Sports

Can a Trail Running Phenom Beat the Best American Marathoners?

Ultrarunner Jim Walmsley has never run a marathon. But he’s smashed records in 50- and 100-mile races.

Jim Walmsley runs along a trail, holding hiking poles. Mountains are seen in the background.
Jim Walmsley races in Chamonix, France, on Aug. 31, 2018.
Denis Balibouse/Reuters

America’s fastest male and female marathoners will line up Saturday in Atlanta to decide who will represent the United States at the Olympics this summer, with the top three men and women making the Olympic team. Among the hopefuls will be Jim Walmsley, a 30-year-old ultrarunner who has smashed records in races of 50 and 100 miles over unforgiving terrain. But he’s never actually run a plain old 26.2-mile race. On this week’s Hang Up and Listen, co-hosts Joel Anderson, Stefan Fatsis, and Josh Levin talked with journalist Joseph Bien-Kahn, who profiled Walmsley for the New York Times Magazine, about Walmsley’s chances and what his move to the marathon means for ultrarunning. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Stefan Fatsis: In your piece, you write that the ultramarathon is home to the gutsy eccentric. The marathon is home to the Type A obsessive. These really are two different sports entirely, and there’s historically been very little high-level crossover of the kind that Walmsley is attempting here. But this dude is different. How?

Joseph Bien-Kahn: Jim is this guy who’s a little bit different for an ultrarunner, because he has a track background. He’s come from more of a traditional running history. Then, he happened to find his way to this unconventional niche of 100-mile races. Jim is definitely the best American ultrarunner in the world. But trying the marathon, as you said, is a totally different sport.

Joel Anderson: How does somebody find out that they have the capacity to be in an ultramarathon? To find out that you can run 50 miles in one day or more, how does that even get started?

Bien-Kahn: I have talked to probably a dozen ultrarunners now over the course of a few stories, and something a lot of them have said is they’ve tried a marathon and it never felt like they hit that wall, which is mind-blowing. But I think these people, they’re seekers. Maybe a little masochistic, but they’re looking for these barriers and to push themselves to find empty and what that feels like. What’s fascinating about Jim is that he never tried the marathon. Usually the conventional path is you run a shorter race, you try the marathon, then, oh, the marathon didn’t quite scratch that itch … let me try something longer. And for Jim, he knew he was a great runner, but then he fell into this depressive hole during his Air Force time. Then he needed to find some unscratchable itch, and found it at 50 miles or 100 miles or longer.

Fatsis: One of the points you make in the piece is that ultrarunners come from some dark places. I think to run up mountains doing eight-minute miles, you got to be crazy. And you also have to be seeking out the extremes of the human condition, psychological and physical. You also explore in the piece how mainstream runners, people that run on pavement or tracks, tend to look down on this because ultrarunning isn’t just a physical pursuit. It’s about something much more.

Bien-Kahn: I think that’s definitely true. There is this piece of it that’s about extremes, about tolerating truly awful conditions. Some of these races are 270 miles with a six-day time limit. And you’re stealing two hours of sleep when you can. But there’s also a much less deep field. It is a much less professional sport. And I think we don’t know what an elite trail runner would look like exactly. Jim is a window into that. We’re seeing what it would look like if someone got into ultramarathons in their 20s, trained in a professional sense, took it really seriously. We’ve seen that that’s completely changed the sport. He takes course records at all of these trails.

Anderson: Without venturing too much into stereotype, what is the demo of your average ultramarathoner? What is their background, who are they, where do they come from?

Bien-Kahn: Scott Jurek, who was featured in Born to Run and was the most famous American ultrarunner before Jim, was famous for sleeping at the trail start and rolling in the dirt when he finished. It’s just like a very granola, crunchy athlete. Whereas marathoners, these are usually elite-college, 5,000- or 10,000-meter cross-country athletes who have their VO2 max studied. They have billions of Nike dollars spent on them. It’s much less crunchy and outdoorsy.

Josh Levin: It’s totally understandable that these different groups would not understand each other, would be skeptical of each other, would see each other as different species almost.

So the reason that this is so interesting, with these trials this coming weekend, is that the range of outcomes here is so wide. What is the best possible outcome for Walmsley, and how would that happen? Then what’s the worst-case scenario?

Bien-Kahn: Well, me and my editor headlined my piece “The Long Shot” for a reason. I think Walmsley has no business finishing in the top three.

There are four American men who’ve run under a 2:10 marathon, coming into the trials. Those were all on less-hilly courses. I think the general idea is around 2:10 is going to be what it takes to make the team. To run a 2:10 in your first-ever marathon would be mind-blowing. But it’s also Jim Walmsley.

It’s like catnip for the running world: They can’t help but find the long-shot path for him. But there’s a very real chance that he tries to front-run at the beginning, burns out, and finishes in 2:20 or 2:25, or something like that. That’s incredible for a regular human being, but that sets Jim up for absolutely getting dragged on the running message boards, kind of proving the point of all these trail running skeptics. So the range is either fiasco, or it’s absolutely legitimizing trail running and placing himself in a Disney movie if he makes the team.

Fatsis: What do you think after hanging around this guy? Do you think he has a shot to break 2:10 and make this team?

Bien-Kahn: I think he has a shot. I went into it not believing at all. I was kind of expecting him to be cocky, because he gives a great quote in pre-race interviews. As he explained to me in the story, he understood the business sense of being a little bit cocky, putting a target on your back. But in real life, he’s this incredibly quiet, demure guy. Usually he would be like: “Yeah, it’s a long shot. I don’t know. I don’t know.” But every once in a while, he would break into a grin and talk about: “Maybe one of the front-runners will get disqualified with this whole Nike issue. Maybe the hills, they won’t be ready for it. Maybe the weather will be too hot or too cold.” You could see the wheels in his head turning.

I just heard him interviewed on a podcast last week. He’s closing in on a 2:10 pace, which is insane that he’s gotten to that in training. Because when I was out there, he was still training for his trail running. He still thought it was a total long shot.

Anderson: Does he risk the reputation of ultramarathoners and trail runners if he goes out there and embarrasses himself?

Bien-Kahn: I don’t know if there’s a reputation to blow, unfortunately. I think in the marathoning world, there’s a few guys who have interacted with the best trail runners, and they have respect for them. So there’s respect in that way. But I don’t think anyone in that world views trail runners as having a shot in hell in this race. I talked to Max King, who placed 12th in the trials last time and now runs ultras. He’s like, “If Jim finishes top three, the marathoning world will say, Well that’s just more proof that Jim was always a marathoner and trail running is still trash”—that you’re never going to convince commentators that suddenly this legitimizes the sport. But I think that if Jim could do it, it kind of proves the point.

Listen to this episode of Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.