Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard the news of what went down this past weekend at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. The odds-on-favorite, Jim Walmsley dropped out of "the Big Dance" at the American River after what can only be described as a very aggressive first 60-something miles. A year ago, he missed a turn some 90 miles into the race, when he was on course record pace, and lost the lead."Sometimes when you're not careful trying to set off fireworks you light yourself on fire."— Jim Walmsley (@walmsley172) June 25, 2017
Jim's DNF per se isn't why I'm writing this post. And, honestly, not even his fairly uncomfortable pre-race interview with iRunFar, in which he may or may not have had a few too many drinks and said things he shouldn't have said, is why I'm writing this blog. But let me just say for the record that the iRunFar interview was bad!
The reason I'm writing this blog is the reaction to Jim's failure on Saturday...which I find troubling upon some reflection. On the one hand, there are those applauding his "guts," "aggressiveness" and "balls." I get that--what he did was ballsy and probably a bit stupid given the precarious trail conditions in the high country and the very warm conditions throughout. On the other hand, there are those pouncing on his failure, kicking him while he's down as he really put his foot in his mouth in that iRunFar interview and, as the story goes, got his just deserts on Saturday when he was denied a win and a finish as a result of arrogantly going out too hard. His DNF was karma, some say.
Both sides have some merit to their arguments. But I would submit that Jim is probably living with some regret right now. This is not a bad guy. Despite that iRunFar interview, this is not a guy who lives to put down and disrespect his competition and run recklessly. I think this is a guy who is 27 years-old, a world-class athlete, and a big believer in his own amazing abilities. He over-committed himself early on in Saturday's race and paid the price for it in a race that really doesn't start until after Foresthill (mile 62), when he found himself out of gas.
Just to get right to the point: To some, Jim is the quintessential millennial. Which I think is unfair.
Jim made a mistake, paid for it and is probably now learning from it the hard way. Rather than kick the guy while he's down, we should recognize what he did on Saturday for what it was: a very public learning experience. If there is one thing I've gleaned from more than a few years in this sport, it's that world-class athletes don't think like those of us with regular or even above-average abilities do. They are world-class athletes in part because they have a huge mental edge, and not just physical talents. It might be hard for us regular folks to understand that edge--it may come off in the wrong way sometimes.
Jim's mental edge, which usually serves him well, probably got the better of him Saturday, leading him on a fatally flawed strategy when the best plan would have been what he himself was probably incapable of doing at the time: starting off conservatively, adjusting to the course conditions and weather, and letting the win--and not course record--come to him.
I don't know Jim but when I see things like this, I can't help but think he's a good guy who probably had a few too many drinks before his iRunFar interview and started howling at the moon when the cameras were on. He had a bad moment and things came unraveled on Saturday when all eyes were on him. Simply put, he erred in some critical areas and has paid for it with a high-profile DNF.
Jim Walmsley is one of the most talented ultrarunners this sport has ever seen. He puts in the work and trains super hard. He races all-in (sometimes too all-in), just as Steve Prefontaine did (I do not use that comparison lightly). He is very aggressive and confident in his own abilities. Sometimes he takes it a bit too far, as he did in his iRunFar interview and race. But, as someone who sincerely enjoys this sport and watching new talent come in and take the greatest races by storm, and as someone who has also made some mistakes on the trail over the years, my sincere hope is that Jim learns from this experience, grows from it, reaches out to a few folks who he may have dissed, and comes back next year and gets the win that he has been chasing for a few years. I hope he learns some humility and will get that win next year the old-fashioned way--with his head down and doing what needs to get done from Squaw to Auburn.
I hope he gets it right after getting it wrong two years in a row. Because, as Andy Jones-Wilkins observed, that's what Western States is all about. It's about finally getting it right when maybe you have gotten it wrong.