Jim Walmsley is back for a second UTMB attempt, following his fifth-place debut last year. In the following interview, Jim talks about if he’s reflected at all on his Western States 100 course record, his monster training block in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and how he’s approaching this year’s UTMB differently because of what he learned last year.
Jim Walmsley Pre-UTMB 2018 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m with Jim Walmsley. It’s a couple days before the 2018 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. Good morning, it’s nice and early.
Jim Walmsley: Yeah, we were just talking about how this is most likely our earliest interview.
iRunFar: Are you a person who sleeps in? Wait, you’ve already been for a run today.
Walmsley: Yeah, I can get up to run and do that, but for the most part I sleep in and don’t fight it. I usually just accept it. Here they have blinds on a lot of the windows that are like wooden shutters. It gets dark and I can just sleep all day.
iRunFar: It’s like the Euro-version of blackout shades. Amazing.
Walmsley: Yes. I think it’s another level beyond that, though.
iRunFar: The last time we talked to you was a day after the Western States Endurance Run. The course record and your win there were probably just starting to sink in. A couple of months have gone by. What’s in your head about that day now?
Walmsley: I think I tried to move on from it pretty quickly. Basically, my transition to get out and start training for this race was pretty immediate. For me, I don’t really feel like I dwelled on it a whole lot. It was on to the next race, on to the next goal – and that goal is UTMB right now. As far as Western States… I don’t know. I’ll reflect on it in a couple of years or something.
iRunFar: So you didn’t let yourself sit in a camp chair or on a couch and just…
Walmsley: Well, I was in a camp chair for a lot. But it’s been a lot busier than usual, because there’s been a lot of interviews either talking about States or talking about UTMB in between. If someone didn’t want to talk about one of them, they wanted to talk about the other one. So, it’s been busy with that. But I’ve been escaping the cell service. Getting solid time in the mountains to prepare for this has been its own little break. You don’t necessarily need to reflect on Western States, but I’ve kind of got some away time and time to just train.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about your San Juan Mountains monk-like existence. We were living a couple miles apart from each other – me in an apartment in Silverton, and you in a camp out on the river. I never saw you once.
Walmsley: We called it a camp, but it was definitely “glamping.” It was pretty glamorous. I mean, you gotta find a good spot where you can hide for that long, otherwise the authorities will kick you out, because you’re not allowed to stay for that long [laughs].
I think the Forest Service did come by when they were pulling the fire ban when we first got there. The nights were really cold during the fire ban. They came down and checked things out and were like, “oh, this is sweet!” We had tarps tied all these different ways. We had them tied to the trees really responsibly, so there wasn’t any pressure to the tree bark. There was some thought put into it. There were a lot of knots. It looked pretty cool and kept us pretty dry, which is important.
I was more or less trying to keep my head down and just train a lot. I’d upload my runs [to Strava] most days. I think I was a couple miles from cell service. It was a good break and nice to get away from that. It was also, those times when I did have cell service, like “oh, I’ve got to get on top of those emails” and stuff like that. It’s just as much pressure as you put on yourself. So if I was feeling a little overwhelmed, I’d say, “sorry, I don’t have cell service.” You use it to your advantage a little bit sometimes.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about the training you did out there. I think you upload most of your training to Strava?
Walmsley: Yeah, yeah, it’s all on Strava.
iRunFar: That was a lot of volume.
Walmsley: Yeah, it was good. It was mostly volume-based, and, then, definitely vertical feet goals per week to try to hit. Not many training blocks, I would say, work out this pretty. I’d say that generally, when you have a pretty block, you’re overstrained or overreached somewhere in that block. But this block felt really good, all things considered. I’d say I get a lot grumpier when I’m at higher mileage [laughs]. It’s just hard to do all the little things, especially because it’s so easy to sleep in in the mornings in the San Juans because it’s just so cold. You wait for that sun to hit, and once the sun comes out – because we were in a bit of a valley – it’s a bit nicer.
iRunFar: In your recent training, almost every run started at about 9,000 feet or above.
Walmsley: Yeah. We were camping at about 10,000 feet and over 3,000 meters. Actually, all my numbers translate really evenly. My big block was three weeks with 140 miles, which is 225 kilometers. I got 50,000 feet of vertical, which is 15,000 meters per week. I did that three weeks in a row and each week, I took off a little time. I started like 32 hours, then 31 hours, 30 hours. It wasn’t on purpose, but it worked that way. One might say I was getting a little stronger or maybe just more acclimatized to the altitude.
[Meghan and Jim look over their shoulders to watch some children playing soccer in the background]
I think we’re literally in the middle of a soccer game right now. But the ball just got kicked that way, so a whole swarm will go over that way.
So, yeah, it was really good. On paper, it was probably my prettiest training block. For Western States, I had a little quad strain and I had to take a down week for that, so the trend line takes this dip. Then, you can’t get straight back into it. Usually something comes up. This one’s like, “we did it!” So, it should work out.
iRunFar: Does that instill a bit of confidence in you?
Walmsley: Yeah. You definitely take away confidence when you hit the goals that you set out to in your training. You don’t have to compensate one way or the other in your head. You can see the work that you put in when you hit those numbers. At the same time, I had the same feeling last year of translating from your big volume training block into getting ready for race-sharp fitness. I go for a flat run, and I say it’s just like revving the engine: you have a huge fuel tank and you’re never going to run out of gas, but what should be an easy pace is all of a sudden like, “man, I feel like I’m kind of pressing on it” [motions applying pressure to a gas pedal]. I’ve also found that’s happened before and it’s no problem. Typically, with race-day nerves and nerves during the race, all of a sudden you just have that extra “pop.” Whatever it is about a race, it just takes care of that.
iRunFar: That seems to be something that neither you nor Zach Miller worry about. Both of you lived and trained at high altitude for this, but don’t worry about the race-day gears.
Walmsley: I would also say that the top-end fast gears for ultrarunning come really easily for me. It’s not like I’m doing those gears to train that efficiency, I have that in my past quite a bit. Generally, the “pop” comes right back, but there’s not a whole lot to worry about. It depends on the race. If I was doing a shorter race, a sharper race, I’d say you work on the pointy end of the stick – you do more workouts. But for a 20-hour-ish race, it’s mostly volume-based. It’s mostly the decisions you make throughout the race that will shape the result.
iRunFar: “The decisions during the race that lead to the result.” Here we are at UTMB. You’ve been here before and this is now familiar territory for you. What’s it like being back here as a person who has the experience of going around the mountain once before?
Walmsley: It’s a lot different than last year. Last year, with the whole training block I came out a lot earlier and was running around the mountain a lot to learn it. There was such a big learning curve to absorb all of that.
Just having last year’s experience of training for the race and, then, doing the race and, then, trying again later in the year at La Diagonale des Fous [the Grand Raid de la Réunion]… even though that didn’t work out great and I had my hiccups at UTMB last year, the experience and takeaway and the confidence of knowing that I’ve done it and this isn’t the first time – those give me the confidence to run my own race this year, no matter where that puts me. In such a long race, I think you have to look at efficiency. It’s not about running faster or slower, you have to find your efficient pace and stay in that zone. It’s so long, and if you’re not being efficient, you’re going to pay it back later. So, I think having that confidence to run my own race is going to pay a lot of dividends this year.
iRunFar: Have you thought about what that mechanically translates to at this race, for you, this year?
Walmsley: Part of it is kind of slowing my training down. Part of why I like the trekking poles – training and racing with them – is that I feel I go slower with them. I feel like I go slower, but my efficiency goes up. So it helps me in two ways: it helps temper my pace a little bit, because otherwise I might be more likely to run something uphill more tempo-wise and, then, you pay it back a little more. Downhill running, for me, is mostly the same, but the poles kind of put a different rhythm in it. I think they improve efficiency again.
I think the San Juan Mountains are actually slower because of the altitude, but even though it’s slower, I think you’re getting more bang for your buck in the training because the breathing is harder. That’s why I really liked. Last year, it’s what I wanted to do, but I got talked into coming out here earlier, because I was basically the only guy that was trying to compete at the front end of the race that hadn’t seen the course at all. So it was really important for me to see the course last year. This year, I feel I can visualize a lot of the course. This year was more about prepping my own fitness where I wanted to be, and that was at higher elevations. Doing it more of an old-school way, I guess.
iRunFar: I’ve heard some people talk about, “well, if the weather is good on Friday and Saturday, Jim’s a favorite to win. If the weather is not good, Jim might not be a favorite.” But let’s be honest, you’ve seen some really crappy weather this year.
Walmsley: Yeah. I think this year started in Spain going through a blizzard and through multiple feet of snow. It was weird because each time you go up in the mountains, you’d get feet of snow. Then ,you’d come down and it would get runnable again. You’d go up and everybody would squish right back together [into a tight pack], so that race became more tactical. Here, you’re not going to get feet of snow, for sure. The main thing is making the decisions. The difference that this year I have is putting together a better game plan for the outfits I’m going to wear and change. I’ll wear warmer clothes through the night.
iRunFar: Keep your hands warm enough that you can keep eating.
Walmsley: Yeah. I think last year I had a good nutrition plan for what I was doing, but when the night got cold I started spacing out and missing some nutrition. I’d get behind and ,then, with the cold, it’s a tricky place to be. Staying warm is definitely a key this year. The point in the race where things change a lot is right around Grand Col Ferret when you’re dipping into Switzerland. Sunrise is coming but the coldest temperatures are also coming as you’re descending in there. Yeah, definitely through the whole race you’ve got to be looking forward to that, looking forward to that, looking forward to that. Last year, I think the plan was to try to start moving well there. Basically, I think too many matches were burned before I got there. It didn’t go how I had it on paper last year.
As for this year, we’ll see. One of the encouraging things with last year’s result is I think I can improve how I race by so much. Having the confidence of how Western States did work out and, then, taking that forward into this race, knowing that if I have a really good day, then “why not me?” You’ve always gotta ask yourself that, and gotta hope that you have a chance with it. I definitely feel that I’ve trained and prepared, especially mentally prepared to try to compete for a win out here. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially with the guys that are always in this field. Even just the Americans are incredibly stacked at this race, then you have all the Europeans, too.
iRunFar: To me, you seem a lot more chill and relaxed in Chamonix this year than last year.
Walmsley: I think the main thing is I actually committed to having a calendar. I have appointments and I can actually see on paper that I’m not accidentally conflicting appointments or interviews. Just having a schedule really calms things down for me. I can see it on my phone and it helps me with my time management while I’m here. As the races are bigger and there’s more things to do, that’s where time management skills – you need to step out of the box a bit. I have a lot of experience from being in the Air Force Academy and, then, being in the Air Force, but, then, I’ve had the luxury of getting to throw all that under the rug for now. I still learned a lot while I was there and maybe those things are paying off in other ways.
iRunFar: You’re using the time management and organizational skills in your own way.
Walmsley: Yeah. It helps a lot. It takes the stress down. All of it is stress management, so whether it’s training or racing, it’s about dealing with the stress. You’ve got to find a way to make it less stressful.
iRunFar: My last question for you before you go on to your next appointment: it’s not like Chamonix is the gelato capital of the world – this is not where gelato was born – but man, there’s a lot of gelato places.
Walmsley: There’s a lot of gelato and there’s a lot of pizza. It’s a good place for me. I like both of those, and I’m a sucker for pistachio gelato actually. I’m definitely typically trying pistachio, and usually mixing it in with mint.
iRunFar: Mint and pistachio?
Walmsley: Yeah, it’s pretty good. I like when the mint is on top of the pistachio so it kind of melts onto it. That’s my go-to. There’s a lot of gelato places to try out here, so you can get your favorite concoction.
iRunFar: And your favorite is pistachio.
Walmsley: I think what’s funny is you go for gelato at night and you end up running into all the Americans in line. You didn’t meet up to run that day and you didn’t cross paths, but all of a sudden you’re in the same twelve-person line for gelato downtown and you’re like, “oh, so you guys know this spot, too, huh?” Like it’s a competition for gelato.
iRunFar: To get your 600 calories of evening sugar.
Walmsley: I like it. I think my go-to has been three or four scoops. Trois boules, s’il vous plaît.
iRunFar: Well, best of luck to you on Friday and Saturday. We will see you around the mountain.