The tone of the signage grows more frantic the farther you descend down South Kaibab Trail. At its starting point, atop the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, the trail is marked with notices reminding hikers that the path is without water and that “what goes down must go back up.” After a stretch of steep switchbacks drops you a quarter mile into the canyon’s rim, a sign advises not to try the walk to and from the Colorado River, which cuts across the canyon’s floor, in a single day. In four languages, it cautions against the steep, exposed 12-mile hike, but it’s the illustration — of a muscular blond hiker, burned red and projectile vomiting on all fours — that most succinctly communicates the message.
Most day hikers stop a mile and a half down at Cedar Ridge, a rocky panoramic lookout peppered with shrubs. From there, the canyon looks grand (as promised) and also sprawling and ancient, with its muted reds and greens. And yet from that height, the view still reads as more postcard than place. The canyon’s biggest draw and limitation are identical: its unintelligible dimensions. But on this October afternoon, a small white figure, growing in size, gave the eyes a much-needed sense of scale. As it worked its way up the winding dirt trail, it became clear that the white spot was a longhaired, pencil-thin man, running swiftly.
As he climbed the ridge’s left flank, a crowd of tourists began to point his way. I explained that he was Jim Walmsley, America’s best male ultrarunner. I told them he once ran from rim to rim to rim of the Grand Canyon — 42 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing — in under six hours. That he broke the course record at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in back-to-back years and had run the fastest 50-miler in history just months before. The run we were witnessing that October day — more than half a marathon up and down the South Kaibab Trail — was, for Walmsley, just a casual tuneup.
Walmsley drew level with us, for a moment, before his hypnotic loping stride — metronomic and bounding, below a straight back — propelled him past in a disorienting flash. We watched him climb, at an unbreaking pace, onto the switchbacks and toward the trailhead. An old man turned to his wife and said: “Very cool! I saw two mule trains and an ultrarunner today.” I started the 1.5-mile hike back to the ridge. Walmsley was already around a corner and out of sight.
When I reached the canyon’s rim, sweating through my shirt and gasping for bits of thin air in the high elevation, I was met by Walmsley, grinning in his black short shorts and white shirt, with his long curly hair pulled tight and secured in a knot. He took a sip of water mixed with GU Roctane energy-drink mix from a 12-ounce bottle, all he had brought for the run. He had left the South Rim at 10:56 a.m., crossed the Colorado River and then turned around, arriving back at the trailhead at 1:26 p.m. He ran 14.4 miles, finishing the second half — a 4,600-foot climb from the river to the rim — in under 80 minutes. He didn’t seem especially tired. I told him the view from Cedar Ridge was beautiful. He told me I really ought to see the river someday.
Over the last four years, Walmsley, who is 30, has emerged as the dominant figure in American men’s ultrarunning. The ultramarathon, broadly defined as any race longer than the standard marathon’s 26.2 miles, is an inherently mad pursuit. Held on every continent, the events range from high-speed 50-kilometer road runs to hundreds-of-miles-long tests of grit across deserts or mountain passes. Ultrarunning’s two most prestigious races couldn’t be more different: South Africa’s Comrades Marathon is a fast-paced 55-mile road run, while the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in the Alps is a 106-mile mountain trudge. The most notorious American ultras span a near-impossible 100-mile race through Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park and a 135-mile trek across Death Valley in July. The sport attracts amateur challenge-seekers, masochistic oddballs and, in recent years, an influx of young elite runners.
Last June, Walmsley broke his own course record at Western States, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, with a time of 14 hours 9 minutes 28 seconds. He ran almost four consecutive marathons up and down Northern California’s snowy mountains and scorched canyons at an 8.5-minute-mile pace. Imagine briskly jogging through hostile terrain for the entirety of your workday — and then doing it again. And yet, because athleticism is only part of the equation in races that are just as much about your tolerance for extreme mental and physical strain, mainstream runners often look down on the ultrarunner. They still see a field of eccentrics and seekers, pushing their bodies and minds, which is well and good but certainly not a sport. (Some people in the distance-running community derisively refer to ultrarunners as “hobby joggers” or “glorified fast-walkers.”) As they see it, if Walmsley can run Western States in 14:09, surely the fittest marathoners — who average sub-five-minute miles — could finish much faster. To those who’ve made a life battling through 100-mile runs, this line of thinking is demeaning. Walmsley will soon provide the denizens of distance-running forums, and other arenas where such internecine debates take place, actual data to argue over.
In January 2019, Walmsley entered the Houston Half Marathon and finished in 64 minutes, the exact time needed to qualify for the United States Olympic marathon trials. On Feb. 29, he’ll toe the starting line in Atlanta with the country’s best marathoners, fighting for a spot on the Olympic team. If the singularly dominant force in his niche sport — in January, Ultrarunning Magazine named him Ultrarunner of the Year for the fourth consecutive time — can so much as compete with these elite distance runners over 26.2 flat, paved miles, he’ll force the running world to reassess his community of misfits. If Walmsley finishes in the top three, he’ll automatically secure a ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Games.
It will be the first marathon he has ever run.
In stark contrast to most other athletes, ultrarunners love to fixate on the absolute worst element of their sport: the intensity of the suffering. Vomiting and sobbing, swelling and communions with ghosts. One ultrarunner told me about a race in which she gained 20 pounds and her thighs ballooned to the point where she was forced to cut her leggings into a skirt. Another shared a desire to “feel 100 percent empty, with all the dark corners scraped out and cleaned up and ready to be filled with something new.” Extreme runners tend to hold up the low moments as badges of honor. But Walmsley speaks differently about trail running. He ran track in college and still retains some of the mainstream runner’s residual dismissiveness of his adopted sport. Plenty had to go wrong, in his telling, for him to even end up where he did.
Raised on the edge of Phoenix, Walmsley excelled on the high school track team and in cross country, earning a spot at the national 2007 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships and the attention of college coaches. In June 2012, during his senior year at the Air Force Academy, he reached the N.C.A.A. Division I championships, finishing 12th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, an event run on a course featuring four hurdles and a pit of water. Then, in the eyes of the running world, he vanished.
In reality, he had been sent to Montana, assigned to the unenviable position of Air Force missileer. The job meant driving almost three hours from Malmstrom Air Force Base outside Great Falls to facilities scattered around the middle of the state. It meant taking an old elevator several stories underground and then logging a 24-hour shift in a claustrophobic capsule. Walmsley and his fellow officer would trade off between sitting at a Cold War-era computer terminal and trying to get some sleep. If the president made the call, Walmsley told me, he and the officer would have to insert a key and then turn four knobs, simultaneously, launching an intercontinental nuclear missile.
Two months into the job, Walmsley was charged with driving under the influence. He was taken off alerts as punishment, he says, which meant his fellow officers had to pull more shifts to pick up the slack. Even after he was reinstated, Walmsley was still barred from driving on base. He became a notorious Malmstrom character — that one guy lugging his heavy bag full of missile manuals through the snow. Then, at the beginning of 2014, an unrelated investigation into illicit drug possession turned up evidence of a widespread cheating scandal on the base. Officers were sharing answers to the proficiency tests, which every missileer was expected to ace each month. More than 90 officers were implicated in the cheating scandal, either for looking the other way or for actively cheating, as Walmsley admits he did. He hadn’t been the mastermind, but he wouldn’t be missed either.
Everyone on base figured he’d be discharged and didn’t want to be stuck holding a lease, so Walmsley wound up living by himself in a rundown place in the town of Black Eagle, across the river from Great Falls. He would spend nights alone, drinking, stewing over what a life outside the Air Force would look like. He would break things — “usually a lamp” — and perseverate on what seemed to him a streak of awful luck. He’d been a good kid, a high achiever. And then he arrived in Montana, and everything went horribly wrong. If he was kicked out of the Air Force, what would he be? Maybe, he would sometimes think, it would be easier — for him, for the loved ones he had shamed, for everybody — if he ended it. “There’s just a numbness of not caring anymore,” Walmsley said. “You start justifying it like: There wouldn’t be the disappointment anymore, either. Maybe some of the negative parts would go away.”
As he talked about his darkest time, in his white Toyota 4Runner on the way back to Flagstaff, Walmsley’s breath caught in his throat. He was silent for a moment, steeling himself, staring at the road through sunglasses half-hiding wet eyes. It was in that depressive hole, he told me, that he started to make a plan to run every day. It was right then that he started making sure there was always a race to train for. He knew it was crucial to have something on his calendar to look forward to. “I’d go a couple days without even really going outside sometimes,” he said. “I’ve described it as self-prescribed therapy.”
His love of backpacking and running led him to Montana’s extensive trail-running circuit. By the time he received his discharge in 2015, Walmsley started winning ultramarathons — first in the state and then around the country. Still, when he arrived at his first Western States in 2016, he was an intriguing but relatively unknown upstart. At his prerace interviews, he told journalists that his goal was not just to win but also to take a shot at the course record in his first-ever attempt at a 100-miler. “It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” Walmsley said. “But I’d say also like, unsponsored, broke as hell — I had everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
Western States’s 100-mile route cuts through California’s Sierra Nevada, forcing runners to endure 18,000 feet of ascent and 23,000 feet of descent while running both over snowy trails and through a canyon where temperatures often reach triple digits. Walmsley began the race at a torrential pace that many of the veterans viewed as foolhardy. But he kept it up, running a full 32 minutes ahead of the record when he reached the American River crossing at Mile 78. Then at Mile 93, Walmsley missed a left turn, went off track and got lost. When his support crew finally found him, he was lying on his back, disconsolate, near Highway 49. By the time he walked across the line at Placer High School, he was 20th over all, having finished four hours behind the record.
Walmsley’s effort could have been just a footnote: another fast young hotshot brought to his knees by the legendary course. Instead, his mind-bending highs and excruciating lows became the story of the race — the front-runner lost in the wilderness was a perfect ultrarunning parable. To push to the brink and then spectacularly crash was an object lesson in what a 100-mile course could do to the overly ambitious. But it was that Walmsley chose to finish rather than dropping out that made it clear to ultrarunners that he was one of them.
For all but the sport’s one-percenters, ultrarunning is a side gig or a hobby. Most races offer a small purse for the top finishers, but not nearly enough to make a living (the UTMB awards 2,000 euros to its winner; Western States gives anyone who finishes in under 24 hours a silver belt buckle). Most ultrarunners have day jobs. A select few, however, make enough on sponsorships from shoe, apparel or nutrition companies to live comfortably by just running. When Walmsley entered the Western States, he was still working at a bike shop in Flagstaff. But after the race, a wave of sponsorship offers came flowing in. Walmsley signed with the running-shoe company Hoka One One and was suddenly able to quit his job. He now runs full time. “I would have rather won,” Walmsley said. “But the whole story put me on the map.”
The original marathon had some things in common with the ultrarunning scene of today (Phillipedes did, after all, drop dead upon completing it). But since then, and especially since the running boom of the 1970s, elite marathoning has adopted a professional and, increasingly, scientific streak. Most elite marathoners work closely with physiologists and are studied for genetic and performance signifiers, metrics with technical names like VO2 max. Footwear technology has also progressed to the point that some are concerned that certain shoes provide runners an unfair advantage; a number of notable marathoners have called for the banning of Nike’s Vaporfly, which uses a carbon plate and an extra-cushioned sole to help athletes run 4 to 5 percent faster than they would using a traditional model. With a crowded field and state-of-the-art training, a misstep or a premature decision to leave the wind-cover of the pack can cost an elite marathoner a race. The scale of an ultramarathon and the thinner field mean that an ultrarunner can will his or her way through a mistake. While the entrance of competitors like Walmsley seems to signify the professionalization of ultrarunning, they’re still tens of years and possibly billions of dollars of Nike investment behind the world’s best marathoners butting up against the two-hour line.
When Walmsley arrives in Atlanta, he’ll be far from the fastest runner at the start line, and over 26.2 concrete miles, the Olympic Trials will most likely be more about precision in training and pacing than grit. The ultramarathon is home to the gutsy eccentric; the marathon is home to the Type-A obsessive. Walmsley might be fastidious compared with his fellow ultrarunners, but he’s far less meticulous than his competition in Atlanta. The marathoner Scott Fauble, a favorite to make the Olympic team, told me that shaving three minutes off his personal record forever changed his life, instantly transforming him from a mere competitor into a marketable star.
There’s a conventional wisdom that an elite runner can always move up to longer distances; often 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter stars begin to take on 26.2 miles later in life. But Walmsley is trying to enter from the wrong direction — first setting the record at the 100-mile Western States, then setting the 50-mile record last May in Sacramento and now trying to place in the marathon. It’ll be stunning if Walmsley runs in the vicinity of a 2:10 marathon in his first attempt, which is probably what it will take to make the team.
Walmsley has no coach and has been following a self-guided training regimen. In October, he had yet to diverge from his ultrarunning training, clocking longer-than-half-marathon trail runs nearly every day. He had one more big race ahead of the Trials — the 2019 World Mountain Running Championships, an excruciating 25.8-mile trail run through the Andes — which meant he had to remain in mountain-running shape. After the race, which he won with a time of 3:12:16, he began to train on a track to get his speed up. In early January, he spent two days a week doing interval workouts he picked up in high school and college, before transitioning to a focus on road running, as he’ll be doing in Atlanta. But even Walmsley’s ramped-down mileage is on the extreme end for the modern American marathoner: After running almost 700 miles in December, he downshifted from 150-mile weeks in early January to 125-mile weeks before the race, always punctuated by a 30-mile Saturday run. The typical elite marathoner can log as little as 70 miles per week; 150-mile weeks sit at the far end of the spectrum. On Jan. 19, six weeks before the Trials, Walmsley ran the Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon as a test, placing fifth. He had already trimmed more than a minute off last year’s qualifying time.
One October morning, as he procrastinated before a run, Walmsley walked over and grabbed a book off the shelf. It was “Inside a Marathon,” published in 2018, a detailed rundown of how an elite runner trains for a race, written by Fauble and his coach Ben Rosario. Walmsley told me that Fauble and Rosario also live in Flagstaff; its high elevation and long running trails make the small Arizona city a hub for distance runners. While much of the mainstream running world is dismissive of the ultrarunners they view as “weird recluses who go into the woods,” Fauble told me he has witnessed firsthand how hard Walmsley trains. “But let’s be clear about this: Jim squeaked into the Trials in the half-marathon. He ran 64:00 on the fastest course in the country,” Fauble told me. “If his name wasn’t Jim Walmsley, and all he’d run is 64:00, nobody would be like: ‘Oh, man. This guy. This guy’s making the team.” Yet everyone from competitors to sports physiologists to running-obsessed bloggers couldn’t help gaming out a long-shot path to Walmsley’s qualifying. However unlikely, the prospect of a Walmsley marathon miracle is irresistible to the running world.
With more than 230 expected to run, the American men’s marathon field is deep but sits a handful of minutes behind the world’s best runners, who hover right around the two-hour mark. There were 10 American men who ran under 2:12 at last year’s Chicago Marathon; however, only three of the favorites at Atlanta — Galen Rupp, Leonard Korir and Fauble — broke 2:10 in their qualifying times. In a world in which every runner is known as a “[insert personal best] guy” (Fauble, for example, is a “2:09 guy”), Walmsley is a blank slate. Andrew Jones, a leading physiologist in the world of distance running, explained that the general formula to predict marathon performance is to double the half-marathon time and add six minutes. But, he said, Walmsley’s otherworldly endurance makes him hard to handicap. He shouldn’t stand a chance, but he’s Jim Walmsley, so people are loath to doubt him.
Moments before he headed out for his run, Walmsley pulled up the results from a 2012 college-invitational 10,000-meter race on his laptop. As I tried to decipher what I was looking at, Walmsley was already undercutting the significance, explaining that it was just one race and that Fauble and another Atlanta favorite, Jared Ward, had yet to hit their peaks. But, still, he clearly wanted to show me this for a reason: Ward finished ninth, Fauble finished seventh and Walmsley finished fourth. It was almost a decade ago, sure, but Walmsley will arrive in Atlanta knowing that he has already beaten two of America’s best marathoners in a race.
Walmsley was careful to play down his chances to make the Olympic team. But every once in a while, he’d smile mischievously and lay out a path to an upset: an unseasonably hot or cold day, a disqualified front-runner, a field unprepared for the relatively hilly course. “A lot of people train to have their best day ever,” he said. “In ultrarunning, you learn to train for your worst. I’m looking to get to the most painful spot I can.”
Underground, on those 24-hour missileer shifts, Walmsley learned to withstand an excruciating sort of monotony, to remain focused on nothing for hours on end. He told me his mind still gets quiet when he runs — no hallucinations, no visions, just quiet. He runs without music, focused on his pace and on the trail. Running was a salve for him. For a time, it was the only bit of his life he could control. His slice of the sport, more than anything else, is about continuing forward as everything goes wrong. Walmsley was always fast, but ever since his first run at Western States, he has proved that he’s unafraid of failure. Even with long odds, the big-name interloper risks a very public fiasco in Atlanta. He doesn’t seem to care.
Though there’s an oft-repeated claim that any elite marathoner could win an ultramarathon, you can’t know if a certain runner can silence that internal voice for 100 miles until he actually does. It took Walmsley three tries to win his first Western States; it’ll be four years before he gets another shot at the Olympic Trials. Distance running is always a negotiation; it’s about quieting a compelling, insistent whisper telling you to stop. At an Olympic marathon pace, 26 five-minute miles in a row, that whisper can turn into a scream. Walmsley’s long-shot chance — his intangible advantage — is that running has always been his path away from pain. He knows what real suffering feels like. He has yet to find it in a race.