Utah Mourns Loss of Stephen Jones, Trail Runner Who Was “Unapologetically Himself”

Stephen Jones, a well-known and much-loved figure in Utah trail-running circles, died in an avalanche in 2016 while skiing near Park City.

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Stephen Jones, a well-known and much-loved figure in Utah trail-running circles, died this week in an avalanche while skiing near Park City.

Jones, 50, of Wanship, Utah, left his house Sunday morning. He was still out at 9 p.m., at which point his family reported him missing, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. After extensive search-and-rescue operations, his body was found Tuesday afternoon.

“Unapologetically Himself”

Friends remember Jones as “always unabashedly and unapologetically himself,” in the words of one; as someone who “had a delightfully acerbic wit and was very bright,” in the words of another.

Ted Bonnitt, Jones’s neighbor and friend of 12 years, describes tiny Wanship as “a self-sufficient mountain-cabin area” responsible for maintaining its own infrastructure. “It requires community cooperation and common sense, especially in the risky winter season,” he says. “Steve never shied from speaking up or explaining the consequences of people’s actions when they disrespected that code.”

Zac Marion, a Utah ultrarunner who races at a competitive level, says his first real meeting with Jones came after the 2014 Bryce Canyon 100-miler, which Marion had just won. Jones offered his congratulations, then gave him “unsolicited tips and pointers.”

“He didn’t care in the slightest that I had ended up on the podium,” says Marion, “but was more interested in sharing the stories, knowledge and experience that he had.”

Another time, Marion recalls, Jones was talking to Karl Meltzer, the Utah runner who has won more 100-mile races than anyone else alive. Jones looked Meltzer in the eye and told the champion athlete that he hadn’t really challenged himself yet—he had never raced a 200-miler.

He was, Marion adds, “a respecter of no accomplishments but a friend to all,” an “open and honest person” who “you just instantly bonded with.”

The eldest of eight siblings, helping others came natural to Jones. “He always looked out for me, because that is what Steve does,” says his sister Catherine Bergstrom, the youngest. “He takes care of family.”

And not just family. A few years ago, Bonnitt was building his daughter a large swing set for her birthday—a “huge job, involving renting bobcats to level land and lay down tons of rubber-padding mulch,” he says. Jones, “without even discussing it,” helped out with the project for several days.

“No matter how much he did for all his neighbors,” says Bonnitt, “Steve never asked for anything in return.”

“200 Is the New 100”

Jones was a familiar face in the Salt Lake-area running community, often taking part in group runs and other events put on by the Wasatch Mountain Wranglers, a local trail-running group.

Just as often, though, he would head out for epic adventures on his own. “Forty-mile solo runs through national forests were a common training run,” Marion remembers.

“He would drive five or six hours to a remote area of Utah, run 40 or 50 miles, and then drive back the same day,” says Bonnitt.

In the last several years, Jones finished some of his home state’s best-known and most challenging ultras, often multiple times: three Speedgoat 50Ks, three Wasatch Front 100s, three Squaw Peak 50-milers, one Bryce 100, one Bear 100.

Most recently, his passion had turned to 200-mile races. From September 2014 to September 2015, he finished the Tahoe 200 twice and the Bigfoot 200 once; each race took him about four days. Marion recalls that one of Jones’s well-known sayings was “200 is the new 100, guys!” (Another: “Just drink a beer to restart the kidneys!”)

Candice Burt, the race director of both those 200-milers, remembers Jones as one of the most eager participants at the inaugural Tahoe 200 in 2014. A few weeks before, he encouraged the other runners to bring her six-packs of local beer, for luck. He carried on the tradition at Burt’s next two 200s. “He knew how much I loved craft beer,” she says, “and I think he knew the management would need it after the event to reduce stress levels.”

Jay Korff, a reporter for the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., met Jones last September, 44 miles into his second Tahoe 200. “Despite just completing an especially grueling section, Stephen was quick to chat,” he says. “He was affable, dynamic and poetic—almost like a trail-running Will Rogers.”

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Stephen Jones during the 2015 Tahoe 200. Jay Korff was there filming for “Endure,” a forthcoming documentary about another Tahoe 200 runner. “When I heard the crushing news that Stephen had died I poured over hours of footage, relieved to find his brief interview and one shot of him running,” Korff says, “so others could see that even in the darkness of the Desolation Wilderness there is light.”

Korff was filming a documentary about another Tahoe 200 participant, Tom Mitchell, who was running to raise money for a childhood-cancer foundation. When Mitchell arrived at the aid station, Jones “talked about how Tom could shut down and shut off his pain at any time, but children with cancer couldn’t. There was conviction in his voice. He and Tom became quick friends.”

On and off for the next few days, Korff and Jones would run into each other. “He always wanted to know how I was holding up,” Korff recalls, “while he was the one truly enduring.”

An Outpouring of Support

When Jones went missing on Sunday night, his many running friends were among those who stepped up to help. In short order, a “group of volunteers easily 100 strong” gathered to assist search-and-rescue teams, Marion says. Some had avalanche-safety training; others were simply “able-bodied and desired to help in whatever way possible.”

They volunteered to drive supplies and searchers back and forth; they lent out ski gear and snowmobiles, and offered childcare for parents who were out supporting the search efforts. To Marion, it was “one of the most inspiring events I have ever witnessed,” a testament to how much Jones meant to the community.

Jones was not new to the backcountry; the Summit County Sheriff told the Salt Lake City Fox affiliate that he was an experienced skier who had all the proper gear.

“I think we were all united as a community in believing that if anyone was prepared enough, cautious enough, experienced and tough enough to survive this ordeal, it was him,” says Marion. “He certainly minimized [the risk] with everything he did, but when you challenge yourself against the mountains, sometimes they win.”

Jones was found Tuesday afternoon, under three feet of snow. His beacon helped lead searchers to his body.

The following night, friends held a vigil on top of Olympus Peak, a Wasatch Front landmark. In the single-digit temperatures, they held a moment of silence and “honored him in the last place he joined our group for a summit,” Marion said. “It was certainly the only way he would have approved of such attention.”

It was a fitting tribute for someone who loved the community aspect of running above all. After his first Tahoe 200, Jones wrote: “For me, it wasn’t about the suffering, or even the beauty of course, although the course was very beautiful. While it was rewarding to finish something so big, even that feeling of accomplishment was not what made the race so special. It was witnessing the triumphs of other runners.”

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