Jim Walmsley Shattered the Western States 100 Record
Fast, cocky, and more than a bit reckless, the 28-year-old might be the best ultrarunner in the country. And he's finally proven himself over a full 100-mile race.
Jim Walmsley is known for two races, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, Walmsley attacked from the gun, at times running as much as 45 minutes under Timothy Olson’s course-record pace. Jenny Simpson, the world champion 1,500-meter runner, used to train with Walmsley in Colorado Springs, and she tweeted updates on his progress, keying in a broader section of the competitive running world. It was a good story: an almost completely unknown runner was dismantling the course record of the country’s most famous ultra. Western States begins at altitude near the Squaw Valley ski area, in eastern California, then drops gradually westward to Auburn, outside Sacramento. By late afternoon, Walmsley was on pace to break Olson’s 14:46 record, but at mile 92 he made a wrong left turn and ran two miles off course. Discouraged and exhausted, he reversed direction at a walk and finished in 20th place. Still, the race was a sensation. Scott Jurek, who has won the race seven times, called to offer a mix of condolence and congratulation, and Hoka signed him to a sponsorship that allowed him to quit his job at a bike shop in Flagstaff, Arizona.
In 2017, Walmsley intended to prove that his race the year before had not been foolish. Myke Hermsmeyer, Walmsley’s friend and unofficial documentarian, produced an emotional short film about the 2016 race, and a group of his fans and friends came to watch and crew; many wore T-shirts that read STOP JIM, an homage to the STOP PRE T-shirts that Steve Prefontaine fans wore in the 1970s. One had been edited to read, in smaller letters, FROM GETTING LOST. In 2016, Walmsley had covered a steep early section of course fast, and in 2017 he went out even harder even though parts were snowed in. Shortly after the start, Ryan Sandes, a top South African racer, asked if Walmsley planned to attack the course record again. Walmsley said yes, and Sandes let him go. By midafternoon, however, temperatures were in the high nineties, and at mile 52 Walmsley’s stomach began to give out. He vomited profusely while leaving the Foresthill aid station at mile 62, and dropped out at mile 78. Sandes won in 16:19.
On June 23, Walmsley will race Western States for a third time. Unlike in either of his previous attempts, he is now both well-known and seasoned, with course records at half a dozen of the country’s top ultras, including the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, where he broke his own record by nine minutes in April. At distances below 100 miles, he is the best ultrarunner in the country. Ultrarunning is a sport that favors a tortoise-over-hare mentality that irritates Walmsley and that his running style challenges. But he still hasn’t won Western States, and the question he has posed to the sport—why can’t he race 100 milers hard from the gun?—will again be the subtext of this year’s race. “He hasn’t stuck it yet,” said Bryon Powell, the editor of running website iRunFar. “He’s going for the 1080 flip that no one has ever done, but he hasn’t landed it.”
Western States “gets brought up every day of my life,” Walmsley told me in May. “It’s almost a part of me, I guess. If you can get it done at Western States, you got a good year.”
Walmsley, who is now 28, is tall and gaunt, even for an ultrarunner. When I met him in Flagstaff on a warm Sunday night this spring, he was wearing sweatpants, sandals, and a large down jacket; Walmsley doesn’t have much body fat. In conversation, he would be a familiar character to anyone who has spent time around a college or high school cross-country program—he’s a running nerd. Over drinks one night a few days later, he took ten minutes to explain that closed-cell insoles absorb less water and are lighter than the open-cell insoles that come standard in running shoes. “I can talk about running forever,” he said.
Walmsley grew up in Phoenix, where he was a state champion cross-country runner and qualified for the Foot Locker National Championships. After graduating, he ran at the Air Force Academy, where he was a second-team all-American in the steeplechase, running 8:41. He had a PR of 13:52 for the 5,000 meters. Those are decent times for a D1 runner, but they stand out in the world of ultras, which more often attracts athletes who have a talent for grinding and suffering rather than running fast.
When Walmsley graduated from the Air Force Academy, he had hoped for a billing as a logistics officer near a major city, but was instead assigned to Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls, Montana, to pull 24-hour shifts supervising nuclear-missile silos. On a day off in 2013, after going for a 40-mile bike ride and a 14-mile run in the morning, he met a friend to go rock climbing. They hiked to a crag but realized they both had forgotten to bring a rope, and retreated to a bar. Later they met the friend’s wife for dinner and split a bottle of wine. On the 90-minute drive back home, Walmsley realized that he was dehydrated, sleepy, and had had too much to drink, and he pulled over to nap. He awoke to a Montana state trooper tapping on his window. After taking a field sobriety test Walmsley blew 0.081 on a breathalyzer and was arrested for operating under the influence. (In Montana, as in many other states, it is illegal to have physical control of a car while intoxicated, even if you are not driving it.)
The Air Force placed Walmsley on probation and pulled him off silo duty. Though embarrassing, the DUI likely wouldn’t have permanently threatened his military career. But around that time, a cheating scandal involving readiness exams for missileers consumed Malmstrom. According to Walmsley and various news reports, many officers viewed the tests as pro forma, and cheating had been common for years. More than 100 officers at the base were eventually implicated, including most of Malmstrom’s senior command and the commanding general, who later resigned. Junior officers were generally spared from serious punishment, but Walmsley had admitted to cheating, and, with the DUI, it became hard for the Air Force to keep him around. He was given a general discharge, a form of separation that is less serious than a dishonorable discharge but still indicates that something in his service went wrong.
Walmsley was humiliated. He returned to Phoenix depressed and suicidal, and moved in with his parents. “It felt like the first time in life that I was failing, that I failed,” he told me. His parents were supportive, and he began seeing a psychiatrist, who recommended that he make running a bigger priority; it seemed to help him cope. Last year, in the video that Hermsmeyer produced before Western States, Walmsley spoke openly about being depressed, and the rawness of that interview has since lead people with similar problems to reach out. But the post-discharge period still feels extraordinarily painful, and he avoids discussing it in detail. “People want me to talk about it,” he told me. “‘How did you get through it?’ In a lot of ways I never got through it. I just moved on.”
In 2015, Walmsley left Phoenix and moved to Flagstaff, and began training hard. He reconnected with Tim Freriks, a 2013 graduate of Northern Arizona University who Walmsley had known in high school, and entered a series of the country’s top ultras. Racing under the radar and without a major sponsor, Walmsley won the JFK 50 Mile, and set course records at the Bandera 100K and Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Freriks and Cody Reed, another NAU runner, traveled to Sonoma with him, and Freriks finished second. After the race, the three started calling themselves the Coconino Cowboys, after the nearby Coconino National Forest.
Last year, Eric Senseman and Jared Hazen moved to Flagstaff, after helping crew for Walmsley at Western States. Both now run with the Cowboys and, with Reed and Freriks, qualified to race Western States this year. Except for Hazen, who withdrew this week with a hip injury, all will be on the starting line in California.
Hoka picked up Walmsley after his 2016 race, but the Cowboys are members of perhaps the only elite training group that is uncoached and not unified by a single sponsor. (They do have small deals with Squirrel’s Nut Butter, an antichafe balm, and Pizzicletta, where they eat for free on Sunday evenings.) Like small groups of friends across the world, they have the ability to be unambiguously cruel to each other and still sound loving: Hazen, who finished third at Western States in 2015, is called Tank, because he is physically small. At dinner one night, I heard Reed ask Tommy Rivers Puzey, who also trains with the Cowboys, if he would pace him after mile 60; Puzey said no, because he wasn’t sure Reed would make it that far. The next night, as Walmsley signed promotional posters for Squirrel’s Nut Butter, he told me that if Senseman tried to run with Walmsley for the win, he would “crack Eric like an egg.” Hermsmeyer, sitting across from Walmsley and trying to offer a note of moderation, said, “There’s equal shit talking.” Walmsley thought for a moment. “Tim doesn’t talk shit,” he said finally. “He’s a pretty nice guy.”
Without the wrong turn in 2016, Walmsley thinks he would have finished seven or eight minutes under Timothy Olson’s course record of 14:46. There is a consensus among the group, which Walmsley alternately accepts and rejects, that he went out too hard in 2017. (Between the two races, he told me, “I’ve had 165 out of 200 miles go pretty awesome. I’m doing some things well.”) In 2017, after building a nearly 20 minute buffer over his 2016 pace, which was already quick, he gave it all back fighting through snow-covered trails on the descent to Robinson Flats, at mile 30. Then it got hot. By mile 62, he was off record pace but still holding a lead of an hour, and was greeted by a crowd of dozens and a film crew when he arrived.
“I didn’t expect how many people would be waiting,” he said. In retrospect, he should have taken 20 minutes to collect himself, cool down, and rehydrate, but the crowd spooked him. “The publicity and attention I was getting was all brand new,” he said. Instead of waiting, he chugged a bottle of fluid and took off, jogging a matter of feet before vomiting. That was the end of his stomach. (Two months later, with that experience under his belt, he fought off similar stomach distress to finish fifth, behind Kilian Jornet and Francois D’haene, at the 105-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.) “It wouldn’t surprise me if Jim does hold back a bit the first half, the first 30 to 40 miles,” Freriks told me. “Running super aggressive hasn’t paid off for him the past couple years. But who knows. Jim just likes going for it.”
In Walmsley’s view, going for it is the obvious way to win ultras. “You look at track, or the marathon, or cycling, there’s generally a pack,” he said. In those sports, races get broken open late, once fatigue has set in. “Ultrarunning, you can still run off the front from the beginning and get away with it.” Until the sport matures, Walmsley is willing to risk blowing up if it sometimes means winning spectacularly. He is also willing to telegraph his race plans. His approach, he said, is, “Tell them what you’re going to do, and go do it.” This is contrary to the style and ethic of the ultra scene, and helps explain why Walmsley is sometimes regarded as arrogant. “It’s off-putting to some people,” Bryon Powell said. “A hundred miles is a long distance—there are lots of variables, and things do go wrong, and maybe that’s why you should temper your own expectations.”
For the past several years, Walmsley has logged most of his training publicly, on Strava. Despite minor injuries in March and May, Walmsley has put in eight 100-mile-plus weeks this spring, including a 150-mile week with 35,000 feet of climbing. In Flagstaff, Walmsley lives in a room he rents from a retired W.L. Gore and Associates engineer in her sixties named Anita. Half of his bedroom wall is lined with blue boxes of Hoka shoes, and to their right is a framed map of the Western States course, on loan from a friend of Walmsley’s father. In 2017, Walmsley’s run up the early, steep section of the course put him far in front of the field; most everyone hikes this climb, which is the high point on the day, but he ran it. “This year, it would be nice to be a little bit slower, because I can’t fuck it up again,” he said, looking at the map. “But there’s free time right there.”