Jimmy Elam On Running For Fun And Taking The Long View
How Jimmy Elam wins big ultra races without sponsors, while holding onto his love of running for running’s sake
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Jimmy Elam’s goal at last year’s UTMB was to simply finish the race.
Throughout the day, as Killian Jornet was on his way to setting the course record, Elam kept coming back to his simple mantra: Finish the race. Not only did the UTMB rookie finish in a blazing 22 hours, 36 minutes, he came in 14th overall as the third-fastest American runner, close behind pre-race favorites Jim Walmsley (fourth) and Zach Miller (fifth).
So, who the heck is Jimmy Elam?
That’s what a lot of runners were asking as they scrolled through the UTMB results that night. He might still be relatively unknown, but he’s certainly not unaccomplished.
What sets the 35-year-old runner apart in his running journey is his ability to win big ultra distance races without much fanfare, ego, or self-promotion. He lives in a small cabin in Big Cottonwood Canyon, outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, where his days are simple: running on world-class trails outside his door, reading, working, and spending time with friends, purposefully avoiding making his entire life about running.
Elam comes across as an ordinary guy. His slight frame and soft-spokenness exude an unassuming character. But behind this bearded, 90s country music-loving teddy bear is a trail running force to be reckoned with.
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Following in His Mother’s Footsteps
Jimmy Elam started running when he was four years old, following in the footsteps of his mother, Ann, who was a lifelong runner. He ran his first race, the Almond Blossom one-mile run, with his mom in Durham, California. As a high school cross country runner at Sierra High School in Manteca, California, Elam was always driven, but he wasn’t good enough to attract attention from a Division I college team.
After running for Humboldt State University for three years on a D-II scholarship, he took a major risk in order to achieve his lifelong goal of becoming an All-American runner. He gave up the scholarship, walked on to the more successful Chico State University team, and, within one year, earned All-American honors in cross country. Elam gives a lot of credit to his coach, Gary Towne, for believing in him, alongside his Wildcats team of runners for pushing him to a new level of performance.
Post-college, in 2011, he suffered a left leg injury following his first and only marathon. The injury went undiagnosed, but a decade later it still causes severe pain when running flat-out on the road or the track.
Trying to find career direction, Elam backed away from running and started to guide backpacking trips along the John Muir Trail for the Sierra Mountain Center in Bishop, California. On those low-impact, multi-day endurance-based trips, Elam found that he could easily travel long distances in the mountains without any pain.
It was then when Elam realized he could put the experience developed from a life of running and refocus his energy towards long-distance trail running. The simplicity of running and getting to spend long hours in the wilderness, while being vulnerable to mountain elements, became a primary motivator. Suddenly, every step on the trail felt good—like a gift, not a grind—inspiring him to want to run fast again.
Balance, Priorities, and Performance
Despite keeping a low profile, Elam has been running competitively on the trails since 2015. His breakthrough race was a course-record win at the Broken Arrow Sky Race in 2018, a high-level 46K in Lake Tahoe, where he set the course record and walked away with $5,000 on his 31st birthday.
“No one knew who I was. I was just this kid who did some mountain running,” Elam said.
At the time, he had just received a severance package after leaving a commission-based sales job at Backcountry.com that he no longer found satisfying, giving him extended downtime to train and focus on running full-time. Elam laid down one of his best training blocks ever, logging triple-digit weeks with plenty of recovery time. But oscillating between the granite foothills of the Sierra and the couch weren’t nearly as fulfilling as he had expected.
“I realized that I’m a better person and more balanced when I have more mental tasks at hand. I really enjoy working and having a purpose outside of competing,” Elam says. As a current sales representative for a running brand, Elam has found balance between finding meaningful work and having the flexibility to set his own schedule, allowing him the time to train and compete at a high level.
“He isn’t somebody who needs to sign x,y, z sponsorship because he has set up these incredible systems,” says Finn Melanson, host of the Singletrack running podcast and one of Elam’s training partners. “He lives in the middle of the Wasatch mountains and has instant access to world-class trails. He has the ability to turn on the focus and hard work when the time is right for big events, but he can also turn it off and reintegrate as a normal member of society. I think that last part is so rare in a sport that has lost many athletes to overtraining.”
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Why So Serious?
Despite being an elite runner with wins at The Canyons Endurance Runs 100K in 2019, the Tushars Mountain Runs 100K, the Bear Mountain 100-miler in 2020, and the River of No Return Endurance Runs 108K in 2021, Elam doesn’t have a large social media following and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“Jimmy is quick to offer advice on training and nutrition. He stays up on the current research and shares his approach readily with all who ask,” says elite runner Leah Yingling, also one of Elam’s good friends. “Jimmy knows every word to most 90s country songs, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a run where he doesn’t break out in song to Shania Twain. I even caught him singing at mile 96 of UTMB on his way to a top 15 performance.”
Elam has had a few smaller sponsors over the years, such as rabbit and Muir Energy, but has intentionally avoided any partnerships this year.
“Long-term happiness isn’t just getting a sponsor and saying I made it. I’m truly just running for myself,” Elam says. He finds social media brings out ego among many of his counterparts. Many of his peers lose freedom through contracts that require a certain number of posts, forcing them to act differently online than in person.
Taking the Long View
Playing the long game is a philosophy that has worked for Elam, both during long trail races and throughout his running life. While some runners go out blazing fast and burn up in their careers, the key to Elam’s success has been taking a more moderate approach with consistency over time.
“Year after year after year builds on itself. We’ve seen a lot of people in our sport get a little crazy at first and then be injured,” Elam says. Studying performance psychology and laying low help him stay grounded when he isn’t running. He prioritizes rest, enjoying a beer with his girlfriend, just as much as his long days out on the trail.
While some trail runners at the top of their game try and win as many races in a season as possible, Elam carefully chooses his races, often based on what his friends are running, or based on a destination that looks interesting.
“Everybody has this tremendous respect for him because he’s been at the game so long,” says Melanson, referring to the Salt Lake City running community. “He’s got a breadth of knowledge and he’s generous with that knowledge, but not overbearing about it. He’ll happily make time for you to share the goods, but he doesn’t have an agenda.”
In it for the Fun
Elam believes many of his peers take racing too seriously, something he never wants to do. That’s why he often aims to lighten the mood during a hard training effort.
“That’s the cool thing about ultra racing. It should kind of feel like a long run with buddies,” Elam says. “The amount of time you spend outside in the wilderness, going through territory you’re unfamiliar with. You are vulnerable to the mountains. Given the extent that those in our sport expose themselves, that makes you less egotistical and shows you how insignificant you are.”
While other elites may be trying to prove themselves to sponsors, posting every high and low of the trail on social media – while perhaps giving a bit of their souls away in the process – Jimmy Elam will continue to do what he does, quietly winning races, staying consistent, and loving the process of running in the mountains, no matter the result.