The Legend of What Could Have Been

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On June 25, the trail-running world was rocked by one of the most compelling performances in its history. For 90-plus miles, Jim Walmsley ran the 2016 Western States 100 Mile with a ferocious intensity that left spectators shocked and awed. He was 20 minutes ahead of the course record and nearly an hour in front of his closest competitor.

Then, disaster struck. A wrong turn cost Walmsley the course record, the win and a top-10 finish. But in the process, a different type of legend was born. This story is the legend of what could have been.

Prior to the race, Jim Walmsley, 26, was listed as one of the favorites, even though it would be his first 100-mile race. In his pre-race interview with iRunFar, he was not shy about his goals. “The main goal is to win,” he said. “The side goal is to have a crack at the course record.”

Meghan Hicks, Senior Editor, iRunFar: Some people can have a remarkable debut at their first 100-mile race, but it is not common. A 100 is one of those races that is not just about leg speed and fitness and strength. It is about your mind and having the experience to surmount problems.

Bryon Powell, Editor-in-Chief, iRunFar: I thought it was gutsy to call his shot for a course record. Jim hadn’t run 100 miles before and it was going to be a warm day. The current course record was set in an incredibly cool year.

Timothy Olson, Western States course-record holder: Racing 100 miles at that effort is a full-on commitment. You have to take chances, but also manage your situation so you can finish strong.

Walmsley: It wasn’t calling a shot, it was convincing myself mentally that I’m ready for this massive undertaking. Saying it out loud publicly was huge for me. Accountability is a big part of putting your body on the line. It made me mentally tougher.

Walmsley (left) with his pacer and crew chief, James Bonnet.
Walmsley (left) with his pacer and crew chief, James Bonnet. Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

The race began at 5 a.m. on June 25. Some of the best trail runners in the world, including international stars Sage Canaday (multiple-time ultrarunning national champion) and David Laney (third at the 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc), began an all-day journey that could define their running careers.

Eric Schranz, UltraRunnerPodcast: Western States remains the ultra that most casual runners have heard of, as well as the main target for most 100-mile runners. It is the race. Elite runners show up to race other elites.

David Laney: The Escarpment [the first climb] was very chill. Jim was going easy at first, hiking mostly. After that, we started rolling and Jim came up to us. Then, he opened up his stride and started bounding on a rocky downhill like it was a half-marathon. He was out of sight pretty quickly.

Andrew Miller, eventual winner: Jim just looked so effortless. He loped away.

Walmsley: I was hoping that some of the guys would get into a rhythm, which would allow me to feel out the race based on their rhythm. That didn’t really happen. Once we got over the first big hill, I wanted to settle into a comfortable pace. And it turned into me going a little quick. But it was comfortable. I kept thinking that it’s a 100-mile race, and it doesn’t start until mile 62. But if I can bank some time, I start at 62 with a head start on the course record.

The first 30 miles of high-altitude running suited Walmsley, who lives and trains at 7,000 feet in Flagstaff, Arizona. His blistering early pace had him 10 minutes under the course record, and an equal amount ahead of second-place Sage Canaday, at the Robinson Flat aid station, at mile 29.7.

Miller: I got a few splits on Jim’s run early in the race, and I thought, He’s crushing it. If he runs that way, no one is going to catch him.

Hicks: He had outstanding training. He was able to do hard days consecutively with solid recovery. I don’t think he was running fast at Western from ego. It was the reality he earned through hard training.

Walmsley: Setting a course record at the Lake Sonoma 50 Miler [in April] gave me confidence. I was so nervous before that race. I experimented with training—it was the first time I hit 105-mile weeks. Then I hit 120-mile weeks. Then 140. And the feedback kept getting better.

James Bonnett, Walmsley’s coach, pacer and crew chief: When I found out he was 10 minutes under the course record, I was a little worried. But once I saw him at Robinson Flat, he looked so calm. I thought, It’s really easy for him right now. But in a 100-miler, you’re still going into the unknown.

Between Robinson Flat and the Michigan Bluff aid station at mile 55.7, Walmsley opened up a nearly 30-minute gap on the course record and his closest competitor. It was 1 p.m., and the temperature was over 100 degrees.

Photo by Luis Escobar
Photo by Luis Escobar

Hicks: At each aid station, the reaction of the spectators was identical. Just silence. They didn’t know how to react.

Amelia Boone, crew for eventual third-place woman Devon Yanko: It looked like he was running a 5K in 50-degree temperatures. We were in awe. Many were talking about how, if he pulled it off, it would have been the most flawlessly executed race ever.

Amy Leedham, crew for eventual ninth-place Chris Denucci: He flew by like a gazelle. There were many people who were saying, “Just wait. He will blow up.” But I started to wonder if I was witnessing history.

Coming into the Foresthill aid station at mile 62, the course turned briefly onto the road, and Walmsley opened up his stride.

Hicks: Jim interacts with you a lot with his eyes. He conveys openness and friendliness. He has a goofy presence outside of the race, but in the race it’s the opposite. He wears sunglasses, he doesn’t smile, he tucks his hair in—it’s totally on guard. Complete intensity.

Walmsley: I saw some videos from the Foresthill aid station. Watching myself, I was like, Who runs like that in a 100-miler? There’s so much energy to feed off of at that point. 5:30 pace felt natural.

Runners are allowed a pacer from Foresthill to the finish. Walmsley had chosen his childhood friend and current coach James Bonnett to be his pacer and crew chief, responsible for all race-day support and logistics.

Powell: A pacer is there in part to help keep the runner on course.
Having an extra set of fresh eyes is extremely helpful.

James Bonnett: I’ve paced and crewed at Western States since I was 12 years old. I have seen so many situations at that race. I know every turn. At Foresthill, I was looking at the splits and, although it was blazing fast, it should have been no problem for me to keep up. Then, about six miles in, I started to get a little queasy.

Walmsley: James was struggling. After a mile of him in front of me, I came around and he helped me cool
off. It was the last time I got ice in
my bandana.

Bonnett: Jim started to get in that animalistic mode, where he is running and not thinking. I was keeping him focused, but then I started feeling worse. He was saying, in a voice of desperation, to do everything I can to keep up with him.

It was like a scene in a movie, with someone dangling on the edge of a cliff. Like Jack and Rose in Titanic. I had to let him go. In an instant, he was gone.

Walmsley: Before I knew it, he stopped and I never saw him again. There are no timeouts. You just gotta deal with it.

Bonnett: I was just so confident in myself. I had back-up plans on everyone else, but nothing for myself. Maybe I should have had a back-up pacer signed in. It crossed my mind.

Earlier I had seen Dylan Bowman [third at Western States in 2013 and 2014] and just for a second wanted to ask him to sign in as a pacer. But he looked like he was there enjoying the race. I decided not to bother him.

Walmsley: I felt he was fit enough for sure. In retrospect, the 38 miles might have been a stretch. You have to understand that he was doing everything for me. He was my crew chief and my coach, too. I should have had two pacers. James had to be so many different people at once.

Bonnett: My biggest regret? I would not have eaten that bad burrito for lunch.


Walmsley's swim at mile 78 turned treacherous.
Walmsley’s swim at mile 78 turned treacherous. Photos by Myke Hermsmeyer

Even without a pacer, Walmsley continued to run 30 minutes ahead of course-record pace. Behind him, Canaday had begun to experience stomach distress and was rapidly losing time. Walmsley had nearly an hour lead on second-place Andrew Miller, when, at mile 78, Walmsley came to the Rucky Chucky aid station, where he would have to cross the American River.

Powell: The trail runs into the aid station, then there are 20 yards of rocky steps downhill. You’re walking down to the river, where people have life vests and there is a rope. All of the volunteers are standing on the upstream side, and you walk yourself across while holding the rope.

Craig Thornley, Western States race director: We’ve done this for many years without incident. But Jim took a couple of steps with his hand on the rope and then started swimming.

Walmsley: Someone told me Rob [Krar, the winner in 2014 and 2015] swam across and set the best time. So I started on the rope, dove forward to make up time, took a stroke or two, and all of a sudden I was seven or eight feet down the river.

Powell: Rob Krar swam with one hand on the rope.

Walmsley: The life vest sucked you with the current. Before I knew it, I was going downstream and rapids were coming up fast. I started swimming upstream like I was on a treadmill. I was able to hit a rock with my feet to stop, and then scramble across.

Powell: The whole time the water was just a few feet deep.

Walmsley: I was trying so hard to stay under to cool down that I didn’t realize I could put my feet down. It was like a kid in a kiddie pool.

With 20 miles to go, Walmsley still had nearly an hour advantage. But he began to feel the heat.

Walmsley: I had one bottle of liquids, but that bottle ended up going downstream at the river. That was the biggest hit. Right after the river the trail is extremely exposed and extremely hot.

Hicks: He was fading a lot. He was well up on the course record entering the river, and he gave up half of his lead in a short time afterward.

Walmsley: It showed composure to slow down. I had time to give, so I gave a bit. Then I got back into a good flow. I knew I had time on the course record and that I could pace it out to break it.

Miller: I was thinking about running for second place. I heard Jim was an hour up. Something crazy would have to happen. There’s no way I’m going to make up an hour on him. That’d be like three minutes a mile or something. He’d have to be walking.

Walmsley: I heard that I was only 10 or 15 minutes up on the course record and Sage was around there, too. I thought we were much closer than we actually were.

While Walmsley continued the grind to immortality, Bonnett put an impromptu back-up plan into action.

Bonnett: When my stomach got better, my new plan was to get driven to the Highway 49 aid station [at mile 93.5] and wait for Jim to pace him to the finish.

At the Brown’s Bar aid station at mile 89.9, Walmsley’s lead was actually an hour, though he thought it was much narrower. Still, he was confident he was going to run a new course record. The next part of the course was an open dirt road—the type of fast terrain common in Northern California trail races. But before the next aid station, where Bonnett was waiting, the course would make a sharp left turn onto singletrack.

Walmsley: At the Brown’s Bar aid station, they told me the next turn was three miles out exactly. So many of the volunteers were on point throughout the day, and I had no reason to question
that number.

Thornley: Western States is a well-marked trail—probably over-marked. I told runners at the pre-race briefing that there are five to eight ribbons per mile, not including ribbons at intersections. If they go a quarter- to a half-mile without seeing a ribbon, they need to stop and figure out where they are.

Walmsley: I was very much in the pain cave. I looked at my watch and saw 3.1 [miles] and I hadn’t seen the turn. And I hadn’t seen a flag for a little bit. But I can’t tell you how often that happens. The flags might be there, but being focused, you don’t see every flag. I told myself at 3.5 miles I would reconsider. It’s very hard when you are by yourself, having that perfect day, to turn around.

Miller: There were probably half-a-dozen flags marking the trail. But if you had your head down, you could miss them, I guess.

Bonnett: I would have absolutely never missed that turn.

Walmsley: The fact that they didn’t have chalk or the path blocked off, going from such a wide, obvious dirt road to a goat trail—it sucks. But at the end of the day, it’s our sport. I should have known.

Less than a mile up the trail, Bonnett had no idea what was going on with Walmsley.

Bonnett: Thirty minutes pass and I’m starting to worry. Then an hour. Then I’m thinking we need to go check on him. I’m worried about heat stroke. I needed to go back out there. I’m his pacer, that’s what pacers are for.

I’m having a full-on argument with one of the aid-station captains. I’m just worried about his health at that point. I just want him to be OK. I could care less about the course record or the win. No one was doing anything, which was really frustrating to me.

Eventually, the fire road that Walmsley was running on emptied out onto Highway 49, a paved road with no trails in sight.

Walmsley: When I hit the highway, I sat down for a while and thought about things. It turned from racing my heart out to thoughts like, I have a lot of time. Take your time, regroup and get a silver buckle [for a finish under 24 hours]. At that point, the goal wasn’t top three, or even top 10.

Matt Trappe, photographer: We drove around a corner on the highway to find Jim looking lost on the side of the road. He apparently had been lying down along the road and a car had stopped to make sure he was OK. I immediately knew the turn he had missed but took a minute to double check it on my phone. It must have been demoralizing. He began backtracking at a very slow walk and just kept wanting to sit down.

Walmsley: Without Derek [Lytle, who was assisting Trappe] and Matt and the medical staff, I might still be sitting there. I wish I could give them all a bunch of big hugs. They helped me through a low moment in the race and in my life.

Amazingly, he was found on the right side of the highway, and the course—the mile 93.5 aid station—was only a few yards away on the left, within sight. The wrong turn was essentially a short cut. To avoid disqualification, though, he had to return two agonizing miles along the fire road, each step taking him farther away from the finish line.

Hicks: I’m at the finish because I think Jim is going to get there potentially 45 minutes under the course record. A few minutes later, Matt Trappe messages on Twitter that he found Jim on the highway.

Boone: I was at Green Gate [at mile 79.8] when we heard he went off course. There was just genuine empathic heartbreak from everyone.

Hicks: The realization came slowly. People were trying to prepare for him at the finish line, and the feeling was that the course record was a given. When the news trickled in, there was a collective sense of “Ohhhhh, no.” Eventually, John [Medinger, the announcer] made an announcement to everyone and there was an audible crowd sigh.

Bonnett: [Trappe’s tweet] made me feel a lot better. I was just glad he was OK. Then Andrew Miller comes in. I was like, OK, now this is a whole different ball game. I was hoping he could sprint back to the turn and make it work. He was just so wrecked by losing the turn, though.

Miller: I felt bad for Jim. He had run such a great race.

Walmslsey retraced the two miles along the fire road at three miles per hour. An incredible run turned into an agonizing walk. By the time he rejoined the course, hours had passed and the frontrunners were well up the trail.

Powell: Why did Jim shut it down when he got lost? A little bit of jogging and he’s top 10.

Walmsley: I didn’t have as much motivation about a top-10 finish. If I wanted to race conservatively, I could have. In retrospect, I wish I wouldn’t have let my competitive spirit break.

Bonnett: There was no other goal than to finish. He said, “I literally cannot run right now.”

I said, “I can see that.”

Then we walked it in. By the last mile, it felt like a scene from Forrest Gump. It’s just me and him walking together in the woods, then a couple people join in, then more and more people that pop out of nowhere. By the time we got to the finish-line track, we had 20 people with us.

Walmsley: One of the most special moments of the day was walking it in with my parents— something that wouldn’t have happened if I was going for the win. It was one of the best moments of my life.


Photos by Myke Hermsmeyer

Walmsley finished 20th in 18:45, more than four hours slower than what projections had been just 10 miles earlier.

Powell: Jim didn’t end up setting the course record, but he showed us what is possible in ultrarunning. Maybe there is a lot of time that can be shaved off, even when the weather is not perfect. It’s a game changer. Jim may have shifted everything while losing, a Bernie Sanders moment for the trail-running world.

Walmsley: All great athletes need to have short-term memory loss. You need to look at positives. I want to prove it wasn’t a fluke, and I can really run that fast for 100 miles. Next year, my goal is a course record. I will be back.

This article originally appeared in our October 2016 issue.

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