Recently in a webinar I was hosting, an athlete asked me a question which, whilst initially appearing tongue-in-cheek, warranted further investigation. It was two days after The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and Jim Walmsley had just shattered Timothy Olson’s 2012 record of 14:46:44 crossing the line at the Placer High School athletic track in 14 hours 30 minutes and 04 seconds (That is an impressive 5:26 minutes per kilometre average).The question was “When will I be able to run like Jim Walmsley?”
As I said at the beginning of this piece, my initial response was to laugh, however I then considered the different realms that we could explore the question. Did the athlete mean physiologically? Technique wise ? Strategically? Or something else entirely?
Moving on with the “When will I be able to run like Jim Walmsley” hypothesis to a question of technique I would very strongly suggest that unlike point one, most people, with the proper application of repetition, time and care, would be able to run with a technique similar to Jim Walmsley. Let’s explore that some more. When Walmsley runs he looks effortless, that is because he has an efficient stride. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, efficiency generates speed. Efficiency perpetuates speed. The longer we can stay efficient, the faster we will be. Leaving aside the strength and athleticism required to have form as great as Jim’s for so long, I can say that for Walmsley to run with such efficiency is less stressful, more sustainable, stronger, faster and easier than if he were to mash it with the typical “ultra shuffle”.
Walmsley runs with his upper body in a proud, relaxed stance, his head is up, arms are driving backwards, opening his chest up and his hands are not crossing the centre line of his body. His centre of gravity is beneath him and his posterior chain, driven by the gluteal muscles, is driving the push off. Jim’s core is solid and engaged, his hips forward, his knees driving. Walmsley’s light, fast footfalls prevent his quadriceps and calves bogging down, rapidly becoming overloaded and fatiguing. Jim lands with a forefoot stride and more often than not when he is photographed he looks like he is flying because both feet are off the ground at the same time, in a double flight phase. This level of technical proficiency when teamed with physiological supremacy is an amazing double bill. However, I maintain that most people can run in an efficient manner and, whilst we may not be able to match Jim’s blistering speeds, we can, with the right preparation, run with a more efficient gait.
What little I know about Walmsley’s strategy/psychological approach to racing could perhaps be summed up by that quote attributed to Steve Prefontaine; “The best race pace is suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die”. I say attributed to, because there is some conjecture if Pre did indeed say that, but it is a good quote to encapsulate Walmsley’s off-the-front, highly entertaining race strategy. This strategy, which risks losing it all to win it all, is typified by the younger American ultra-trail athletes and certainly leads to some yo-yo performances. Sure, Walmsley was way out front in 2016 at Western States when he went off course at mile 93. By his own admission he “blew up” in 2017, resulting in a DNF at around mile 78. Certainly, Walmsley’s strategy for the 2018 Western States got him the course record and the Cougar; however I would not advocate his approach for any of the athletes I coach. If you want to go out burning hot and see if you can hang on be my guest. However I can bet you ten bucks that unless you have Jim’s athletic ability, efficiency and ability to sit with distress you are going to come up short more often than you come up trumps.
So there you go. When will you be able to run like Jim Walmsley? Well as discussed, in terms of performance and speed, never. But in terms of efficient running form, absolutely, and who knows, having a more considered race strategy than Jim might actually lead to more relatively consistent performances. Whilst not winning the Western States this year, Jeff Browning’s race strategy has netted him third, fourth and fifth place in the last three consecutive years at Western States. The 46 year olds strategy of a conservative start then a gradual ramp up around 100 kilometres to a fast finish is a master class in efficiency, patience and determination.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on running like Jim, or any other matter concerning running performance, strategy, physiology.