Interview with 2016 UltraRunner of the Year Jim Walmsley

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Rarely in ultrarunning do you see the word “phenom” used to describe the sport’s best runners. But in 2016 the sport was taken over by the phenomenal record-smashing performances of Jim Walmsley. The 26 year-old from Flagstaff, Arizona kicked off the year with a dominant win and course-record at the Bandera 100K, and from there he seemingly never took his foot off the gas pedal. With his Western States Golden Ticket in hand, Walmsley continued to race – and set records – at some of the most competitive ultras, including the Lake Sonoma 50-miler in April.

By the time the year was done Walmsley had won 7 ultras and set course records at five of them – in addition to besting Rob Krar’s Grand Canyon FKT for good measure. Walmsley capped it all off in November by breaking Max King’s course record at the sport’s oldest ultramarathon, the JFK 50-miler. But Walmsley did have one detour along the way, and in that episode the champion had perhaps his best moment of all. After floating for over 90 miles in record-setting pace at the Western States 100, so fast that he had dropped his pacer and was an hour ahead of the second-place runner, Walmsley’s wings melted when he missed a turn and went off course. Devastated and broken, Walmsley’s true character was revealed in the next three hours as he retraced his steps and covered the last 10 miles to the finish line in Auburn despite the crushing disappointment.

We were eager to learn more about Walmsley’s amazing year, and how he processed (and plans to atone for) his Western States experience. We also were intrigued to learn more about this phenom and who he really is.

UR: Congratulations on what was an epic year of ultrarunning. How does it feel to be UROY?

It’s weird because you can’t make a goal of UROY. You may keep it in mind as you put together a schedule for the year and things keep coming together on race day throughout the year, but it’s not a very objective goal. What makes this award special, however, is that the voters are the most informed, connected, and respected people in the sport of ultrarunning. They decide. It’s a byproduct of hard work over a whole year and peers recognizing your whole season. That means a lot to me.

UR: Can you talk about how you planned for the year and how things unfolded – was it all part of a master plan?

This year started to take form leading into JFK 2015. I had the idea to turn around training quickly after that race, train through winter, and try to take advantage of a winter race like Bandera where not everyone is training hard that time of year. Bandera was such a huge step forward for me. Then Lake Sonoma. Then Western States. And I’ve felt dialed in since then. I’d get in a good training block, stay healthy, and show up on race day. I’ve been so fortunate for my health this year. Everything in ultrarunning is still so new to me. It makes everything so enjoyable.

UR: What did you learn about yourself along the way, what adjustments did you make?

A big takeaway early this year was how much of an eating contest ultras are. I don’t mean sitting around and picking at the M&M’s at the aid stations, but slamming calories while you’re still running, getting in calories with your fluids. It’s an eat or be eaten type of mindset that started working for me. I started feeling more fresh and stronger late in races and saw I was getting an advantage more than I ever have late in races.

UR: What surprised you most during the year?

I got nervous before all of my races this year. Then I was always so surprised how well the outcome turned out. I always need to remind myself that I have put in a good training block and to just go run on race day. The whole process of training, tapering, and being tough on race day was consistently working out. I keep gaining more and more confidence with each race.

UR: What was the high point of your year?

It’s been a pretty darn good year. Lake Sonoma was really the first high point. I have a picture hugging my mom right after I finished and I was just balling (crying). I wanted to run so hard and be tough that day. I had no idea what time I was on pace for. It just all came together beautifully that day. It felt like the first national, big breakthrough for me with a solid course record.

John Medinger was so nice to me, along with also trying to help out my brand new, fresh to the ultra-scene, at the time, friends, Tim Freriks and Cody Reed. That day felt like the sky was the limit for us all. Tim broke out in a 6:17, top 10 time on that course in his first ever ultra-trail race, and Cody walked away pumped to get into the sport after crewing us that day.

UR: What was your favorite race of the year?

Western States was my favorite race by far this year. It was my best day of running in my life. I experienced a beautiful rush of emotions that day, and it all ended up crashing down in flames in an instant. But that enabled me to appreciate every step of the way to the finish line after that with all of my friends and family. Best day of my life. I learned so much about myself that day. So much about my strengths and weaknesses.

In my opinion, that day will make me just about unbeatable in 2017 at Western States. I hope every ultrarunner that wants a claim at being the best, races Western States next year. I feel like it’s my home court advantage now. I know what I’m capable of on the Western States course now.

UR: How do you like to celebrate a race win?

I like celebrating a win by walking through the finish line. I don’t think ultras should be sprint finishes. Break each other earlier if you want a fight. Enjoy the journey and treasure your last steps of that journey across the line. It’s elegant and a good way to let it all soak in.

UR: How does the FKT compare to the races?

The Grand Canyon FKTs are so awesome. So many people relate to the Canyon. Being from Flagstaff, that’s the ultimate test for us. It’s on every trail runner’s mind in Flagstaff.

UR: What was the hardest race of the year?

Western States was the hardest race of the year for me. I wanted to win so badly. Just pushing so hard for so long, I was completely dialed to make that race hurt more than anything. So it hurt the most physically. But it also left me completely crushed as well after faltering so late in the race. There was a lot to take in that day!

UR: Can you describe that more for us?

I just fell in love with Western States – the race, the community, the history and the idea of winning it – it’s the biggest treasure in the sport.

UR: You put so much into it and executed flawlessly, until going off course. How did you deal with that disappointment? How hard was it to still finish the race?

When I realized, I was 100% off course, did not go the right way, no doubt, I was crushed. It’s hard to convince yourself to turn around in that situation. I just took a deep breath and sat down on Hwy 49. I just said to myself, “this sucks, I’m going to take a break now.” I knew I had such a great run up to that point. I was just so disappointed that I let it slip away. I felt like I had led for 93 miles at course-record pace, only to drag along 2-4 other guys stalking me all day who would now run incredible times. I thought everyone was still on my heels all day.

Without the thoughts of my family and friends waiting for me to still finish, I was devastated and alone. But the volunteers from Hwy 49 came down to support and encourage me. They pointed me back in the right direction, without them I don’t know if I could’ve finished that race on my own will power at that point. I drew a lot of encouragement from everyone else at that point.

UR: What did you learn from that experience?

I learned I can handle the heat extremely well. I’m from Phoenix, born and raised in the heat. I have to embrace that ability. I learned I can eat a ton when I need to. And I learned that I show up when it counts. Lastly, so many people made an effort to console me in the aftermath that I learned just how deep and genuine all the support is. I’m surrounded by it in Flagstaff, close to home in Phoenix, with friends, family and mentors. It also felt like the entire ultrarunning community was offering support. I’ve found a good place for me.

UR: How does that experience make you feel about Western States in the future?

I want that course record. I want to run a time that people won’t even try to go for it. It makes me so hungry and so focused for 2017. I want to target 14 hours flat next year and I’m going to put together a training plan to attack that time.

UR: That is bold. And exciting.

UR: Let’s shift the focus backwards again – how did you balance training, racing and recovering to race again last year?

I took time to throw in a little taper before races and I took time to have active recovery after races. Counting the before and after races, I was getting in a lot of down time. The key was focusing on longer weeks or blocks of training for events, then staying in active recovery and not going backwards during breaks. I gave my body time. Sometimes I got back into volume a little quick, but intensity would lag in those cases before adding everything back together. There’s always another race.

UR: If you could change anything about 2016 – what would it be?

I don’t think I could have scripted 2016 much better. I loved every moment of the journey.

UR: You did your first ultra in 2014 and had some great races in 2015, but then you really exploded on the scene in 2016. What was your background in running?

I was a state champ in high school in Arizona. I ran D1 college at the Air Force Academy where I was All-American in the steeplechase. I ran more miles in high school than I did in college. I took time off from running competitively after graduating college in 2012 while I was active duty Air Force. In 2015, I got out of the Air Force, decided to move to Flagstaff, and give ultra-trail running a real go. I wanted to see how much I could push myself. 2016 was a good step forward, but there’s more.

Jim speeds down the trail toward a new course record at the Stagecoach 55k Photo: Kristin Wilson

UR: Did you do other sports in your youth?

I grew up playing competitive soccer until I was about 16. I loved playing soccer, but went cold turkey on it when I decided to switch to running. It was hard to walk away from soccer, I had dreams of playing at the highest levels. I enjoyed the friends I made on cross country in high school and that turned out to be most valuable to me.

UR: Were there signs that you were an elite athlete before you got into ultrarunning?

I’ve done alright in running through high school and college. Ultrarunning is still running and I’m a very good trail runner. I’ll take a techy downhill any day!

UR: How did you choose the Air Force Academy for college? How was your collegiate running career?

I always thought an academy was something I would like with the structure and discipline at the school. I wasn’t drawn to the military side of things, just that I could do it and it wouldn’t be a big deal. I really fell in love with the Head Cross Country coach at USAFA, John Hayes, when I was getting recruited. I could tell he would load the miles on me, try to break me, see how much I could take and he believed in me. I think we were both excited that I could make an impact on the NCAA level. But for lots of personal reasons, John took a job offer at University of Texas a month or two into my freshman year at the Academy.

We didn’t have a new head coach take over until December for indoor track, Juli Benson. If I didn’t love Juli as a coach, I wouldn’t have made it through the Academy. She ran the 800m and 1500m, making the 1996 Olympic team in the 1500m. She writes these incredible workouts and know how to get a lot out of people, but we’d crash frequently over mileage and adding volume. I was always trying to argue for more volume, but she had the foresight to see we didn’t go to a normal college and there were too many other stresses in life to add much more mileage. My senior year, I was typically running 80-90 miles per week but crushing some big workouts at 7,000 ft. I learned so much from Juli and she’s a huge reason I have been able to grow as a post-collegiate runner.

It just happens to be that I have done that growth on the trails, not the track. I’m optimistic I could do very well on the track or roads if I was still doing that, but I realize, I enjoy what I’m doing now in ultra trail stuff and I love the people I’m surrounded by now. I won’t be going back to the track to try to prove anything to myself.

UR: After graduating you worked with Nuclear Missiles – can you describe that and how it prepared you for ultrarunning?

Mentally mind-numbingly boring. Learning to deal with that is probably the only skill that passed over from the job directly. I pulled the 24-hour shifts underground in Montana with my crew partner, Julie. There’s a lot of pressure to do everything perfect, dealing with Nukes, but it’s really not a complicated job. There’s a T.O. for everything, you just follow it.

UR: In Montana your running focus seemed to shift, can you describe that and who was influencing you?

My time in Montana really changed my life and has shaped me and my perspective to what it is today. It’s outdoorsy. Hobbies are the priority in life, not your job. It’s what you’re into, not what you do for work that defines you. It was the best state I could’ve been in to escape from a high-strung job that I didn’t care to be around when I was not on the job. I got into hiking a lot. Hiking took more time so I got into trail running those hikes so I could see more. I didn’t know trail running was even a niche of running. I figured trails are just what everyone trains on, then the track and road is where the runners race.

Montana is so much more trail oriented. There are so many beautiful places to go see. I think partly because of the weather and mindset of outdoorsy people in Montana, once I started to look into local races, they were all trail races and there were so many. Montana opened up a whole new world of running to me that I didn’t understand or fully realize was right in front of me. Every runner in Montana knows Mike Foote and Mike Wolf. I wanted to race them, but couldn’t find races they would sign up for and it puzzled me. After seeing the crazy-long and gnarly races they were doing, I started realizing this sport is much bigger than I really knew.

I should also mention, running was definitely a hobby I would try to find time for while I was in Montana, in the Air Force. I had sporadic training. Some weeks of running, followed by some weeks of no running. I was falling in love in a new sport I found in Montana, but I wasn’t able to actually train and focus on it like I wanted to.

UR: Why did you depart the Air Force, and how did you decide to move to Flagstaff?

When I realized I would be leaving the Air Force in 2015, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve always wanted to be a dentist since I was probably 10 or 12 years old, but I just wasn’t ready to go back to school and hit the books. The other thing in my life that I was finding a passion for was trail running. So I started thinking about locations I could live to get some sort of flexible job and try to train for real again, like in college. I narrowed it down to Colorado Springs where I knew other pro runners training in town, Park City where I knew it was gorgeous, or Flagstaff which is in my home state, closest to home. I ended up deciding I wanted to live in my home state again and that’d be where I’d make this leap of faith.

I got a job at Absolute Bikes, the local bike shop in Flag. Just working a flexible job and running. At the time of thinking about where to move, I had absolutely no idea how much of a running mecca Flagstaff is. I didn’t appreciate how great it is being able to drop down in elevation to Phoenix, Sedona, or Camp Verde. Or how many pro runners live in Flagstaff, how many runners come through Flagstaff for training blocks, or even that I was next door to that thing called the Grand Canyon. It’s been such an accidental, masterful place to train for ultras. It’s perfect.

UR: Is there another ultrarunner who inspired you or was your role model?

James Bonnett, hands down, has been the biggest influencer in shaping how I look at ultras. James was a senior at Horizon High School when I was a freshman. We started to reconnect in life in about 2013 or so and he eventually got me on Ian Torrence’s AdiUltra team for JFK 2014. He’s a grass roots kind of guy and knows what is truly important in the sport. He’s been awesome to have in my corner and led me to other great role models. I’m always trying to pick people’s brains and perspectives on training and racing.

UR: What advice do you have for other young runners entering the sport?

Eat a lot in races. Don’t run with limits. Blowing up is okay. Just problem solve. Figure out how to fix what went wrong, and don’t keep making the same mistakes. Don’t be afraid to do volume in training. And more than anything else, don’t let other people tell you something isn’t possible or that they know what’s going to happen if you run too much or too hard. Be smart and trust yourself. I don’t think this sport has found where the limits are.

UR: What is a typical week of training like for you?

A typical week is probably 100-120 miles, with 10,000 feet of climbing. I don’t double often. Ideally, I like being in Flagstaff with a routine. Wednesday morning runs at 7am from the Run Flagstaff store. Thursday runs at 8am from Biff’s Bagels. Sundays, show up to throw down on the Flagstaff Long Run. Other days, I try to fill in what I need to do in order to hit weekly goals. I’d like to do more speed work in 2017 to improve my running economy even more. I’ve added in core sessions on Wednesday with other Team Run Flagstaff Pros. I try to meet up with Cody, Tim, and Nico Barraza occasionally. We all try to go to the Canyon a lot. If I’m lower mileage than that, I’m usually trying to build or recover. If I’m higher mileage, I’m in a big block of training. Same with climbing, over/under applies on that 10000 feet. Vert is more race specific for what I have coming up.

UR: Do you have a favorite or key workout you like to do?

Coconino Cowboy Loop in the Grand Canyon. Start at Bright Angel Trailhead, run down to Phantom Ranch, Up South Kaibab to the Trailhead, and back on the Rim trail. 21-mile loop, 5200 feet climbing. My best time is 2 hours 43 minutes.

UR: That’s sick.

UR: Other than running, what do you do to train for ultras?

I believe the best runners in the world run. It’s the only way in my opinion. I have started to add in core once a week, mostly focusing on glutes and hips.

UR: What is your recovery like after racing?

I go immediately to shuffling the next couple days after races. Usually try to jog about 20-30 minutes a day until my legs start coming back. I might take about 4 days of that before adding a little volume or intensity. I’ve found I get less sore when I just go to active recovery.

UR: What is your diet – any unique approaches?

I try not to let diet get to my head. I eat healthy sometimes. Other times I get into donut phases and such. I just try not to let anything get to my head as long as I feel healthy and strong when training and racing.

UR: Is it true that when you run at night you go without lights?

I love running at night without lights! Granted, the moon needs to be bright if you’re exploring trails far from a city. In deserts, the moon can light up everything because there aren’t any trees to block the light. Flagstaff is a “dark city” so it can get very, very dark on the trails when there is no moon light. I’ve been adjusting to running more technical trails with lights at night now. I want to make sure I am a very good trail runner at night in case I pop over to that small race in Chamonix!

UR: Have you had wildlife encounters out there?

I usually tell people I’m not paying attention enough to any animals or the surroundings. I’m in the zone of what I’m doing. Head lamps let you see all sorts of eyes at night in Flagstaff. Best two animals I’ve seen this year are a Gila Monster at Mt. Ord near Payson, AZ and the mountain lion I was running straight on with in the box canyons during my FKT run.

UR: What is the Flagstaff ultra-scene like? Is there something special in the water there?

It’s just water in Flagstaff. You have to live there to understand it. The ultra-scene isn’t as connected as the road guys are, but if you want a buddy to go do a run with, no doubt you can find one or two any day. There are so many talented runners in Flagstaff.

UR: Have you or do you use a running coach?

James Bonnett has been a mentor and I run ideas past him all the time for training and races. Other than that, I usually just figure it out and structure training blocks myself.

UR: Have you had injuries – how do you manage/avoid them?

I’ve told my injuries to go away for the most part and eventually they’ve given up sooner than I have. I’ve been so fortunate with nothing serious the past year and a half. With anything that pops up, I try to treat it aggressively and not wait for it to get better. Ice, naproxen, and strengthen. I’ve been super lucky, but I’ve felt like I put my own back into a corner and I’ve been running all year to make this ultrarunning thing work. It has to work, so that means I can’t be hurt.

UR: So looking ahead, what are your race plans for next year?

I’m going to build up and race into Western States again. Western States is my sole goal in 2017. I will look to the second half of the year after I take care of business at States.

UR: What will you do differently in 2017?

Apart from Western States, I want to run new courses I haven’t done yet. I think it’s easy to get into the washing machine and do the same race schedule every year. I think it’s more unique to be able to ace races and courses on your first try.

UR: What races (or FKTs) are on your bucket list?

I want to do the races that are most competitive and are the hardest in the world. I want to represent our country and be the US’s ace here at home and overseas.

Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc is number one on my bucket list. First American male to win is still up for grabs and if I don’t race UTMB soon, there are too many other talented Americans right now that will win it – there is a window. As of right now, UTMB won’t let me in the race due to not enough points and the current deadline to achieve the necessary points. If they let me in the race in 2017, I will be there. If not 2017, I will be there in 2018.

I also want to get a qualifier for Hardrock in 2017 and start to enter that lottery. I love Hardrock and I want to go every year that I am in trail running. It’s a very special race and community. I also have Comrades on my bucket list, but I will need some time to dial in my efficiency at that pace for that distance. Looking at how the South Africans ran World 100Ks this year, I think I can have a very good chance. However, UTMB and Comrades kind of deserve their own year of focus to really put my best foot forward.

UR: Do you worry about Overtraining Syndrome? What do you do to insure this doesn’t happen to you?

I don’t worry about Overtraining Syndrome. I’ve over-trained plenty of times in my running career and I feel confident about recognizing those signs and acting accordingly. I am not going to scare myself into not bringing out my full potential with running. I want to find out how far I can go with my abilities. It’s inevitable that I’ll overdo it at some point, but hopefully I will be able to recognize it then and prevent it from being anything serious and training will get back to normal soon. It’s part of running without limits. Who knows where those limits are and who says their opinion of limits applies to me?

UR: What would people be surprised to know about you?

I have a twin brother that outweighs me by 70 pounds, can grow a beard, has straight(er) hair, and plays men’s rugby.

UR: What is your favorite guilty pleasure?

Wine. I love tasting wines and being in the moment to enjoy those characteristics in the wine. It fascinates me for sure.

UR: What motivates you to train and race so intensely?

I love competition and I love thinking I can do something that people don’t think is possible. I think there is so much room in ultrarunning to prove what is still possible which makes it most appealing to me.

UR: What do you like to do with your free time?

I like going out in Flagstaff to grab a beer with friends at local breweries. I like napping too.

UR: What is your favorite TV show?

Game of Thrones

UR: Do you listen to music when you run?

I love music but I don’t know anything about it and I’m not very opinionated about songs or artists. The radio or random Spotify work great for me, it’s an enjoyable background noise for me. I don’t listen to music while running.

UR: How would you compare the ultra-community with the other running communities you grew up with?

The ultrarunning community is amazing. People are knowledgeable and passionate about the sport. People are so nice and outgoing which is great for me because I usually tend to be more reserved. I love that the people who are in ultra running also seem to be so well rounded as people, with interesting hobbies, interests, and careers. I’ve met so many incredible people through my short time in this sport.

UR: How have you seen the sport of ultrarunning change in just the few years you have been at it?

I think the current top guys of ultrarunning are challenging how to race an ultra and challenging what was thought possible. I would like to believe I have helped encourage that trend and I think it will be incredible to watch things unfold over the next few years.

UR: If you could change one thing about ultrarunning, what would it be?

I personally don’t think I’ve been around enough to rightfully say the sport has to or even needs to change in any way. I’m jumping in to an already amazing sport and I love it right now.

UR: What do you see as the biggest issue facing the sport now and over the next few years?

Like in all running and most elite sports, doping is an obvious issue that the sports don’t know how to successfully eliminate. I love that races in 2017 at least included it in their rules that you have to abide by USADA/WADA doping standards. When I started racing in 2014 and 2015 I was blown away that ultra-races literally didn’t even have anit-doping rules in their race rules! I don’t think there is an easy fix with finding cheaters in the sport. I think it needs to be a society pressure to shame and ban people that get caught abusing the doping policies.

I also see a supply and demand issue becoming more relevant as ultra-trail races become more and more popular and there is more frustration with race lotteries and permitting. But ultimately, there are so many races out there! Just go pick a different one and run it, you’ll still enjoy it.

And you can still participate at ultras you love but can’t get into – with Hardrock in particular, just go out to the course and go run on those trails in July. Be a part of the support for those races and cheer on those who do get into them. I would love to see more people line the course at races, like at other trail races around the world. Grab a friend, grab a beer, and go heckle and cheer people out on the course!

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About Author

Karl Hoagland has been the Publisher of UltraRunning Magazine since June, 2013. Hoagland is a former investment banker and hotel entrepreneur, having worked at Goldman Sachs, Montgomery Securities and Larkspur Hotels & Restaurants after graduating from Brown University in 1987. Since running the Quad Dipsea in 2003 Hoagland has been obsessed with ultrarunning and everything about it, especially the community and new friendships he’s made. Karl especially likes to take on challenges and strive for improvement. Ultrarunning is the perfect platform for such endeavors, and his big goals are to encourage others and help the sport grow.

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