Jim Walmsley became the break-out star of the ultrarunning world in 2016, recording big wins, smashing course records and setting a spectacular new fastest known time (FKT) running rim to rim to rim across the Grand Canyon and back. He covered the 42-mile out-and-back route with 24,000 feet of vertical change in 5 hours, 55 minutes and 20 seconds—26 minutes faster than the previous mark set by Rob Krar. Walmsley, a former Air Force Academy runner from Flagstaff, Ariz., also won nine of the 10 races he entered last year from 30K to 100 miles, with the only blemish being the Western States 100. In that race, he was well ahead of record pace, only to take a wrong turn and go off-course before eventually finishing 20th.
What was the key to your success last year?
It was all about big mileage. Before 2016, I think I had run just one 100-mile week of training in my life, and in 2016 alone, I ran more than 20. I logged about 90 miles a week as a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kid in high school. But then my college coach had the foresight to back my miles off a bit, which was smart because I had to adjust to altitude, deal with the challenges of the Air Force Academy and the workload of classes. But running a lot of miles has always been what’s worked for me, and this past year, I kind of got back to it.
What’s it like to be part of a fast and exciting youth movement in ultrarunning?
It’s pretty cool to see so many guys running so fast and taking down so many FKTs. I tell people if they’ve seen the “Valley Uprising” film about the Yosemite rock climbing revolution with the rock climbers that are doing bigger, faster, cooler climbs, that’s kind of what’s going on in ultrarunning. In my own romanticized way, [I think] it would be really cool to bring those vibes into ultrarunning. I don’t think people know what is possible yet and that makes it wide open to do all sorts of big things in the sport.
How do you fuel?
One of the first things I tell people about ultrarunning is that it’s really an eating contest. If you want to run well, you need to take in a lot of calories. For the races and runs I’ve done, I basically fuel on all sugar all day. I just think it’s the quickest, fastest source of energy. For races that are 15 hours or less, I consume lots of Clif Shots and dissolve Clif Shots in water. I typically consume 300–400 calories per hour, which is basically pure carbohydrates with some salts in it.
Where’s your favorite place to run?
The Grand Canyon is an amazing place to train and run. Tim Freriks, Cody Reed and I have a 21-mile loop in the Grand Canyon in which we start at the top of Bright Angel Trail, run down to the Colorado River and then up South Kaibab Trail and back to the start along the Rim Trail. We made it a segment on Strava called the Coconino Cowboy Loop, and the fastest time is 2:43. After a run like that, we’ll pizza at Pizza Hut or stop at Wendy’s and get French fries and a Frosty before booking it back to Flagstaff for a real meal.
What advice would you give to anyone considering an ultra-distance race?
Be open minded. Don’t go into a race with limits. I don’t think anyone knows what they’re capable of, so go push yourself and go find out. Sometimes you get in over your head, but that’s totally OK. You can’t be afraid to do that. You really find out the best things about yourself when you find yourself in a deep hole.
VIDEO: Jim Walmsley—The Distance