The air is sweet and dry in the late-afternoon light of Truckee, California. It has the smell and feel of the West: the beacon of new beginnings and also the jagged and seismically volatile edge of the nation. A place that symbolizes prosperity while holding the promise of one day tearing itself completely apart.
I’ve come here to join a group of perfect strangers for the weekend to document one of the most exciting events in trail running: the Western States (WS) 100 Mile Endurance Run: a point-to-point race from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California, that attracts some of the best talent in the nation.
My cohort and I meet at a brewery in Truckee, where we make our introductions: Stephen Kersh, a toothy-grinned ginger, wildly funny writer and talented photographer for Citius Mag; Alex Kurt, a longtime Trail Runner contributor (though we both work for TR, we have never met in person), another ginger with a slight lisp and a hard-to-pin dapperness; Jared Smith, here to represent HOKA ONE ONE, is a mix between your best friend from childhood and every athlete who was ever better than you; Sarah Cotton, a freckled and gentle journalist for Tempo Journal; and Gordon Wright, a man with an eruptive laugh, a former adventure racer, triathlete and journalist, and now an outdoor PR firm owner.
Over strong IPAs, we get right to the point. What is Jim going to do?
Jim Walmsley, the long-limbed, large-eyed, 29-year-old Arizonan, is somewhat like California: poised for prosperity yet prone to disaster. He’s back at WS this year to break the course record in a fashion, we hope, that is beyond human.
Landing on the running scene in 2014, Walmsley came from a track background in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He’s meticulous, calculating and precise.
“I’m very particular,” he says. “Being clean, wearing your clothes the right way and not being able to just leave whenever you want … I did really well with the military thing.”
After college, Walmsley moved into a darker chapter of life while working as a nuclear misileer in Great Falls, Montana. His work was underground and his shifts were 24 hours long.
“I was spending more and more time alone, and not running,” he says in Episode 1 of the film series Lighting The Fire.
His darkness grew darker when he was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 2015 after a “proficiency-testing scandal,” he says in the video. He moved back home and threw himself into running.
“I was struggling a lot,” he says, “getting out of the Air Force, moving in with my parents, getting a job at a bike shop and eating peanut-butter sandwiches and ramen. I was taking time off of work [for races] so I had to choose races that I could win. I had to win the races in order to pay my bills.”
His no-holds-barred attitude changed everything. He snagged titles from 12 of the 16 races he entered between 2014 and 2016 and slowly emerged from his depression.
“When you need to make it to pay bills, there’s a different hunger. There wasn’t another option,” says Walmsley.
His previous attempts at WS were disastrous. In 2016, after two incredible years taking trail racing by storm, he made it to mile 92 of the course. He was 20 minutes ahead of the course record before taking a wrong turn that completely dismantled his race. Instead of earning the record, he came in 20th.
In 2017, he was again on course-record pace, but DNF’d at mile 78, when his body shut down and he wasn’t able to take in food or water.
Both events stunned Walmsley and the running community. His blessing and curse is his racing style: he goes out fast and he doesn’t let up. When it works, it works well; when it doesn’t, he crashes hard.
“I like getting people beyond their threshold pace,” he says.
“I want to challenge not just the current ultrarunners but the ultrarunners of the past. I want to compete against everyone.”
History and Reverence
Western States has been challenging human capabilities since 1974, when the first person—Gordon Ainsleigh—finished the course, then a horse race, on foot. Western birthed the sport we now call trail ultrarunning; it broke the definition of what we thought was possible with two feet and, because of its history and participation limitations (only 369 runners are allowed to race, due to permitting), it continues to be wildly competitive and hasn’t lost its intrigue, even after 45 years.
“It’s the main event for the U.S.,” says Ian Sharman, who has finished top 10 in every WS since 2010. “It’s the one everyone wants to run. It’s got so much more history than most races and that’s obvious from the aura of the race and the reverence the runners and volunteers have for the whole experience.”
The Academy Awards for Running Nerds
We wake at 2:50 a.m. on race day and gnaw on dry bagels, our IPA-soaked giddiness dragging. On the highway, we join a stream of headlights like pearls, stringing our way to the start at the Olympic Village in Squaw Valley, California.
The chilly lobby of the Squaw Valley resort is like the backstage at the Academy Awards for running nerds.
The runner, interviewer and comic relief for the trail-running community via his YouTube series Mountain Outhouse News, Jamil Coury slides by like a sleepy, curly haired inventor. He’s adorned with various contraptions, one of which is a microphone that looks like a ragged Muppet, for documenting the day’s events. Nico Mermoud, a co-founder of HOKA, banters with a group that leans in to understand his thick French accent. Stephanie Howe Violett, the 2014 WS women’s champion, has cheerful rosy cheeks in the cold air; Billy Yang, a filmmaker who has been documenting WS for years, is already behind a glowing camera light and Camille Herron, the record holder of the fastest 100-mile ultramarathon is bubbling and offering words of encouragement, even though she won’t race today due to injury.
A handsome, graying, Karl Meltzer, the winningest ultrarunner on the planet with 60 victories to his credit, stares into the distance. Suddenly, he snaps out of it and asks, to no one in particular, “Where do we get our numbers?”
“Get that guy a bib, point him toward the start line, and he’ll be just fine,” says Alex, laughing.
Stephen, Alex, Jared and I hike half a mile up the course until we have a birds-eye view of the scene below. It’s still dark out and very chilly, yet the energy is electric.
Slowly, the starting line becomes a thicket of bouncing, jittery heads. The gun cracks and cheers erupt from the sea of racers below. Walmsley hangs back, the first sign that this year may in fact be different for him.
The pack oozes up the hill to the ringing of cowbells and shouts, ascending slowly under a lightening sky.
The First Stop
We set out for the first aid station, Robinson Flat, the road to which quickly becomes congested with crew, media and spectators wanting to catch a glimpse of the leaders 30 miles in. So far, they have seen a sawtooth elevation profile, reached the zenith of elevation for the race, descended almost 2,600 feet to Duncan Canyon and will ascend another 1,500 feet to surface here at Robinson Flat.
The landscape begins to define itself: undulating, shrubby ridges and canyons, ponderosa pine, deeply carved riverbeds, salient outcroppings of granite. All of it looks ready to combust at the thought of a match.
We slow to a stop in thick traffic. Gordon seizes the opportunity and throws the car in park. He immediately falls asleep, mouth open. I hop out to investigate the view. Our approach is a winding road, up a hillside next to a ravine with the standing black corpses of trees from a recent fire. I imagine the runners like explorers traversing the rocky and exposed Californian landscape, under an already simmering-hot sun.
“It’s kind of a time of meditation,” Walmsley says to me later, describing what the act of running is like for him. “You have a consciousness that’s separate from what you’re doing and where you’re going. My mind is clear, and I can have a little laugh about things that are going on.”
The dry wind sweeps; the granite sparkles; a mirage forms in the distance off of pavement below. And Walmsley is out there, having a little laugh.
At the aid station, I meet the almost comically bronzed and beautiful Tommy Rivers—an accomplished marathoner from Flagstaff, Arizona, whose abs should have their own Instagram account. Rivers has come to crew his friends, the Coconino Cowboys.
The Cowboys are a group of friends, including Walmsley, Tim Freriks, 28, Cody Reed, 27, Jared Hazen, 24, and Eric Senseman, 30, who have been training in Flagstaff together for several years. They are the new rat pack of ultrarunning; they’ve turned the heads of the trail-running community with their unapologetic swagger, their ever-presence on social media and their latest quip for Western States: “Cowboys Vs Everybody.” They’ve made it very clear they plan to go one, two, three, four in this race (Hazen isn’t running due to injury), despite the fact that only one of them, Walmsley, has ever run 100 miles before.
No matter how chapped one might feel by the bravado of the Cowboys, it’s clear that their bond is tender and authentic. When Walmsley walked off the course in 2017 after DNFing, the Cowboys were by his side. And Walmsley, when not racing, is typically crewing for one of them.
“Jim is a huge believer in my ability as an ultra-trail athlete,” says Freriks after the race. “At the North Face Endurance Run in 2016, Jim was crewing me. I didn’t have much time to train for the race and couldn’t finish. He was at Tennessee Valley aid station and didn’t have cell service and didn’t know I had dropped. He was out there for hours. At the finish line, he was like, ‘No sweat, man.’”
We arrive only moments before Walmsley comes galloping along. He’s fresh and unfazed by the early miles. Carrying two handheld water bottles, it’s as though he’s out for a midday jog, though his small black shorts and white shirt are already clinging to him from the heat. He smiles and offers a quick wave as fans bang cowbells and shout, “Go, Jim!”
“I have this belief in myself,” he says later. “You’re the only one who can experience your own footsteps. That experience of being you is special, and you have to think you’re different in some way. If you believe you’re something special, people are going to reciprocate the passion you put in.”
He’s in and out of the aid station, only 11 minutes ahead of second place, Francois D’Haene of France, perhaps Walmsley’s truest competition here. D’Haene, 35, has won the formidable Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc three times (Walmsley got 5th once and dropped once). He is also a wine maker in Beaujolais, France, and carries a light, almost jolly expression with him, even in the depths of the pain cave.
The Robinson Flat Aid Station is busy: crews dash anxiously, wearing homemade shirts to cheer on their runners and fiddle with food and chairs to seek shade. For most of them, their racer won’t come through for several hours.
I wonder what the other, remote aid stations are like. Just the runner and a couple tables of volunteers who have schlepped food and water and medical supplies and music and costumes and ice—so much ice—into remote Tahoe National Forest so that 369 people can safely make this journey.
All the Cowboys, Reed and Freriks in 4th and 5th and Senseman, in 8th, arrive within 25 minutes of Walmsley. Their aid-station visits are all business.
The 23-year-old Australian Lucy Bartholomew comes in, the first woman, effervescent. Small and blond and bouncy, she thanks her crew ceaselessly and eats watermelon through a grin. They stuff ice into her vest and hat. Her father, part of her crew, has been trying to run Western for five years and hasn’t yet gained entry. Kids buzz around her, wearing “Team Lucy” shirts and one of them says, “I hope you win the Western States, Lucy.”
“Thank you so much!” she says, and bounds out of view.
Coree Woltering, 29, of Ottawa, Illinois, the second-place finisher at California’s 2018 American River 50, saunters in with a big smile. Clad in a crop top and a speedo that acts as both his signature fashion statement and water-bottle holder, he is easy and composed. His husband, Tom Aussem, is frantically opening gels for him.
“It’s OK,” says Woltering, calmly, “we have all day.”
Courtney Dauwalter, 34, of Golden, Colorado, a recent, yet unstoppable force in the ultra and trail scene, is favored to win the women’s field. In 2017, she won the Moab 240 Mile Endurance Run, outright, by 10 hours, and in the fall of 2018, she took the women's title at the Tahoe 200. However at this point, she is 22 minutes back and we have to miss her arrival to keep up with Walmsley.
Through the Canyons
At the halfway point, Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7), the midday heat has cast its oppressive stain. The aid station is on a sleepy street, quite literally in someone’s front yard. The scene is surreal: kids soak in plastic pools on drying yellow grass in front of modest houses; the official race timers are tucked into a small garage; hamburgers and snacks are sold from a red porch. A rogue horse suddenly slips through a fence and Gordon takes off to wrangle it.
Crews vie for shade, squishing fold-up chairs together and moving with the slender shadows of trees. Much of the “action” for spectators at Western States is actually just waiting.
An older gentleman pulls his lawn chair near ours in the shade. He has an immaculate chinstrap beard and wears an old-school Western States shirt with red piping around the neck and sleeves and a WS 1,000-mile belt buckle. Naturally, I inquire.
“Well, I guess I’m Russ Melanson, 83 years young. I started 13 Western States and finished 10. I’ve run this race with Gordon Ainsleigh, Cowman Shirk [Ken “Cowman” Shirk was the second person to ever finish Western States], Sally Edwards, who started Fleet Feet—I could name a couple dozen.”
“What’s your favorite part of the course?” I ask.
“Just past the town of Forest Hill, toward Rucky Chucky [the aid station and river crossing]. I lived there, in a beautiful canyon. I had a big garden. It got to be too much, though. I couldn’t keep up. I had to give it up.”
Later, I look up Melanson. He got his fastest WS time in 1980, finishing 28th in 22:59:00. His last finish at WS was 1995, and he came in at 29:29:31; he was 60.
“I wasn’t ever good,” he says. “I wasn’t ever fast. But we all do what we can, right?”
At this moment, the runners are making their way through the notorious “canyons.” Though the course is a net elevation loss, there are three major areas where it plummets down to low elevation and then rapidly climbs back up. Many people, when speaking of the weather today, mention that the canyons never cool down. Even at night, they retain heat, so while it could be 90 degrees here, it’s probably well over 100 in the canyons.
There are two canyons just before Michigan Bluff: Last Chance to Devil’s Thumb dives about 1,700 feet before a 1,800-foot climb and then the course plummets another 2,465 feet down to El Dorado Creek before scrambling 1,720 feet to the Michigan Bluff Aid Station, where we patiently sit with dark sweat rings at the necks of our tees.
When Walmsley pulls in, he’s paler and less jubilant than at mile 30. A reverence settles. Photographers swarm but everyone falls silent. It’s a bizarre silence, because we’re within spitting distance of him, watching him perform intimate tasks: changing clothes, sponging down with ice water, eating, discussing his race in quiet soundbites with his crew, out of earshot for the rest of us. There must be a dozen cameras around him. Five minutes later, he’s gone, his signature gazelle stride loping up the street with photographers and videographers like Yang and Coury chasing him.
D’Haene arrives 14 minutes later, looking fresh and relaxed. He wears a brimmed hat and sits in an American-flag chair, sucking food and water out of various bottles, completing a somewhat childish look. His socks are black from the dirt. Again, a dozen cameras encircle him, as he strategizes in French and changes his socks. He, too, leaves in exactly five minutes with a strong and determined gait.
At 2:03 p.m., Freriks of the Coconino Cowboys comes stumbling into Michigan Flat. He’s tripping slightly, his face is white, his expression dead. He sits immediately and puts his head in his hands.
“I’m cooked,” he says.
Again, the hush. From my vantage, he looks like a sure DNF. I can’t imagine how a person could recover from this kind of low point, to face the blazing sun for 44 more miles. And yet, nine minutes later, he’s off.
We’re now, halfway through the race, at a decision point for ourselves: we can wait and see the rest of the lead pack come through or we can chase Walmsley.
We decide to chase Walmsley.
As the common statement among Western States aficionados goes, the race starts at Forest Hill. Forest Hill is about six miles away, at mile 62, and is the beginning of the end.
“It’s super runnable at that point for the next 38 miles,” says Dauwalter, after the race. “If you’re feeling great, you can do a lot in those 38 miles.”
Most of the big climbs and descents are out of the way and the famous river crossing, the Rucky Chucky Aid Station, offers a chance to cool off 16 miles away.
Take Me to the River
The Rucky Chucky Aid Station is accessed via a shuttle down a bumpy, dusty, rutted-out dirt road. It is scheduled to depart at 4 p.m. The catch is, Walmsley could be going through before then. We pull into the sizzling parking lot capable of frying an egg, down a few granola bars and chase them with warm coffee. We’re not waiting for the shuttle. We’re going to run the three miles down.
Alex joins me in a bumbling jog while the rest of our crew takes it slow. They’re going to miss him, we muse as we gain speed down the rapid descent.
A few minutes later, much to our chagrin, we hear the shuttle barreling behind us and turn back to see it has stopped to pick up our stragglers. By the time it gets to us, there is no room; Stephen, Gordon, Jared and Sarah’s faces press against the windows, laughing.
But Alex and I are determined, and we run faster, leaping over rocks and ruts and bushes while our backpacks sling from side to side. Black exhaust mixes with rising dust and wafts into our faces as we leapfrog with the old bus.
After three miles, the crystal blue of the river shines like an oasis. We arrive and all of us fall toward the river, stripping off pieces of clothing, down to our running shorts and bathing suits to jump in. Just as my bare feet hit the burning sand, the cowbells ring. It’s 4:05, and Walmsley’s here.
The Rucky Chucky crossing is the second-lowest point of the race. The hills above are forested and welcoming, unlike the exposed ridgelines earlier on. Volunteers, probably 12 of them, stand waist deep in the water, holding a rope that helps runners ford the river. Hand-over-hand, Walmsley gets himself across. The previous reverence is gone, having been washed away with the roar of the river, and we hoot and holler, dripping with wet hair and grasping slippery cameras.
“It’s time to go,” says Stephen. “We need to get to the track. He only has 22 miles left. He’s finally going to do it.”
At Placer High, where the race finishes, people are strewn about the infield of the track. It’s around 6 p.m. and is still bright and hot. For Walmsley to break the record, he’ll need to arrive before 7:46. Some nap, some find snacks. Again, we wait.
Reports begin to trickle in. He’s at Green Gate; he’s at No Hands Bridge. The metal stadium benches fill, and I am ushered to the finish line with the other media. Everyone looks beat, the photographers having hustled frantically all day to be in as many places as possible for the perfect shot. They run alongside racers, some ride their bikes—they interview, they report.
What it must be like, I think, to have run for 14 hours through this day. Up the Escarpment at Squaw, down nearly 4,000 feet from Robinson Flat to the Middle Fork of the American River, through El Dorado National Forest, up Devil’s Thumb, down to El Dorado Creek, up to Michigan Bluff, down and across the Rucky Chucky and then to end here, at this modest high-school track that has developed legendary status.
The last stretch seems to be taking Walmsley longer than expected.
The crowd stirs: “Don’t tell me he took another wrong turn.” “Should he be here by now?” I get a text from a friend who’s following at home. Where’s Jim? Ultralive.net isn’t updating.
Finally, the race announcer says, “We have a report that Jim ran into a mama bear and cubs on the course, and it slowed him down a bit. But he’s on his way.” We share a collective chuckle.
Soon there are faraway cheers that grow louder. He’s here.
He rounds the track alone, no pacer, a single handheld bottle in hand, still looking energetic. His clothing has dried and his tight cap is fresh, though it’s been on for 14 hours.
He slows just before the line and, rather than blast through the finish tape, he gently flicks the ribbon out of his way. The clock reads 14:30:04, a new course record by over 16 minutes. He takes a few steps, lets his smile arrive, tosses his bottle into the air and throws up a victory fist to an astounded audience.
We just witnessed a man run 100 miles at an average pace of 8:40 on the ninth-hottest race day of record.
Then he spots his mother and father, standing with signs that say, “Kudos, Jim,” and his face tilts downward. Walmsley isn’t afraid to cry, something I admire about him, and then I am crying and the crowd is silent. Again, we pause to witness.
Everyone wants a piece: photographers, journalists, friends, fans. He conducts multiple interviews before the dust settles and just as I catch up to him to say, “How’s it going?” he starts to look weary.
“I’m a bit wobbly,” he says.
Fair enough. I let him go.
The rest of the evening plays out much the same way, with the runners crossing the line and doing interviews before toddling off to the medical tent, then resting on cots under blankets. D’Haene comes in an hour and 24 minutes later, at 15:54:53.
Third, fourth and fifth, Mark Hammond, Ian Sharman and Jeff Browning, finish in 16:08:59, 16:23:32 and 16:45:29, times that would have landed them first, third and fourth in 2017.
Dauwalter arrives at 10:23 p.m., looking as she has become known to look: delighted, almost puppy-ish, by everything that is happening. She has finished in the second-fastest women’s time ever. Her dashing blue eyes glance at the sky and she lets out a laugh as she finishes. She chats casually with officials and after she’s had a moment to sit, requests Billie Jean be played on the PA system.
Bartholomew bounds over the line with a jump, maintaining the same spunk as when we saw her at Robinson Flat, though unsteady on her feet. Her time of 18:59:45 would have won last year’s race by about 30 minutes. She tearfully embraces her father.
“This is a selfish endeavor,” says Walmsley later, about running as a profession. “I love the process of training and the mental clarity … to go and observe and be selfish. But I don’t feel like that win or that time was for me. Race day is the day I give everything back.”