When Jim Walmsley crashed and burned at this year’s Western States, I took a lot of flak for writing this article. Not least from Eric Schranz over at the Ultra Runner Podcast and some of Jim’s own team. In fact, I had a long conversation with one of Jim’s Western States pacers. Apparently, the goal was never to win that race, but to go all out for the course record, regardless.
My argument, and the argument put forward by many others, was that it was foolish to try something so challenging without learning how to run 100 miles in the first place. There’s no doubting Jim has talent, but compared to many of his contemporaries, he’s vastly inexperienced at running that distance. Twice Jim has blasted off the front of the pack at course record pace and twice he’s blown up. The first was possibly more of a mental collapse after going the wrong way. The second was, in part, due to gastric issues.
Now, as any seasoned distance runner knows, the main reasons for quitting in ultra races are stomach problems and a lack of mental fortitude. Half the race is in your head, the other half is in your gut. Everyone knows that don’t they? So it’s wise to sort that stuff out as best you can, before you start talking about breaking records. Sorting it comes from nothing more than experience. You can only learn to run 100 miles by running 100 miles, getting it wrong and then doing it again.
Which is why I think Jim is an absolute hero for coming 5th at this year’s UTMB. That race, and the subsequent interview on iRunFar (embedded below), are a total testament to the fact that he has listened to the criticism, thought about his strategy, learned from his mistakes and taken a different approach to racing 100 miles. One that will yield results in the long term over one that is based primarily on raw talent and luck.
From very early on at UTMB 2017 it was clear Jim’s strategy was going to be different. This may have been due to a number of things. Firstly the weather. It was really hot at Western States 2017. Everyone said it was going to be too hot to attempt a course record. Jim didn’t listen and we all know what happened. In Chamonix, the warnings were for heavy rain and snow on the peaks, certainly not ideal conditions. Indeed the course was altered slightly to account for the weather.
Secondly, the elite field was without question one of the most stellar assembled in recent years. It included arguably the greatest ultra runner of all time, Kilian Jornet, two-time previous winner Francois D’Haene, as well as other previous UTMB champions and top 10 finishers. Did this have an effect on Jim’s approach to the race? Was he going to run with due deference and respect for those around him? Perhaps. In fact, it is likely that these things did play some part in the way he approached UTMB 2017. However, I think without question, his change of attitude was predominantly down to that gradual process that we’ve all been through. The understanding that to do something well, you have to take time to learn how to do it properly.
I’m all for Jim trying to set the world on fire. Go for it. Just do it when the time is right. Blasting off the front was verging on madness at Western States and would have been equally stupid at UTMB 2017, and from the outset, Jim was much more restrained. Rather than run off the front early on, he stayed with the leading group. He ran with Kilian and Francois, each of them taking turns to set the pace. He waited at the aid stations for Kilian to catch up. At one point he was heard to remark that everyone was going “so slowly”. “No” said Kilian with the voice of experience, “they’re all going too fast”. (This from the nutter who ran the first 25 minutes broadcasting video live from his phone as he ran!)
It was clear that all the time during that first half of the race, Jim was trying desperately to hold himself back. “Patience, patience, patience” he was heard to say to himself at one of the checkpoints. He wanted to run. He wanted to go. But it’s starting to sink in that you just can’t do that in a 100 mile race. It sounds obvious to say it like this, but you have to pace yourself! Rule number one, don’t go off too fast. If you go off too fast at the outset you will pay for it later in the race. We all know that, don’t we?!!
And it was becoming apparent that Jim is wiser these past few months. Although many would question the wisdom of doing three days of 40km plus training runs with 3000m of elevation a week before the race! But still, it wouldn’t be Jim without some ridiculous Strava data. But he is wiser and he showed it during the race. He also showed a mental toughness that has eluded him over 100 miles so far.
We all experience low points in a 100 mile race. You’d be foolish to think you can run the whole thing and not go through a bad patch at some point. It’s so likely that we even dial it in to our race plan. The skill is to overcome it, get through it and get out the other side intact. Jim has managed this before in shorter races, but in his 100 mile efforts so far, he has capitulated when the going got tough. So it was, that by the time Jim reached the aid station at La Fouly, he was almost done. He couldn’t keep any sugar down and had to stop for over 20 minutes to recover. He managed to get some soup in and eventually left at walking pace.
It looked all over. Even though he had not raced off the front. Even though he had stayed with the more experienced runners and played a sensible, patient game, he was about to crash and burn again. Except for the fact that, having not raced off the front, having been more patient and sensible, he still had that tiny little bit of something left in his body and mind which enabled him to carry on. Slowly, ever so slowly, Jim got it together. He had been passed by a good few runners and at 110km he was in 8th place. Francois and Kilian were gone. The win was gone. The course record had never been an option. Why bother? What was left?
What was left was a finish. What there was, was a Hardrock qualifier and a chase. Over the next 50km he found that second wind. He fought his way back up the field. The commentators on the UTMB live stream started referring to him as Jim ‘back from the dead’ Walmsley! With Pau Capel literally 1 minute behind, he crossed the finish line in 5th place. A hard fought, hard earned, dammed fine, proper 100 mile finish.
And that’s what running 100 miles is all about. That’s what Jim is learning and I for one am absolutely delighted that he didn’t win, that he saw what Kilian and Francois are made of and respected it. You can see it and feel it when he talks on the post run interview. Now he can move forward. He needs to try and lock down his nutrition but that will come. Fifth place at UTMB 2017 may not be what Jim Walmsley dreamed of this time last year. However, it is absolutely the very best thing that could have happened. For him and for the sport.