“In track we are painfully and constantly aware of how we stack up,” muses Quenton Cassidy, the beleaguered protagonist of John Parker’s novel Once a Runner. Such is the harsh reality of a sport where performance can easily be measured in minutes and seconds. “It’s all there in black-and-white,” Cassidy says, “the ego withers in the face of the evidence.”
As much as it may cause ego-withering distress, the quantifiable side of running is also a source of nerdy entertainment. One of the favorite pastimes of people who care about this stuff is to dream up intriguing counterfactuals along the lines of: “If so-and-so ran X distance, what would (s)he run?”
“What could Jornet run in a flat marathon with 6 months of marathon-specific training?” one poster on LetsRun recently asked, referring to the diminutive Spaniard who spends a lot of time huffing up mountains, but avoids traditional road races. Meanwhile, the online running publication Citius published an article asking the all-important question of what LeBron James might be able to run for the mile. (The author estimated four minutes and 20 seconds, which, uh, seems unlikely.) More often than not, these hypothetical scenarios remain unrealized.
But not always.
This Sunday, Jim Walmsley will be racing the Houston Half Marathon, thus giving fans a rare chance to see one of the world’s best ultrarunners go all-out for 13.1 miles. Walmsley, who is the defending champion and course record holder of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, has stated that he hopes to run under 64 minutes, which would qualify him for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. While that’s a time that would handily win most half marathons in the country, it’s a safe bet that Walmsley won’t be in contention for a podium spot on Sunday. The Houston Half typically has a world-class elite field and this year’s edition includes five men who have run under 60 minutes.
Over email, Walmsley said that he was treating the race as a “fun” offseason challenge. What’s more, he was looking forward to venturing into territory where most ultrarunners don’t usually go. “I think the half marathon is much more intriguing to aim for than the [full] marathon with my ultrarunning background,” Walmsley says.
“I come from an almost 100% aerobic background right now, where I could translate well to a marathon. The half marathon is a test of your threshold pace which isn't used much, if at all, in an ultra. A half marathon time would show a lot more versatility and hopefully spark more excitement and interest into what that means translating to a marathon,” Walmsley added.
Regardless of how Sunday’s race turns out, it’s refreshing to see someone at Walmsley’s level shake things up in an era where runners generally tend to specialize. And while it’s not too unusual to see top ultra runners go for an OTQ in the marathon, the half marathon, as Walmsley implies, is a different matter altogether. Shifting from 100-mile mountain racing to 13.1 miles on the road is like getting off a single speed bike and hopping on a Ducati. It’s the kind of recklessness that pro running could use a little more of.
Not that Walmsley is the only runner who is open to mixing it up a little.
Last summer, in an issue of his weekly running newsletter The Morning Shakeout, Mario Fraioli praised Ben Bruce, an elite athlete with a strong road and track resume, for taking part in his first mountain race. Even though Bruce had a bit of a rough go of it, Fraioli stated that he wished more track/road runners would try racing on the trails, and vice versa.
“It only makes running as a sport more interesting and exciting, helps the athletes themselves keep things fresh while developing different skills, and creates more unity and synergy between the various disciplines that all get lumped under “running,’” Fraioli wrote.
For his part, Walmsley is probably unusually well cut out for this factotum approach. In 2012, he ran a 4:04 mile and a 13:52 5K. Early this month, he was listed #23 on Sports Illustrated’s Fittest 50 athletes in the world list, the only male pro runner beside Eliud Kipchoge to make the cut.
“Jim’s track times are really good, so he should be able to run under 64 in Houston fairly easily,” says Max King, another elite-level runner known for excelling in a broad range of events, from the steeplechase to the 100K.
The argument can certainly be made that it’s more feasible for Jim Walmsley to run an aggressive half marathon in the offseason than for someone like Galen Rupp or Shalane Flanagan to go for broke at Western States. (How’s that for an intriguing counterfactual?) Among other things, and as I’ve written before, the competition on the world-class marathon and track circuits is so cutthroat that there may not be much room for experimentation.
But it still takes some courage to step out of your comfort zone, especially for a frontrunner like Walmsley who is used to vying for the win. “People like success and getting beat is scary,” Walmsley wrote when I asked him about why we don’t see more distance runners trying events outside of their usual range.
“I will get clobbered by the top guys in the Houston Half Marathon this weekend,” he added, “but I would gladly take any one of them for a nice day in the Grand Canyon and flip the tables on them.”