Jim Walmsley is really a sight to see when he races, and his off-the-front win of the 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon was no exception. In the following interview, Jim talks about how running into a tree almost knocked him out early in the race, how he raced Tarawera by feel, if running 102 kilometers solo was lonely, what his main motivations are in trail ultrarunning, and why he thinks running 14 hours flat is an audacious, but possible goal for him at the 2017 Western States 100.
Be sure to check out our results article to see how the rest of the race played out.
[Editor’s Note: We apologize for the sound quality of finish-line noise and very loud cicadas in the trees. Challenging conditions. As always, we’ve got a written transcript below.]
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Jim Walmsley, 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here at the Tarawera Ultramarathon finish line. I’m with men’s champion, Jim Walmsley. Hi.
Jim Walmsley: Hi.
iRunFar: How’s it going?
Walmsley: It’s going good.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your run today.
Walmsley: Thank you.
iRunFar: What do you think?
Walmsley: I thought it was a well-rounded run today. It was a hard course in ways and runnable in other ways. I’m happy to start the year this way for sure.
iRunFar: I think this is a course that has exuded a lot of mystery for runners wondering what is it like running on the North Island of New Zealand. It’s supposedly a fast course, but there is some stuff that slows you down. Talk about it.
Walmsley: It’s deceivingly slow. It’s deceivingly slower as well as different sections are very independently different, so I think you need to exploit what your strengths are and try to not get hammered at the stuff you might not be as good at. I think the very rooty, rocky—there are some rocks here in certain sections, but a lot of the trail doesn’t have rocks. When it does get technical, I don’t think it’s necessarily the time to fight the course personally. That was my approach to it today.
iRunFar: At the elite panel yesterday, you said you’re going to run 7:20, which I think you pulled half out of your ass.
iRunFar: You ended up running 7:23-and-change. You must feel content with how today went.
Walmsley: Yes. I think 7:20 would have been great. It would have been kind of awesome to break 7:20 after pulling that out of my ass, but it’s pretty close. I think everybody appreciated the honesty in talking about it, as well as going for it a bit. It was one of those things where I threw out that it was arbitrary as well as I hadn’t seen the whole course, but I also talked a lot about running off of feel and running content, and I thought I did that today. 7:20 is pretty realistic on that course for sure.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about how things went. From what I understand, you were already apart from the field at 1k in?
Walmsley: David Byrne ran with me the first 4k.
iRunFar: That was your company for the day.
Walmsley: Yes. He was kind of yo-yoing a bit because on the downhills he’d pull back a bit and then, he’s a climber, so he’d catch back up. I think he was like, “Yeah, this might not be a good idea.” So he went back in the chase pack. So, two things I talked about was, I didn’t want it to be me versus the pack, but I kind of thought about it, but I kind of thought about it and, Well, screw it. It’s me versus the pack.
iRunFar: Did you legitimately see it any other way?
Walmsley: I kind of accepted it. There are pre-race interviews as a panel for this with all the elites. This is my first time experiencing that. They’re asking you pretty direct questions. Most people would beat around the bush with how they’re going to do it, but the vibes I got from the guys was, “If Jim wants to run fast from the start, we’ll let him run fast from the start. We’ll have a laugh about it when we pass him.” That’s just kind of me going, “Well, if they want to spot me time before trying to chase, I’ll take that time and let you chase.” I said it in front of most people that if they want to try to chase me down, they can try, but odds are I probably won’t come back. I was really happy because every time I heard splits, and now what I know after the race—which is sometimes very different—I was always making up time all day. I’m probably most happy with that.
iRunFar: Being able to incrementally increase your gap on the field. I think somewhere before 10k you about knocked yourself out on a branch?
Walmsley: Yes, about six miles in, there were two branches around this point called, Blue Lake. The first tree branch was probably a foot in diameter…
iRunFar: So it’s not like a ‘branch’… a massive branch.
Walmsley: It’s technically a branch as it wasn’t a trunk, but nonetheless, it completely knocked me to the ground. I hit my head, knocked me to the ground, and luckily the lights didn’t go off. My hat and glasses went flying. I got to go back tomorrow for parts of my sunglasses. I kind of got up and did a little check and started jogging again. With the systems checks I did, things seemed fine, but then I kept saying, “That hit me really, really hard.” I had some scrapes from it, too, I think from falling afterward. Then the funny thing… there were two branches. The first one had no sign; it was just covered in moss. I think I registered it just as leaves, and I didn’t necessarily duck low enough. There was a lot of ducking today. We’re in hobbit land, so that’s what I figured. It’s made for shorter people. I didn’t duck low enough at all. I totally got wiped out. Then 20 meters after it, there was another big one. That one had a sign on it that said, “Duck.” I think it had a little duck on it.
iRunFar: “You’re late. You’re really late.”
Walmsley: How about you put that sign on the first one, and then don’t worry about the second one. I kind of shook my fist at that one and kept going. I cleared that one, though.
iRunFar: Were you lonely being by yourself for seven hours today?
Walmsley: I say I’m getting more and more used to it. I think I’m getting better and better at it. The other aspect of it, is that I really like the dynamic when I can isolate other runners because I also figure there might be a pack chasing for awhile, but I was running well enough that someone was going to have to bridge it if they wanted to win. I was feeling really comfortable. Someone is going to be lonely for a couple hours as well. I really like running one on one. If I’m by myself and you’re by yourself, I think the tempo that I set is going to be faster. I’m just competitive with myself and my splits. I’m paranoid about people chasing me, especially fast guys. I think I’m getting good at it and embracing it in the right way.
iRunFar: I got to see you pretty much at every aid station today. You looked like you maybe had a low about 57k. That was the only time you didn’t look like yourself.
Walmsley: I knew I was going to see my crew, James Bonnet, there. I knew I wanted to tell him that that was a rough runnable section. It was the most technical part all day. Looking back at the splits, I was expecting that, but I was expecting to make up more time than I did. I think I didn’t make up a ton of time on that section. The strategy as I got going through there, I hadn’t seen it, it was just trying to not fight it and be efficient.
iRunFar: Just monitoring yourself through there.
Walmsley: It goes back to, I didn’t want to fight the tough parts of the course and then take bigger swings at the parts of the course where I thought things were more manageable or not as impressive splits or not as hard of the course. I just didn’t try to fight it as much. I think overall that paid big dividends late because at the same time, I think one of my takeaways from today was that I didn’t personally feel like I had lows. It was a point where I knew it was going to be slow, and I don’t think during the race I viewed it as a negative.
iRunFar: In talking to you before the race and, then, in listening to you talk at the elite panel yesterday, it seemed like the only thing you were really nervous about pre-race is if you let yourself go in some way that whoever is having a good day behind you would pass you. Were you always sort of looking behind you, or did you come to a point where you were comfortable with what was happening?
Walmsley: I did right from the get go. Once I started to get a gap, I kind of know the way the course goes, there’s no point in looking behind you. They could be a minute behind you. You won’t see them in most of the course. There aren’t very good views. There’s no point in looking over your shoulder. It’s all in your mind. You’re thinking about it. You’re thinking about what they’re doing, but I knew I was running well. I was beating most of my splits I had laid out. I didn’t lay out extremely fast splits to hit. I almost think it’s better to aim a bit lower for splits and to beat those because it goes to positive feedback throughout the day. It’s okay to be faster as long as it’s comfortable and you’re running within yourself.
iRunFar: That’s the kind of question I’m trying to figure out how to ask you because when you look at you and what you’re doing in the sport from Mars distance, it looks like you’re racing your ass off and trying to hold on. But then studying you more closely, it seems like you’re just in a good place fitness-wise and you’re using that in an intelligent way. There’s just this gap between you and most other guys right now.
Walmsley: As an elite, I think there has to be an optimism that maybe you are better, maybe you could be better.
iRunFar: “I’m the chosen one.”
Walmsley: Some part of you has to lie to yourself. I always say that no matter how your training goes, you need to lie to yourself, ignore the negative—they never happen—and feed off the positive. It has to be that way. You have to have optimism to it to be able to have great days like today. I also think talent and younger talent specifically coming in is changing things a bit of just… it’s a newer outlook, as well as younger guys my age are more willing to challenge the status quo. I think part of that is that… especially since I first got into this sport, you get a lot of, “Don’t start out too fast.” You start a race, and everyone is laughing and joking and getting along in the front pack but it’s like, “We’re in the middle of a race!” Coming from a track background, when the gun goes off, you’re racing. Your first split is as fast as any other split or effort level many times. You need to moderate the whole day if you want to run a great time. I think that is exploitable on a lot of courses and in a lot of races. I think people are like, “These guys are going out crazy fast,” but if you moderate it right, you’re going out more consistent in my opinion. It goes back to running within and not overdoing it. I think sometimes maybe when I first started trying that, I had to find the balance a little bit as well as the consistency of racing the certain distances. There’s a lot of learning experiences when I got into ultras. I think now a couple guys are getting in and having a much quicker learning curve partially because I’m breaking a little bit of the trail. Some other guys are breaking a bit of the trail. I think you’ll see a sharper learning curve with new people into the sport. I think just things are evolving right now. The guys that have been in it, they’re evolving, too. The good guys in, they’re not better or worse runners, but I think the mindset is changing personally.
iRunFar: I think there’s a tendency by the human condition to want to take what somebody like you is doing in the sport, or what some of the guys and girls are doing with the sport, and setting it in an historical context to try to make sense of it. People are apt to say that you’re a transcendent. Does that motivate you? Are you internally motivated? What motivates you to go out and run on the day?
Walmsley: With my background story, I think I’ve pointed out that I’ve tried quitting running a couple times before I found trail running and ultrarunning, and I can’t do it.
iRunFar: I don’t actually know that I knew that.
Walmsley: To be mentally healthy… I get too antsy; I don’t sleep.
iRunFar: Running is your mental health.
Walmsley: It’s a total coping mechanism for me for sure.
Walmsley: I’m like a Weimaraner or Vizsla. I need to run every day. I need to get out the door and do something every day.
iRunFar: Do you need to just exercise, or can you do other things other than exercise?
Walmsley: I think I could apply it to others things. I thought about that as well when I was, This is a problem. It was just that it went back to running. With cycling and triathlons, you have to category up and stuff, and that sucks in my mind coming from running. In running, you run the time and you get to line up against the other fast guys. It seems time wasteful to try another sport, and you don’t know that outcome. I always felt like I have more not to prove but more ability to show than what I ran in college. Yeah, I ran those times, but at the same time, I also think I struggled with other things stressed at a military academy specifically, that I don’t think I got the most out of myself. I don’t think I coped with that stress particularly well. Times are what they are. I’m not going to go back and break my 5k time at this point, and I don’t really care to. I have different goals in running now.
iRunFar: Western States has gotten under your skin. Is that a fair thing to say?
Walmsley: It comes up all the time. I think I’ve still got four more months now. I’ve been counting down the days and the months. Immediately after the race, everybody is asking. It just hasn’t stopped. I don’t mind it. In my mind, I learned so many positives about myself and what I have in me and the hunger I have for that race and that distance, that I want it really bad. I draw confidence, just only confidence from last year off of it, but yeah, I’ve got some making up to do on it.
iRunFar: I didn’t mean “under your skin” in a negative way. That’s a race that comes to inhabit a lot of people’s hearts. Has it kind of caught yours?
Walmsley: It has. I think I will take it one year at a time. I haven’t decided if I’m going to be a repeat Western States runner or not. The running joke last year going into it was that I’d love to be “one and done.” That was kind of a mindset and a goal going into it. Now, I’m obviously not. It’s also evolved into… as things have changed so dramatically in the last year for me personally as making running not only a priority in my life since moving to Flagstaff but now a job, and just opportunities to come to New Zealand to run Tarawera and invites to run all these amazing races, unfortunately, I can’t do them all—I really want to—but I don’t know if I can do Western States in one way, but in another way, it’s such a great race. There’s so much publicity. There’s so many great things about it. It suits so many of my strengths. Maybe I should do it every year. But, we’ll see. One year at a time with it for sure, and Western States 2017 is the big race for me that is obsessing me for sure. This is the only race… I guess next month is a little vacation stuff, too. I’m doing a short race in Spain on March 19—[Carrera] Alto Sil (31k)—but just training through that completely. Basically from here on though, everything is building towards Western States and being ready for that. This means summer is coming and lots of suffering in training… it’s really, really nice when race day comes around. But then you get however many miles in and, oh boy, it’s a completely painful day, but there’s so much drive and hunger towards that race for sure.
iRunFar: Best of luck in enjoying your obsession for the next couple of months. You’ve got to get in the race, too.
Walmsley: Thank you. I have to qualify. I didn’t enter the lottery. I didn’t apply for anything. I want to qualify.
iRunFar: Earn your way in.
Walmsley: Yeah, I don’t want to phrase it that way, but in a way, yeah. I think the best races in the early season in the States tend to be Golden Ticket races anyway. I love racing, so I’ll probably going to do one regardless, I wouldn’t be happy not being up front in one of those races either way. Two birds, one stone.
iRunFar: Congratulations on getting the win and the course record here at Tarawera today. Continue to enjoy these North Island apple ciders. I should say alcoholic apple ciders.
Walmsley: Thank you. I am enjoying the apple ciders. Ciders are popular here, so I’m embracing that.
iRunFar: All of the American contingency is migrating to the South Island in a couple days?
Walmsley: Yeah, I don’t think it was coordinated at all, but I think everyone is going toward the Queenstown area next week, so we’ll probably have some sort of… we should have some sort of an American get together. Although, I only have wifi, so everybody’s got to wait for my Strava data from this race, so we’ll see. It should be good. Look at the last 10k.
iRunFar: Do you realize the public was refreshing, refreshing, refreshing… when is he going to upload it?
Walmsley: I don’t know. I forgot… I didn’t really send any Facebook posts or tweets before the race. I need to get better at that. I will, but… I haven’t had a New Zealand update yet. We’ll see. Maybe it will be something with hot springs or that sort of thing… and then the South Island. I need to get stuff from Matt Trappe here… probably one from today.
iRunFar: Your vacation from the South Island. I think he’s already sent some stuff out into the world on behalf of you today.
Walmsley: I want to steal one. He sends out all the good ones, and then I have to repost one because I’m like, That one’s awesome!
iRunFar: “That’s the best one!”
Walmsley: It’s all good.
iRunFar: Well, maybe ask politely. He did chase you all over today also.
Walmsley: He was everywhere. I think he was getting boat shortcuts though.
iRunFar: We definitely got those. We took two boat shortcuts, but we still got there barely as fast as you ran it.
Walmsley: I like making it challenging. If you’re going to run the fastest time ever, it means you’re making everyone else work harder to get to every aid station faster, and my crew has to work faster, but everybody nailed it today.
iRunFar: You made my coverage ridiculously difficult.
Walmsley: You’re welcome.
iRunFar: I’m going to be planning for Western States better now.
Walmsley: Fourteen flat. That’s the goal.
Walmsley: We. Will. See. But, I’m going to train for that. That’s the time to beat going in—another arbitrary time.
iRunFar: I don’t think that’s arbitrary though.
Walmsley: I think it’s possible. I think it’s possible, but it’s going to take one heck of a day and one heck of an effort.
iRunFar: You’re going to have to run faster than you did last year.
Walmsley: I think I was talking to someone about this before this race. It’s just awesome going into a race and not playing it safe, but trying to go after that perfect race which is happening more and more as I’m getting better at replicating good races. I’ll take that. That’s pretty good.
iRunFar: Congratulations again. I’ll see you in a couple of days on the South Island.
Walmsley: Thank you. Awesome. Thank you.