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Coming off what he calls a smarter approach to post-Western States 100 training, Jim Walmsley is excited to be back in Chamonix, France, to take another crack at winning the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
But before taking center stage of trail running’s most prominent event on Friday evening, the tall, lanky athlete with long frizzy hair will be trying to hide in plain sight.
The celebrated 31-year-old American ultrarunner is known the world over and loves the camaraderie he feels among friends and fellow runners when he’s in this hallowed mountain village. But given the acute concentration of fans and followers trying to seek his attention and acquaintance in the days leading up to the race, he’s been trying to keep a low profile out of the public eye so he can rest up for the race.
More than 10,000 trail runners from around the world are participating in one of the seven races this week in Chamonix, including 2,500 in the 171km UTMB. With a combination of a deep field, moderately high altitude, long stretches of technical terrain, 10 wickedly steep climbs and descents through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland, UTMB always provides a global benchmark of competitive mountain ultrarunning.
Walmsley flew into France about 10 days ago, but he didn’t arrive in Chamonix until August 24. He spent Tuesday afternoon in partial disguise — made possible, in part, by complying with the local mask recommendation as a Covid-19 precaution — wearing a non-descript cap, sunglasses, a casual pair of Teva sandals and, for the time being, nothing from his primary sponsor, Hoka One One. He’s also backed off posting to Instagram and Strava, partially to keep people from knowing where he is.
There’s no place in the world like this where you see so many people walking around in hydration vests, running shoes, spandex, calf sleeves, all sorts of gear, all decked out after a run or heading to the expo,” says Walmsley, who says he’s been healthy aside from a minor foot issue. “And the knowledge of the people who are in the area for UTMB week — they know everything about all of the elite athletes — it can definitely be an energy trap that you can get sucked into a little bit. You have to look after yourself and manage it. We have our little techniques to stay under the radar a bit.”
That’s just one of the ways Walmsley is revamping his approach to UTMB this time around.
After winning his third consecutive Western States 100 on June 26 in Auburn, California, Walmsley says he took a slightly more conservative approach to training in the seven weeks leading up to this week’s 106-mile UTMB race. He was initially back home in Flagstaff, Arizona, but he also spent a lot of time training in the high-altitude environs of Silverton, Colorado, as he has in the past. However, instead of forcing himself into high-volume training right away, he put more focus on rest and recovery while also mixing in long days on his feet with big vert.
Walmsley has run aggressively at UTMB twice — he wound up fifth in 2017 but then dropped out near the 75-mile mark in 2018 — and both times he was coming off a hard effort at the Western States 100.
“That’s a short, two-month turnaround, which is pretty quick for running two hard 100 milers,” Walmsley admits. “In the U.S., you bring everything to Western States, so you may or may not have anything left by the time you get to UTMB. This year I have tried to balance it with the lessons I’ve learned. In the past, I have just tried to get training going right away for the purpose of cranking some crazy training in between the two, but I think I’ve wound up fit-tired on the actual race day at UTMB.”
Jim Walmsley’s New Approach
This year, Walmsley says he’s done less volume in training this year than previous years, but more running and hiking up steep mountain trails. He spent a lot of time training on a bike trainer in the springtime before Western States, but he says that wasn’t a part of his pre-UTMB training.
“My buildup for Western States definitely had the foresight for the notion that UTMB would be next and doing longer hours and more vert climbing,” he says. “So that helps with the transition to doing longer days in the mountains afterward. It gives me confidence from another good result and I’m doing the right thing and down the right path. I just need to replicate things I have already done. I don’t need to prove anything in my training, but with that comes making sure I am doing the right things to make sure I am doing the right things to be ready for UTMB and not cook myself before the race.”
Walmsley, who will wear the No. 1 bib in the race, will be trying to become the first American man runner to win the UTMB, along with other top U.S. runners Tim Tollefeson, Jason Schlarb, Tim Freriks and Andrew Miller. He’ll also face strong international competition from French runners Francois D’Haene and Xavier Thevenard, both three-time UTMB winners, as well as their countryman Ludovic Pommeret, another past winner, as well as Norway’s Hallvard Schjølberg and Russia’s Dimitry Mityaev, among others. (Walmsley helped pace D’Haene en route to a course-record victory at the Hardrock 100 in Colorado on July 16-17.)
While four U.S. runners have won the UTMB women’s race a total of six times (Krissy Moehl, 2003, 2009; Nikki Kimball 2007; Rory Bosio 2013, 2014; Courtney Dauwalter, 2019), only a handful of American men have finished on the podium.
In 2015, Seth Swanson was in second place with about 15 miles to go before fading slightly and winding up fourth behind fellow American David Laney in third. Zach Miller went off the front in both the 2016 and 2017 races, but faded to sixth- and ninth-place finishes, respectively, while Tollefson went on to place third in each of those years.
Other than those recent efforts, Topher Gaylord and Brandon Sybrowsky tied for second in 2003 in the inaugural UTMB, Mike Wolfe was second in the rain-shortened race of 2010 and Mike Foote was third in the rain-shortened race of 2012. In 2013, Timmy Olson finished fourth and Foote was fifth, while Jason Schlarb placed fourth in 2014.
“We’re still banging on the door trying to get into the party,” Walmsley says. “I’m still hoping to have a bit of a breakthrough in a big, long ultra in Europe. I’ve had some good races in Europe, but not quite the same results that I’ve had in the States. In the States, I get to race a lot with all sorts of results and a lot of good ones, so I am just hoping to replicate that out here. That would be pretty special.”
Walmsley’s Second UTMB
In 2017, when Walmsley placed fifth, he was one of six American men among the top 20 (Tollefson, 3rd, Walmsley, 5th, Dylan Bowman, 7th, Miller, 9th, Laney, 14th, Jeff Browning, 20th). Since then, Schlarb’s 19th-place finish in 2019 is the highest showing by an American man.
“Until somebody changes that and wins it, it’s always going to be the conversation heading into the race,” says Bowman, who aside from his strong UTMB showing in 2017 also finished second in the 145 km TDS race in 2019. “We have the talent and we’re getting closer and closer, but we still have a ways to go to catch up to the American women, who have done great here throughout the history of the race. My pick this year is that Jim Walmsley is finally going to give us the win that we have so desperately coveted over the last 15 or so years.”
As for his recent training, Walmsley spent time running with friends in other parts of the French and Italian Alps last week. He logged two long-ish mountain runs on Saturday and Sunday, took it easy with mostly flat 8-milers on Monday and Tuesday. He planned on doing a steep uphill hike followed by a mellow downhill run on Wednesday, followed by another short and flat run on Thursday after he drops off his girlfriend, Jess Brazeau, in Oriseres, Switzerland, for the 56 km OCC race.
On Friday, he plans on sleeping in a bit, doing a 20-minute shakeout run, taking a nap and then showing up for the 5 p.m. start of the UTMB (11 a.m. ET) ready to rock and roll.
“It’s exciting, but it’s not simple,” Walmsley says. “You’re not just going to show up and have success here in long races. You have to do your homework and get some experience to have a chance because you really have a deck stacked against you.
“My goal is to make it all the way around (Mt. Blanc) and hopefully in a situation that puts me somewhere in contention, but a lot of things have to go right and you just have to take care of one thing at a time.”