Jim Walmsley on Stepping Outside the Box

Jim Walmsley is considered by many to be the most gifted American male ultra distance runner, and has recorded many impressive wins and FKTs. But the man who runs like a gazelle and owns the Western States Endurance Run record, recently moved to Europe to morph into a mountain goat. He wants to finally conquer Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, a race that has been won by several female American athletes, but to this day has not ended with the result Walmsley would have liked, and most experts, fans and onlookers expected from the speedy former Flagstaff, Arizona resident. In fact no American male has been on the top step of the prestigious UTMB race to date. The talent is there, and some males have come close, but close is still no cigar.

Walmsley with his wife Jessica Brazeau decided this year that a big change is in order and in April they packed up a bunch of their belongings, including 2 gravel bikes and a Wahoo Kickr bike and moved to a small village in France. Like many other great ultra runners Walmsley uses cycling as cross training plus he is quite fond of it. At the most recent UTMB in late August, Walmsley ended up in 4th place after leading the race late by pulling away from eventual winner and course record setter Kilian Jornet. But Walmsley is all in and has plans to stay in France and become one with the mountains at least until the 2023 UTMB.

We chatted with him about this big move, his training, his bike and the plans for the near future.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Jim.

Jim Walmsley: No problem!

ST: Now with UTMB behind you, what is on schedule for you?

Jim: I would like to do Les Templiers this fall in Millau, France. Each race has a unique recovery timeline and I have to see how my body does, trying to get back into training after UTMB. Mentally, I feel ready to race again, but my body hasn’t caught up from the effort.

ST: In previous years you would have been back at home in Flagstaff by now, but this year is different as you decided to go all in earlier this year with a move to Beaufort, France.

Jim: Yes, I am staying in Arêches-Beaufort after the race this year. I suppose this is where the biggest diverge from my usual schedule is now beginning.

ST: In the video that showed your move to Europe it appeared that the bikes took up the biggest bulk of your luggage – and it looked like four of them. What kind of bikes did you and Jessica bring to Europe?

Jim: We brought two bikes, one for each of us. We both have a Specialized Crux which we have set up for gravel riding. It was the best one quiver bike to ride a little bit of dirt and trail, while still being light enough to do some road riding and commuting on as well. I would love to bring my Epic mountain bike out next summer, but that might depend on how much longer we stay in France.

ST: How much riding do you do for cross training, and how much of your riding is done indoors?

Jim: I love riding my bike. Indoors seems to be a great fit for cross training for me. It tends to be the safest option, suitable for bad weather, and time efficient with constant pedaling. I wish I could do more riding, but ultimately, I tend to be fairly healthy and spend most of my energy running on trails instead.

ST: What is your setup like when you do ride indoors? And are you mostly riding then or doing structured workouts or events?

Jim: Indoors I have the a really great set up that allows me to train using Zwift and the Wahoo App. I have a Wahoo KICKR bike, along with a mat, fan, and television for Zwift.

ST: Initially when you moved there, in addition to riding the bikes for training purposes, you also seemed to use them to go shopping and run other errands. Was that out of necessity or by choice?

Jim: That was by choice. The practicality of using the bike once training started to increase died off a little. We are 3km up valley from Arêches-Beaufort, which is 10km up valley from Beaufort, which is 20km up valley from Albertville. So very quickly a car is necessary here, otherwise I’d be trying to turn into a professional cyclist instead of runner!

ST: In Beaufort like in most European countries it is fairly common to use bikes or be on foot to go to the stores, and instead of shopping once big, they shop more frequently but in smaller quantities. By now it has been almost 4 months of you living there, do you slowly feel like a local and has your lifestyle adjusted?

Jim: Our lifestyle has definitely adjusted. One misconception is that everywhere in France or Europe, everyone can walk and bike for anything. We are actually in quite a rural mountain town, far away from the nearest stores. We have had to adjust a lot of our grocery shopping. We go to Albertville once a week for our major errands and biggest grocery runs. On Wednesdays, we’ve been able to get a lot of our produce at the Beaufort Market. Then we usually pick up lettuce and bread throughout the week as close as Arêches. Everything has to take in mind the funny hours of businesses as well as each store’s specialties. It definitely pays to pick and choose what products you get from each store because they do tend to vary on quality of certain things and usually they tend to be better at different things.

ST: Talk about the location where you are, and why Beaufort versus some other town in the mountains

Jim: Jess and I wanted to be in a real French village, not Chamonix or somewhere too touristy. One of our biggest goals while being here is to pick up French. We thought being in a smaller French village would be most beneficial for that, however, we are probably a little more remote than we initially gave credit. Arêches-Beaufort is tucked up in the mountains of Beaufortain. Everything is steep here. It changes the way I can train, a lot more hiking than I am used to. Then in the winter, we will stay here. It changes to full blown winter. We will have to ski in order to exercise. It forces us to change and train like the Europeans. Lastly, and most obviously, we ended up landing in Arêches-Beaufort because of François D’Haene and him being so welcoming and friendly to help us get connected with the right people in this valley. He has been the biggest help with making us feel welcomed here and introducing us to a lot of the locals who have been warmer to speak with the weird, non-French speaking Americans that moved in next door.

ST: How much time do you spend with François D’Haene and his family and friends?

Jim: François is typically fairly busy with his family, running career, and wine, but we usually get to enjoy runs and or ride together when he is home. I really enjoy the times when we get to spend longer hours on the trails together. Although, this summer that wasn't a regular routine, I think this winter and next spring we will be able to share some more training time together.

ST: This year at UTMB you finished 4th, and while that was not the place you had hoped for, I think all in all you were not unhappy, as it was your best effort to date there.

Jim: I am definitely not satisfied with 4th and I aim to do better and improve upon this race. However, yes, there are really great positives to come from this year’s 4th place and many things to build on. I believe I am learning and will be able to replicate and improve upon this year’s race in the coming years.

ST: Looking back at the race itself, do you think you pushed too soon when you dropped Kilian?

Jim: In 20/20, yes. In the moment and believing in myself, no. It was the right time in the race to try to deliver a blow to Kilian. I feel like it almost worked, and I was close to pulling it off. As you get closer to the finish, sometimes you just start to gain momentum of what you’re doing and I think I was really close to cresting that point. However, that was not the case and quickly after Champex-Lac, I realized I was blowing up from attacking so many of the downhills throughout the race to try to maintain pressure on Kilian and the other runners with us, Tom and Zach. So in 20/20, it would have been best to potentially wait, sit on Kilian’s down moment, and use the time to recover even more myself. It would have made for an interesting situation when Matthieu would have caught us, because the way Kilian was running when I left him before Arnouvaz, Matthieu would have absolutely caught us both at some point. Matthieu’s race is really quite interesting because he was able to chase in no man’s land 5-20 minutes behind us for the first 13 hours. Typically, people would break in that position and loose time as the race goes on.

ST: But you moved to Europe for the long view and not just this year’s UTMB. And the trajectory is looking good.

Jim: I hope so! Next year will really be telling with how a proper winter of time off from running and time on the skies effects how I feel in August next year. I am optimistic, but I also realize it’s an uncertain experiment for myself.

ST: Talk about your training and how it will change over the winter months.

Jim: I hope to do ski mountaineering, skimo, every day. The house we are renting is in a perfect place, literally going anywhere in Beaufortain from our front door. I hope to improve my skiing ability and work on fitness and strength most. There won’t be much racing, besides from occasional vertical races, I hope. I also hope to do cross country skiing in Les Saisies once or twice a week as well. I really enjoyed that last winter.

ST: Will you do any SkiMo races?

Jim: I am not an experienced skier at this point. Unfortunately, I think my fitness can get me into trouble with skiing. First and foremost, I hope to become a much better skier. My heart absolutely wants to race skimo, but I am also born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona and I did not grow up with snow. I recognize the learning curve I am still on before being able to do a whole lot. It is best to do the races for experience at this point, not speed.

ST: What other bigger trail races are on your schedule for 2023?

Jim: Being based in Europe for 2023, I really hope to race a lot more next year. Some smaller races. I want to see more races and race culture around Europe. To be able to do that and still perform well at the races I need to do well at, I may have to find a way to participate more than race. I have never been good at that though. We will see. It is interesting of when I’ll be able to start running after winter and what races open up for options first. Madeira was a really nice experience in 2022. I would love to do Lavaredo. The World Trail Championships are in Innsbruck in June next year, that could be nice too. And then everything is hopefully building towards being at my best for UTMB.

ST: The beauty now is all these races aren’t crazy far away.

Jim: I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to get to spend less time traveling for European races.

ST: Is there anything else we should know?

Jim: There are so many changes for me with this whole idea and experiment I am trying to do. I just think it’s hard to underestimate how much life stresses with all of this affects performance. Ultimately, I don’t know if this will be a net positive or negative for my running, but I do think it’s a great positive for me as a person and growing as a human, which makes me excited about this journey. I hope I can figure some things out and hopefully I can pass that along to future Americans looking to base out of Europe for ultra-trail racing.

Images I and 2 courtesy of Wahoo Fitness
Images 4 and 5 courtesy of HOKA.com // www.peignee-verticale.com
Images 3 and 6 courtesy Jessica Brazeau