When he toes the start line, Jim Walmsley is used to being the man with a target on his back. Since 2016, the 30-year-old Arizonan has dominated his niche of the distance-running world: the ultramarathon. He’s won back-to-back Western State 100-Mile Endurance Runs, breaking the course record both times. He also holds the world record for fastest 50-mile run and for the fastest run ever from rim-to-rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon.
But on Saturday, at the Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta, the pencil-thin, long-haired ultrarunner was far from the favorite. It was his first-ever marathon, and he was facing off against 174 of the nation’s best runners. The top American men had all put up intimidatingly fast times at Chicago, Boston, New York, and Berlin. Walmsley was a wild card, an interloper who’d arrived from a completely different slice of the sport.
For the first half of the race, Walmsley held his own, but eventually the American marathoning cream rose to the top. 2016 bronze medalist Galen Rupp finished first with a time of 2:09:20; Jacob Riley and Abdi Abdirahman outraced Leonard Korir for the other two spots on the Olympic team with times of 2:10:02 and 2:10:03, respectively. (Korir finished in 2:10:06.)
Walmsley finished 22nd overall with a time of 2:15:05. I connected with him by phone the next afternoon while he tended to his “sore glutes” in his hotel room at the Omni in downtown Atlanta. He’d just returned from a 30-minute shakeout run. He was tired but felt satisfied with his effort. Most of all, he was excited for the year to come. These next six months, Walmsley plans to take on ultrarunning’s two biggest races: South Africa’s 55-mile Comrades Marathon and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, or UTMB, a 106-mile mountainous trek through the Alps. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joseph Bien-Kahn: Take me to the start line. How did you feel Saturday morning?
Jim Walmsley: I felt really good. I was thinking things were gonna go really great and was pretty confident I’d at least have a good day. And the Atlanta Track Club did a really good job, so it was pretty dummy-proof. On the line, I was a few people back, and it was quite crowded, but it’s crowded with a lot of fast guys.
And then once you’re on the course, it was pretty loaded with people and electric out there. Just rows deep for miles at a time, which was pretty cool. I haven’t done a major marathon in a big city, so something like that was all new for me. I was pretty surprised that, even in the lead pack, I heard a lot of “Go Jim!” and “Walmsley!” shouts. It was awesome.
One of the big differences with an ultramarathon is the space between competitors. What was it like to be so closely bunched for an entire race?
I would say, because of the wind, your survival kind of depended on being with people. Whether you ventured ahead of the pack or behind the pack, life got really hard in the wind by yourself. It was really windy out and that dictated a lot of the strategy—you had to cling onto that pack as long as possible and use other people.
I know there was some speculation that you would front-run and try to force the issue. Instead, someone else took on that role.
Actually, it was one of my good friends, Brian Shrader, that was out there, out front, for a lot of the miles. I was in the pack, tucked in really well and I see him just way out there. And I’m saying to myself, “My heart wishes I could be with you, but that is not the right tactic today.” I just really felt strongly that it was too windy to do anything like that.
And then, in addition, we went through the half marathon at 65:40. The pack was going plenty fast enough. There wasn’t a reason to be out further front, because you’d be running a 2:07 pace on that course in the wind by yourself. The amount of work to do that would just be pretty devastating later in the race.
Was there a moment during the race when you felt like you hit a wall?
Some big moves got thrown in by some of the favorites. I was trying to cling onto the chase pack, but they were still going about 4:40 [per mile] pace up a hill at Mile 14 to 16, and it was just really hard to cover those moves.
It ended up shaking out a little earlier than I would have predicted. I thought that it would have been after Mile 16, probably closer to Mile 20. I was hoping to relax in there a bit more, and it caught me a little flat-footed, and I wasn’t able to have powerful enough moves to go with the pack and stay in there. So then, the last 10 miles, I was in a bit of no man’s land by myself, and I kept losing ground on the pack.
It was just fighting the hills and the wind by yourself late in the marathon. It felt like you got bucked off the horse. It’s not like I felt like I cracked, and I don’t think the runners around me cracked, per se. I felt really strong and I was running well, but I quit hitting the good splits that I needed to stay on pace without having the shield of guys in front of me.
Would you have traded the paved roads for some dirt and tree roots?
Yeah, definitely. Anything that could have created more obstacles for people to handle. Doing ultra races just gives you more savviness to deal with that. A lot goes wrong out there, and you gotta problem-solve it. So, tree covers, trails, rocks, wind, heat, rain, snow, the more the merrier for that.
You finished 22nd, which was far from qualifying, but you also ran a 2:15. That’s pretty amazing for a first marathon attempt.
Yeah, on a really hard course too. I’d say, a hard course and a hard day. I think anyone who calls it a 2:15 and takes it at face value is trying to downplay it, because there’s more context to it than just 2:15.
But was that the day you hoped for when you started this training block?
I was hoping I could run under 2:13 on that course. And honestly, I thought if I could be close to 2:12:30, I would have been in the mix for top five. The fact that the top five guys ran 2:10 or faster, I didn’t prepare for a race that fast. That was just a bit out of my wheelhouse. I wasn’t gonna catch them running that fast no matter what. My best day wouldn’t have been good enough for top three.
But I’m happy with the effort and how things went. Nothing went really wrong. I was a little surprised that late in the race I felt like I was getting pushed around by the wind, and the hills all of sudden became hills. Early in the course, I didn’t feel too much of the hills. You just feel little surges in the pack. But late in the race, [laughs] the hills start to hit you a lot more, for sure.
I looked on the comment boards on LetsRun.com and saw there were already commenters saying that your 2:15 proved that ultrarunners can’t compete with the best marathoners. Did you expect that response?
The argument was never that the best ultrarunner could beat the best marathoner. The best marathoners are probably currently the best distant runners in the world. So, the best marathoner should be able to beat the best ultrarunners, and that’s how things played out. But, in my opinion, I don’t think the gap is as big as people make it out to be.
And I think if I focused on a marathon, I could close the gap a little more. Whether I’d have been competitive for a top three spot Saturday, probably not. Not on that day, at least. Like I said, I think my best day wouldn’t have gotten me in the top three. But I don’t think that’s to say I’m completely out of the game. I was happy with how things went. It wasn’t my best run, but I think it proves more that top ultrarunners aren’t out of the picture in terms of being competitive on the roads.
So, does running right around 2:15 on a tough course on a tough day spark an itch? Is there a part of you that wants to run Chicago or Berlin or another one of the courses where runners often post personal-record times?
Yeah, it crossed my mind. Maybe. I would still use a flat, fast marathon and trying to PR as a tool to get ready for something like a 50K or 100K road event. So, if I see something like that coming up on my schedule, I might look to throw a marathon in there, because I think you need to have that leg speed in order to do exceptionally well in the road ultra stuff.
This was my marathon in front of Comrades. Basically, I’ll take a couple down weeks, and then we’ll start building toward Comrades, and then I’ll have a full block of training to get ready. So, this was about as good of timing as I could hope for ahead of a road ultra.
This is something you’ve spent half a year, even longer, planning for and three months training for. Is there a sadness in it being over?
No. Because one of the things I say in general is always keep another goal on the horizon. So, with being able to turn the page and see Comrades on the next page, it’s already dreamy and exciting. I tried to get as much as I could out of myself and that’s how it played out. But I’m content with it.
At the end of the day, my biggest goals aren’t in the marathon. I think the whole experience has been confirmation that I found a part of the sport that I’m truly in love with that brings out the best in me. Training for a marathon just doesn’t excite me as much as training for UTMB or Western States.
Over the course of reporting that New York Times Magazine profile, a few runners, including you, told me they questioned if Galen Rupp should be competing given the fact that his longtime coach Alberto Salazar has recently received a four-year doping ban. Was it frustrating to see him make the team Saturday?
Well, not frustrating, but I would say me and most other people aren’t rooting for Galen.
There’s no doubt that he’s an extremely talented, extremely hardworking athlete. One of the most amazing things about him, especially with recent stuff, is that he shows up on race day and he gets the job done and executes his best race plan. He’s a great competitor. Not necessarily rooting for him, but there’s respect as well.
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