Why Should Running Fans Care About Jim Walmsley’s 64-Minute Half Marathon?
Editor’s Note: Eric is one of Jim Walmsley’s training partners with the Coconino Cowboys. OK. Now that we disclosed that, here are his thoughts.
Jim Walmsley has recently been the recipient of more vitriol than any other runner. The hatred spewed in places like LetsRun and Twitter would leave you to believe, if you didn’t know any better, that Walmsley had taken everyone’s mother out for a nice seafood dinner and never called her again. I’ve never seen a runner’s success create such giant geysers of boiling bile. The nay-sayers might say he deserves it and, granted, they might have a point. After all, he comes off as more confident than might be warranted—maybe so confident that it seems cocky. And sure, he’s outspoken about his goals—perhaps to a degree that borders on arrogance. Maybe some people just don’t like the guy, and so that’s why they want to mitigate the extent of his successes or reduce his achievements. (One of my favorite hot-takes from his 64-minute run in Houston? “That just shows that the Olympic “B” Standard is SOFT.” Such a great take.) I’m not here to tell you that you should like Jim Walmsley. You don’t have to like him. But I’m here to suggest that you should respect how he’s accomplished an Olympic Trials qualifier. Because he accomplished the feat in a way that has never been done before.
UltraRunning, the preeminent magazine for the sport of ultrarunning, started an award in 1981 called Ultrarunner of the Year (UROY). A panel of judges will survey ultrarunner performances from the year and then vote to determine who was the best ultrarunner, male and female in North America. It’s a points-based system. Whoever has the most points that year will win the award.
Walmsley has now won the award three straight years (2016-2018). This is not unprecedented: he’s the third male to win three-straight times.
The International Trail-Running Association (ITRA) has a Performance Index that ranks runners, also on a point-based system, on the basis of their performances. For every trail race you run, an algorithm determines how many points your result was worth. Your best results determine your overall ranking in the ITRA Performance Index. It’s a worldwide ranking system.
Walmsley is currently ranked #1 in the world on the ITRA Performance Index. This is not unprecedented: other people, like Kilian Jornet, have owned the #1 world ranking at times.
Walmsley ran at the Air Force Academy and he graduated in 2012. He stopped racing on the track and road after college. Upon leaving college, and before he began racing ultramarathons in 2014, he owned personal bests of 13:52 in the 5K and 29:08 in the 10K. This is not unprecedented. Max King, the current 100K American record holder, has a 5K personal best of 13:56. There are countless other examples in the sport of ultrarunning: people have run very fast times at shorter distances on the track or road before stepping up to the ultramarathon distance. And there, too, are countless examples of people who have straddled both worlds, running very competitive times in both road marathons and trail ultramarathons in the same calendar year, or even the very same month.
For example, Max King had also run a 2:14 marathon years before he set the American 100K record. King ran in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and also won ultramarathons that same year. Magdalena Boulet, a 2008 Olympian with a marathon best of 2:26:22, eventually turned her talents to ultrarunning and won UROY in 2015—the same year she won the Western States 100. Again, there are countless examples over the last several decades, on both the men’s and women’s side, of runners moving on from fast marathons and road times to ultramarathons and trails or continuing their road marathon careers while also running competitive times on the trails. But the opposite is not true.
No one has successfully dominated the sport of ultrarunning and then—and this is the important part—run competitive times on the road. There is no example of that sequence of events in the sport of running, save for one.
Let me be clear about what is being said here. There are many examples of men and women who have raced very, very competitively, and at a very, very high level on the roads or track, at distances from the 3k to the marathon, and then gone on to run very, very competitively and at a very, very high level in ultramarathons and on the trails. The converse is not true.
No one—with one exception—has raced very, very competitively, and at a very, very high level in ultramarathons and on the trails, and then gone on to run very, very competitively and at a very, very high level on the roads. No one has fully dominated the sport of ultrarunning—to the tune of three consecutive UROY awards, a #1 ITRA ranking and a course record at the prestigious Western States 100—and then run 64 minutes flat for the half marathon. Except for Jim Walmsley. (For context, during the last Olympic cycle, there were only 41 men who qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials by running 64 minutes or faster for a half marathon. That’s only about 20 guys, on average, each year.)
This is not to say that Walmsley is on the cusp of making a U.S. Olympic team. He has simply qualified himself for the Olympic Trials. He did so by running the slowest possible half marathon qualifying time. If Vegas were placing odds, his would be abysmal.
There’s no reason to think that Walmsley’s speed or talent have never been seen in the sport of ultrarunning. There’s no reason to think he has the speed or talent to make an Olympic team. But there is very good reason to give him a great deal of respect, for he has accomplished an order of events that the running world had never before seen. Keep in mind that prior to Sunday in Houston, Walmsley hadn’t raced a road half marathon since high school. He hadn’t raced on the track since 2012. He’s still never raced a road marathon. Instead, he terrorized the sport of ultrarunning with complete dominance from the 50K to 100-mile distances. Only then, after he was one of the best ultrarunners in the world, if not the best, for years, did he race a shorter distance on the road and run a competitive time.
To paraphrase a recent tweet from one of my favorite Twitter trolls: You don’t have to cheer on Walmsley for his successes, but if you’re actively cheering against him, you might be a douchebag. To make the point slightly differently in my own words: you don’t have to be impressed by Walmsley’s 64-minute half marathon, but you should care about the way he did it, and you should respect him for it, because it was groundbreaking.
UPDATE: Since publishing the piece on Tuesday, our informed readers have noted at least one person – Ann Trason. The legend’s trajectory in the sport is similar to Walmsley’s. She won Western States 14 times in her career and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on three occasions. The author’s point remains that Jim’s trajectory is very rare, if not unique on the men’s side of the sport. The author welcomes further feedback on Twitter: @goodsenseruns or email us at [email protected].