Man On A Mission: An Interview With Jim Walmsley
[Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new column on iRunFar called ‘Sensing Greatness’ by Eric Senseman. Where Robbie Lawless has retired the long-lasting ‘Run Tramp’ series, in-depth interviews with our sport’s top athletes, Eric Senseman picks up with this column. Thank you, Robbie, and welcome, Eric!]
Jim Walmsley is a man on a mission. His mission? Simply put, it’s to win ultramarathons. Since he hasn’t lost an ultramarathon on U.S. soil since April 2015, it’s fair to say that Walmsley has been masterful at his task lately. Although masterful might be an understatement. In the past 14 months, Walmsley has won six consecutive U.S. ultramarathons, including course-record wins at the 2016 Bandera 100k and 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, bettering previous times on those courses by the likes of Sage Canaday, Rob Krar, Zach Miller, Alex Varner, and David Laney, to name a few. So where did this guy come from? And does he think the fireworks will continue in his debut 100-mile race, the 2016 Western States 100 Mile? Read on to find out.
iRunFar: I know you’ve moved around quite a lot in your life. Where have you lived over the past 10 years?
Walmsley: The last 10 years brings me back to high school. So, in high school, I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, the North Scottsdale area. Then in college I lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but it’s only kind of Colorado Springs. We’re really tucked up on the mountain, we’re higher and everything for running is on a slope. The Air Force Academy is at 7,258 feet and our saying is that we’re high, high above that of West Point of Annapolis, Maryland [laughs]. But I’m pretty sure that in order for them to get that height, they have to be measuring it from the top of the chapel or something. It’s over 7,000 feet but 7,258 feet might be overestimating. Of course, I didn’t say that when I was at the Academy [laughs].
iRunFar: Four years at the Air Force Academy?
Walmsley: Yeah, four years, graduated in four years, didn’t get a redshirt year while running in college.
iRunFar: What motivated you to attend the Air Force Academy?
Walmsley: I would say before running really took off in high school, which I would say happened senior year in cross country in high school. I ran really well in cross country in high school but I didn’t do anything in cross country in college–I think I didn’t time it right. But before running took off, the Naval Academy really interested me. Maybe doing something Special Forces before Special Forces stuff blew up—now it almost seems trendy. No, it’s definitely trendy. Because I had already applied to the Naval Academy, I had all my transcripts and everything I needed to apply to the Air Force Academy all ready to go—it was really easy to apply to the Air Force.
Then I really ended up connecting with the cross-country and distance coach—it was John Hayes at the time. I really bonded with him. I wanted to go out of state. It was free school. And I knew I could do the military thing if I wanted to. The military thing really didn’t seem like a big deal. Going out of state and free college were two really big things. Then it was the college coach I really liked and who I thought really believed in me at the time.
iRunFar: Were you a much different person when you were at the Academy? You don’t strike me as an Air Force guy.
Walmsley: I’m not the military type of guy. I wasn’t when I was there. But at the same time I did really well at the Academy. More or less I stayed under the radar, got done what I needed to get done. I think the biggest thing that helped me blend in was that, there’s so much on your plate–and being an athlete, cross-country and track—if you ask me if I know someone from the Academy, it’s almost 10 out of 10 times that I don’t know them.
I didn’t have a social life at all. The cross-country guys were my family. Outside of that, I probably didn’t know you and you didn’t know me and you didn’t know that I existed. Yeah, so it was fine. I have a little bit of OCD to me, as far as cleanliness and what not. It was easy to stay in line. I barely need to shave, so that works out. I would say that I can get along with a lot of people, so that made it easy too.
So after the Air Force Academy, I went to the central coast of California. I lived in Lompoc, a town of about 45,000 people. It’s north of Santa Barbara, south of San Luis Obispo. That’s where I did my training for the Air Force. Basically, I casually ran, maybe once or twice a week. But I got into road cycling a lot. That was really popular. After graduation I bought a road bike and I put that to use in California.
iRunFar: How far would you cycle?
Walmsley: I would probably do at least one century ride a week. I wasn’t riding every day but I would get probably between 200 and 300 miles per week on the bike. It was a good amount. I would commute to work and it was 10 or 15 miles to work. I was there about nine months.
iRunFar: Is that how long your training was?
Walmsley: Yep, yep. It’s all training for my job, which was then up in Montana. I got stationed in Great Falls, Montana.
iRunFar: Great Falls isn’t very big, at least compared to your hometown of Phoenix. What did you think when you got there?
Walmsley: Well it’s still 65,000 people. I really wanted to embrace it with an open heart. And I think I learned a lot about Montana when I was in California because you get a lot of instructors coming back from those bases. You get more insight into what to expect. And I think that in California, it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I had an artichoke farm next to where I lived. Going from a big city to a really small city was just the weirdest thing. But I just wanted to embrace it. So I learned more about Montana when I was still in California. I think the first thing I bought when I got to Montana was a backpack, a tent, a sleeping bag, and pad.
This was a big part of getting me into trail running: I wanted to do all these hikes. But I only had so much time off, I only had weeks off. So I had to get them done quick. I actually started camping centrally and running the hikes instead of hiking them. I’d go off on these journeys by myself of running through the forest.
iRunFar: How far would you go?
Walmsley: Maybe 15 miles. I had a hiking book and I would look for most difficult or extreme danger. Well I don’t think they use extreme danger, but the peaks and stuff. I would try to do a bunch of the peaks. In retrospect, it was kind of dangerous being out there by myself and running. I never carried bear spray or a bell or anything. I totally could have run up on a bear. I never saw a Montana bear but it doesn’t mean a Montana bear never saw me. I would be surprised if one didn’t see me.
iRunFar: Did you know what ultrarunning was at that time?
Walmsley: No, I didn’t know at all. I kind of knew it existed because James Bonnett–he went to high school with me. It never really sparked my interest and I never got into it. He had done Western States my freshman year, when he was a senior. I think he’s still the youngest finisher ever and got 14th that year.
I didn’t know what it was really. In 2014 I went to Stockholm, Sweden and went with my aunt to Geneva, Switzerland and Chamonix, France to see Mont Blanc. UTMB was going on. I was like, What the hell is all of this? It’s not just a race, it has events and relays. And I thought, What the hell. I still don’t know what I saw or what was going on. I remember—I think I still have a French pamphlet of the race. It was the strangest thing to me. People actually run in these mountains? I think I was just getting into it because—I don’t know if I had done the Old Gabe 50k at that time. But I found out that trying to do mountain races from a straight road or track background really just beat the crap out of me. Basically I did Old Gabe to prepare for the Speedgoat 50k to prepare for The Rut.
Old Gabe beat me up so much that I wasn’t running before Speedgoat. I came in super out of shape. I still got an iRunFar interview, which is really funny in perspective. I don’t know why they would interview me, especially now, thinking about it [laughs].
Speedgoat went awful. But it was one of the most hardest and rewarding races that I think I’ve done. It was ultimately about embodying just finishing and getting the most out of yourself. I think it took a lot out of me to get to that finish. There was a lot of walking downhill. It was a tough day for sure. Then I was just done. I couldn’t do The Rut at all. I needed to look after my body. Everything was hurting and I couldn’t run. It turned into getting healthy and then timing with the 2014 JFK 50 Mile worked out.
Things have trickled from there. JFK was a big step toward pursuing ultrarunning. I got a good result, and when you get good results it’s positive feedback and it’s encouraging and fun. I think definitely having some early success really helped move me toward ultrarunning more.
iRunFar: When you won JFK, your first 50-mile race, you were still in the Air Force?
Walmsley: I was still basically pulling 24-hour shifts underground at the time.
iRunFar: What exactly were you doing for the Air Force?
Walmsley: I was a missiler, more or less. I was in charge of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, which means I was underground and didn’t do anything. I just had to be ready for, uh, the world to hit the fan, which luckily hasn’t happened, didn’t happen, and hopefully won’t happen. But it’s just something that people much smarter than me have decided that we have to have.
It was a lot to deal with. And the environment of dealing with nuclear weapons is very uptight. It’s kind of a tough environment, to put it very, very nicely, to deal with. I didn’t enjoy my time with my job up there at all. I’ll be frank with that. It’s a big reason why I’m out right now. I really, really loved my time in Montana, and I think it was extremely important in helping shape me as a person and giving me aim toward going back into running and with what I’m doing in running now.
iRunFar: Did you have a choice as to what you would do within the Air Force?
Walmsley: Yeah, I put in for Acquisitions. I got Acquisitions. But about 60 percent of Acquisitions Officers go into what’s called an Operational Tour for your first tour, so your first three to five years you go in a different career field. I didn’t volunteer, I gambled, and thought I was in the top 40 percent of Acquisitions guys, so the first draw came out and 60 percent of Acquisitions all got told and I didn’t get drawn for that.
But as people start finding ways out of their Operational Tour, or they decide to go pilot or do something else because it’s not the job they want to do, gradually they start pulling more and more Acquisitions guys to fill the Operational Tours. An Acquisitions Officer is kind of like a project manager, it’s the business side of the Air Force—it’s not Contracts because then there are Contracts Managers, but yeah, project managers. It’s a fuzzy—I don’t know what they do, but they deal with numbers and expenses stuff.
That’s kind of what I wanted to do because my idea was to eventually get out and get a real job, which I’m totally not doing anymore. My first choices out of the Academy were to go to Los Angeles or Boston. Now I think I would not do very well in those environments. The smaller the town, the better. Flagstaff feels too big sometimes. So two weeks before graduation I got pulled for an Operational Tour in missiles to go to Montana. It was the day before outdoor track conference my senior year. It was a little distracting, but I had to take care of business at conference. I tried not to think about it, but it got me down a bit.
iRunFar: You didn’t get the draw you were hoping for?
Walmsley: No, even with Acquisitions, I didn’t get Los Angeles, I didn’t get Boston. I got Acquisitions and we had seven destinations we could choose. All of them weren’t too bad but I didn’t get any of those.
I got Birmingham, Alabama. I was actually getting excited about it. I was thinking, They have really nice trees; it’s one of the most diverse areas for trees. I can do heat; it’s just a little extra humidity. But I love the heat. I was starting to get excited for it and looked for houses and then they threw a big curveball out there with Missiles. With that, it’s basically a huge curveball with work schedule—how am I going to try to run or train? More or less in my head, it became more and more of, Well track is over for me, in my life. I’m not going to be able to maintain anything on the track right now. It was a big thing, trying to accept the next chapter of life.
iRunFar: You were in Great Falls for two years and then you left the Air Force. What’s the story there?
Walmsley: More or less, things opened up and I got out after three years. Academy usually has five-year commitments, so I technically had about another year of what would have been my commitment. They wanted more changeover in the career field, kind of. I took the opportunity to get out and take a chance in running. I started getting more of a passion for running again, and trail running.
iRunFar: So you left on good terms?
Walmsley: More or less, mutual terms. I’ll leave it at that.
iRunFar: Did you enjoy the Air Force?
Walmsley: Yeah, yeah, I liked it. I like my life better now. It feels more like I’m doing what I want to do. I don’t care as much about the career progression. The military very much gets you going all in the same direction and gets you these same goals. It’s about getting promoted. A ton of my friends from the military—everyone sort of wants to marry young, have kids young, and buy a house young. It moves that direction. I guess I started to get into that and eventually I flipped a 180 and thought, I don’t want to do that. There’s a lot more in life that I want to do right now.
It was a slow build-up. Montana had a huge impact in that way on me. I wanted to go do stuff. Because my job didn’t go great in Montana, so it really—with it not going well, and with so much to go do in Montana outside of the military, so many great places to go running, and the running community. I really enjoyed running there, exploring, and backpacking.
iRunFar: You lived in Montana then, until you left the Air Force and moved to Flagstaff, where you live now?
Walmsley: About. Well, until February 2015, that’s when I got out of the Air Force. At the end of February I moved back to Arizona. And then… I was in Phoenix. I lived at home for three months, trying to relax a little bit and let that life transition set in, knowing that I wanted to get out of Phoenix. I was looking into Colorado Springs, Park City, Utah, and Flagstaff. It really made the most sense for me to move to Flagstaff. I really liked the idea of staying in my home state. I get a lot of home-state support from high-school friends to family friends to everybody I’ve met in Flagstaff. And in general it’s unique to be in Flagstaff as a home-state kid.
iRunFar: You’re working at a bike shop in Flagstaff, right?
Walmsley: Yeah, it’s been about full-time work since I got up to Flagstaff last July. I’ve been working 40 to 45 hours per week there, but I’ve dropped it down—I’m down to 31 hours this week. I requested that I get a three-day weekend. I work 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. basically Wednesday to Saturday now.
iRunFar: Initially, your hope was to continue racing on the track after college?
Walmsley: Ideally. I think if I went to another college I would like to think that I would have stayed on the track a bit longer. I don’t think I really hit times that were up to my fitness my senior year. I really just shotgunned every event and ended up PR’ing in every event that I did my senior year, including my first time ever steeplechasing. I ended up getting All-American in the steeplechase. I don’t think I really got all that I could have on the track. But whatever. At some point you have to walk away, and I’m okay with that.
In retrospect, I would have redshirted my freshman year and then done a year of graduate school after missiles—because active duty pauses your NCAA eligibility. So I would have loved to do a fifth year at Northern Arizona University. I would be that old guy that everyone hates because I’d be beating up on the 18 year olds. But hey, those guys get contracts [laughs].
iRunFar: Your PRs when you left college, they were objectively good weren’t they?
Walmsley: I mean—so I had a 4:04 mile, my sophomore 3k was my fastest time in 8:03, my 5k was 13:52 and the one 10k I ran was 29:08. The steeple was 8:41. They’re all on the bubble as to if you’re really able to continue on the track post-college. They’re pretty good but there are lots of people running those times. I’m an optimistic guy, but I believe that I would have been able to get a lot faster PRs if I had raced on the track after college. Ultimately I saw myself topping out at 13:20 or 13:25 for the 5k. But you never know. I’m a 13:52 guy, so that’s it [laughs].
iRunFar: I have to think that you might feel the same way about your ultra results so far: you’ve run well, but you haven’t gotten to where you think you can be.
Walmsley: Well, definitely about last year and 2014. Last year, I was racing Moab Red Hot 55k and Lake Sonoma, but there was so much going on with the transition in my life that it was also a very difficult time. I think inexperience played a factor, and injuries. It is what it is, but I ran the U.S. Cross [Country Championships] the week before Moab. I didn’t do well but I ended up going for a run on Green Mountain and showing off on a downhill and I cranked my ankle really bad. So I didn’t run basically the whole week before Moab to get swelling down on my ankle. And then at Sonoma, I got into a bicycle car accident two weeks before, which put me out a bunch of days before that. It was bad luck, timing with everything. Since then I’ve gotten more stability—it was a different time in my life.
I think 2016 has been a big year of—I re-did Moab and I re-did Lake Sonoma, and both of those have gone better than last year. Moab, the course was way slower than it was last year and I ended up running five minutes faster than last year, which is, I think—it was a really good run because it was really snowy and really muddy, especially in the beginning of the course. Bandera, I jumped the gun and raced early because I got the idea that maybe I wanted to get a Golden Ticket. Bandera was the USATF 100k Trail National Championships, so I thought, Why not do that one?
I think too many people get distracted in the winter in ultra-trail running. In the track and road worlds, you don’t see top guys dabble in other sports, with other things. It’s a double-edged sword because I believe you do need to run to be the best at running, but at the same time, that’s the beauty of ultra-trail running—we do have other interests, we do more than just running, we go explore, adventure, hike, if we want to get in a workout a different way. I really like that about the sport.
To answer the question, I think there’s a lot more left with what I see myself doing in this sport. I think I’m starting to see results from finally getting consistency in training and being at elevation, and starting to train more seriously than I had been in years past.
iRunFar: You’ve had a big year racing so far. One problem for top ultrarunners in past years has been burnout. Have you thought about that?
Walmsley: I guess two things. One, it is a, Fuck it, I’m going to keep it going—while it’s hot, keep it cooking. I mean, I think you have to. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to come back. There’s no guarantee down the road.
With that, there are a couple key differences. One, I think there’s a big age discrepancy between a lot of runners who have burnt out and me. I don’t think you see as many guys in their mid-20’s burning out like that. The biggest counter-argument I can think of is marathoners. I think they’re the best example of guys that aren’t burnt out, but that train more or less, in my opinion, harder than most ultramarathoners. Typically their day-to-day runs are faster, their workouts are faster, harder, longer. They do race less, so that’s a big difference between a marathoner and ultramarathoner, they probably only race a couple times a year. But then they’re throwing other races in: half marathons, 10ks. I look to marathoners as good examples.
I think where ultramarathoning is going is that races are going to start sucking, and sucking a lot. They’re going to get faster and faster and I think there’s several guys that are capable of that in the sport right now, but I like to think that I’m helping make it suck for everybody a little bit more.
I would say it’s never going to last forever. I know that I want to push hard at least until I’m 30. [Author’s Note: Walmsley is currently 26 years old.] If I can run competitively until I’m 35 that would be great. But I’ve said that I think between 30 and 35 I’d like to travel and adventure more, whether that’s through running or on my own or maybe both. That’s something I’m interested in.
Eventually, around 35, I want to go back to school. I want to go back to dental school. That’s ultimately been my goal since I was like 10 years old. I don’t see running forever. I don’t think running is a forever sport for anyone. I can’t see the future. I can’t see where running will take me. But if running will take me into a career and a job that will support me after a competitive career, then that would be really awesome because I definitely have a passion for it. Ultimately I know—I’ve adjusted my goals to at some point apply for dental school and get accepted. But at that point maybe I’ll decide that I’m happy and don’t need that. But it’s just kind of a life goal. That’s something I’m going to make happen some day but not now.
iRunFar: You mention dentistry. Was running something that you wanted to do when you were 10 years old, too?
Walmsley: I grew up being a soccer player. I think from when I was little I wanted to grow up to be a professional athlete. It used to be soccer but as I started gaining more and more success in high school with running, then I chose to follow running instead of soccer. I think I just enjoyed running and the process of it a lot more. I just went for it. I was getting injuries because I was growing at the same time. I kept getting tendinitis in my hips, so soccer was too much for me.
iRunFar: What about the running process do you like?
Walmsley: I think I just really bonded with my high-school teammates. There’s a special bond and camaraderie you get with other runners that I really, really connected with. Then I think it’s a great way to focus, centralize your thoughts, motivate yourself. Whatever you need out of life, you can, I think, more times than not, get out of running, and especially ultra-trail running. You can go out on the trails, in the trees, and not see anyone. It’s just you, yourself, running for hours through the trees. It’s pretty peaceful.
Even in soccer I really excelled at the fitness part of it. My first coach used to run us into the ground. I really used to feed off of that. I did like the physical aspect of running. It really sucks being 26 and this skinny [laughs]. But skinny runners tend to be better runners.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about something that I know is on your mind: the Western States 100.
Walmsley: Let’s talk.
iRunFar: Do you have splits laid out?
Walmsley: I don’t even know where splits are taken at Western States. Bonnett will ask me to be cognizant of the watch.
iRunFar: Well what are you thinking about going into this race?
Walmsley: I think you have to start smart. It’s a really long race. It’ll be my longest day of running. You can’t dig yourself into a hole early. I would say it’s mostly going to be competing early rather than time-based and split-based. I think—personally, I haven’t talked to Bonnett about it, but late in the race is when we’ll look at splits. Early in the race, if everybody is running slow, then you have to compete and think about that and think about who might be in contention. I mean right now you don’t even know who all will show up on the line. For example, last year Ryan Sandes got sick right before the race and didn’t start.
iRunFar: That sounds like a different approach from your 50-mile racing tactics. You’ve recently run away from the rest of the field early on.
Walmsley: Well not right away. I wouldn’t say that’s 100-percent accurate but I would say when I feel a weakness in a race, I take advantage of it. In 100 miles, you could feel a weakness at 20 miles, but you still have 80 miles to go. A weakness there—people have second winds, people get through that, and even though you make a strong move, it’s not 50 miles where you can outlast it necessarily.
But at the same time, the way things have been going, my thought process is more and more about focusing on splits rather than competition because, um, I think if I focus on splits then I can essentially run away from competition.
iRunFar: It sounds like you’ll respect the distance.
Walmsley: I think everyone has to respect the distance. There’s no way you’re not going to have really low moments. Whether you’re Seth Swanson, Rob Krar, Mike Foote—anyone of these guys that are just stud 100-mile racers, you’re going to have really tough moments. You need to be mentally prepared to withstand that and know that it won’t last forever.
iRunFar: Are you worried about the distance? You’ve never run beyond 62 miles.
Walmsley: Not at all. The reason is that everyone has to make the jump up to 100 miles at some point. The closest distance you can make that jump from is 100 kilometers. From that, literally everyone is making the jump from 50 miles of 100 kilometers, unless you go straight to 100 miles. Everyone is doing it at some point. For the most part, if you’re good at the 50-mile or 100-kilometer distance, it will translate. There are tons of examples of people that have made the jump.
I think I’m pulling the most confidence from running with guys in Flagstaff. The Coconino Cowboy guys, Team Run Flagstaff, and marathon guys in town. Feeling other runners who I know are crushing it, who I know are in really good shape, who have run those marathon times and half-marathon times. I’m hanging in there with just about everybody right now. If paces start dipping under five minute-per-mile pace, it’s uncomfortable, but the fitness is totally there. I can feel it, just the workouts to run that fast aren’t there. But fitness is totally there.
iRunFar: When you think about Western States, what’s the goal?
Walmsley: Goal one and something I have to protect no matter what is I have to try to win it. Some people might think that’s crazy but at the same time—I think I was really nervous about Lake Sonoma before that race. I had just done my biggest weeks I had ever done. Two weeks over 120 miles with tons of vertical. I was really nervous going into Sonoma. I felt like I dialed in training and did a lot and nailed it. I was nervous. I thought, If things don’t go well, what do I do? To see things go so well time-wise, that was huge. I know that my training right now is so much better than before Lake Sonoma. Speed-wise, fitness-wise, volume, climbing, descending—everything is way better than Lake Sonoma. That gives me really good confidence. I’m ready for Western States and that challenge. It’s all about execution from here on out.
Things have gone well enough that the course record is also a goal. That’s totally a goal. It’s a big goal. At the same time, I think you have to protect the win. But the way training has gone the course record should go down.
iRunFar: So you want to win Western and you want to set a course record and you think you can do it. What if you don’t?
Walmsley: You have to dream big. You have to have those dreams. If you can’t—if you don’t see yourself reaching those goals, you’re never going to do it. Whether you’re a person that talks about it or doesn’t talk about it, you have to believe in yourself and you have to see yourself doing those goals. Right now, I think I’m in a position that my training has gone well enough that I’m going to set a course record at Western States.
If you think about any great athlete, one of the best attributes that any one of them has is short-term memory loss. So I don’t get the Western States course record, but I walk away with a win. That’s a victory. You always have to look at what victories you can walk away with. If I finish 100 miles, that’s a big win. Literally, you’re finishing a 100-mile run. I think sometimes if things go south in the race, you need to adjust your goals accordingly. But, I mean, if you finish a 100-mile race, that’s a huge achievement. So there’s always something positive to take away from it.
And maybe I don’t even finish. Maybe I only make it 70 miles. But you know what? Seventy miles is further than I have ran before. And I think you always have to take something positive away from what you do. Then you feed off the positive that you take away, rather than, I didn’t finish, I didn’t do this, I didn’t set the course record, I didn’t win. You can take a lot of other positives away and still build off that. It’s still a career; it’s still a process. Say things do go great. The next race is just as hard of a battle, whether the last race went good or bad. So each race is independent. It’s all the same. Build off of positives, at the end of the day.
A person I love—and he’s such an easy person to hate—is Connor McGregor. He talks way more smack than anyone. But, he’s—he’s a jerk. But it’s awesome: up until his last fight, he literally backed up everything he said. He gets such a following from it. It’s because he’s outspoken and he tells people what his goals are, and he accomplishes those goals through hard work.
I’ve had this goal [laughs]—I’m talking about a course record at Western States, and wearing a helmet and holding a beer [laughs]. We’re in Flagstaff—you can do whatever you want. Dream big.
[Author’s Note: Ian Torrence suggested the article’s title, “Man On A Mission”. I thank him.]