Jim Walmsley is the male Ultra Runner of the Year for 2017. In winning the UROY for the second straight year, Walmsley excited many with his “go big or go home” style of racing. He set course records in winning the Tarawera 100K in New Zealand, the Gorge Waterfalls 100K in Oregon and the Speedgoat 50K in Utah. He suffered a DNF at Western States after surrendering a large lead with stomach issues at mile 70. At UTMB he was in or tied for the lead for 65 miles before experiencing an epic bonk and sliding to seventh place, eventually recovering in the late stages to finish fifth. The former Air Force Academy track standout lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.
UR: How does it feel to be a two-time UROY at age 27?
Jim: It is pretty nice, especially since this year I had some learning experiences and setbacks even though there were some nice races, more so in the first half of the year.
UR: Yes, it was sort of a tale of two years.
Jim: Definitely. The distances under 100 miles have been more comfortable and it is fun to run them fast. In the second half, I pushed myself into new territory with some mountainous hundreds overseas, which was hard but a fun experience. There were a lot of positives that will help me in the future.
UR: Another thing was lots of international travel, how was that?
Jim: I feel really fortunate to get to travel as part of this sport, it is a dream come true. Sure, the travel can be hard – the flight to Diagonale des Fous was over 30 hours just to get there, and my feet and ankles swell up during flights – but I love seeing the world, meeting people and experiencing new cultures. I want to learn new languages and I have been trying to study French.
UR: How about New Zealand and Tarawera – you averaged a 7:03 pace for 100k with 10,000 feet of climbing, plus a course record.
Jim: Tarawera 100K was incredible in every way. The race went great and it seemed like everything was clicking that day. And then we had a blast travelling around the two islands.
UR: Did you bungy jump?
Jim: Yes! I did Nevis Bungy, the highest bungy jump in New Zealand. It was scary and totally intimidating for me. I’m glad I did it but I think once is enough. We had a joke while we were in New Zealand: if someone with a mullet would do it, then we wanted to embrace it and try it too.
UR: What did you do after that?
Jim: I went to Spain and did a mountainous 31k, Carrera Alto Sil in Santa Cruz de Sil. Lolo Diez, the race director was so much fun to hang out with and showed Myke Hermsmeyer and me a great time in Spain. The people we got to meet on that trip were great and I made a lot of friends. We did so much exploring and vertical running in the mountains for fun before the race that it almost had me wiped before the race started.
UR: How did the race go?
Jim: It was pretty cool. It felt like many Europeans were watching me with a microscope to see how I’d do in my first European mountain race, how I’d compare to the Europeans on the climbs and descents, and to get a first look at this guy from the States. I ended up surprising everyone with how fast I was charging downhill and actually broke away on the first super steep technical downhill, which was pretty cool. I ended up winning the race with a new course record so you could say my first Euro race went ok.
UR: Uh, roger that. And then it was on to Gorge Waterfalls, how was that race?
Jim: I really wanted a Golden Ticket and that is a tough course. I went out hard and thought I’d hit the turn with nobody in sight, but it was still tighter than I was comfortable with. It wasn’t an easy day out there, but I felt I ran hard and got what I needed, a Golden Ticket with a win and new course record. Lots of positives from that race to take into Western States.
UR: You made it look like an easy training run, at least from in front of a computer. Next up was Western States. Now that the dust has fully settled, what happened there?
Jim: Well, I had a plan to have an amazing race despite the course conditions. I believe you have to be optimistic to do big things – without that, they won’t happen. Sometimes that costs me – and it set me up for a tough day at States.
UR: You went for it and that’s great. Can you give more details on your race?
Jim: Well, I wanted to set an honest pace from the gun. The adrenaline and excitement must have taken over because I hit the top of escarpment 16 minutes faster than I did in 2016 and seven minutes ahead of second place at mile 4. Given that, I decided it would be good to maintain a gap through the high country so other runners wouldn’t draft off my scouting and just take the tangents from my mistakes. All-in-all, it was brutal and I got off course a ton. I would be running a 7-minute mile pace comfortably and then all of a sudden I’d post hole right through the snow, or slip and fall on the sloped, icy snow. In 2016, I was able to run the high country smooth and comfortable. In 2017, I was working a lot harder. By Red Star Ridge (mile 16), my 16 minute buffer over my prior year’s pace was gone.
I tried to resettle and find a new start with an open mind of not ruling any time out at that point. I was ok until the climb to Robinson Flat started at about mile 25. I made a mistake and did not cool off in Duncan Creek and I could tell on that climb up when the heat started really kicking in. I moved through the Canyons ok but when I got to Foresthill at mile 62 I really should have taken more time to cool off and reset things. I felt a lot of pressure from so many people with eyes locked onto me to rush through Foresthill faster than what would have been the smart call. I left with over an hour lead, but it was the beginning of intense suffering from the heat for me. I think if I had been more patient at Foresthill, I may have saved myself from melting before the river. Remembering that mistake at Western States, I decided to take more time and regroup around mile 70 at UTMB, which allowed me to have a solid finish there.
UR: Tell us more about UTMB.
Jim: It was a challenging but fun mountainous 100 miler. I loved being over in Europe and I loved my time running with Francois and Kilian for 70-plus miles. It was an amazing learning experience for me – I learned a ton about basic things on longer mountain runs like lighting, clothing, packs and also race tactics – when to hike, when to push, fuel and hydration and on and on. During the race I just tried to copy what Francois and Kilian were doing. Francois and I worked together for 70 miles into La Fouly, which was really good for me and will pay off next year. I’m proud that even though I had to let them go, I regrouped, solved my problems and ended up having a good race – the fifth fastest ever at the race and still ahead of the prior course record. As time goes by, the disappointment I feel about UTMB has been more balanced by the positives I took away.
UR: Any other year you’d have had yourself a huge win. What will you do differently next time?
Jim: I’m not sure about a huge win, but I am definitely excited to go back this year. Last year, I had so much to learn and overcome to catch the experience of the other runners. I went over in early August just after Speedgoat and trained a lot – I actually went around the entire course twice, staying in hotels and refuges to do recon and training. It was really cool but it was probably too much training that close to the race. This year I will stay and train in Silverton longer, where the Hardrock 100 course is, and then travel out to Chamonix much closer to the race.
UR: That sounds like a great plan. What did you do after UTMB?
Jim: Well, I thought I had learned a ton with my experience at UTMB but I wanted to find another opportunity before UTMB 2018. I decided to try a quick turn around after UTMB at Diagonale des Fous on La Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.
UR: How did that go?
Jim: The course was remarkable. It was so challenging, relentless, steep and it pretty much destroyed me. Part of the problem was that it was only six weeks after UTMB, which is not enough time for a full block to recover, train and then taper. Basically, it’s only enough time to recover and go in with your residual fitness from the last race. My training days in between felt like garbage most of the time, but I find that’s not always a tell-all and you have to trust that your legs will come back around by race day. At some point during the race I was just burned out and lacked inner motivation to finish. I had tried to pace off of some of the most experienced European mountain runners, but they gradually were dropping out and I felt we all had pushed too hard, too early, despite being an experienced group. The island and the course are just extraordinarily difficult. That said, I’m really glad I took that opportunity to challenge myself again and get more long-day mountain running experience for UTMB 2018. I didn’t feel there was another race like this to gain this experience without getting too close to Western States 2018.
UR: Almost lost in your 100-mile odyssey last year was Speedgoat, an epic mountain 50k where you had an incredible race.
Jim: Speedgoat 50K was a fun trip. It was a last minute decision while I was in Silverton, CO getting in a bunch of long, slow days in the mountains. Speedgoat 50K wasn’t on my radar at all, but I think I saw the preview on “This Week In Running” on irunfar.com and it seemed like a ton of the American favorites running UTMB were running Speedgoat- Sage Canaday, Tim Tollefson, and Dylan Bowman. I slept on it and on the Wednesday before the race, I contacted Karl Metzler to see if he’d slip me into the race. Sure enough, I packed up my tent and camp in Silverton and drove out the Thursday before the race. It was kind of a sweet revenge race for me at Speedgoat, to win, beat Sage (who absolutely destroyed me there in 2014), get the course record, and (I think) the highest recorded score on ITRA I’ve ever seen. I walked away still impressed with Sage’s incredible climbing ability. Speedgoat gave me a lot of confidence in the work I was putting in for UTMB. I like the very high altitude training in Silverton and I think I responded well. That’s why in 2018 I’d like to stay there for a longer time training before heading out to UTMB.
UR: Speaking of this year, how are you feeling?
Jim: Well, for the first time in a a couple of years, I’ve taken a real break at year end and into the beginning of this year. I thought I had rested enough after Diagonale des Fous and started back into training in November with 40, then 60 mile weeks. But I felt I was still tired and still had some sores so I decided to scratch my build and take the time off. I’ve been doing a lot of road biking and mountain biking as my cross training. I’d consider skimo like everyone else but I’m not a very good skier and I live in Arizona so I can bike on clear roads with no problem.
UR: What does your schedule look like for this year?
Jim: I decided to cancel my build up for Transgrancanaria and take the time off, but I’m hoping the late start to 2018 will help me run better 100s in the middle of the year and hopefully have a great fall season too. To start the year off, I’m planning to go back to Carrera Alto Sil in Spain in March. I will more than likely try to get into Lake Sonoma, but will feel things out on how my training comes back after taking time off. I’m fortunate that I got a UTWT ticket into Western States for 2018 and I don’t have to race before if I’m not feeling healthy enough. It couldn’t have come with better timing. I’m excited to train in Flagstaff with the other Coconino Cowboys. Tim Freriks, Cody Reed, Jared Hazen, and Eric Senseman are all also hoping to build towards qualifying and racing at Western States together this year. It will give this year a team environment for us which will help push us and make it very exciting.
UR: The Coconino Cowboys have really captured the imagination of the sport.
Jim: At the end of the day, we’re no different than other local training groups. We have fun and push each other. We love training in the Grand Canyon together, doing our “Cowboy Loop” and the “Kaibab Marathon.” We all log our runs on Stava and you can look at our training there to find the routes. They are challenging routes and prepare us great for ultras. I’d like to see if I can add some more rim-to-rim-to-rim runs into my training routine this year. I think the long time on feet would help my 100s. I’m also very much looking forward to racing Francois D’Haene at Western States this year.
UR: It keeps coming back to that Frenchman.
Jim: I think Francois would be my vote for an international UROY with Kilian Jornet being runner up, but both definitely the top two. They just got it done across the board this year, in my opinion.
UR: Have you thought about what’s after this year?
Jim: I would like to continue to challenge myself in the mountainous 100s, but I also have a desire to go for some flat, fast road ultras in the following years. Comrades is definitely on my list, hopefully in 2019. Recently I have been getting a lot of inspiration from runners training in East Africa who do some of the most audacious training – their volume and speed at altitude is insane. I’d love to go train with them someday, maybe for some Comrades-specific training.
UR: They are pretty much marathoners, right?
Jim: Yeah, something like 80 of the world’s top 100 marathon times in 2017 were from either Kenya or Ethiopia. I am also looking at debuting in a marathon in 2020, with the crazy idea of doing it at the Olympic Trials in 2020. I think it would fit well with road ultra training and I think I can qualify in the half marathon by running under 64:00. This idea and Comrades excite me. Ultimately though, I will continue with the mountain ultras long term, where I love the trails and find my passion for the training.
UR: What you could do in a marathon really is something to think about, but in the meantime all eyes will be on you at Western States this year.
Jim: Yeah, I definitely have some unfinished business there.