Jim Walmsley Is Transforming Trail Running

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With a fast track background and a training base in Flagstaff, the 26-year-old is redefining what we think is possible in the trail and ultra world.

“Who’s the kid in the crop top?” my friend texted me on a Saturday late last June.

Jim Walmsley wasn’t quite an unknown entity in the ultrarunning world when the 2016 Western States 100 set off from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California. His year had been marked by a string of wins and course records, including at the highly-competitive Bandera 100K and Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. A few people had even picked him to win Western—the “Super Bowl of (North American) Ultrarunning.”

Still, the 100-mile debutant with no shoe sponsor (he’s since signed with HOKA ONE ONE) surprised observers by taking the lead early and running below course-record pace on a 97-degree day. It would prove either a gutsy performance for the ages or a rookie mistake for the lean, tall, galloping 26-year-old from Flagstaff, whose self-altered shirt prompted the crop-top text from my friend, following the race on Twitter.

“It’s Jim Walmsley,” I replied. “And I think he’s about to redefine what’s possible in trail ultrarunning.”

He wasn’t just some hotshot road runner who led for 50 miles before dropping out.

You may have heard the story by now: how Walmsley held that course record pace for 93 miles before he took a wrong turn, went a few miles off-course, and effectively quit and walked it in. (He would finish 20th in 18:45:36. The course record is 14:46:44.)

Still, his saga at Western States sticks out among 100-mile flameouts as something that could have been. He wasn’t just some hotshot road runner who led for 50 miles before dropping out; he made it 93 miles and, but for a missed course marking, looked capable of holding that pace to the finish. Many fast road and track runners have tried their hand at trails—and with mixed results—but Walmsley might be the first in a while to truly take trail ultras to the next level of speed.

So, to paraphrase my friend: Who is this guy? And what is he doing differently?

Jim Walmsley | Photo: Alex Kurt

“I started running my freshman year in high school,” Walmsley told me over the phone, just a couple days after he demolished Rob Krar’s record on the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R). He lopped 26 minutes off an already stout time on the iconic 42-mile route, which covers nearly 11,000 feet of elevation gain through some of the harshest terrain on the planet.

“I played competitive soccer, and a friend who was a year older joined the cross-country team and worked hard to talk me into joining, too,” he continued.

Walmsley, raised outside of Phoenix, liked the group of guys on that team—and it turned out he was pretty fast. By his senior year, he was getting recruited by several Division I schools.

After considering the Navy (“Maybe I didn’t think that through,” he says), he met Air Force Academy coach John Hayes. He liked what he heard from the coach and the campus’ location in Colorado Springs, and he already had a lot of paperwork for the service academies done. “I got along well with [Hayes], and he wanted to push me,” Walmsley said. “My decision to go there was mostly running-based.”

But in September of his freshman year at the Air Force Academy, Hayes departed for an assistant Track & Field coaching job at the University of Texas. The new coach, Juli Benson, favored a speed-based, middle-distance training approach, while Walmsley preferred to emphasize strength and volume. “We learned a lot from each other,” Walmsley said.

“[Trail running’s] just what people do in Montana.”

Walmsley’s collegiate bests of 13:52 in the 5K, 29:08 in the 10K, 4:04 in the mile, and 8:41 in the steeplechase were good, but not the stuff of professional road and track racing. So when he graduated to a job monitoring missiles underground in Great Falls, Montana—which required 24-hour shifts—he ran on-and-off.

“I had good stretches and bad stretches,” he said. “There were times when I tried to quit and times when I was running really well. I did a couple half marathons while I was stationed there, but getting months and months of training didn’t really click until I was on my way out.”

In early 2015, Walmsley left the Air Force and moved back in with his parents in Phoenix. He started training seriously and decided to move to Flagstaff, where high altitude and hordes of elite runners create an endurance-training mecca. He got a job at a bike shop to pay the bills. “I wanted to pick up whatever job I could,” he said. “It’s low-stress, and they’re super flexible, letting me take time off to pursue running.”

He had first been drawn to trail running in Montana (“It’s just what people do in Montana.”)—but it was a couple of trips to crew at Western States and the Hardrock 100 in Colorado when something clicked: Trail and ultrarunning was the right community for Walmsley.

After a disastrous attempt at the 2014 Speedgoat 50K in Utah—he expected to contend for the win but finished 28th, over an hour and a half behind winner Sage Canaday—Walmsley began training more consistently, going on to win the JFK 50 Mile that fall. He ran Moab’s Red Hot 55K and Lake Sonoma 50 miler in 2015 but was soon sidelined with an Achilles injury. He repeated at JFK, and a solid training block in December set him up for a win and course record at Bandera earlier this year, which qualified him for Western States.

The rest, you might say, is history in the making.

Jim Walmsley running the R2R2R | Photo: Alex Kurt

But winning races wasn’t the only thing on Walmsley’s mind. Being from Arizona, “the Grand Canyon is home for me,” he said. “Ever since I got into ultras and knew there were [fastest-known times] in the Canyon, that’s been a priority.”

His first real run in the Canyon—a single-crossing last year—went poorly, partially plagued by bad weather. But this year, he did his homework, taking multiple recon trips down the treacherous South Kaibab trail, even simulating the early morning start of his record attempt in the dark.

“I’ve been focusing a lot of my training on vertical feet climbed each week, with equal descent,” he said prior to the attempt. “The key will be to be able to withstand hammering the long, long descent of the Canyon, but have plenty left to run fast on the flats and the strength to climb out, twice.”

It paid off. Not only did Walmsley break the double-crossing record, but he broke fellow Flagstaff resident Krar’s single-crossing record en route. The timing and his fitness were too good not to try it, Walmsley said after setting the record. “I want[ed] to write my part in the history books of the Grand Canyon. It’s my backyard and a special place to anyone who has set their eyes on it.”

“Is the sport getting faster? There’s a different mentality.”

Now, Walmsley said, he has friends from the road- and track-racing worlds inquiring about how to get into trail running. Ultrarunning may soon see a new wave of extra-fast runners who aren’t waiting until they’re past their prime on the track or in the marathon to try ultras. From Flagstaff alone, Walmsley’s bike shop colleague Cody Reed has won the first three ultras he’s entered, including the USA Track & Field 50K Trail Championships in Marin County; newcomer Tim Freriks finished second behind Walmsley, ahead of that stacked field, at Lake Sonoma in April; and Andrew Miller, a 20-year-old Northern Arizona University Student, won Western States when Walmsley went off-course.

“Is the sport getting faster? There’s a different mentality: In a 50-mile race, you race for 50 miles. The race starts at mile one, not at mile 30 like it might have before,” he said. “It’s fun to be considered at the forefront of that. Hopefully, as it evolves, I can stay at the front.”

Walmsley said he hopes to return to Western States in 2017 for some unfinished business. But first, he added, he wants to earn the three-peat at JFK this fall. A few weeks later, in early December, he’ll line up at perhaps the most stacked race he’s run yet: The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNF) 50 Mile Championships in San Francisco.

“I might be too tired to run well there,” he told me, sitting in a camping chair on the Canyon’s south rim. “I want to run a fast time at JFK, because the year has gone too well not to try it. Anything I can do at TNF is just dessert.”

Jim Walmsley running the R2R2R | Photo: Alex Kurt

2016 has been a banner year for Walmsley’s race results as well as his training. He credits staying injury-free with allowing him to train at the level of other professional runners and, in turn, realize his potential on the trails. “Living in Flagstaff, I can take advantage of what a lot of other runners are doing and join in on long runs or workouts,” he said.

During his latest peak training block leading up to JFK, he was running about 120 miles per week, mostly in single runs-per-day. He may have done a double once or twice a week to make it easier, depending on how he was handling the mileage. His weekly long run is designed around his goal for that training block. For example, “ahead of Western States, I was running a lot of vert, but it was more about getting time on my feet,” he said. “Before the Grand Canyon, getting vert in was the emphasis. I was running 12,000 to 20,000 feet of vert while I was doing high volume.”

And now, ahead of JFK 50, whose second half features a supremely-runnable rolling towpath, he said the emphasis is on rolling longer, flatter runs at a faster pace. “I’ll join the marathoners in town for their long run a lot, and we might run 22 and flirt around a 5:45 pace, or do a progression or cut-down, and I’ll do really well at that comparatively,” he said.

But Walmsley said he could stand to add more speedwork to his training. A block of five-minute miles during a long run feels a little out of his efficiency range. He’s eyeing Max King’s course record at JFK  (5:34:59), and he said King ran about a 6:10-per-mile pace on the towpath.

“I try not to have a routine.”

Aside from a boatload of talent and a great year of training, Walmsley has a key to racing well: don’t overthink it. “In college, I focused too much on having a routine and getting into a habit. If you do that, and some race you can’t do exactly what you want ahead of time, you start mentally freaking out,” he said. “So I try not to have a routine, or to have a different routine before every race. That in itself has almost become a routine.”

He’s talking about the ticks runners know well: what to eat and when before the race; when to warm up, and for how long (besides, he noted, his warmup for an ultra is a few strides, max, to avoid using too much precious energy); when to use the bathroom; and so on. “You have to stay adaptable,” he added.

Despite his anti-routine, Walmsley does have a preferred race-day nutrition plan. “I usually eat a Huppy Bar or two, plus an energy drink, before races. [That’s] 300-400 calories, and the energy drink is usually easier on my digestive tract than coffee.”

On long runs up to two and a half hours, Walmley—who said he will likely sign with a nutrition sponsor soon—doesn’t use any calories, partially because he doesn’t need them, and partially to avoid carrying anything. During races, he consumes a fair amount of sugar. In the Canyon, he downed three packets of drink mix (750 calories total) in each direction; he said he carried a gel flask but consumed very little of it.

And post-race recovery is something Walmsley said he has improved on this year. “If I can get some calories, some protein, in within 30 minutes after finishing, I feel like my recovery goes a lot quicker. As far as post-race meals, if you’re hungry, eat.”

So what did the new R2R2R record-holder scarf down that night? I asked him, expecting the answer to be along the lines of a whole pizza or a superfood salad. Many runners, after all, are as obsessed with food as any other aspect of their training. But he doesn’t remember.