By Larry Carroll
When it comes to sports, sometimes stepping outside your lane can be seen as a major affront. Which is strange, because as anyone from a world-class athlete to your run-of-the-mill gym rat will tell you: The best exercise is the one your body doesn’t expect, something that pushes you outside your routine and forces the body to adapt.
Which is why one of the more fascinating stories in the ultra-running community these days is Jim Walmsley’s quest to try his luck with next month’s U.S Olympic Marathon Trials. As Walmsley trains to go down in distance, from being an ultra-runner to a standard marathon participant, he has been facing considerable backlash, both online and elsewhere. It’s no secret that the marathon community sees him as something of an outsider, so after years of insisting that ultra runners are different animals whose 30-mile training runs are nothing like the sub-5 minute splits needed to be a competitive marathoner, many view Walmsley’s dream as something akin to a publicity stunt.
But Walmsley has never been the type to take on a challenge and then fold like a deck chair. This is an athlete whose resume of wins reads like a list of the most difficult ultra-racing events in the world: Western States (twice), Lake Sonoma (twice), Bandera, JFK (three times), Moab … and the list just goes on and on. Which is why he has just as many supporters who are quick to point out that this isn’t an ego trip.
And then there’s the one thing both sides have in common: A desire to see how this whole thing plays out. Like Michael Jordan attempting baseball, or Conor McGregor stepping into a boxing ring with Floyd Mayweather, curiosity is piqued by the question of whether the skills of one discipline will translate to the other.
“I’d say I’m not in contention for the top three,” Walmsley told the Arizona Daily Sun recently. “The goal, more or less, is to be competitive and try to hold my own. … At the end of the day, I still have ultrarunning. I still have my day job.”
It sounds like Walmsley hopes that if he does get a crack at the Olympics, his unique training will present some sort of opportunity to overcome an obstacle that traditional marathoners would have a more difficult time grappling with.
“You never know,” Walmsley said. “I bring something to this race, a toolbox, others don’t. The race could turn out like, ‘Well, I’m the only one who brought this wrench. I can do that.’ You never know.”
Believe it or not, Walmsley — a Phoenix, Arizona native who just turned 30 earlier this month — has never run a marathon in his life. But he did set a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim record, and last year he won the World Mountain Running title. In 2019 he also set the world record for fastest 50 miles, running it at 4:50:08, which puts him at an average of about 5:48 per mile — not too far off the pace of a solid marathoner, but he still has much work to do.
“For an ultrarunner, [this] challenges the status quo for how we are stereotyped,” Walmsley says of his current mindset, just days after Ultra-Running magazine named him Ultrarunner of the year for the fourth year in a row. “Challenging that and putting up a good fight, that sort of thing, is more or less the bigger story that I’m after by doing this.”
On Sunday, Walmsley ran the Rock N Roll half-marathon in Phoenix. He finished with a time of 1:02:13, putting him at a pace time of 4:44. It’s the latest workout in a training regimen that has had him averaging 161 miles a week (with two weeks of 175 miles) over the last several weeks. But will it be enough?
“There’s just an unknown about it, whether the strength from running trails and the high volume I do now will translate to something that’s maybe closer to my top potential for the marathon,” Walmsley says, looking forward to next month’s Olympics trials. “With the hills in Atlanta, there’s no certain time that’s going to get you there to the top three. People aren’t sure what it’s going to take, so why not put your nose in that?”