In 2016, Jim Walmsley ran really fast for the first 93 miles of the Western States 100, the oldest and most prestigious 100 miler in North America. He was running so fast that he was on pace to break the course record, set by Timothy Olson in 2012, of 14:46:44. But then Walmsley infamously missed a left turn and went off course. After spending four miles on the wrong trails, he eventually made his way back on course and, spirits broken, took his time to finish in 18:45:36 and 20th-place overall. That inspiring effort put Walmsley on the ultrarunning map and his life has not been the same since. By returning to the race for redemption in 2017, I don’t think he knew that four other lives would never be the same either.
The town of Truckee, California is nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range north of Lake Tahoe. It’s quite near to the Squaw Valley Ski Resort, where the Western States 100 begins every June. Just north of Truckee, a trail called the Tahoe Donner Trail cuts through the modest mountainside. It’s a rather forgettable trail. The path practically blends into the landscape as it winds through backyards and meanders between housing communities. That’s where we were staying on June 23 last year. It was the day before the 2017 Western States 100 and it was 9:07 a.m. That’s when we started jogging down Telemark Court. We took a left on Schussing Way and soon picked up that rather forgettable trail called the Tahoe Donner Trail. But the conversation that ensued during the course of our run was not so forgettable—and neither is the story that’s developed since then.
A lifetime can be broken down into many, many individual moments. Those moments blend together as time passes and we often misremember past events, confuse memories, and forget large swaths of moments altogether. It’s rare that we can look back to a particular moment and mark it as a definitive one. But sometimes those defining moments do stick in our memory. For Tim Freriks, Cody Reed, Jared Hazen, and me, 9:07 a.m. on June 23, 2017, marks a moment in time when our lives changed.
If this story begins with Walmsley’s historic but ultimately catastrophic run at the 2016 Western States 100, then it gets much more interesting nearly a year later as we bounced along the Tahoe Donner Trail the day before Western States and chatted away. That’s when a pact was made.
“Walmsley is going to go for it again this year. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were on the course with him, instead of helping on the sidelines?” someone mused.
“Yeah, what if we could all run Western States together?” was the obvious thought.
“Wait, could we all run Western States the same year?” we inquired.
“Why not? We could all get Golden Tickets. Let’s do it,” someone brazenly suggested.
Let me explain why not.
Nowadays, there are 24 Golden Tickets issued each spring before the Western States 100. Twelve are awarded to the top two male runners, and twelve to the top two female runners, who finish a Golden Ticket Race, who aren’t already entered in Western States that year, and who want to gain entry to the race. Statistically, that meant that, as a group, we would have to secure five of the twelve available tickets for males. We didn’t take the time to run the numbers but, given the number of runners trying for these Golden Tickets, and given the inherent unpredictability of consistent success at ultramarathon distances, the numbers weren’t in our favor. After all, each of the Golden Ticket Races—Bandera 100K, Sean O’Brien 100K, Black Canyon 100K, the Georgia Death Race, Lake Sonoma 50, and Gorge Waterfalls 100K—includes dozens, if not hundreds, of male competitors. There were hundreds of reasons in the form of hundreds of runners that could answer the question, “Why not?”
But that run along the Tahoe Donner Trail, and the ensuing conversation, had made an impression on each of us. And Walmsley’s effort the next day only reinforced our resolve. On a year when snow conditions slowed the course considerably over the first 30 miles, Walmsley remained below or on course-record pace for 62 miles. Myke Hermsmeyer would later report to me that when he spotted Walmsley (before Walmsley could see him) just before the Dusty Corners aid station at mile 38, Walmsley was grunting under the strain of his effort, gasping for air as he took labored breaths. At that point in the race, Walmsley had more than 62 miles remaining. In the end, of course, Walmsley would drop before crossing the American River at mile 78. But his determination to run under the course record, despite the conditions, was absolutely inspiring. It was reckless, yes. It was ill-advised, certainly. But it was absolutely inspiring. Why not try to run 14 hours on this course, despite the conditions? Walmsley’s stubborn attempt to defy expectations screamed that question. He didn’t succeed but he proved, at least to the four of us on the sidelines, that if you have a seat at the table, you can try to do something seemingly impossible. As Reed, Freriks, Hazen, and I met Walmsley a mile from the Rucky Chucky river crossing and walked him toward his premature departure from the race, we sensed that this wasn’t the last we would see of the Western States course. We realized then what we all wanted: a seat at the table, and the chance to try something bold, to defy expectations, together.
In the summer of 2017, Walmsley, Freriks, and Reed already lived and trained in Flagstaff. Hazen was in the midst of a long-term visit to Flagstaff, and he soon decided to transfer to a community college in Flagstaff. I was living in Denver at the time and I was ready for a change, so I relocated to Flagstaff, too, hoping that the support of a determined training group would allow us to fulfill our promise to line up together at the 2018 Western States 100. We had ourselves a training group.
We went to the drawing board to map out our bold plan. How could we arrange our schedules in order to attack different races spread out around the country, in the hopes of earning five Golden Tickets?
Unfortunately, the Gorge Waterfalls 100K, one of the 2018 Golden Ticket Races, was cancelled due to wildfires in the Columbia River Gorge. As a result, the Ultra-Trail World Tour awarded four entries to American competitors—two for males and two for females—to this year’s Western States. Their selection process was based largely on International Trail Running Association (ITRA) rankings. In December, Walmsley applied for a spot and he got it. While it might be thought that he took the easy route, Walmsley would later emphatically prove that he more than deserved a spot by setting a new course record at the Lake Sonoma 50 last month.
Jim was first on board, and we were on our way.
On January 6, Cody Reed lined up for the first Golden Ticket race of the year at the Bandera 100K in Texas. Reed finished second to Mario Mendoza and earned a Golden Ticket. Two down, three to go.
None of us lined up for the Sean O’Brien 100K, so the Black Canyon 100K, on February 17, was our next opportunity—a course we all know well since it’s in our own backyard just an hour south of Flagstaff. Tim Freriks and I toed the line to try to capture two more spots at Western States. Freriks breezed through the course to win with relative ease, earning the third of our five potential States entries. I turned up to the race seriously sick and didn’t finish, dropping around the halfway point. It was extremely disappointing not to reap the benefits of so much hard training ahead of Black Canyon. And it was extremely difficult to turn my focus to another high-profile race, having already poured myself into months of strenuous preparation.
With none of us entered in the Georgia Death Race, there remained one last opportunity for two more Golden Tickets: The Lake Sonoma 50.
On April 14, the morning of the race, I rolled out of bed in a house just south of Lake Sonoma in California, and I walked into the kitchen. Hazen was sitting at the kitchen table looking at previous race splits on his computer, headphones on. He saw me walking toward him, removed his headphones, and grinned.
“You ready bro?”
Walmsley walked out of his room and entered the common space.
“I’m going to take a shower. Let’s leave in 15 minutes.”
Hazen grinned at him, too.
“You ready bro?”
Walmsley took the bait: “It’s time for record pace!”
I think you can guess how it went from there. Unsurprisingly, given his preparation and level of fitness, Hazen finished second at Lake Sonoma, securing a ticket. I finished fourth, also securing a ticket, thanks to the fact that both Walmsley, who finished first (and who, as mentioned, indeed ran course-record pace), and Mendoza, who finished third, already had entry into Western States. Overcoming the disappointment of failure at Black Canyon and willing myself back into some semblance of training despite physical and mental setbacks, and crossing the finish line at Lake Sonoma with a Golden Ticket, might together constitute the greatest accomplishments of my running career, if not my life. I think that showed at the finish line.
So, we had done it. We were five for five. We will all make it to the start line of the 2018 Western States 100.
I don’t think this story is inspiring because of what we achieved. I don’t think this story is inspiring because of what we might achieve on June 23. To be sure, it’s remarkable that five Golden Tickets were acquired by five individuals from one group based in Flagstaff, Arizona. And, to be sure, we certainly hope to keep the fireworks going at States. But I think our story is inspiring because it could not have happened without the close bonds of friendship, a mutual belief in one another, and the support of a community.
When we were training for our Golden Ticket races, we were joined by many others who helped push us to our limits: Flagstaff locals like Tommy Rivers, Ian Torrence, Caleb Schiff, Brian Tinder, and Stephen Kersh, to name a few.
When Reed went to Texas to earn his ticket at Bandera, Walsmley and Hermsmeyer traveled there to support him.
When Freriks got his ticket at Black Canyon, Walmsley was there. Hazen was there. Hermsmeyer was there. After I dropped from the race, I, too, remained on the sidelines to support Freriks. When Freriks stumbled into the mile 51 aid station feeling less than spry, Hazen, who had done his own training run earlier in the day, and who didn’t plan to pace Freriks, ultimately joined Tim as a pacer and helped him cover the last 11 miles.
When I woke up the morning of April 14, there were actually four other people—aside from me, Hazen, and Walmsley—in that house. They were loved ones, all from out of town, there to support us at the race. And, twenty miles down the road, there was another house with another dozen people, there from out of town, also there to support us. We had a full entourage of the Cowboys, girlfriends, friends, and family members. We had a community.
What’s interesting about this story is that it started with one person: Jim Walmsley. His determination and grit, his utter insistence on getting the most out of himself despite the possible consequences, inspired four others. The commitment of us five prompted dozens of people to commit their valuable time and energy to our pursuit. In the end, five of us get to toe the start line in Squaw Valley on June 23. But even then, it won’t be just the five of us. There will be many others on the sidelines there with us, there to support us. And there will be many more runners in Flagstaff who will join us in training in the coming weeks.
Walmsley didn’t know that his audacious efforts at the last two editions of the Western States 100 would start this chain of events. He didn’t know that it would inspire a group to make a pact to join him. And we, in turn, didn’t know that our pact would prompt so many loved ones to support us and train with us. We didn’t know that it would build a community.
But that’s exactly what happened. And that, I submit, is both interesting and inspiring.
I can only hope that Walmsley’s efforts, which inspired a pact, and which prompted a community, will result in similarly inspiring stories for others. I can only hope that everyone has the chance to find their potential, and reach it, by making their own pacts amongst friends. Because when a pact is made amongst friends who will push each other, there’s no telling what’s possible.
Maybe this time, for someone in our group, a win at States is possible.