For the first 93 miles of last weekend’s Western States 100, 26-year-old Jim Walmsley was on pace to shatter the course record. Spectators following Walmsley’s progress—both along the trail in Northern California and via social media—were dumbfounded: Western States is considered one of the most competitive ultras in the world, and this was Walmsley’s first-ever 100-mile race. Then, just seven miles from the finish, he disappeared.
For well over an hour, an eternity even by ultrarunning standards, the Flagstaff native was nowhere to be found. Walmsley had missed a tight left turn and veered well off course. A crew of photographers finally spotted him lying on the 105-degree pavement of Highway 49. He’d given up the record, the lead, and, realistically, any chance of a top 10 finish.
Whereas some might have thrown in the towel, Walmsley zombie-walked his way back to the course and, eventually, to the finish line. We had the chance to talk with Walmsley to get an inside look at how it all unfolded.
Photo: Three weeks before the race, Walmsley left his home in Flagstaff, Arizona, to attend the Mountain Pulse Running Camp in Lake Tahoe, California. “I was coming off of by far the biggest and best training of my life, including back-to-back 140-mile weeks. My time in Tahoe was really great for sharpening the saw and just dialing in everything I’d need for a good race.”
“Around mile 93, I had gone about a mile without seeing course markings, and I started to get worried,” says Walmsley. “I saw Highway 49, and although there was no flagging, I thought ‘this has got to be the course’ and I trusted my intuition. It’s so hard to convince yourself to go backwards during a race.”
A mile later, Walmsley knew something had gone wrong. “It is very heartbreaking to make such a mistake,” he says. “I was just sitting, lying on the side of the road. My muscles seized up. I had lost my competitive edge.”
When Walmsley was finally discovered, two miles off course, he was not in good shape. The race’s medical staff offered him a ride back in the truck. “It was so hard not getting into the truck. But I knew my crew was waiting for me, and I knew I could finish,” he says. At that point, Walmsley shifted his perspective. “I went from trying to break a record and win the race to just trying to finish. I mean I’m out there for the same experience as everyone else—to suffer and embrace the challenge.”
Not long after Walmsley had the opportunity to eat, shower, and regroup, he got a call from Scott Jurek, the seven-time Western States champion. “That was wild,” Walmsley says. “I mean, to think a legend like that was taking time out of his day for me.”
Interestingly, Walmsley and Jurek are something of doppelgangers. “I remember during one race not too long ago, another runner, in passing, said ‘I loved your book.’ She was talking about Scott’s Eat and Run,” says Walmsley. “So it’s not even like people think I look like him. People think I am him.”