‘It’s a Western States sort-of-thing’: Course record holder Walmsley weighs in on Saturday’s race
It’s the week of one of ultrarunning’s biggest races, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, and defending champion Jim Walmsley has just arrived at his room in Squaw Valley.
Near the starting point of the race, which takes some of the world’s top endurance athletes on a route from Squaw to Auburn, the 28-year-old from Flagstaff, Arizona unpacks his things and settles in for his fourth straight year of competition at the original 100 miler.
Last year, Walmsley made waves in the running community by winning his first Western States in record-breaking fashion. After two consecutive years of being on pace to break the course record, only to have everything come undone miles from the finish, Walmsley finished 2018’s race in 14 hours, 30 minutes, 4 seconds to set a course record.
On Saturday morning he will return to the start line to defend his title against what race president John Medinger called, “one of the most competitive fields ever,” featuring eight of last year’s top-10 finishers, and the return of 2017’s winner Ryan Sandes.
“It’s a Western States sort-of-thing,” said Walmsley on the depth of the men’s division. “You know you always have to bring your A-game.”
Following last year’s record-setting performance, Walmsley said his mindset and approach to the race have changed little, and with favorable weather and decent course conditions, a push to again break the record could be in play.
“I might kind of pull things back (from) maybe not running as risky, but at the same time, counter to that, there’s pretty good weather predictions right now,” said Walmsley. “This will be my fourth time racing, fourth year in a row, and it’s by far the coolest year. There’s also that tempting side of it of like, ‘I always want to see what I can run here.”
Walmsley was on a record-breaking pace in 2016, but strayed off course with less than 10 miles to go. He fought through exhaustion to finish 20th with a time of 18:45:36. In 2017, which had a similar amount of snow on the course as this year, Walmsley was several minutes ahead of his 2018 record time during the early portions of the course, but as the day wore on, temperatures climbed past 90 degrees and exhaustion knocked him out of the race with a little more than 20 miles to go.
“Ultimately, it’s about listening to my own pace and just putting everything out there regardless,” he said. “As long as I end up giving my best effort and going to the well to get there, I’m always happy with it. Whether it’s the DNF in 2017 or the course record last year. I’m pretty proud of both days and the fact that I know I gave everything at both races. You can always live with that.”
Coming into this year’s race, Walmsley said he feels he’s matured as a runner, which has given him the confidence to overcome the mental and physical hurdles that arise during a 100-mile race.
“Resilience of no matter what does happen and not being shaken by it,” he said on the key to performing well at Western States. “Patience and caution are things you hear from more experienced guys … and tend to pay off a little more than just going out there and going as hard as you can. It’s got to be a very calculated effort for the whole day.”
As for the race itself, Walmsley said the climb out of Michigan Bluff, a little past the midway point, and then later on, Volcano Canyon are among the most difficult areas of the course.
“Volcano Canyon tends to be a really hot spot on the course that can be pretty brutal,” he said. “If you’ve kind of gone over the line a little bit, you end up paying that back a lot.”
Walmsley will have to defeat a field of more than 350 runners, which includes some of the biggest names in the sport on both the men and women’s side, to repeat as champion, while also conquering a course covered in several miles of snow, ice, and mud. The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is set to begin at 5 a.m. at Squaw Valley. The top finishers will reach Auburn later that night. A live webcast will be available at WSER.org.
“I’m excited. Every year offers challenges, and I’m just hoping for a good day,” said Walmsley. “If I’m able to pull it off again and have just kind of a day without many flaws, you kind of almost learn to cherish those days, because usually something happens.”