Please enjoy the latest in our ongoing series of interviews with Lillie parkrun participants. Many thanks to JJ for participating and to Marie Hamlin for continuing to interview.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Let’s start with my name. I go by JJ, which is how most at parkrun will recognize me. Early on with parkrun, the JJ was tricky for results processors and others trying to find my result. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked if I finished, and I’d point to my barcode which has James. My full name is James John Jankowski, not too hard to figure out why JJ is my thing.
I don’t mind if people call me James, but you have to earn Jim, Jimmy, or Jimbo. I’m only called Jim or Jimmy by select family members and friends. My father handed me the nickname “Jimooch” (pronounced: Jih-mooch). This is a mashup of Jim and a less than flattering slang term. My Mother named me after two Saints, but I think Pops saw that needed a bit of correction.
I’ve been married to Michelle for 24 years and we have one daughter, Madelyn, but I call her MJ. I refer to Michelle and Madelyn collectively as “The MJ’s” and they are Lillie parkrun regulars. MJ graduated high school this year and is enrolled at Grand Valley State University in the fall. I have an older brother and a twin sister. My twin, Lori, recently started coming to Lillie parkrun with her dog Pepper.
I’m a life-long Michigander, originally from Saginaw. Born to a family of very modest means, in a blue collar town, I was a fiercely independent child, determined to self-provide. I could find a spot of trouble here and there, and what trouble I didn’t find often found its way to me. I had to work at an early age and I built a regular rotation of customers doing lawn mowing, painting, and other small jobs. Much of that work required I ride my bike to the jobs, and that started building my habit for endurance sports. I was an average student in high school, and I was on the wrestling team, studied judo, and earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. My high school schedule allowed me to work afternoons with my Uncle and Grandfather doing carpet, flooring, cabinets, and remodeling jobs. I usually got the demolition work, which was quite hard at times, particularly after wrestling practice. The work ethic instilled in me has served me to this day. I was undecided about what to do in life when my uncle told me to “go to college, you don’t want to kick in carpet the rest of your life.”
I graduated high school in 1985, firmly undecided on what to do in life so I weighed the military, trade, and college options. I was an average student, fully acknowledging that I only excelled if I loved the subject. I did well enough on my college entrance exams to secure a scholarship and some grant money. I started with 2 years of basic studies at Delta College and moved to Ypsilanti in 1987 to study sports medicine at EMU. I never ended up never working in sports medicine, but I’m forever grateful for the knowledge and lifestyle changes completing a sports medicine program instilled in me.
Out of scholarship money, I paid the bills by taking a job with a small company in the outdoor sporting goods market. This was in Ann Arbor in the early 1990’s. We were a small team but it was a lot of fun and I was excited to work there because we sold to bike shops, outdoor outfitters, ski shops, and even equestrian stores. I also saw it as an opportunity as a young person with no money to travel extensively and get good deals on bikes and gear. I saw a lot of the USA and had several trips to Canada over 4 years, learned a lot about small business, distribution, sales, and marketing. I also met a lot of athletes and celebrities at trade shows. A few of the more famous names include Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong, Reggie Jackson, and Anthony Kiedes (singer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers).
In 1994 I took a job with an equipment finance company in Ann Arbor called Ervin Leasing Company. I had no idea what the industry was like but I needed a job and the company was small, local, and the leadership was strong. I still work for this company 25 years on but it’s now called UniFi Equipment Finance, a subsidiary of Bank of Ann Arbor. The transition to bank owned was great; Bank of Ann Arbor has a great culture and fosters all its employees to give back to the community. Early in my career I was working in collections and doing workouts on defaults. I saved money to take business classes at night to enhance that sports medicine degree I wasn’t using. I find there are many in the equipment finance industry that didn’t intend to work in the industry, but once they started they stayed in it for a long time because it is a relationship business. I have held roles as Asset Manager, Credit Manager, and Risk Manager, with my current role being exclusively credit.
That is remarkable JJ, I’m glad that you found your niche in life. How did you and Michelle meet?
I met my wife Michelle in 1983 in high school. We were not officially high school sweethearts, but I can say I was a bit sweet on her from the first day I saw her in English class. Our first date was a New Year’s Eve party while we were in college. Even though we were going to the party together, Michelle thought it was just two friends going to party again, not a date. I was getting impatient with the friends thing so I revealed my crush with a kiss.
It would appear that that New Year’s Eve kiss worked out for the two of you. When did you start running?
I always loved the Olympics and was a big fan of the sports like track and field, cycling, judo and wrestling. These sports were more individual pursuits and featured in the Olympic games, but rarely on TV otherwise. I remember watching the coverage in the 1970’s and 80’s and I was hooked on these sports ever since. Oddly, I never connected that I had some talent with running until college. In high school I was a wrestler. Wrestlers actually run more than you think, we did a lot of sprints and running stairs. I was one of the few who didn’t throw up doing stairs and had the ability to push hard. I only ran in-season with wrestling, I was doing a lot of cycling at the time. When I got to EMU I was able to grow my running abilities but I was competing in the hot sports of the time, including mountain bike races (MMBA and NORBA), triathlon, or biathlon (now called duathlon). Eventually I figured out I was a way better runner and started focusing on road races, 5K in particular. I love the mile too, it’s very exciting to run and imagine you are an elite going for a sub 4 minute. I’ve done a handful of marathons and ultras but I always preferred 5K and under.
I remember that you mentioned that you had an issue with your Achilles tendon. When not in pain, where is your favorite place to go running or hiking?
For running I enjoy everything from track to trail but, if I had to pick one, it’s on a track, doing speed work and intervals. My favorite hiking trip was Mount Rainier.
That is a breathtaking view!
What do you like about Lillie parkrun?
The people, the park, the 5K distance, the coffee, the barkrunners, bringing family, tourists. What’s not to like about parkrun?
What’s your favorite volunteer role at parkrun?
Course set up because it gives me a warm up run and I can contribute to the safety and enjoyment of others. The hardest part is getting this spot on the volunteer sheet, it is quite popular.
Let’s not forget Ice chipping too! But perhaps that isn’t a favorite…
Any tips for parkrunners or first timers who are coming to visit Lillie parkrun?
Don’t worry about coming alone if you have to, just arrive a bit early and attend the first timer briefing. Lillie is a diverse, friendly, and supportive group that will instantly befriend you.
Are there other activities that you really enjoy?
I have an Xbox, and I’m pretty good for an old Gen-Xer. I’m pretty competitive so cover your ears if you enter the room and I’m online, cursing will happen. I also like auto racing, Formula 1 and Indycar in particular. Occasionally I will do some sketching and drawing to relax.
I know that they have racing schools that you can go to learn to drive and race Indy cars. Would you ever consider getting out on the track?
I would crash and die
We certainly would not want that! How about sharing a couple of your sketches or drawings instead?
Very impressive. The voodoo doll doesn’t look like anyone I know, so I decided it was safe to post.
Do you volunteer your time anywhere else?
I am the Vice President of the Ann Arbor Track Club (AATC) which is an all-volunteer organization. I oversee the Dexter-Ann Arbor run and other club events, plus I volunteer for other non-club running events when I can in the area. I was on the AATC board when Tim from Livonia parkrun, along with Stephanie, solicited the club for the startup funds for Lillie parkrun. I enthusiastically voted to approve the funding and have been attending parkrun ever since.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I appreciate you sharing your life story and your doodles with us. I hope that you are not too disappointed that the Dexter-Ann Arbor run is now a virtual race. I know that you have put a lot of time and energy into organizing it. I look forward to seeing you and “The MJ’s” at Lillie parkrun soon. Until then, stay safe.