On June 23, in Jim Walmsley’s third try at winning the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, it wasn’t the heat or the pressure or dark memories of 2016 (when a wrong turn near mile 93 cost him the victory) that offered the biggest obstacle.
It was the bears.
“With 6 miles to go, I turned a corner and saw a momma bear and two cubs. Running alone, you’re faster and quieter than most animals expect a human to be, so I caught them by surprise. The cubs scurried up a tree, but momma stayed put.”
Walmsley, who’s seen bears elsewhere but never in Flagstaff where he lives and trains, stopped running and started trying to motivate the mother bear to leave. Eventually, she moved to one side of the trail. As he sidled past, he reinforced her behavior with a firm, “Good bear. Don’t get in my way. Don’t you dare!”
Then he was off on the final stretch of the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, a mountainous journey from Squaw Valley to Auburn in California. When he crossed the finish line in 14 hours, 30 minutes, 4 seconds, Walmsley broke the course record by more than 16 minutes.
“Everything clicked,” he said. “So many things have to come together for a race like this, and in addition, your legs have to feel the right way on the right day. Then it’s a matter of going out there and taking advantage of it.”
The Arizona native (he grew up in Phoenix) says his supporters were an inspiration.
“I used the knowledge that people were rooting for me as my cornerstone," he said. "It’s not the naysayers, it’s the people who have your back who give you strength.”
Walmsley has faced hard times and learned from mistakes.
“People who followed the story from 2016 know I was leading but ended up botching the race,” he said. “In 2017, I had stomach issues and didn’t finish. But it’s honestly been a rewarding process. I think in general, I’m a better runner due to the trials before this magical day.”
Training at elevation also gave him a physical and psychological edge. “The first 30 miles of Western States are at a high altitude, and in addition to being physically adapted, being from here gives you confidence that you know how to pace it.”
And then there are the Cowboys. After moving to Flagstaff in 2015, Walmsley reconnected with Tim Freriks, who competed against him in high school. A core group of fellow ultrarunners has coalesced around them. The Coconino Cowboys especially love training on Grand Canyon trails, which offer an unparalleled long descent and climb.
Three other Cowboys ran Western States this year. At aid stations, Walmsley’s crew updated him on their progress.
“Having a group of friends with you is a huge driving force,” he said. “We motivate each other to train and drive each other to succeed.”
Reflecting on that fateful move to Flagstaff, Walmsley concluded, “It was a lucky pick. I didn’t realize how great a running town it is … way better than I even imagined. The longer I’m in Flagstaff, the more deeply rooted I feel.”