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

If you keep up on the ultrarunning scene, then there is little chance that you have not heard Jim Walmsley’s name at some point over the past year. 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, learning the hard lesson of not underestimating this historic race. 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 Turnstells 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 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 and finding little meaning in the ending 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. The meditative solution that running in the woods for a day at a time is what attracts those individuals crazy enough to use it escape those dark places. This is something I can agree with.

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 addiction or depression. It’s an addiction that society views as healthy, running that is. 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 and watching the sun rise and begin to blot out the stars, well, then you realize just how small you and your problems are. You find peace.

This film showed me a side of Walmsley that I didn’t know existed. Before, I saw him as a stellar runner that was pushing the limits of physical ability and the sport as a whole. Now, I see that he’s not that different from myself and most other ultrarunners.

The 2017 Western States Endurance Run take place this Saturday, June 24th. I am beyond excited to see what Walmsley will accomplish. With the year that he has had, the training he has put down, and the hunger that is noticeably visible, I’m ready to see him take hold of this race and crush the course record. If you want to check out his pre-race preparations, check out Reagan Coyler’s Q&A with Jim over at TrailRunner Magazine. Best of luck, Coconino Cowboy.

Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer

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