having normal.” 

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