Green Flag, Checkered Flag

Shawna Tompkins spent the first four decades of her life immersed in competitive sprint-car-racing. Then, in 2012, she quit and never looked back. What happened?

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The 30-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Washington’s Blowout Mountain to Olallie Meadow is filled with quiet charms. Namely, there are the trees—impossibly tall evergreens that whistle in the wind and let sunshine beam through their canopy in golden spears. To run or hike here is to travel through a shadowy wilderness of ferns, fallen logs, huckleberry bushes, meadows with boggy tarns, mushrooms and rich soil pockmarked with the tracks and scat of the bears, deer and cougars.

Shawna Tompkins and her husband, Joe, pitched their tent in a grassy meadow next to a small lake. Shawna’s dog, Sammy—part blue heeler, part Rhodesian ridgeback—galloped around in happy circles, sniffing the crisp mountain air. All around them, noble firs and hemlocks stood lodged in the ground like arrows pointing skyward.

In theory, Shawna should know this place well; she’d run this stretch of the trail three years in a row at Cascade Crest 100, where nearly a third of the race course falls on the PCT. And yet now, as she watched the evening mist settle over the lake, she felt as though she were seeing it all for the very first time.

From roughly 2009 through 2012, Shawna Tompkins was the woman to beat on the Pacific Northwest ultra scene. She raced ultras nearly every month, racking up wins at local classics—Cascade Crest 100, White River 50, Baker Lake 50K, Sun Mountain 50, Cle Elum Ridge 50K and more. In 2012, she took the overall win at Badger Mountain Challenge 100, even after getting lost in a residential neighborhood for five miles near the end and ringing doorbells to ask for directions to the finish. When she didn’t win races, she almost always shared the podium with top elite women: Ellie Greenwood, Krissy Moehl, Darcy Piceu, Pam Smith, Kami Semick.

“If I were to describe her in one phrase,” says four-time Chuckanut 50K champion and Western States course-record holder Ellie Greenwood, “it would be ‘friendly but fierce.’”

“Shawna didn’t seem to have a distance she was weak at,” says the 2013 Western States 100 champion Pam Smith. “She was an intense competitor, and I always knew she’d be bringing her A game on race day.”

When Shawna showed up, she lined up at the front, with the boys. She wore the same thing to every race: a black sports bra, long black shorts, dark sunglasses and a pair of Montrail Masochists. She carried a single handheld bottle. Before the race began, she’d clip an MP3 player to the left strap of her sports bra and put her earbuds in. (The less she could hear, the better, she says. She’d always hated the sound of cheering at aid stations. Too much noise.)

When the race began, everything around her faded. Her mind focused. The only thing that mattered was getting to the finish line as fast as she could.

Racing was in Shawna’s blood. She’d been born into a family of racers in Bothell, Washington, just north of Seattle. Her parents, Jan and Richard “Dick” Wilskey, were both accomplished sprint-car racers who’d met each other at the racetrack.
Sprint-car racing is to stock-car racing (i.e. NASCAR) what ultrarunning is to road marathoning; it’s niche, it’s old school and its participants usually end up splattered in dirt, dust and mud. Resembling encaged go-carts, sprint cars are compact, powerful machines—capable of reaching speeds nearly as high as NASCAR cars, at half the weight. They often have sizable wings atop them, which increase the downforce generated on the otherwise featherweight vehicle—making it easier to maneuver and less likely to go airborne.

Dick Wilskey was a legend in the local sprint-car-racing community. He worked 60 to 80 hours a week as an electrical contractor to provide for his family (and, according to Shawna, never once complained about it) and spent the rest of his time devoted to sprint-car racing—first as a champion driver, later as a venerated car owner, famous for what one newspaper referred to as his “immaculately prepared cars.”

He was a man to whom appearances mattered greatly—“in an inspiring way,” Shawna says. “He always had perfectly slicked-back, Jimmy Johnson hair. He wore a three-piece suit to work every day, and my mom ironed everything on his body. Even his handkerchiefs were ironed. There was no one in his circles who didn’t respect Dick Wilskey.”

It was important to him to be the best, and he instilled that drive in Shawna from a young age. As a family, they attended not only car races, but sports events of all kinds—Sonics games, Sounders games and every soccer, tennis, basketball and fast-pitch-softball game Shawna ever played. (She even played football for a while, before she was told that girls weren’t allowed to play.)

In 1988, Tompkins holds the trophy for her first main-event win, Deming Speedway, Washington. On her right is her father, Dick Wilskey. To her left are the vehicle’s engine builder, George Dean, and Matt Murdock.

“Everything I did was competitive,” says Shawna. “Life was about getting ahead. Sucess was achievement and winning.”

For years, she begged and pleaded with her parents to let her race cars, and by the time she was 15, they finally gave in. Dick lied about her age to get her into her first mini-sprint car race before she was even of legal driving age. She won. Within three years, she already had three mini-sprint championships under her belt.

It was the beginning of a storied racing career and a close friendship between her and her father. He’d only recently retired from racing himself, so he gladly picked up the role of crew chief for Shawna. After two quarters in college, she quit school and focused everything on racing.

“I’d been a 4.0 student in high school,” she says, “but I got to college and learned I couldn’t BS my way through it anymore. I never wanted an 8-to-5, sit-down job anyway. The only thing that mattered was my active life.”

In 1995, she became the first female to win a major sprint-car race in the U.S. and was inducted into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Not long after, as a young twentysomething, she decided to try to go pro. She brought on a new crew chief, Ben Curtis, and began building her own $35,000 sprint car from scratch—all on a blue-collar budget.

“I waitressed at Red Robin for 11 years and loved it,” she says. “I worked the graveyard shift doing highway construction for two years, digging ditches, and loved it. I bought a bag of bagels on Monday to eat for the week and never put a dime on my credit card. Racing was all that mattered.”

Together, she and Curtis ran their own company, Rocket Chassis, building sprint cars. For years, Shawna racked up Northern Sprint Tour championships and set new track records all over Washington, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia.

But life in the auto-racing world was also harsh. People often raced a couple of nights a week, then filled the rest of their time with drinking and partying—activities Shawna had little interest in. At some point, a friend of her father’s suggested to Shawna she might score more sponsorships if she put on a skirt and heels, and really marketed herself “as a chick” on the racing circuit. She refused. Though Shawna says her father never wanted her to be anyone but exactly who she was, the racetrack increasingly felt like somewhere where she couldn’t be herself.

From 2001 to 2003, burnout crept into her heart. Shawna’s love for the sport faltered. Yet racing was also all she knew. She wondered whether the success of her race-car business with Curtis depended on her continuing to race forever.

In March 2003, a couple of big shots from California hired her to drive their car. As she came out of the first straightaway into the second corner, she saw a car ahead in the track that she knew she needed to pass—a maneuver she’d done hundreds of times before.

“I remember very clearly not doing that,” she says. Instead, she hit the car’s rear right bumper, which sent her own car flying off the track. She walked away from the crash with two fractured vertebrae.

It was a wakeup call: “I wasn’t mentally in that race car. It was a $150,000 machine, and I was a human in the cockpit who wasn’t all in. I knew I had to quit.”

Three weeks later, she was slated for a final race on the circuit, on a rough track in Oregon. As she flew past the checkered flag in first place, she says, “I knew right then that I was done.”

In the years that followed, she threw herself into work. Her business with Curtis was eventually acquired by a bigger company. She worked six days a week, 12 to 20 hours a day, treating work the way she’d approached racing. She bought a house on 10 acres in Skagit County, an hour north of Seattle, and spent Sundays on a tractor, mowing her yard.

She felt content but, for the first time, also lonely. (She’d been married once, in her early 20s, but only briefly.) Fitness-based avenues seemed like a logical place to seek out friendships. She looked up local clubs and discovered the Skagit Runners, which offered group runs—some road, some trail—most days of the week.

“I showed up wearing all black running stuff,” says Shawna. “I had my headphones in. At first, I was a very closed individual.”

But the group welcomed her into the fold. The first person she met was a friendly teenager leading the group run that evening; the next person she met was his father, a local runner named Joseph Tompkins. They ran four miles out and four miles back, and Joe ran with her the whole time. That night, Shawna got in her truck and called her mom to tell her about all the friendly people she’d met.

What followed was a trajectory familiar to many runners—being, as Shawna calls it, “sucked into the abyss” by a community of positive people obsessed with running—and progressing to half-marathons, then marathons, then 50Ks. She fell in love with the trails; Heart Lake in nearby Anacortes became like a sanctuary. She also fell in love with Joe, whom she later married.

Most of all, she loved being able to be herself in the running community; unlike in sprint-car racing, there was never pressure to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. She felt inspired by her runner friends.

Yet, entering races inevitably summoned forth the all-in approach—a quote that Shawna recites as though it were the Wilskeys’ creed: “If a task is once begun, never leave it ‘till it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.”

She didn’t see herself as someone who’d been born with an inherently athletic body or particular genetic gifts; she just saw herself as someone who wanted success badly enough to put the hard work in to achieve it.

So she trained hard and taught herself to run fast. She ran 70 to 90 miles weekly—a mixture of solo miles, runs with Joe or group runs with people faster than herself—and did Crossfit two or three times per week. In more than a decade, other than weeks in which she was traveling, she’s never missed a single Tuesday or Thursday 5:30 a.m. Crossfit workout.

“Shawna gets up like a metronome in the morning,” says Joe. “I don’t know anyone as driven as her.”

In 2009, she won the Carlsbad Marathon in 3:01. The next morning, her photo was on the front page of the local newspaper. Joe was thrilled and proud, but Shawna wanted to crawl under a rock; she didn’t want to be recognized as falsely special. She didn’t see herself as someone who’d been born with an inherently athletic body or particular genetic gifts; she just saw herself as someone who wanted success badly enough to put the hard work in to achieve it.

She credits her parents with a lot: “They gave me the greatest gift of all—a solid core and belief in myself that I could do anything I set my mind to.”

At the Chuckanut 50K in 2009, she finished eight minutes behind Ellie Greenwood—good enough for second place and a 35-minute improvement over her own time at Chuckanut the previous year. That fall, Shawna ran her first hundred—the one-time running of Oregon’s Hundred in the Hood, along the PCT—and edged out Pam Smith for the win.

“I appreciated what seemed to be a low-key attitude of Shawna,” recalls Greenwood. “Someone who raced what and when she wanted, and wasn’t one to conform or try to fit a mold.”

Shawna in her happy place.
That year, she’d also placed third at the competitive White River 50—at that time, the USATF National 50-Mile Trail Championship—but her name had been omitted from the results because she wasn’t a registered USATF athlete. It left a sour taste in her mouth. Two years later, she signed up for USATF—“though I still thought that was bullshit,” she says—and returned to White River with a vengeance. She’d scoured the entrants list beforehand, and was surprised to see Krissy Moehl unexpectedly toeing the start line.

“She wasn’t on the list,” she muttered to Joe.

Once Shawna saw Krissy, Joe says her face was set: “I’d never seen that expression before—probably something she carried over from her race-car days.”

White River is a figure-eight racecourse composed of two big loops, each featuring a monster climb. At Suntop, the aptly named zenith of the second climb, Shawna led the race. Yet she knew Krissy was a strong downhiller and talented closer who’d have no problem crushing the long descent ahead and final six-mile stretch on the (less aptly named) Skookum Flats. Shawna couldn’t stop stealing glances back over her shoulder, wondering, “Where’s that fucking yellow tank top?”

She beat Krissy by 27 minutes.

Less than a month later, she shaved nearly two hours off her own PR at Cascade Crest—good enough for first woman (and less than a minute off Darcy Piceu’s course record at the time) and sixth place overall.

Tompkins on her way to winning the 2011 White River 50-miler.
Winning was always satisfying in the moment. But the contentment wore off quickly. Hundred-milers, especially, broke Shawna’s body down; for weeks, she’d feel wrecked, unable to sleep. And, yet, she always found herself signing up for more races. On her blog, she wondered why: “What is the true reason we put our bodies through such trauma? Will we have to do this forever to ride the wave of Zen we achieve after finishing one?”

In the first half of 2012, Shawna raced every month, placing first or second at every race, including competitive California ultras like San Diego 100 and Ray Miller 50.

When White River rolled around again, though, she found herself trying to outrun a barrage of familiar emotions—pressure to perform, the accompanying burnout and a dawning realization that, as with anything in life, the closer you get to the top, the more risk you run of alienating yourself.

She dropped out.

Still, she returned to Cascade Crest the following month to defend her title. Her race began well—but not long after getting on the PCT, the soundtrack in her mind became unbearable: You are leading; you should be happy. Why are you doing this if you don’t want to? You are such a pussy! Thirty-six miles in, amidst the deep forest of evergreens along the PCT, she couldn’t think of anything she wanted to do less than continue running.

Dropping wasn’t entirely a loss, though; she volunteered at the Stampede Pass aid station and found that helping other runners lifted her spirits. When Joe came through, she turned her efforts to crewing him. It would be his fifth finish at Cascade.

“I got so much more out of being there to celebrate his finish than winning could have ever given me,” she says. And yet, two days later, she mused on her blog, “Work hard, be tough, it all pays off. What do you do with yourself if you don’t feel like working hard? Where does that satisfaction come from then?”

Just as with her race-car career, she couldn’t bear the thought of ending on a failure. So she hunted around for one final race she could finish properly. She chose Bear 100, an autumn point-to-point race in the mountains on the border of Utah and Idaho. She felt excited to toe the start line, because she knew it would be her last.

When she finished in second place, it was 6 a.m. and pouring rain in a field in the middle of nowhere. The shuttle to get back to her car wouldn’t be running for another 12 hours. The park restroom was the only shelter around, so she went there to try to warm up, and reflect on the loneliness of it all—the distinct absence of all the factors that made her fall in love with running in the first place.

While she’d always loved the positivity and inspiration of the running community, Shawna realized something: “The races didn’t create that. The people who were at the races did.”

Though Shawna had grown up playing in the woods behind her house, she’d reached adulthood without having ever been on a proper camping trip. According to her, the only non-house entity her parents were ever willing to sleep in was a 40-foot motor home; tents were “wrong, foreign, stupid”—and, until she met Joe, she’d never found a reason to try sleeping in one.

In July 2015, Joe took Shawna on her maiden backpacking voyage in Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness. Nestled in the South Cascades, the Goat Rocks are a wild, magnificent place borne out of ancient volcanic eruptions and carved by glaciers. Its trails—including a 31-mile stretch of the PCT—follow rugged ridgelines, skirt alpine lakes and meadows pocked with wildflowers and afford 360-degree views of the surrounding volcanoes, rising from the horizon like snow-dappled islands in the sky.

“I hated it,” remembers Shawna. It rained torrentially on them, and she asked Joe, “Why on earth are we going this goddamn slow, getting this wet and not running?”

But it didn’t take long for her attitude to shift. She discovered that backpacking brought her peace with its deliberate, yet unhurried, cadence. By the fall of 2016, she’d discovered her dog, Sammy, to be the perfect trail companion—trotting at her side, always game for big miles, happy in the tent.

Soon, Shawna began inviting friends to join her and Sammy on weekend excursions, or even occasional weeknight jaunts up smaller peaks on the fringes of the North Cascades. She still ran some, too—socially, never competitively—but backpacking became a new love. It satisfied her desire to be in motion, yet came with none of the competitive baggage of running.

“I was never at peace on a long run,” she says. “With backpacking, there’s no green flag and no checkered flag. I’m in heaven.”

Then, in the spring of 2017, Shawna’s father passed away. It was a hard hit; Dick had always been one of Shawna’s best friends. She dealt with the loss in two ways—first, in cultivating a new friendship with her mom, Jan, and making up for all the decades in which her friendship with her dad had taken precedence. And, second, in taking a month off from work to thru-hike the Washington section of the PCT with close friend Rachel Odmark and each of their dogs.

Unfortunately, Odmark got injured and had to quit halfway through—just a few miles away from where Shawna had dropped out of Cascade Crest five years earlier. Joe drove out to hike the next 30 miles with her and Sammy.

“Joe would always tell me about all the wonderful things he saw when he ran Cascade Crest,” says Shawna, “but I never remembered any of it. I hadn’t ever seen it.” Now, finally, she got to see it all—and with her husband and dog at her side.

With her beloved dog, Sammy.
After Joe returned home, she forged on northward with Sammy. She experienced trail magic in spades, especially in small towns where many people devote their summers to helping hikers.

“You show up in a town, dirty and stinky with a backpack and a dog, and people will throw you in their brand-new vehicle and take you somewhere,” says Shawna. “It answers any questions you might have about how people can really be.”

Her mother texted her every day on her inReach, and posted daily updates to Facebook so friends could follow along. People commented again and again about how much Shawna inspired them—and for the first time, not because she was winning, but simply because she was doing what made her happy.

“Every day, I couldn’t wait for the next day to start,” Shawna says. “What better life is there?”

But when she returned after a month on the trail, she felt more confused than ever. Off the trail, there was so much noise again—cars, honking, hours spent indoors staring at screens, unnecessary things people wasted their hard-earned money on.

Three days later, she quit her job as general manager of US Mower, an industrial-mowing-equipment company. She had no alternate plan in place. She just knew she couldn’t stand to be behind a computer one more day.

It’s Bring-a-Friend Friday at Mt. Baker Crossfit, where Shawna’s been a regular since 2007 and, as of last year, a part-time coach. She’s brought a friend who’s run some trail races, but whom Shawna describes as someone who always says “I can’t” first.

“Please don’t kill me,” the friend jokes to Shawna.

Over the course of the workout, Shawna encourages her to try jumping onto higher and higher boxes. She points out another woman in the gym and says to her friend, “See her? She’s jumping on a box this high by getting her knees into her chest. Why don’t you try that?”

The friend gives it a go. She lands the jump. She smiles.

It’s not unlike the many times Shawna stepped up at trail races to volunteer, or pace friends. As Pam Smith recalls, “When Shawna wasn’t racing, she was very supportive of other women. I remember seeing her one year at Michigan Bluff during Western States, and she had lots of encouraging words for me.”

Sammy is always game for a hike with Shawna.
It hasn’t been easy for Shawna, now 46, to go back to the drawing board yet again—to try to figure out her place in the world, her way to balance providing for herself and her family while still having the freedom to seek out the experiences that make her feel most alive.

“She’s been rolling with the changes gracefully,” says Joe. “Nobody gives you a handbook in life, but Shawna does such a good job asking, ‘What’s really important? How can I be the best I can today?’”

At the Crossfit gym, she brings some gymnastics pads over to her friend. She folds them up to create an even higher platform, but one that won’t hurt if her friend doesn’t clear the jump. The friend clears it. She’s getting excited now.

Before long, her friend is jumping onto a 24-inch box—one she’d eyed with terror when she first arrived. She’s beaming, filled with glee. Shawna’s beaming, too.

“That’s what fills me up,” says Shawna. “If I could do that every day, I’d be the happiest person on the planet.”

Yitka Winn is a Trail Runner Contributing Editor. She lives and runs in Washington State.

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