I’m not sure why it annoys me so much that Jim Walmsley dropped out of Western States at 78 miles, but it does. Perhaps it’s because he is an elite athlete and I don’t expect him to make the same type of rookie mistakes the rest of us do.
If you’re unfamiliar with Jim’s recent history, let me explain. Jim is a superb ultra runner. I mean, really good. In 2016 Jim created a bit of a buzz by announcing prior to Western States 100, that he felt he was in with a shot of breaking the course record in his first ever 100 mile race. Sure enough, for much of the race, he was almost 30 minutes ahead of the CR. At 90 miles, although he had slowed, he was still 15 minutes ahead of CR pace and way ahead of Andrew Miller, in second place. But, for whatever reason, at around 93 miles, Jim missed a left turn and ended up on Highway 49. It is now an infamous and legendary fuck up on a par with Gary Robbins’ non-finish at the Barkley Marathons this year.
He had only run 2 miles off course though, and still had a shot at winning the race. But instead of gritting his teeth and getting back on it, he folded. He was so mentally demoralised, that he simply gave up. Once his mind had gone, his body gave up too and he walked it in, finishing in 20th place.
In 2017, having qualified with a golden ticket win at the Gorge Waterfalls 100k, Jim was again in bullish mood suggesting that, if he was on his game, there were few that could beat him and the course record was definitely on. Without question, Jim has become one of the best ultra runners in the world and he has many years of good running ahead of him. I’ve nothing against confidence and self-belief and although Jim’s comments make him seem like a swaggering, arrogant yank, he comes across as a very likeable guy in interviews and in the documentaries I’ve watched. Also, given his race results this past year, it certainly looked like Jim was perfectly capable of ‘putting his legs where his mouth is’.
So it was, that I spent much of Saturday June 24th refreshing my browser on live updates from WS100. As expected, Jim was in the lead from the start, almost an hour up on Ryan Sandes at one point, and on course record pace. I went to bed, with Jim having passed the 62 mile checkpoint at Foresthill, still leading and still on pace. All looking good, thought I.
When I woke, the first thing I did was to check what time Jim finished in. He’s sure to have won, but did he break the course record? As the text came up, I did one of those comedy actor double takes, when I saw that Ryan Sandes had won Western States 2017 and Jim’s name was nowhere to be seen. A quick check of social media confirmed that he had dropped from the race at 78 miles, the Rucky Chucky river crossing.
Initially, I felt gutted for him. Oh no, poor guy. But then I began to get annoyed. What was he playing at? Last year, even though he took a wrong turn, he effectively blew up before the end of the race. Now he’s blown up again! He’s only entered two 100 milers and both have effectively ended with him running out of mental and physical energy before the finish. Ok, so you’re going to tell me he had gut issues and that you can’t legislate for that. But you know what, gastric problems are indicative of poor race management, beyond just good nutrition. You are far more likely to suffer from gastric issues if you’re going too fast.
My reaction is interesting given that I recently pulled out of a 100 mile race partly because I went off too fast. It’s often true that the things which annoy us about other people are the things we hate about ourselves. I know that if I go off too fast at the outset of a race then it will directly impact my pace towards the end of the race and that includes suffering with stomach problems. To be fair, ‘don’t go off too fast’, is pretty much running rule number one for any race distance. He didn’t need to be 20 minutes ahead of CR pace.
You cannot go into a 100 mile race without respecting the distance. Especially if it’s your first. No matter how elite you are, you have to learn the distance. You just don’t know how you’re going to cope or what’s going to happen. I understand that Jim felt he could give the course record a go, but having failed twice he has to look at things and approach the race differently next time. If he comes back in 2018, which I’m pretty sure he will, he simply must not start faster than CR pace. First and foremost, get the race finished and won. Don’t fly off into the lead. Sit comfortably with the lead pack and make a break for it a 60 miles if you have to, but win the goddam race. Once you’ve won Western States and you have acquired that extra mental strength that comes from knowing you’ve done it, THEN come back and go for the course record.
What do I know? I’m just some dumbass, mid-pack, ultra runner, who’s entered a mere three 100 mile races and only finished two of those. Sure, shit happens and what are you gonna do, but this stuff is manageable! He reminds me of a kid in a sweet shop racing away with excitement in his eyes. “I’m running, I’m running and I LOVE it!!! haha!” as he skips down the hill waving his arms in the air. Marathon, no problem, 50k, yawn, 50 miles, is that all? 100k, easy. This. Is. Easy. I can do this. 100 miles……..oh shit. Houston we have a problem. In Jim’s own words, “Sometimes when you’re not careful trying to set off fireworks you light yourself on fire”. So, for the love of God Jim, just set off one firework at a time. The show will still be awesome and it might last a little longer too.
Finally, a huge well done to Ryan Sandes and Cat Bradley for their wins. I really want Jim to come back and crush it next year. He can do it, I’m sure. Feel free to comment below with your own thoughts on Jim’s Western States career so far. What’s the internet for if it’s not to allow idiots like us to spout our opinions to the world despite being entirely unqualified so to do. Hit ‘like’ and share this with others who might be interested. If you like running films, I make a lot of them. Click the link above or search ‘Film My Run’ on YouTube.
Photo Credit – Myke Hermsmeyer