Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Brief Chat With Western States Legend Jim King

Jim King crossing the finish line in daylight, the first time it had even been done at WS - 1984

As I was standing around on the infield of Placer High School on Sunday, awaiting the awards ceremony after the race, I happened to spot Jim King in attendance as well and headed over to greet him.  If you've ever met Jim, you know what I mean when I say that he exudes joy, passion, and a genuine presence about him that makes conversation both easy and enjoyable.  Jim is a three-time winner of Western States and really, a pioneer of the sport and event in many ways.  In the early-to-mid 1980's, an era when ultrarunning in the U.S. was still relatively new and the thought of just finishing 100 miles seemed daunting; Jim took it one step further by running most (if not all) of the climbs at Western States.  Critics thought he was crazy at the time and that, "it's suicide to run the canyons, it can't be done."  Thankfully, Jim wasn't persuaded by the naysayers and we see the fruit of his labor over and over again at Western States each year.  Only now, we see both men and women blazing the trails faster and with a depth of talent in the field that has never really been seen in past generations.  With that in mind, I had a few questions for Jim about how he views the evolution of the sport today, his own personal running as of late, and other popular trends (re-)emerging in ultrarunning.  What follows is a brief, yet thoroughly pleasing dialogue with Jim King:

JR: Jim what do you think about how competitively deep the sport of ultrarunning has become recently?

JK: It's great.  I have always enjoyed and loved really deep fields.  I think it's better for the sport, the event, and for the spectators.  Better competition brings out the best in us and add depth to that, and I believe everyone in the field benefits from that.

JR: What are your thoughts on training some of the top guys are doing?  Specifically, putting in a lot of vertical gain?

JK:  It makes sense, it's what I was doing.  When I started training for Western States, nobody was really training by running a lot of hills.  And for me, I saw that as an advantage I had because nobody else was doing it, which surprised me.  I mean, if you are running a race with a lot of climbing, it makes sense to mimic that in training, right?  Also, I would move up to Squaw Valley a month before the race and train up there as well.  Nobody else was doing that either and I think that gave me a tremendous advantage come race day. 

JR:  You won Western States at the age of 25, that's pretty young by ultrarunnning standards.  What do you think about all the "younger guys" (including myself) making the move to ultrarunning? 

JK:  Bringing youth to the sport can only be a good thing.  Seeing younger guys and girls with a passion for trail-running I think keeps the sport fresh and exciting.  Different topic, but even the idea of getting back to minimalist shoes and running is a great thing.  Just basic simplicity.  The younger crowd brings that I think and I'm overall pleased with where the sport is today.

JR: Are you running much these days?

JK:  Yes I am.  In fact, I've been thinking about getting back into competing.  Specifically, more ascent-type races.  It's what I enjoy and what I'm better at I think.  On top of that, I always wonder why we don't have more mountain-type races in and around this area.  There's so many great locations to put on quality races.  I'm thinking about looking into putting on more mountain races, I mean, you could put on a great race just even at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort.  Running up and down steep, mountain ski-slopes would be fun.  I'm going to look into it. 

Jim King - 1986

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It's always a pleasure catching up with Jim.  There's hundreds of more questions I would have liked to ask him, but maybe a more in-depth, yet still informal interview is for another day.  If you haven't already, take a peak at his first-hand 1984 account from Western States.  As the sport of ultrarunning continues to evolve and change, it's interesting to see - as one can deduce from his 1984 account - that there really is nothing new under the sun.  From the beginning, there has and always will be a common thread of competition among the field and in the heart of the individual; bearded, long-haired, and sometimes bare-chested ultrarunners (we are all "Gordy Ainsleigh wannabes" if you are of that genre like myself, if you really want to boil it down); and super-sketchy time gaps from well-intentioned spectators/race volunteers.  The only difference is now all of this is magnified to a higher degree and depth (well, I can't really say if erroneous time gaps have grown more fallacious over the years), but you get the point.  Nobody knows for sure how or in which direction the sport of ultrarunning will take shape, but one can bank on two certainties: 1. Barring a major catastrophe, there will be a race held each year from Squaw Valley to Auburn and 2. "Jim Kings" will pop up every now and then to test themselves and to hush the critics about the reality of what is humanly possible.

So what's next? Sub-20 at Hardrock?  Sub-15 on the original course at WS? Someone finally taking down Matt Carpenter's CR at Leadville?  An American (or anyone) beating Kilian this Summer at UTMB?  While I agree some of these are undoubtedly more outlandish than others, however, I do believe for some of them it's not a question of "if", but "when".  I hope for myself I am awarded the opportunity (and blessing) next year to toe the line at Western States in order to see what my limits and capabilities are, but first, in t-minus 9 days I have the privilege of testing my body, mind, and spirit for 100 miles along the Tahoe Rim Trail

Gordy Ainsleigh was the first to set the bar. 


  1. Sub 20 at HR would be truly out of this world. Hell, breaking Kyle's record would be as well...

  2. Great write up Jacob!
    Have a great time at TRT100!

  3. Patrick - For sure, pretty extreme example on my part. If Kilian is serious about HR, I would like to see what he can do (and other top guys as well).

    Tim - Thanks man. Pretty stoked to test the waters and enjoy time in the mountains all day.

  4. THE KING! Hey lets chat on weds or thurs about trt. I will be super available but probably gimpy.

  5. sweet dude. i'll be up in tahoe thursday.

  6. Did you have any idea when responding to Tim that he was actually going to be the one to run sub 15 on the original western states trail?

  7. Not at all. I narrow-mindedly thought Kilian could be the only one to do it. I definitely picked Tim as one who could win, but sub-15?! I remember running toward Placer High (pacing Joe) and AJW runs alongside us and says, "Tim ran 14:46!" My jaw dropped. Incredible.