In this interview, he talks about the past year of his training and life that led up to this win, an injury scare earlier in the year, how the race played out from his perspective, and what it feels like to finally accomplish such a long-term goal.
For more on how the race played out, read our in-depth UTMB results article.
Jim Walmsley, 2023 UTMB Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Jim Walmsley. It’s the day after the 2023 UTMB, and you’re the men’s champion. Congratulations, Jim.
Jim Walmsley: Thanks so much. Yeah. Pretty surreal right now.
iRunFar: Yeah. How does that feel? This is a goal that I think has been on your mind for quite some time.
Walmsley: Yeah, it’s impossible to wrap up, I think. And so much is still soaking in. But I think what I’m looking forward to, I hope it hits, but a bit of relief maybe. Yeah.
iRunFar: Yeah. You’ve had a multi-year relationship with UTMB. There have been some high highs and then also some low lows. Yesterday, however, seemed so even keel. Like, at least maybe from the outside looking in. Is there any truth to that?
iRunFar: A little bit?
Walmsley: Perhaps, for the lowness. That’s where some perspective and experiences really come into play. So, what I felt was a new low, and I knew it was a low, maybe, is I was able to keep it more even keeled.
iRunFar: Got it.
Walmsley: Where in years past maybe it would dissolve a bit more.
iRunFar: Got it. Let’s backtrack a little bit, maybe to this day last year. You had, prior to last year’s UTMB, sort of dedicated your life to being over here in France. And then you got to the finish line, probably not in the time or the finishing place that you wanted.
iRunFar: Another year passed. Can you fill in a little bit of that gap in time between then and now, because I think a lot changed.
Walmsley: A lot was decided, I’ve said it before, but a lot was decided in the last 50k as I was just kind of suffering and trying to hold on.
iRunFar: This is last year.
Walmsley: Last year. Well, yeah. 50k this year,
iRunFar: Well, I suffered this year, too. [laughs]
Walmsley: This is the type of suffering you really want on a good day.
Walmsley: This year. But last year was suffering in a bad way, and just trying to save anything. What felt like just the whole peloton was going to come riding by. It’s been a lot of patience and trying to keep focused, but also tried to take pressure off and not keep focused, sort of thing.
Walmsley: Didn’t run in the winter. I skied. Tried not to get injured doing that. I think when people see videos that will come out eventually, they’re like, “Wow, Jim, you don’t need to worry about going too fast.”
Walmsley: You just need to worry about just not falling at any moment.
Walmsley: I mean, I definitely started with very terrible skier into just a bad skier. But then you go to skills, learn with some of the skimo stuff, the technical aspects of gear management, where things go, pockets, little outfit changes, and this and that.
iRunFar: Yeah. All the things that like, your career in running, you didn’t do a ton of that.
Walmsley: Yeah. UTMB’s the most complicated it gets for a lot of ultrarunners. So, when you go, it’s like, Wow, UTMB, I have so much stuff everywhere. Whereas you can use perspective. So again, it’s a process of changing my perspective. To change, to grow into, maybe it’s more manageable than you once thought. So yeah, I could see some of those skills pay off. But I still wasn’t in UTMB yet at the time, with the rules and this and that. So yeah, the year kicked off at Istria 100 Mile, which was cool. That race went really well. A little bit similar of a feeling in that I tried to stay patient, and take care of myself through harder parts of the course. I’m actually not feeling great when I’m trying to stay patient. But then finally, when I said, It’s time to go, my legs just got excited and woke up, and I was able to run really well at the end of Istria. And kind of, very, I mean, it’s just the most similar race experience that I’ve had to this one. Where just the last 50 to 60k, different pair of legs. I don’t know.
iRunFar: Isn’t it strange how that happens?
Walmsley: I’m glad it did happen that way. But it also just might be something, too. It’s called pacing and race management. And maybe supposed to feel more like that.
iRunFar: This is how it’s supposed to go if you do the…
Walmsley: Yeah, because lots of my Western States I just start clicking early, no worries. And sometimes it’s fine throughout most of it. But other times, like 2021, I was falling apart just like everyone else. Just, Oh my gosh, I need to get to Auburn. It’s hard to do it that way.
iRunFar: Yeah. Did you have like a little wobble with injury between Istria and UTMB? Was there something that you were dealing with?
Walmsley: Yeah. So, the very beginning of May I rolled my ankle pretty bad. Then took few days off. There’s a longer story to everything. Took a few days off, but went right back into training the next week. Like basically, I could tell after a week, the reaction of being able to get the swelling down, but it was just coming back, coming back. There was something deeply wrong with it, that it just wasn’t a turn. And so there were two partial torn ligaments, and one complete tear.
iRunFar: Oh, no. In May.
Walmsley: In May. And essentially, I got really lucky with the ligament that did tear. I guess it’s a small one and it’s not a stabilizing one, and non-intrusive for it to heal. So, best case scenario. But then it went to the risk of, even if I could train on the bike, and show up for the World Championships with having a bit of problems in the ankle, of stability. If one of the other partial tear ligaments went, it would be the year done immediately. So it just went to risk is high. We need to shut it down now to basically start planning. And then essentially started adding up the weeks and I think I calculated one week to spare. I had one leisure week. But maybe I didn’t, because last Friday my legs were not feeling good at all. And then finally things came around this week. So maybe I had zero weeks to spare.
Walmsley: And things just clicked in time. I was able to get the medical support info for that I needed here in France, and then we went back to Flagstaff at the same time, and I got some help there.
Walmsley: So, things worked out.
iRunFar: Your ankle healed up enough that I think you put in a pretty good training block ahead of UTMB.
Walmsley: Yeah, it’s all secret.
iRunFar: Yeah, I know. It is. Little rumors floating around the mountains.
Walmsley: I don’t know which rumors, but I think usually when I’m trying to keep some things kind of private, when you have a good day, or something interesting, you’re like, Ah, I can’t do it. I’m going to post it.
Walmsley: This year I actually finally like, just, no. Good days nothing, bad days nothing. And I was like, Oh, it’s kind of nice. Because there’s just no noise, and you get a little forgotten. Everyone thinks you’re hurt, and you had an injury. So, like, what’s going on? I didn’t even get questions, What’s going on. You’re just not even in the thought for a bit. And you go yeah, “What’s happening with Jim?” And like, “I don’t know.”
Walmsley: That’s about it. So it was nice, I think with a lot of things this year, I just tried to keep things quiet, focused. Focused on myself more than anything. And I do not plan on making any of it the norm. And even more so probably opposite in that with finally being able to win UTMB, it actually maybe feels like I can share more, and just give more time back.
iRunFar: There’s a balance, isn’t there, where sometimes you need like monk mode, but also like we need each other, too, don’t we?
Walmsley: I mean, if I give a lot of time and effort and do everything race week, which it’s just a circus here, the week of Chamonix.
iRunFar: [sings circus tune]
Walmsley: Exactly. And you walk into town and you’re just like, Oh, I’m the monkey. Dance, clown. I’m like, great. And it evolved so quick because most of us are very easy, but when you start adding it all together and to come into Chamonix, out of Chamonix, into Chamonix.
iRunFar: There’s your day gone.
Walmsley: Energy, just energy sucking. So yeah, I just tried to make more decisions to be selfish in that aspect. And just, it all goes into the bigger picture of moving here, and this and that of wanting to just try to do things the right way as best I could for myself. And so I stuck with that so that I don’t have regrets. So, if things didn’t work out, if things fell apart, if I didn’t win, there’s nothing I’m upset about that way. I know I made the right decisions for myself, and it just didn’t work. Whereas if I did give everything and I was saying yes to everything, and then things don’t work out, you go…
iRunFar: Was it this? Was it that?
Walmsley: Well did you did you really put everything into it? Where this year I definitely simplified things more into just trying to focus on the goal.
iRunFar: The race itself. For me, watching you, there seemed to be a different expression, like, in your eyes and on your face at this race. You seemed quite calm whereas there’s just a lot of excitement here. Did you feel calm about UTMB this year?
Walmsley: Yeah. I mean, when I first showed up in Chamonix, I actually started to get some race nerve stuff. I mean, we kind of say we live in Arêches because it’s not Chamonix in that it’s very tranquil and quiet and peaceful comparatively. Where here, there’s a buzz. There’s an energy. There’s ultra fans and ultrarunners, ultrarunners one in the same everywhere race week. And even Chamonix is really cool to experience, not during, not around UTMB week. So, a little bit when we first arrived, but things just kind of got more normalized, it’s all things I’ve done many times now. So, all of that stuff is normalized.
iRunFar: In the race itself, watching you move through aid stations, and you just seemed, it was like, I know my way around here. I know what I want. I know what I need. There was the quick efficiency, but also not like the, oh my gosh, the panic of the aid station type of thing. Did it feel that way for you. too?
Walmsley: I think it’s the best, without a doubt, the best my stations have gone here.
iRunFar: Hot damn.
Walmsley: But in general, it’s probably one of the things I’ve always been the worst at, of the amount of time I concede at aid stations. And just seeing how, I mean, how strong everyone was last year, and how much I’m still giving them time at aid stations. Like, we need to make them work harder in the running and not give the free time away. But then it goes to organization, and really having a plan, and that’s where having Jess be my crew, we can talk about it. We can organize it better. And so it becomes premeditated, what you’re doing, and tick tick tick straight through. So, it worked out good that way. So yeah, I’m really happy with how aid stations went this year, and I don’t feel like I gave a chance to lose the race there.
iRunFar: In terms of the men’s competition, it seemed like things sort of went out fairly standard, early on.
Walmsley: Mm hmm.
iRunFar: Like first 40 to 50k, the men’s race was moving at course-record pace. There was a lot of dudes there, seemingly somebody always pace setting, but right at record pace.
Walmsley: Yeah, I mean pace, effort, everything you expect from UTMB. Sub 6:00 min/mile pace, like almost 3:40 min/k, for the first 10k.
iRunFar: Are we talking Ks?
Walmsley: Both. 6:00 minute pace, you’re under 6:00 minute pace in some of the miles to begin with. And I remember Petter [Engdahl] going like, “I wasn’t expecting it to start this fast.” Well, you got 3,000, you stop or run any slower, you get stampeded. You have to. But yeah, you try to moderate that. And even this year, like last year, I started several rows back in the start corral, and I really enjoyed, just there’s not so much pressure. It’s nice. And so I tried to do that a little bit starting.
iRunFar: Okay, so the men’s competitions, you know, went out pretty standard.
Walmsley: Yeah. And we almost had the same pack as last year.
Walmsley: We were missing Kilian [Jornet] but we’re running faster. And again, it was an Anglo-speaking front pack to chase.
Walmsley: And having the French chase the English, you’re like, Ah. We’ve seen this play out so many times.
iRunFar: This feels super familiar right now. And then also, as is standard tradition for UTMB, things got strung out in the night in Italy where, you know, some people sort of extended things on the climbs and others extended things on the descents. What was that like for you this year?
Walmsley: I think a bit more perspective has changed with Italy and Courmayeur, and Grand Col Ferret. And just where my mindset is, of that, being in the race.
Walmsley: And probably the biggest thing is just saying, it almost doesn’t matter there. It’s more preserving myself, making sure I’m not getting myself in too much trouble, trying to. But at the same time during this race, literally thinking, I’m in trouble.
iRunFar: That’s so interesting.
Walmsley: That goes away. That’s the experience, and where on the outside it totally looks like the even keel thing, but oh, I was thinking in Switzerland how many people are going to like, what’s going on behind?
iRunFar: Come back to you. Or come back behind you, yeah.
Walmsley: Because it’s just going to be a big sufferfest to hold on for. I don’t know how many places I’m going to give up. I mean, those thoughts were going through my mind at Grand Col Ferret, the descent. Every split I was getting of Zach [Miller] in front of me is, Zach’s pulling ahead, pulling ahead. And I was not feeling good. But I also knew muscularly, my quads felt really good. So, one thought was if I could get things under control, there was a hope I clung on to that things could click. And I think I’ve talked about it with some people, too, is that a belief that if I do have that energy, if I do have that sort of feeling in my legs, that an advantage I have over what I think everyone in ultrarunning at the moment is, a special ability to attack an uphill, attack a downhill.
Walmsley: And really put in one big push to make a significant chunk, and a big speed difference. I think you could argue Kilian has a bit of that skill, and versatility of short distance/long distance. So, a bit of dreaming that that could happen kind of kept me trying to hang in there.
iRunFar: And I think that’s actually what did happen ultimately. Like you, I believe, came upon behind Zach while pushing the Bovine climb. Is that right?
Walmsley: Well, first Germain [Grangier] caught me just before Champex-Lac.
iRunFar: Oh, I don’t think I knew.
Walmsley: He passed me.
iRunFar: Okay, yeah.
Walmsley: But he passed me, and he looked a little rough. And I was like, I know I look the same, but internally I actually felt better than that. So, I was like, Well, I got to stay with him. And then just at the end of the climb into the aid station, I’m like, Well, I’ll push through and get a couple seconds extra in the aid station. And then I was initially thinking I needed a big pause, reset. Like, we need to start plugging the holes in the boat right now.
Walmsley: We’re taking on water. And but then I was just thinking, Germain’s getting ready to leave. I just need to follow him. And essentially, I was able to get in some calories, food, repack. You get rid of a lot of your night stuff and your pack’s a bit lighter. Change shoes, had just a different feeling of things, and all of a sudden when we got running again, things were different.
iRunFar: What do you think that was? Like, just…
Walmsley: I mean, part of what woke it up. I mean, obviously Germain in that moment was definitely a bookmark moment for me in the race.
iRunFar: Okay. Okay. Thanks, Germain.
Walmsley: Yeah. And part of it’s being out here, knowing him and Katie, and having a nice feeling of Zach and Germain, and so many other athletes here are friends. So, I saw him on one switchback below, because I didn’t know who was behind me, closing on me. And I finally see it’s Germain. And we’re close enough to make eye contact, and I just look back and smile.
Walmsley: And so it’s different feelings. And it’s less like, aggressive or anything. So, it’s always a positivity thing, it’s good perspective. And then, it might be the flat asphalt a little bit.
Walmsley: All of a sudden, the legs opened up and it’s like, Ah. Things are okay. So that’s when it started to change. And then there was a big switchback in the mountain, where I saw, I didn’t know what Zach was wearing at the time, but because there’s so many spectators everywhere, but I actually saw someone moving, and I was like, I think that’s Zach. And so sometimes when I see something like that, I take my own split. So I bookmark what time it is. And then when I get there, I knew I was just over four minutes back. And I was like, I knew I was nine minutes back. I just got five, I’m clawing back.
Walmsley: I’m clawing back. And then I could tell, soon people were telling me, “Three minutes. Two minutes.” I was like, Things are coming. And then one debate was whether to sit and settle, or maybe that the mental side of just attacking straight from the beginning. It’s kind of cool thinking back on the race that, especially last year, Zach and I spent a lot of time together at the front of the race. But this year just no settling. We were working together early when first 50, 60, 70k sort of thing a bit, when there’s no point going faster, faster, faster. But lots of gloves off, and just no, nothing holding anything back. And like when Zach passed me, he was gone. And I luckily got to return the favor.
iRunFar: Yeah. It’s also like, it’s a different race, too, because it seemed like just you and Zach were almost different runners at this race this year. Like, you had all of the, both of you had all of the things to win yesterday. Just you this time, by several more minutes. Or you know, however you want to look at it. The two of you are different runners this year than last year. Both of you.
Walmsley: Yeah, we’ve both struggled fading late in this race.
Walmsley: And yeah, there’s almost a little bit of guilt that you take something away from Zach and his just perfectly executed race. Because a different year, he’s going to win. But at the same time, it adds to just the gratefulness, and a sense of accomplishment it adds to my own race.
iRunFar: To your own performance.
Walmsley: To be able to beat Zach on such a day like that is, not many people are going to do it, and it takes a special race out of myself and able to beat Zach on his perfect day.
iRunFar: You are now the…
Walmsley: Maybe it wasn’t perfect. Maybe he’s got more, too.
iRunFar: You take the lead in UTMB late in the race. You’re now in a position that you have thought long and hard about. Did you start thinking about big picture, the finish line, the win, or were you living in the moment of like, just friggin stay in the lead here?
Walmsley: One of the most pet peeve things, and I knew I was in an okay mindset because it wasn’t getting under my skin so much, but it was definitely standing out, that so many people in Trient and between Trient and Vallorcine, way early, going, “Ah, congratulations. You’ve got this.” And then I was talking with some friends today like, look people still got to remember, I’m like, the missed turn guy at Western States. Anything can happen. Plus like, the times I’ve fallen apart. Like, please.
iRunFar: Please don’t jinx me.
Walmsley: And all the way. We’re on the ski slope of La Flégère, and people like, “Congrats.” I don’t know the splits behind me necessarily yet. I’m still saying, “Not yet. Not yet.” And then like, on the descent, so I didn’t have any falls, but plenty of stumbles and toe catches, but an exceptional number of toe catches on the last descent. Just like yeah, don’t count it yet.
iRunFar: Until you’re actually at the finish line.
Walmsley: I think this one I knew I ran well enough up and down that it would take an exceptional acceleration to gain the time that they needed back. So, by the bottom, I knew I was going to get a time split, and I knew whether I’d be telling the crowd to completely get out of the way.
iRunFar: Get the heck out of the way!
Walmsley: But finally I wasn’t chased by Pau Capell this year.
Walmsley: I wasn’t chased by Zach Miller. I feel like I’ve never truly gotten to enjoy. But I also know with the tunnel of high fives starts about at least a mile out from the finish. And it’s hard to run through giving. So sometimes I was having to say like, I can’t. Like I need to get closer before I start like, really slowing down and enjoying it.
iRunFar: What did it feel like to come across the finish line as the first finisher of this event after reaching for that spot for so long?
Walmsley: I don’t know. Yeah, it just feels more like a dream than it actually happening. And now it’s a memory, so it still feels like a dream. I just feel more present here and kind of look forward to still just moving on.
Walmsley: I mean, after my Western States wins, I’d always just disappear in the San Juans, out of service. So it’s not as easy in France. Everywhere has cell service here.
iRunFar: [laughs] Yeah.
Walmsley: But I don’t know. Yeah, maybe I need to enjoy and savor it a little more. But I usually prefer to just turn the page on to the next objective. But then it goes to, even career-wise, I need to kind of start defining the next objectives and goals and stuff. So, I don’t know. I say you always have to kind of evolve as a person and athlete and goal orientation where you want it. What’s going to motivate you to train hard, because if you’re not going to put in the work and train hard, then there’s a lot of guys doing that that are going to take those spots ahead of you then.
iRunFar: Enjoy turning the page to whatever is next for you.
Walmsley: Maybe we’ll try to turn the page at the end of the week, I think.
iRunFar: Yeah. And congratulations on your win of the 2023 UTMB. I hope that feels good.
Walmsley: Thank you so much. Yes, it definitely feels good, but it’s all getting soaked in still, so it’s pretty incredible.