Jim Walmsley set the tone for much of the early going at the 2017 UTMB before finishing in fifth. In the following interview, Jim talks about how he tried to pull the other favorites along early, how the head of the race played out in great detail, what went wrong in his race, what it was like racing Xavier Thévenard towards the end, why he speaks with such confidence before races, and a whole lot more.
Check out our in-depth UTMB results article to find out what happened at UTMB 2017!
Jim Walmsley Post-UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Jim Walmsley after his fifth-place finish at the 2017 UTMB. How are you, Jim?
Jim Walmsley: Doing alright. How are you?
iRunFar: Alright. It was your best 100-mile finish!
Walmsley: Highest place, yeah. There’s a lot of positive to build off of off of this race.
iRunFar: What were some of the most positive takeaways you had?
Walmsley: Probably the most complete experience I’ve had in a 100—highs and lows, battling through that, doing a race running through the night, a mountainous 100 miler, toeing the line and putting a good foot forward with François [D’haene] and KIlian [Jornet] and getting to run with a lot of miles with those guys and getting to feel their fitness and some of their strengths in a race, and also being able to find a rebound somehow. I’m not sure where it necessarily came from but my stomach just started to settle again, and I was able to get some calories back in, and the legs quickly followed.
iRunFar: Is that the first time in a long ultra where you ride a high and then you crash at some point…
Walmsley: The only thing comparable is maybe Lake Sonoma 2015. There was a bit of a crash in that, but half the distance and not the same.
iRunFar: That’s a real positive takeaway knowing that can happen.
Walmsley: It can happen, and it’s not the end. I don’t think I was mentally treating it like it was the end, but it was just… I need to problem solve right now, and I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m searching for it. That’s where I found myself.
iRunFar: Let’s rewind a little bit. Going into this race, it’s probably the best trail ultramarathon field ever. You’re in there. You know François, Kilian, Xavier [Thévenard]. Did you just go out and set the pace from the gun?
Walmsley: There were a couple things where I didn’t want them to be super comfortable, but at the same time, I didn’t want to run off the front per se or run through the night by myself. Running through the night by myself in front of those guys, I think, is a very bad choice, but when I was running in the front, I was running 30 meters ahead of them looking back and basically letting them set the pace, but keeping it moving and keeping it honest—not fast honest, but moving instead of relaxing and waiting for just the late mountains. All three of those guys are coming in undefeated at UTMB races. They’re all just aces when it comes to 20-hour-plus-in-the-mountains grinding. A lot of that is brand new to me. But them being right there behind me gave me a good thumbs up of “No worries; it’s fine.”
iRunFar: So you come into Les Contamines in sort of the same situation. In there you were kind of talking a little bit of strategy. What were you thinking of doing after Les Contamines? Was anything planned?
Walmsley: Fueling was good. Running was going good. Legs felt like it was going to be the day. I could feel that… you’re 20 miles in; take it all relative. If you want to move on anything, those guys are so even keeled, they’re not going to react. They’re going to be, “Okay.” But just early running and miles I was sharing with them and feeling each other running, I drew confidence off of what I was feeling and my instincts off of that. Yeah, so…
iRunFar: You come into Courmayeur, same thing. It’s now down to you, Kilian, and François.
Walmsley: I was having a little bit of blister problems. That was the first time I switched shoes because I felt a hot spot that didn’t really go away on my heel. I think the weather up in Col du Bonhomme… I think I got some mud or dirt in my shoe and didn’t really quite realize it and probably had some rubbing on the back of my heel. Essentially what might have just been a short term hot spot eventually turned into a blister. A lot of times that can be a bit of a death sentence. Immediately, I get to Courmayeur and switch socks and put on some Squirrel’s Nut Butter on my feet and go into the Hoka Speedgoats as opposed to the Mufate Speeds.
iRunFar: You head out of there. François heads out a couple minutes early.
Walmsley: Dude, he blasted the aid stations. He was just in and out, in and out of everyone. Oh, I’ve got a minute on him… a minute… I can see them right there. We’re together. I’m like, Oh, we’ll see how they go. Kilian was more on the same page. Oh, let’s have some chips and… you know, it’s kind of nice. François is just business. He didn’t change his shoes or socks the whole race. He’s just solid. He’s good.
iRunFar: He’s a machine.
Walmsley: The whole takeaway with everything was just those guys are relentless.
iRunFar: Did you guys regroup somewhere out of Courmayeur? Were the three of you running together rather than you just off the front?
Walmsley: Yeah, almost all of Col de la Seigne in Italy and the descent from Col de la Seigne to Maison Vieille, the refuge, there’s a flat part which goes to a lake. That was the part where it was flat, runnable, and I’m hot exerting extra energy per se, but those are areas I can make them a little bit more uncomfortable. I don’t really think I made those two guys very uncomfortable too much. They had solid races start to finish. Those are the parts where if I’m going to try to create an advantage for me and my strengths, those are some of the parts where I’m like, I’m going to run this. It’s all relative. So I came into Courmayeur a little ahead, but those were the flat sections. François was the first one out. I ran past him on the road feeling so good at that point. I didn’t want to make move until Switzerland, but at the same time, if I can get away and am feeling good, I’ve never raced them. I don’t know if I can do that to those guys. It didn’t happen this weekend, but I kept telling them after the race, “I want to hop in another race with you guys.”
iRunFar: It didn’t discourage you.
Walmsley: Not only that, but it was really fun to have those guys to run with. Even if one of us would get a little tired, we’d just switch pacing a little bit and switch who’s doing the pulling up the hill.
iRunFar: You’re working together.
Walmsley: Yeah, totally. The three of us were definitely separating. Their experience and how talented they are, I think, showed. I wasn’t able to hang on, but next time, maybe a little longer.
iRunFar: What were things looking like at the top of Grand Col Ferret?
Walmsley: They were fine. It was really, really cold up there when we made the top.
iRunFar: Were you all still together up there?
Walmsley: Kilian was back a little bit, so I probably worked with François a bit more than Kilian.
iRunFar: Did you sense that he was tired at all? He wasn’t just dilly-dallying?
Walmsley: No, in Courmayeur, my feeling was Kilian felt the pace more than François. François was just strong, and he didn’t have as much lagging if I tested anything. Sometimes François would go with me and Kilian would lag behind.
iRunFar: Where did things start to go south?
Walmsley: Before La Fouly I knew… well, going all the way up Grand Col Ferret I was realizing I wasn’t having a hunger to eat the sweet stuff I was carrying, and I had all sweet stuff. That was the beginning of the problems, but I was kind of recognizing it and trying to prevent such a downfall like what happened at Western States—that was two months ago. I didn’t want to start puking in this race. If that happens, it could be a really, really bad spot. I was trying to prevent things getting completely unraveled. Saving the race was more important than pushing it through La Fouly because I came through in second.
iRunFar: When did you make that decision?
Walmsley: When I let François go a little bit on that descent right before the aid station.
iRunFar: Win’s not going to happen.
Walmsley: Yeah, and then I knew Kilian was going to come through in a couple minutes, and I couldn’t react to rushing myself to go with him and compete. No one else passed me through there.
iRunFar: You stopped for 15 minutes… I’m going to regroup…
Walmsley: It was over 15 minutes. Soup was going down there. That was something going down. All I had from the top of Grand Col Ferret to Champex-Lac was that soup. So when I get to Champex-Lac, I knew I was seeing Christophe [Aubonnet] and my crew. I knew that was where I could hit a hard reset and lie down for a bit and shut my eyes. Also, Tim Tollefson came through really strong. He might have been the only one that passed me in the tent, but immediately when I left, I just felt like, Here goes another one. Here goes another one. I just felt like Just keep shuffling in survival mode.
iRunFar: You were in survival mode. You were going to go on.
Walmsley: Yeah, for me, I have a big motivation for Hardrock. Knowing that it’s a Hardrock qualifier and getting around the mountain is important. François said he was going to apply for Hardrock next year. I think he will be a monster on that course, because of how good he is at hiking. Yeah, that intrigues me more, too.
iRunFar: You were in survival mode for a while, but then something happened that’s never really happened before in a 100 for you, you could surge again.
Walmsley: Maybe that’s because it’s a longer time race. Western States is a bit shorter time, and it didn’t necessarily come back yet, or 2016 wasn’t necessarily a body/stomach/food bonk, it was more of a mental, Oh, this sucks. That’s really a bummer.
iRunFar: How did it feel to have it turn around?
Walmsley: It was awesome. The trick was watered down coke—half water and half coke. It wasn’t as bubbly and it wasn’t as sweet. It was going down, and I was getting some sugar in. Alright, that’s going down. Then, I took some peanut M&Ms and was able to wash those down—I think four. This was just like magic. For my legs to come back—because I just crippled-jogging out of Champex-Lac, so slow, feeling awful. Then, I go up the climb and managed the climb. Then, all the sudden it clicked on the descent going into Trient. From there, I started out of Trient, I’m doing good, and someone gave me an update of “There’s a couple people up ahead of you.” I’m back in competing mode. At the very end of the climb out of Trient before you start descending into Vallorcine, I saw them at the top. Then the next descent I just rolled. I went right past Pau Capel, Dylan Bowman, and Xavier Thévenard. I just rolled past them, but I’m pretty sure Xavier was sitting or something, because it sparked something when I went past him. He came into Vallorcine and just went through the aid station. Then, there’s two miles flat before you start climbing again. I’m trying to run away. If I can just get away and get them to quit chasing a little bit, maybe I can hold them off. But then he was closing incrementally on the flat, and, then, we hit the climb and he just had another gear on the last climb. The guy knows the mountains here. He ran really well on the climb. Then, the end—you dip down to Chamonix at the very end. We hit the streets and I’m like, This is it. This is where you see lines of Europeans, crowd going crazy. You get to celebrate with high-fives on this side and high-fives on that side. And Pau is less than 100 meters behind me. I’m parting the Red Sea. You guys have got to get out of my way. He’s going to chase me down.
iRunFar: You’re, like, pushing little kids? So it wasn’t that you didn’t want to…
Walmsley: I totally want the fun finish. I’m all about it, but if it becomes a race, it’s still a race. It’s another benchmark if you can get top five here. So to be on the fritz of fifth and sixth, that was important to me. I was running 5:40-5:45 pace through a crowd of people just splitting them. “He’s not slowing down. We’ve got to get out of the way!” I feel bad. By the time I get through the line, my legs are so shot from the effort. “You can go back out.” “I don’t think that would be a safe thing to do right now.”
iRunFar: You sat on the edge. Other people were at least standing around, but you went straight to the edge of the bleachers.
Walmsley: I just found the closest seat as possible.
iRunFar: Have you had a chance to enjoy it afterward now?
Walmsley: Yeah, it’s good. It’s fun. I think this was such a great learning experience gaining so much respect for a lot of guys I haven’t raced. It’s been a wonderful experience with so many new challenges that I at least got to experience whether sometimes I was getting beat up by them or sometimes I was doing good, it was still experiencing it. That was good. Still lots of crowds around town, but I’m looking forward to a little bit of vacation still in Europe before I go back to the States. That’s where I think I’ll get to decompress. There will be days off on Strava and running in general. I’m not having dark days on Strava. I’m not running a couple days at least, and who knows, it could be longer.
iRunFar: You might not train until you get back to the States?
Walmsley: Yeah, I don’t have a race set in stone as my next race. A lot of that is just going to be depending on how my legs feel. My legs haven’t felt this beat up after an ultra in a long time. I think it’s just how much of a pain cave I got in on this one and pushed through it. It’s a good reminder.
iRunFar: Is it possible you might not run another race this year?
Walmsley: I don’t see me not doing another race. Races keep me motivated to keep training. Small races or big races, I like racing. I’ll more than likely race again this year. September 3… beginning of September, there’s a lot of year left.
iRunFar: TNF 50 is two-and-a-half months away. Ultra-Trail Cape Town is three months away.
Walmsley: Looking at the schedule though, recovery will have to go well for North Face.
iRunFar: Because you’d have to work on speed and switch gears?
Walmsley: The speed is there. I think it would be good. There’s a lot of strength and a lot of… strength in mountain running that I’ve gained in this training block and even training blocks leading up to this training block that has been kind of game-changing in the way I’m able to handle mountains now. It’s changed from last year.
iRunFar: Is that awesome?
Walmsley: Yeah, it’s pretty sweet.
iRunFar: You spent some time in Silverton this summer, and you just mentioned that you now have a Hardrock qualifer. I assume you’ll put your name in for that one? What intrigues you about it?
Walmsley: Well, it scares me, because Zach Miller got in a pickle this year and Tim Tollefson, too, because the first American male at UTMB… I took fifth. I got beat up a bit at this race. I still left on a big positive note. It was still a great experience. But, you start with goal number one—an American male hasn’t won at UTMB. I think I’ve even told some people that I’d keep signing up for UTMB until whether I do it or someone else does it. Tim Tollefson is two-for-two at UTMB. He hits that Swiss border and just starts rolling. That’s how you race it. He’s done amazing. Dylan Bowman, Zach Miller had another solid top-10 performance. Then, there are plenty of other Americans that could do very well out here. I think it’s fun having also the American vs. European challenge mentality. I called it before the race that the Americans would outnumber the Europeans in the top 10, and we lost this year.
iRunFar: Only four.
Walmsley: Only four, so I guess the challenge would be to have more Americans to come out and join the party.
iRunFar: You would have lost with cross country scoring, as well.
Walmsley: Country-wise though we were the best. Spain had three in the top. I was doing the cross country scoring and we beat Spain, and we beat France because France’s third guy was 14th or 15th. So we did alright.
iRunFar: We did alright.
Walmsley: We’re holding our own, but we haven’t won on the men’s side yet. We have the women’s example to look forward to. Rory Bosio crushed it. We can do it.
iRunFar: You’re intrigued about Hardrock.
Walmsley: I have too much on my plate.
iRunFar: You want to come back to UTMB it sounds like. I don’t think you’ve learned how to get that Western States thing out of your system.
Walmsley: I’ve said so far as far as Western States that I’m going to keep swinging until I hit it.
iRunFar: That will be a busy summer. I know it’s out there next year, but…
Walmsley: Yeah, I have no idea. I’ll be out at Hardrock again next year, because that was just phenomenal training for this race. I enjoyed my specific training for UTMB out at Hardrock possibly more than getting out on the course out here. I like that high elevation.
iRunFar: Do you think you can train as hard there? It’s more intensity to be down low here.
Walmsley: No, I don’t think you need to. I think high heart rate and low intensity there. The way I adapted into Kendall Mountain and Speedgoat was super confidence inspiring. I’ve been literally logging 13-minute miles every day on Kendall Mountain and rolling 4:35s down the descent. Or Speedgoat, this is a pretty good tune-up effort, and it went great and comparatively Tim Tollefson was in that race. It’s still a mountain race. It’s only a 50k, but you get a little taste. It went well although Tim Tollefson ultimately won the ultimate duel because he still got me here. Here is where you to perform. Speedgoat is a fun race, but UTMB is a bigger—sorry, Karl Meltzer—UTMB is a bigger prize than Speedgoat.
iRunFar: I think Karl would probably agree with that. You are wearing his shoes right now.
Walmsley: I am wearing his shoes.
iRunFar: Well, congratulations, Jim. You ran a solid race.
Walmsley: Thanks, Bryon. Appreciate it.
iRunFar: Bonus question. Before races you speak with a lot of confidence, and some would say arrogance, but explain where that kind of comes from.
Walmsley: I think it’s a mental approach. It’s a psychological thing. That’s where I get my confidence to go try to do what I want in a race. Generally, that’s to try to win it and try to compete up front, try to go for a course record or something like that. I say this, too, even in the pre-race stuff. I want to start with the big goals first and trickle down. Even when I saw you in La Fouly it was, “I’ve got to let competing for the win go, but there are a lot of goals to be had. I can accomplish a heck of a lot of them still.” And I did. The only thing is if I could have somehow have moved back up on the podium… I think I was 18 minutes off Tim in the end. Tim ran too strong. It was great. I think I’m a nice guy. I don’t think I’m necessarily arrogant too bad. I think you need that mentality. I also tell people that you need to lie to yourself in any way you can or need to in order to trick yourself into thinking that you’re that good or this or that or that strong.
iRunFar: So it’s for yourself. It’s your own mental prep.
Walmsley: Yeah, it’s a total psychological trick for me and for competitors and for everybody.
iRunFar: You go in with those B, C, D goals.
Walmsley: Yeah, and after a race like this, it’s so much admiration and respect. François is the real deal. Kilian is the real deal. For Tim to execute again like that… and how strong Xavier was… and not even guys in front of me. Pau trying to run me… I keep seeing him. I will never forget that. Seeing Dylan Bowman out there—no matter at what point, he’s just the nicest guy out there. There’s so much admiration for what everybody is doing out there. We all love doing it. We all respect the training and the work that goes into it. It’s not meant to be disrespectful or piss anyone off. It is what it is.
iRunFar: Thank you, Jim.