It’s really difficult to wrap my mind around the concept of ultra-running. The first time I even heard of ultra-running was at the Air Force Academy, where the annual Falcon 50 is held. I thought 50 miles was crazy. To an extent, I still do. I would see the cadets coming back into the dorms after finishing the race, barely able to walk for days afterwards.
For those who are out of the loop, an ultra-marathon is technically any race over the standard 26.2 mile marathon. I tried to nail down an exact history of ultra-running, and while nothing is really conclusive, it seems that people have always had a morbid curiosity as to what the limits are for human running. Even in the 18th century, ultra-walking competitions would be held where competitors would see how much distance they could cover in a 24 hour span.
While it seems that ultra-running is primarily a mental battle, breaking down even the fittest athletes, a class of truly great runners are mixing in real talent and science to turn what was once a quirky athletic competition into serious professional running.
For the time being, there are no NCAA ultra-running championships to be had, but ultra-running is drawing in a field of athletes who have a history of elite competitive racing. Jim Walmsley, a 2012 USAFA graduate, fits that mold.
He was the captain of both the cross country and track teams at the Academy, where he managed to run a personal best 4:04 mile and 13:52 5,000 meter.
His first ultra win was in 2014 at the Old Gabe Trail Race, a 50 km, which he finished in 5:26:04. Since then he’s tallied 19 more first place wins in races varying from 50 km to 100 miles, with his most notable win coming at the Western States 100 mile race in a record-setting time of 14:09:28 in 2019.
For the fourth time as of 2019, Jim Walmsley has been named the UltraRunner of the Year, awarded by UltraRunning Magazine, along with Courtney Dauwalter.
The honor was earned through Jim’s four wins in 2019 along with setting the 50-mile world record.
Now, Jim is setting his sights on something that may not be bigger, but will certainly be on a bigger stage: the Olympics. Because there is no ultra-marathon event, Jim will be running his trials for a spot on the marathon team at the trials in Atlanta on February 29th. As far as the chances of actually competing for team USA, things are somewhat uncertain. Jim has hit the target pace in competitive races, but even he has alluded to the fact that the shorter marathon distance (I can’t believe I just wrote that) requires a different skill set than ultra running in order to make the Olympic team.
I’ll be honest, I’m holding back a little bit. The truth is that Jim has an amazingly raw story that’s led him to his elite status as an ultra-runner, but I don’t think it would be fair to extrapolate upon it without hearing everything directly from him. There’s no denying that he is accomplishing things that are superhuman, yet it seems that his journey is incredibly human. While running does not have the same fan-status as football, baseball, or basketball, Jim is certainly a celebrity in the sport.
I still cannot really wrap my head around what exactly he does. The distances Jim covers at record speeds is unfathomable. Seriously, I don’t even want to drive for 100 miles, much less run it. While he doesn’t speak much to his Academy experience as it pertains to lessons-learned and how they relate to running, he exemplifies a lot of the things the Academy instills with his hard work and sheer determination despite enduring treacherous terrain and mileage. I never saw myself as being a running fan, but it’s hard not to root for Jim as he sets out to accomplish feats that humanity has never even attempted to quantify until recent years. So keep a look out for Jim Walmsley and hopefully we can cheer him on as a member of Team USA.