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Jim Walmsley has been one of the top ultrarunners in the world since he won the JFK 50 in 2015. The Hoka-sponsored runner has won the Western States 100 three times (2018, 2019, 2021) and holds the course record (14 hours 9 minutes) on the 100.2-mile run from Olympic Valley to Auburn, California. Since then, he’s won several international races—the Ultra Trail Cape Town 100K in South Africa, the Madeira Island Ultra Trail 115K in Portugal, and Endurance Trail des Templiers 80K in France—but the one race he has yet to master is the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a 106-mile race around the Mont Blanc massif that starts and finishes in in Chamonix, France. He’s run it four times with two strong finishes (fifth in 2017, fourth in 2022) and two DNFs (2018, 2021), but admits he’s never had the optimal race in which everything comes together.
The 33-year-old runner from Flagstaff, Arizona, is one of the top contenders in the men’s field at this year’s UTMB, which begins September 1 at 6 P.M. local time (12:00 P.M. ET). He moved to Arêches, France, with his wife, Jess, 32, in May 2022, shortly after they were married to fully immerse in living and training as a local to optimally prepare for UTMB. While he ran better last year than he had in the past, he had a big lead late in the race but was caught by the hard-charging Spanish runner Kilian Jornet, who went on to win (in a course-record 19:49) for a record-tying fourth time while Walmsley slowed and finished fourth 80 minutes later.
Here are 10 things you should know about one of the best ultrarunners in the world.
1. He’s Been Living in a Small Ski Resort Town in France for 16 Months
Jim and Jess have been renting a house adjacent to a small ski resort in the town of Arêches, which is located in the Beaufortain Valley southwest of the western portion of the UTMB race course loop. They live about 300 meters up the road from four-time UTMB winner and good friend Francois D’Haene, and his family. Arêches is a two-hour drive to Chamonix, but the Walmsleys’ trips to Chamonix have been infrequent, except when Jim has been training on the course or they have been visiting friends.
The Walmsleys aren’t fluent in French, but they have been learning the language slowly by taking online classes and talking with friends, training partners, acquaintances, and local merchants.
“It’s been slow, but there’s no way to speed it up,” he said. “In my big block of training, my French has gotten worse. We feel comfortable enough to go everywhere and do errands and stuff, and a lot of the people that work at the local stores know that our French isn’t the best, so they’ve been nice and spoke English to us.”
2. He’s Recovered from an Ankle Injury He Suffered in the Spring
In early May, about two weeks after winning the Istria 100 by UTMB in Croatia, Walmsley was on an easy recovery run on a dirt road near Annecy, France, when he rolled his right ankle and suffered a bad sprain that resulted in two partially torn ligaments and one fully torn ligament. Although he didn’t need surgery, he had to take about a month off of running and miss the opportunity to compete for Team USA in the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, in early June. (He was supposed to compete in both the 7.5K vertical mountain running race and the 85K long trail running race.)
RELATED: Trail Runner’s Guide to UTMB 2023
It happened just before he and Jess returned to the U.S. for the first time in a year in May, which meant he was able to do physical therapy sessions in Flagstaff. He spent a lot of time riding indoors on a Wahoo bike trainer before progressing to riding outside and eventually running again by mid-June.
“All things considered, it healed up pretty good and quick,” Walmsley said. “I think initially it was taking a little longer than I thought because it was just worse than I’d hoped, but then I was pretty patient with it and it improved. I just had to have the discipline to make sure I didn’t do too much and hoped it was the best case scenario and that I could stay on track. So yeah, I got lucky because I was able to stay on track and do all that I wanted to do training wise once it was healed.”
3. Getting Immigration Paperwork Wasn’t Easy
The Walmsleys knew in early 2022 they intended to move to France so Jim could focus on training for UTMB. They started the paperwork process in April of that year, filling out a packet of forms and then visiting the French embassy in Los Angeles to take fingerprints and photos. But the process to get residency status finalized wound up taking more than 13 months and wasn’t finalized until late April of this year. Because they had overstayed 90-day that Americans are allowed to visit France without a visa, they weren’t allowed to leave the country until their visa paperwork was finalized. Once they had the French-issued residency card in hand, they returned to the U.S. and spent a busy month in the U.S. from late May to late June.
“It was slower than it should have been, but Hoka helped out by hiring an agency to speak with them and get us through the process,” Walmsley said.
4. He’s Trained with Locals, and He’s Trained Alone
Not only after winning last October’s Festival Des Templiers, a 51-mile race with 12,000 feet of vertical gain, Walmsley took several months off from running and exclusively trained on alpine touring skis and indoors on his Wahoo bike trainer. He did a lot of ski mountaineering with D’Haene for training last winter and ran a lot with him through the spring, however they haven’t connected much during the summer because they’ve both been busy and traveling. He’s trained a lot more with Simon Gosselin, a 28-year-old French mountain runner who moved to the Beaufort region last fall, as well as small groups of other local French athletes.
Walmsley has also done a lot of training on his own, including during his recent UTMB buildup in July and August. Although he trained on specific sections of the UTMB course, he also created many new routes. For example, in early August he ran a 39-mile route with 15,000 feet of vertical gain from his house in Arêches to Courmayeur, Italy. During the final part of his training block, he averaged about 200K (or 125 miles) of running with massive amounts of vertical gain and descents.
“I think I probably have done better training than last year,” he says. “I feel like I’ve nailed my training block as best as I would want, and from now until (the race) it’s just about trying to time the right sensations in the legs, because you don’t want to find yourself with flat legs after putting in so much work, which is something that has happened before. I don’t think there’s anything I’d change with training going into this or that I didn’t have any hiccups with injuries through the training block. With some foresight, before I got my mileage up, I put a cap on my volume and pretty much stuck to it so I wouldn’t do too much, but just the right amount.”
5. He’s Improved His Ski Mountaineering Skills
Walmsley moved to France as a relative novice as a ski mountaineer, but he was on skis for nearly 100 days last winter and became a strong uphiller and proficient skiing moderate downhill sections. He has raced in a few ski mountaineering races, although he says he’s still not an expert-level skier going downhill on variable snow and terrain. He didn’t participate in the high-profile five-day Pierra Menta ski-mo race that’s held near his house in March, but he has skied all of the local peaks included in the course.
“I improved a lot throughout the season and by the end of the season I’d say I’m competitive going uphill on a global scale, which is interesting,” he says. “But as far as being able to do a race, I’ll never have the touch to race on skis, and I don’t think I want to. I don’t think it would be good for me to try to push on skis like that, but to have the capability to do things within my comfort, I think that would be great.”
6. He’s Excited to Race a Strong UTMB Field Once Again
In last year’s race, Walmsley made an aggressive move in Italy at about the 85K point (roughly 53 miles) between Courmayeur and Arnouvaz to open up a gap on Jornet and continued pushing the pace over the 8,300-foot high point on Grand Col Ferret (102K/63.4 miles) on the way into Switzerland. Walmsley led by about 15 minutes by the time he reached the Champex-Lac aid station (125K/77.6 miles), but after that he began to fade slightly on the ensuing 3,000-foot climb and was caught by Jornet before the Trient aid station (143K/88.5 miles). From there, Walmsley didn’t have the energy and faded to fourth place.
Although Jornet is sidelined with an injury this year, the rest of last year’s top 10 men’s finishers appear to be healthy and returning to this year’s race. That includes runner-up Mathieu Blanchard (France), third-place finisher and 2023 Western States 100 champion Tom Evans (UK), as well as Zach Miller (U.S.) and Beñat Marmissolle (France), the fifth- and sixth-place finishers, respectively, as well as additional top-10 finishers Arthur Joyeux-Bouillon (France), Jonas Russi (Switzerland), Robert Hajnal (Romania), and Thibaut Garrivier (France).
Sweden’s Petter Engdahl, who won the CCC 100K in record-setting fashion, is in the field, as are experienced stalwarts Pau Capell (Spain), Tim Tollefson (U.S.), Daniel Jones (New Zealand), Ludovic Pommeret (France), and Jean-Philippe Tschumi (Switzerland). “You have the field that you always expect at UTMB, which kind of makes it the race that it is,” Walmsley says. “That’s why I love to compete in UTMB.”
And what about not being able to race against Kilian Jornet? “I mean, I don’t have much control about it, so, yeah, it just kind of is what it is,” he says.
7. He’s Adapted His Fueling Strategy
At last year’s UTMB, Walmsley admits he might not have fueled as effectively as he should have during the middle section of the course.
“Last year was close but not quite and I ran my own legs out by myself,” he says. “I mean, there’s a good takeaway that it didn’t feel like anyone else rang my legs out. I felt like at some point in the race I broke away from everyone, but ultimately my stomach didn’t hold up, which means my energy didn’t hold up, which means my legs didn’t hold up. And having that energy at that point in the race is more important than being the most fit guy on the line.”
During this year’s race, Walmsley plans to consume Never Second passion fruit energy gels and endurance/energy drinks, as well as eating a variety of mini rice cakes popularized by Dr. Allen Lim, author of Feed Zone Portables and founder of Skratch Labs. Walmsley will have a variety of sweet and savory race cake options that Jess has been experimenting with in their kitchen. Other than that, he plans to eliminate all candy and junk food this year, although he might have a few crunchy chocolate cookies along the way.
Walmsley admits nutrition is always a bit of a moving target for him, but he says he feels more confident than ever about his fueling plan, especially after he did a long workout in which Jess manned an impromptu aid station with rice cakes and sparkling water.
“There’s definitely going to be a bigger focus on being quick through the aid stations,” he says. “It will all be based on the race situation, but you need to be ready to be quick because some of the guys in the front are going right through aid stations. And who knows if the race breaks open or if I break it open, then maybe there will be the luxury of having some time. But plan A will be to be in and out between probably one to two minutes or less.”
8. He’s Racing in Customized Hoka Prototype Shoes
Walmsley has two different all-black Hoka prototype shoes that he’s been training in for UTMB. Both are customized versions of Hoka Tecton X 2 shoes that include Peba foam midsoles and dual/parallel carbon-fiber propulsion plates, but each has different plate, foam and upper componentry and characteristics. The primary pair that he thinks he might run the whole course in is lighter than the prototype he wore last year, has a different outsole with bigger lugs and has more interior padding. The secondary pair of shoes looks identical but it’s even lighter and more responsive. He’s not sure if he’ll change into that pair during the latter stages of the race or not. (He rolled his ankle in a different pair of shoes when he was injured in June, not the racing prototypes.)
“We’re working a little bit within the box because it’s still the same mold as the Tecton X, but these shoes have different foams, different plates, different uppers,” he says. “There are some things that make this shoe really unique and awesome, but I’m not sure it’s a shoe that everyone would like. It’s really light and it’s nimble, but it takes some getting used to and knowing how it reacts and what it feels like. But it’s as close to a supershoe as you can have on the trails.”
9. He Plans to Continue Living in France
Walmsley says he and Jess will probably spend more time in the U.S. in 2024, but also says, no matter how UTMB goes for him this year, he’s pretty sure they’ll continue to live in France on and off into 2025. Now that he’s running UTMB for the fifth time, he says he’s learned a lot about the mountains and the culture of the event and appreciates it even more. Whereas he used to show up much closer to the race, the additional time immersing in the local terrain last year and especially this year, has changed his perspective entirely and helped him feel better prepared and confident than ever before.
“Looking back, was it immature to say the first time coming into the race my goal was to try to win it?” he ponders. “It kind of makes me wish I had taken more steps towards doing it so I could learn more. Because just kind of going straight into the fire, you don’t necessarily have the toolbox to do everything as you should probably. So yeah, at this point it probably would’ve been better off like progressing towards and maybe I’m still on that progression. I think each year I come back and I make less mistakes from the year before. Hopefully that says I’m on an improving trajectory.
But for now, I’m really happy with the level of commitment that I’ve put towards it, how preparation has gone, basically what’s been in my control. So now it’s just time to race…and if it works out, it makes for a really nice story. If it doesn’t, it goes on.”
10. He’s Hoping To Run the Western States 100 in 2024
If all goes well, Walmsley says he’ll run the Nice Côte d’Azur by UTMB 100-mile race on September 29—less than a month after UTMB—with the hopes of getting a Golden Ticket qualifier for the 2024 Western States 100. If he runs Western States next summer, he’d be trying to become only the fourth runner to win at least four times—behind Scott Jurek (seven), Tim Twietmeyer (five), and Ann Transon (fourteen). He’s also strongly considering running the Transgrancanaria 126K race in the Canary Island or the Black Canyon 100K in Arizona.
But, as much as he’s focused on UTMB since living in France, the Western States 100 is near and dear to his heart. After that, who knows?
“I haven’t been there in a while, so it would be nice to go back,” Walmsley says. “After that, I’m not sure what will happen next. Maybe I’ll apply to Hardrock or just come back to UTMB or CCC. I’ve never applied to Hardrock and I don’t know if the race is a goal or just that I’m inspired because it’s a prestigious race in a different way. I enjoy running in Silverton and I think I could run the whole thing without a map, like tomorrow.”