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The Pleasure and the Pain

Ultrarunner Errol “the Rocket” Jones’ quest for self-discovery on California’s Bay Area Ridge Trail

Bay Area Ridge Trail
Errol "The Rocket" Jones

WHEN ERROL JONES was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, his mother used to tell him, “Life just happens. It’s not fair. Bad things happen to good people so everybody has a cross to bear. You bear yours.” It’s a philosophy that Jones, who has lived in Oakland, California, since the 1970s, has taken to heart, and it’s helped him endure dozens of ultramarathons over the past 35 years, including Western States, Badwater, Skyline, Vermont 100, Wasatch Front, and Bear 100, which he co-directs.

Bay Area Ridge Trail

What’s more, “the Rocket” is best known on the trail for helping others get through the bad—acting as a pacer, running alongside fellow competitors who are hitting the wall, coaching and cajoling them to stay in the race. In fact, he’s been dubbed the patron saint of pacers and has been known to talk exhausted racers off the ground and across the finish line. “We all come to this point when you engage in the sport for a while. You know what everyone else is going through,” explains Jones. “When I see people in the community going through things, they don’t have to say a word to me. My compassion comes through. I try to get them to come to grips with what’s happening and to know that this won’t last. Just roll with it for a while, and it will get better.”

Jones lived through some tough times himself before coming to ultrarunning, experiencing poverty as a child and, after high school, serving a long stint in Vietnam. Coming home was challenging, and he cycled through a series of menial jobs and a short-lived marriage. At the age of 21, he began complaining of mild chest congestion, and a friend suggested he give up meat and dairy products for a while. He did, and his problems went away. Even more than that, he felt so much more energetic that he eventually became a committed vegan. In 1975, he decided to move to the Bay Area, where he thought it would be easier to live that lifestyle. “I thought that California was the place to go,” he says. “It was 2,000 miles away, and so, this was the spot that I landed in.”

In his free time, Jones would sit at Lake Merritt and watch people jogging by. He tried it himself and soon became a dedicated runner. Jones had several marathons under his belt by the early ’80s, when he saw a photo of an acquaintance running the Western States 100. Jones could barely believe there was such a thing as a 100-mile race, but he was intrigued and began trail running and training for his first ultra in 1981.

Jones with fellow ultrarunner and coach Sarah Lavender Smith on the trails at Skyline Gate.
"The Rocket" was named by fellow ultrarunners after a newcomer mentioned seeing a guy “rocketing down the hill” at Skyline Gate. They knew right away who it was, and the name stuck.
Jones has competed in dozens of ultras over the course of his career—and has the hardware to prove it.
Jones running the trails of the Marin Headlands, California.
Jones on the Sand Ladder Trail in Presidio National Park. He says his favorite thing about running trails is being outside in nature.
Jones on the Bay Area Ridge Trail near the Golden Gate Bridge. When complete, the Ridge Trail will connect 550 miles around the San Francisco Bay.

At that time, Jones couldn’t tell a pigeon from a hawk. But after spending hours and hours training on paths in Marin, the Oakland Hills, and Skyline Gate, trail running has become much more for him than an endurance challenge. “It’s freedom. I like the sense of being free but having direction, and that’s what it is for me,” he says. “I just turn myself off and revel in the fact that I’m out in nature and feel that I’m in tune with it, that I’m just like the screeching red-tailed hawks that I’ve come to love.”

Even at 66, Jones hasn’t stopped challenging his mind and body. But age is catching up with him. He hasn’t completed a 100-miler in four years, most recently dropping out of the Bear 100, which he helps organize. Still, he hasn’t given up hope and trains almost daily for the big races. “Believe me, I know it’s not over yet. It’s a lifestyle, running,” says Jones. “It’s who I am, and it makes me feel complete. I come to grips with all of my strengths and weaknesses through running.”

Bay Area Ridge Trail

Every Trail Connects: REI believes that a life outdoors is a life well lived, and Errol’s story is the first of a three-part series dedicated to people deeply connected with trails. To learn more about the Bay Area Ridge Trail, including the people working to protect and preserve it, please visit REI.com/trails.