Jim Walmsley is America’s best ultra runner. Why is he racing the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials?

Jim Walmsley
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The U.S.’ best marathoners race at Saturday’s trials in Atlanta for one of three Olympic spots per gender. Also entered: the U.S.’ best ultra marathoner — Jim Walmsley.

You may have read about Walmsley earlier this month. On Feb. 11, The New York TimesSports Illustrated and Runner’s World all published profiles of one of the most unique of the record 771 qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

Walmsley is at best a long shot to qualify for the Olympics. He owns the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim record of just under six hours, but he has never raced a marathon. He qualified for trials via the half-marathon route, running the slowest time possible (64 minutes exactly) to eke into Saturday’s field.

So why is Walmsley, one of the few ultra runners able to make a living on sponsorships, taking a break from racing distances up to and beyond 100 miles for the marathon trials?

Three reasons.

  • Walmsley, now that he’s an established ultra runner with a Hoke One One sponsorship and the last four Ultra Runner of the Year titles, said he has “a little bit of a luxury to try fun ideas without much pressure.”
  • To smash stereotypes. “It’s a little bit of an intrigue of, well, I think myself and several of the other top elite ultra runners are really great runners,” he said. “It’s kind of an opportunity to maybe just show that we might not be as slow as they [elite marathoners] think we are.”
  • Training for a major ultra-running goal: South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, a 56-mile race, all on asphalt. “Doing this whole training block for the marathon is basically going back to my roots of reinvigorating my legs, leg speed, and make me competitive at Comrades. I don’t know if I would have gotten out the door for as many workouts if I was just preparing for Comrades.”

Other ultra runners have qualified for and raced a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

Even Ann Trason, the 19990s champion whom Walmlsey called “the biggest, most badass ultra runner, period.” Trason did not respond to interview requests, but she was profiled in The New York Times before the 1996 Olympic Trials. Trason finished 61st in the 1988 Olympic Trials, according to marathonguide.com.

“People think ultra is some kind of spaghetti-eating contest for people with no talent to do anything else,” she said, according to the Times, “but there’s a lot going on.

“An ultra is not about pain — I think a marathon is about pain, about intensity — but it’s about hanging in through tiredness and about staying nutritionally fueled.”

Walmsley succeeded just by making it to the Atlanta start line. His goal in training was to reach the ballpark physical shape of a 2:10 marathoner.

“Which is completely arbitrary to start because I have no idea if I even have the potential to run a 2:10 marathon,” he conceded.

Six men in Saturday’s field have broken 2:10 in a previous marathon. The Atlanta course is hilly, which will slow times.

Walmsley also confirmed in training that his passion remains in ultra trail running. This will likely be his first and last 26.2-mile race.

“I guess I would want it to be my second-to-last marathon,” Walmsley said, correcting himself, “because, yeah, I do have dreams of somehow pulling it off and making the Olympic team.”

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