One Wrong Turn: The Kindling of Jim Walmsley’s Ultrarunning Success

If you keep up on the ultrarunning scene, there is little chance that you have not heard Jim Walmsley’s name at some point within the past year, wherein Walmsley became a household name within the ultra community following the 2016 Western States 100 ultramarathon.

A relatively young ultrarunner, Walmsley broke out of the gates early that June morning and started putting some serious time between himself and others. As he passed through aid stations, people would be gossiping to one another, pontificating as to when he would bonk. Walmsley was proving them wrong though, pushing a pace set to smash the course record, still 17 minutes ahead of it at mile 89, all the while putting an hour between himself and the runner in second place. However, he made a wrong turn around mile 92, running approximately 2 miles off course. Upon learning of his mistake, Walmsley felt mentally defeated. He still finished the race, finishing in 20th place, but felt that he had cheated himself of a superb opportunity.

A new film from 9MindAsylum, Lighting the Fire: Wrong Turns, tells the story of his infamous wrong turn at the 2016 Western States, as well as providing a background as to the man behind the running accolades.  After receiving an honorable discharge from the Air Force following a DUI and the Air Force proficiency exam cheating scandal, Walmsley came upon hard times: he found himself reaching the depths of a ceaseless depression, becoming suicidal over the end of his previous career. Upon the advice of a therapist, he delved back into the depths of distance running, finding that it provided him with a meditative adventure.

Upon moving to Flagstaff, Walmsley started increasing his training, running both harder paces and longer distances, while finding personal peace within the tranquil solitude of long-distance running. Following a few noteworthy performances, he entered the 2016 Western States Endurance Race and went for the kill. That one wrong turn gave it to someone else though.

Yet Walmsley found an immense strength from his monumental mistake, realizing that it had invigorated a will he had not previously known. To say that he has used this internal spark to start an incessant fire would be an understatement. His most notable achievements in the past year are as follows:

  • Oct. 4, 2016, FKT on Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R), 42 mi. in 5:55:20
  • Nov. 19, 2016, Course Record and Win at JFK – 50 miler in 5:21:28
  • Feb. 11, 2017, Course Record and Win at Tarawera Ultras 102K in 7:23:32
  • Apr. 8, 2017, Course Record and Win at Gorge Waterfalls 100K in 8:20:28

Runner or non-runner alike, these feats are physically astounding.

Walmsley’s journey, one filled with personal mistakes and depression, is one that most can empathize with. Every human makes mistakes in their lives, decisions in which they wish they had chosen differently in the past. Whether due to poor decisions or unfortunate luck, each person has done something or had something happen in their life that has changed their course of future action; although, when such an event takes place, it matters not how we belabor over the situation, but how we remedy it. For Walmsley, it is obvious that he has taken life into his hands, fighting through his hardships to recognize and animate his prolific career in ultrarunning.

Walmsley briefly touches on a notion in the film that feels worthwhile to speak about: that most ultrarunners are people that have faced an immovable depression at one point or another in life. I know this is what got me into ultrarunning, and I know that it’s a reason a lot of other ultrarunners have entered the sport, whether for addiction or depression.

Running is an addiction that society views as healthy. Others might find it insane to want to run 100 miles in a days time. But for those of us that seek some deep state of meditation, solitude among the trails and mountains, it trivializes the minute, depressive qualities of life. When you find yourself running at night with nothing but your headlamp to light the trails ahead of you, you find a peace. On those early mornings while you’re traversing a mountainside ridge, watching the sun’s rise begin to throw back the blanket of night, you realize just how small you and your problems are —  you find peace.

This film showed a side of Walmsley that a many people didn’t know existed. Rather than just seeing him as an inhuman runner that’s pushing the limits of his physical ability and the sport as a whole, we now see that he’s not that different from any other ultrarunners.

The 2017 Western States Endurance Run take place this Saturday, June 24th. With the year that he has had, the training he has put down, and the hunger that is noticeably visible, it will be interesting to see how his race pans out. If you want to check out his pre-race preparations, check out Reagan Coyler’s Q&A with Jim over at TrailRunner Magazine.


3 thoughts on “One Wrong Turn: The Kindling of Jim Walmsley’s Ultrarunning Success

  1. He did not receive an honourable discharge, he received a general discharge. That is quite different and was the one of the reasons he was depressed and suicidal. He is an amazing athlete who has done so much for the sport of ultras…we don’t need to elevate his discharge status instead be truthful about it to tell the complete story.


    1. Thank you for correcting my mistake. I’ll be sure to correct that soon. However, do not treat this mistake as if it were intentional — a means of elevation/misrepresentation. I similarly agree that he has done a great deal for the sport, hence my writing of this blog. In no way would I wish to tell the story incorrectly. This was something I likely missed following a quick proofread before posting. Again, thank you for correcting me on that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s