by Stephen Granger
Cape Town, South Africa is a long way from cowboy territory.
Jim Walmsley is the best-known of a group of runners raised in Arizona, USA, who once called themselves the “Coconino Cowboys” after the second-largest county in the state. He and another former “Cowboy”, Cody Reed (pictured above) will be competing in Ultra-trail Cape Town’s (UTCT) next Saturday (27 November).
While Walmsley will be hoping to emulate Reed’s success in the 100km event in 2019, when he beat race-favourite Francois D’Haene of France, Reed himself will be running the shorter 65km distance this year.
Walmsley has become one of the leading trail and road ultra-distance athletes in the world, having re-written the record books in many top road and trail races, including improving Bruce Fordyce’s world 50-mile road record, which had stood for 36 years.
The American came agonisingly close to pocketing the 100km world mark in January this year, when he clocked 6 hrs 09 min 26 sec in a race in Arizona, just 12 seconds off Japanese athlete Nao Kazami’s world record.
Linked to 19th Century American frontier towns, cowboys became larger-than-life legends, known as tough, hard-working loners working in remote and gruelling conditions. Coconino contains the entire Grand Canyon, the largest ponderosa pine forest in the country and the highest point in the state – Humphrey’s Peak at 3850m. Perfect for cowboys 200 years ago and perfect for “Cowboy” trail runners like Walmsley, who was born in Flagstaff, Arizona, today.
Walmsley is the strong favourite to take the 100km title ahead of a strong line-up of international athletes, including French athlete Sebastien Spehler, Italian Andreas Reiterer, Swiss Pascal Egli and French-Canadian Mathieu Blanchard, and leading South African ultra-distance athletes race record-holder Prodigal Khumalo. Three-times Comrades champion, Bongmusa Mthembu, former winner Eric Ngubane, Matt Healy and several of the country’s top marathon-distance athletes should also not be ruled out.
“I’ve heard a lot about Ultra-trail Cape Town from Cody and others,” said Walmsley. “And I’m looking forward to running it. I’ve been planning to run in South Africa for some time now, although I had thought my first race here would have been the Comrades Marathon. I had planned to run last year and had booked my flights and accommodation, only for COVID to put an end to that.
“I’m still hoping to race Comrades, although the change in the Comrades date (to August) has made that more of a challenge, as I have unfinished business with Ultra-trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), which also takes place in August.”
UTMB is a 100-mile circumnavigation around the Mont Blanc massif in France, Italy and Switzerland, and has not been kind to Walmsley. This year he was forced to quit the race shortly after the half-way mark.
“I just felt heavy and exhausted for much of the way. I kept hoping for some relief, to start feeling a bit better, but it went the other way and just became harder. It just didn’t work. I thought I would have had enough time to recover from Western States (the Californian 100-mile race in June, which Walmsley won comfortably in extreme heat to take his third successive title in America’s top trail race) but the two races require different preparation and I was unable to be competitive this year at UTMB.”
But Walmsley’s stumble in the French Alps led to his decision to race UTCT. “I felt it would be good to end the season on a high note and I’m hoping that the fact I only ran half of the distance at UTMB will count in my favour in Cape Town!
“Mathieu Blanchard had a great run at UTMB and finished third and will be a strong opponent next Sunday. He ran twice as far as I did, so perhaps I might have recovered more quickly than he did!”
This year’s UTCT 100km course has been modified, replacing the more runnable stretch up the Hout Bay River valley with a scenic, but longer and more taxing route on the slopes of Constantiaberg and Vlakkenberg. But might Prodigal Khumalo’s UTCT race record of 9 hrs 51 min 00sec and Reed’s 2019 winning time of 10:04:58 still be legitimate targets for Walmsley?
“I’ve looked quite closely at the pace of leading runners over the various sections of the race,” reflected Walmsley. “And it will be interesting to see how it goes on race day. It’s important to understand the course and conditions. What might appear to be a slow pace on a runnable section of trail, might be quite fast on a more technical stretch.”
In the American’s favour will be his familiarity with the terrain. “From what I can see, the rocky, drier nature of the trails in Cape Town are much closer to what we are used to in Arizona. I was out of my comfort zone in the mud in the Azores last November (at the Golden Trail Championship over four days, where Walmsley placed second) so I’m looking forward to feeling more at home on some of Cape Town’s best trails next week.”
While tapering his training towards race day, Walmsley plans at least three 30km runs in the next week, which will take him over most of the race route and acquaint him with some of the ‘ups and downs’ of the Cape Town route.
And apart from seeking out information on Cape Town’s running trails, Walmsley has another mission – to locate the best sports pub to watch ‘the big game’ on Saturday – the rugby test match between South Africa and England. “My twin brother is a passionate rugby player in Ohio in the States. And he insisted that I watch the match and soak up some of the local rugby atmosphere!”