“I can be really flexible this year, as long as I take care of the qualifying time at Houston.”
This is not a statement you’ll hear from many ultra runners. Jim Walmsley is referring to the Olympic Trials qualifying time, and he’s hoping to take care of it at the Houston Half Marathon on January 20th. Most of us are familiar with Jim’s name because of his repertoire of ultramarathon performances. He’s the current Western States course record holder, has numerous prestigious course records to his name, including the Grand Canyon R2R2R FKT, and he’s been named Ultra Runner of the Year the past three consecutive years.
Jim’s 2018 was, objectively, a good year for an ultra runner: 4 wins and 2 course records (one at Lake Sonoma and another at Western States). The end of the year, however, left Jim slightly dissatisfied, he explains. “ has been focusing on big races, so next step was UTMB. That one didn’t go very well… and kind of changed focus to end the year on a good note at The North Face 50 Mile, and that race got cancelled, so there ended up being not many races this year, but a couple really really good ones, and going into 2019 healthy, and excited about some changes and new goals going forward…”
He’ll be starting 2019 with the Houston Half Marathon this weekend, where he’ll be trying to break 64 minutes to land him a spot on the start line of the Olympic Trials. He’ll then be going to Hong Kong in February for a trail 100k, “and then might dabble in the road ultras for a little bit, and try to go for possible American or World Records… and then it’s back to Western States.” Up against his own course record at Western States, Jim will be a sure favorite for the win. Then, hopefully, the end of Jim’s 2019 will consist of a marathon buildup for the Olympic Trials in February of 2020.
It’s obvious that Jim isn’t your average ultra runner. He’s not even really your average elite ultra runner… and that’s just if you’re considering his performances on the trails. What would make him positively *freaky* is if he can translate his ability to run on gnarly trails for 100 miles at un-human-like paces to clicking off 4:52 miles for a half marathon.
Jim has made a home for himself in Flagstaff, Arizona. Claiming a peak over 12,000 feet and a short drive from the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff also rests close to elevations of 1,000-4,500 feet. All of this makes the little mountain town an ideal place to train for both ultras and road races. While the smell of pines is alluring and the dirt road options are practically endless, getting out the door isn't always completely painless. "Sometimes the hardest thing is the accountability. Especially when I go do workouts by myself... takes a lot of caffeine to get out the door some days. Accountability and motivation I guess go hand in hand." The rest of the Coconino Cowboys play a large part in keeping Jim's motivation up. On this particular day, a relatively measly 6 mile run didn't have him too fired up. Luckily, workouts and long runs with his best friends always give him something to look forward to.
Assuming that his goal on the other side of the Houston Half is to make the Trials, I ask him why he would choose the half marathon, instead of the full marathon, inferring that he is better suited for the longest possible option. As if I expected any other answer, he quickly explains, “I think the half marathon is badass. I think most ultra runners, if not all ultra runners, can’t do the half… I guarantee I’m the only one on the Houston Half starting line whose last two races I’ve lined up for are 100 Mile races, and then to turn it over for 4:50 miles for a half marathon, is at least extremely rare, maybe not completely never done before, but not many people are doing it or thinking that way. So it’s showing off, I guess, if I can get it done.”
Jim’s paces on the trails aren’t exactly leisurely. He’s hoping to translate “something fun like the US Olympic Trials” back to ultra running, which remains his passion - the aerobic grinding and adventuring, and the ability to run big races around the world. He admits, too, that his turnover hasn’t exactly gotten better since the birth of his ultra career. Knowing his tendency to push his mileage to the edge, I wondered how he would translate that to training for a shorter and faster race, and if he still planned on coaching himself, as that sort of training needs to be a bit more specific.
“I think the whole point of doing it is listening to my own personal feedback more honestly, and when I need easy days, or when I can add more and I’m doing good, or when I need to back off and do less runs or days off… I find I have a more honest feedback loop coaching myself. There’s tons of information out there, there are still lots of books that I’m reading about it. It’s a more scientific process, so it’s almost easier to do it on the roads than it is to do with self-coaching in ultras, because ultra is just kind of listening to yourself and going with your gut…
…I constantly flirt with doing too much, and I feel like I’ve done that since I started running in high school, but that’s how I enjoy pursuing running, I like trying to find that balance and that level, and, yeah, I go over the edge… frequently and repeatedly… but sometimes I nail it and it works out really well, and I think I get more out of myself by flirting with that, rather than being safe and leaving stuff on the board.”
Walmsley’s Houston endeavor is another way for him to flirt with the edge - something that is indeed necessary for anybody who is in search of the their highest potential.