One of America’s best ultrarunners takes on the European ski-mountaineering scene.
A year ago, U.S. ultrarunner Jim Walmsley set off on an odyssey to fully experience European trail-running. One of his key goals was to race UTMB Mont Blanc, the 100-mile ultra that starts and finishes in Chamonix, France, and is widely considered the pinnacle of the trail-racing world.
In service of that goal Walmsley decided to immerse himself in the annual ebb and flow of the Euro trail-running scene, and that meant winter ski mountaineering, or “skimo.”
“I didn’t want to keep doing what I had been doing,” Walmsley explained, referencing a personal history of running continuously through the year. “If we moved somewhere in France that had warm weather in the winter, we’d be training exactly as we had been doing in the U.S. Maybe that could work, but that wasn’t the purpose behind moving to France. I wanted to immerse myself in the European way of trail running, including the methodology behind it.”
And so, last April, Jim and his wife Jess Brazeau moved into a simple chalet in the French mountain town of Arêches. Though just 90 minutes from Chamonix, the two towns could hardly be more different. Chamonix, easily accessible to tourists from around the globe, is très sportif (very athletic) and often feels one step too rushed. Arêches, up a quiet valley and ringed by mountains, requires an intentional effort to seek out. Chamonix and Arêches do have one big factor in common, however: both are magnets for mountain athletes. If Chamonix is a multisport mountain capital, Arêches seems at times obsessively focused on skimo. It is home to one of the world’s most legendary skimo stage races, Pierra-Menta. Some of the continent’s strongest racers have grown up there, while others have moved in part- or full-time. And literally down the street from Walmsley and Brazeau is longtime skimo racer and four-time UTMB Mont Blanc winner, François D’Haene.
D’Haene has become a friend and a key mentor for Walmsley, guiding him through a sport that can sometimes seem arcane and technical.
“We started on the ski [resort] slope where it was safe, then later in the season we went into the mountains,” says D’Haene. “We always focused on having fun.”
There might be no better mentor for Walmsley. D’Haene’s skimo roots go back two decades. “It’s a great way to train for trail running,” he says. “For me, skimo is really important for my body and my mind in the winter.”
Brazeau, for her part, is equally deep into the skimo scene. A top trail runner with elite-level results, she grew up in the ski mecca around Reno, Nevada and Tahoe, California. She was, in other words, one giant step farther along on the skimo learning curve compared to the Arizona-raised Walmsley, for whom snow has often been little more than a theoretical concept. Those childhood years on skis paid off for the 32-year-old athlete, and this past winter she and fellow Arêches resident Laura Fornay finished third at La Belle Étoile, a two-day stage skimo race in the heart of the French Alps,
The Euro trail running and skimo world has taken note, and are duly impressed with the fast expats. Germain Grangier, the North Face athlete who regularly podiums at some of the hardest races around the world, both on dirt and snow, says, “I was really impressed by Jim’s fitness. He showed it on the vertical races in Courchevel. He finished in front of some of the best skimo athletes in vertical races.”
“Most of us were born on skis,” says Grangier, who grew up in France’s mountainous Isère region, in the French ski resort Les 2 Alpes. “So for now he’s probably got 40 percent less technique than the rest of us. Skimo, it’s not like running. There’s a lot of technique, you need to know the rules, you need to get your equipment just right, and every race is different. “
Grangier pauses, thinking back on the season. “Jim has a crazy strong engine. He did super well this year!”
UltraSignup writer Doug Mayer sat down recently in Chamonix to talk with Jim and Jess about this past winter. Here’s what they had to say.
Doug: Jim, you’re in an uncommon position, having experienced both the US and Euro skimo scene. How would you describe the difference?
Jim: The European trail racing scene goes dormant once the snow falls and all the athletes seem to switch to skimo. In the US, there’s a lot of interest in getting into the sport, but it’s less “full commitment.” While in Europe, if you’re not fully committed, you won’t stand a chance.
Doug: You mean, you can’t casually drop in. You need to be focused on the weight of your gear down to the gram, technique, and your skills?
Jim: Yes. I also realize that in individual races, I’ll never quite be able to catch up, because I just don’t have the background. Jess has a better chance than me!
Jess: They’re on top of it very early here. So if you’re starting as an adult and you want to be competitive, it’s really hard.
Doug: But you both went ahead and gave it a try, anyway. That’s bold, I think.
Jim: In the spring when the snow melts, European trail runners just pick up right where they left off. So, from my point of view it didn’t seem very risky to give it a try.
Doug: That transition between seasons and sports is new for you.
Jim: Yeah. It’s something I still struggle with, because I come from a track background. When you look at the best athletes in that sport they are just grinding away, running, running, running, running… track, track, track, track, track. They’re singular athletes.
Doug: Well, I’ve been talking to some of the top skimo racers and they are pretty impressed with your results.
Jim [laughing]: Well, I think they see my uphill times! My downhill skiing is getting famous for other reasons.
Doug: You’ve been racing a lot at Courchevel. (The famed French ski area features a weekly uphill race of 3.2 km with 500 meters of climbing, and this year hosted the French national championships. Walmsley finished 11th of 93 racers.) Can you tell us about that?
Jim: I’ve chipped away at Courchevel. It’s the benchmark in France. I don’t feel like I had good conditions this winter during any of the races. We’d have rain and the snow would stick to my skins, and then I’d go back, and it would rain again. I kept thinking, “Surely, I can do better next time!”
Doug: Slipping and sliding and falling are part of the sport. What about the risk of a wipeout that impacts your running? That must be on your mind?
Jim: I was hesitant to do any skiing at all. I know I do slip and I do fall. Even if it’s just a slip, I sometimes tweak my groin. Now that it’s spring and I’m running, I’m a lot more hesitant to ski.
Doug: How did the national championships go?
Jim: Well, I goofed up at the start! I just didn’t give myself enough time to get through the gate at the start line. (Laughs.) I came through the side, but then I saw this tiny gate. I was just tripping over skis. Everyone was too crowded together and I couldn’t get through the gate. At one point, I actually tripped over my own skis. People were recognizing me and yelling at me.
Then they said “Go!” Nine minutes later, I think my heart rate was in the 190s and I almost blacked out. I kind of dipped into the red a bit too much.
Doug: Oh, great, you mean it was like, “Hey everyone, Walmsley’s clogging up the start!”
Jim: Exactly. That was a pretty goofy moment, but I think November and December had the most goofiness. There was a lot of slipping and sliding and falling.
Jess: You were like a four-legged creature on roller skates! To be fair, you were just getting back on skis for the second season ever.
Doug: Jess, you have a bit of an advantage since you grew up on skis at Heavenly ski area in Tahoe. How’s it been going for you?
Jess: On skis, I feel more comfortable. Alpine skiing was a big part of my life growing up. My father raced slalom and, at the time—the exhibition sport speed skiing, so my sisters and I were all on skis at a very young age. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but when I look up the hill, I can easily spot when Jim is coming down!
[To Jim] You’ll improve! I struggle too. I slip a lot more than someone who has more experience.
Doug: You both raced at Belle Étoile. How did that come about?
Jess: Two good friends in Arêches, Simon Gosselin and Laura Fornay took us under their wings. They were really patient. They took us down our first couloirs, which is hard on skimo skis, which are so light it feels like skiing on toothpicks. They convinced us to sign up for the race with them, but the day before, going through the required gear check with our crampons, helmets and stuff like that I began to think, “What the hell are we doing?” I mean, when you look at the videos of Belle Étoile, the ridges look really epic. The camera angles make them look terrifyingly narrow.
Jim: And in my case, I got to thinking, well if Jess does this race, she’s just going to walk away three days later taking a leap ahead of me. So I’m like, “I need to do this!”
Doug: Jess, you were totally comfortable with it. You came in 3rd with Laura!
Jess: Something clicked for me on our second day. My legs remembered how to take in the quads burning sensation on the long descents and how to navigate the skis through varying snow conditions and degrees of slope steepness.
Jim: I’m a little more clumsy with all of it. When you’re clipped in, generally your skis are on your pack, they’re hitting you in the back of the helmet and you can’t look up. And your helmet really cuts your peripheral vision. I actually don’t feel that comfortable when I am clipped in.
Doug: Jim, how did it go for you?
Jim: It was fun! All of a sudden it became a chance to progress quickly, doing things that we’ve only rarely ever done—or in my case, it was a lot of “never done!” The experience was really good.
My partner Simon is pretty fit. So I didn’t have time to eat anything! [laughs] In the vertical, I’m a bit faster. But on the single track ascents, I slipped a lot more than Simon. He was patient, waited for me, and didn’t mind going slow downhill. He always had time to snack, and then I would arrive, head down and dripping sweat, saying, “Go go go… Let’s go.” It was an interesting situation to be the weaker partner in some areas.
Jess: It was a similar situation for me on the descents. At least I got to pull my partner uphill! Doing something new is always a humbling experience. And in the end I finished Belle Étoile. It went a lot better than I thought it would go.
Jim: You at least had some strength. I think I only had weaknesses! Most experts can relate to not wanting to do something if you are weaker at it. A partner race is intimidating if you are not as strong as your partner.
Jess: It’s hard when you are the weaker partner. It’s a different space to navigate. I was grateful that Laura and I got a chance to work together. That was cool and I am walking away as a better skier for it.
Doug: Do you have a favorite skimo moment from this winter?
Jim: After a storm, we lapped little couloirs near Les Contamines. So that got to be our first experience of doing something more narrow like that. I had the feeling like, “We can do this! This is great!”
Jess: This winter, we skied up to the Grand Journée with Francois [D’Haene]. We did a traverse, skied a couloir down and finished back at the resort for lunch and a coffee afterwards in the sun. It was a bluebird day.
Doug: And next year?
Jess: I want to try to put together a full season of skimo. Mine got cut kind of short this year. I ultimately decided to end my skimo season early to take some time off to rehab a patella knee injury that resurfaced from an old accident. I figured it would be better to take the time off now from skiing so I would have a better chance of having a healthy running season this summer.
Jim: We’ll be starting off a lot more advanced next year, and with gear dialed.
Jess: Jim made huge progress this year at the Courcheval vertical series. A lot of the French athletes go there and it’s highly competitive.
Jim: I’m pretty good at going uphill. I can occasionally snipe some Strava stuff. Of course, many of those get beaten. It’s given me a bit more confidence to put on a bib this summer in some races that maybe I wouldn’t normally do. My attitude now is, “Well, why not take a little crack at this?”
Doug: Like what? You mean something more technical?
Jim: Specifically, I’m thinking I might not worry as much about the outcome at a place like Sierre-Zinal. I did pretty well there the first time there. I’d want to improve and I’d want to compete for a podium place there or win. But that’s a really difficult task.
Doug: How have you found the vertical skimo races?
Jim: I’m surprised they haven’t been more steep. The vertical running races and Strava segments in the area… that stuff gets really steep! Like the vertical kilometer in Fully. (Editor’s note: The “VK” in Fully, Switzerland is generally considered the fastest such course in the world. An old funicular track, it has an average grade of 52%.) I mean… Wow! That’s steep.
Doug: At this point, the winter is behind us. How’s the transition going?
Jim: François is still texting me, “Hey, do you want to go skiing?!” I answered him, “Dude! I left town to go find dirt!”
Here in Europe, trail runners have this approach like, “Well, you know, we got a couple more months. August is pretty far away.” They tend to tee up a lot of later ultras.
Doug: So, is there a real benefit to a skimo winter?
Jim: I guess my first answer is, we have to see, maybe I’m not better.
However I think I’ve had a bigger appreciation for a dedicated off season where you’re healthy and that you take time to purely cross train. I see that as a really interesting, valuable tool. It gives your body time to heal some of the things that have been hurting.
The Europeans fully believe in this idea. I think there’s something to it. Of course, for me falling makes skiing a little more rough. I was lucky enough to get out of ski season healthy. Overall, I was definitely more healthy after the ski season than before it.
I see poles and vertical training as a really big advantage for mountain racing in the summer. You’re still focusing on strength. I notice how much more your core and stabilizer muscles need to be engaged on a slippery surface. You need to be more in tune with how you’re balancing. Essentially, it’s strength training, cross-training, but you’re still working on your aerobic engine, just in a different way.
Doug: What’s your top tip or two for readers who are curious about doing something other than running during the winter months?
Jim: If you live in a place where you can go do it rather close to you, instead of running in the snow all winter, I think you should switch.
However, many, many people don’t live in a place where you can practice ski mountaineering. For them, I see two alternatives. First, there’s nordic skiing. I’ve done a lot of skate skiing this winter and could see people doing dedicated off-season skate skiing.
If you live in a place like Phoenix or somewhere that’s a desert, then do some cycling. Take some dedicated time off, like a healthy low-impact cross-training season.
Jess: It makes you look forward to the change of seasons. There’s a renewed sense of motivation.
If the start of the trail running season is any indication, the shift to skimo seems to be paying dividends. At his first race, Istria 100 by UTMB in Croatia, Walmsley won handily, qualifying him to run UTMB Mont Blanc this coming August. Walmsley knows there’s plenty more work to be done. D’Haene has some tips on what comes next. “Very important for Jim, he needs to learn how to read the terrain, the snow, the change in conditions with the time of day, understand the risks and how to choose your way in the mountains. Then he’ll have even more fun,” says D’Haene. “He can really progress a lot.”
So what will next winter hold for Walmsley’s ski mountaineering? D’Haene, anyway, has a plan for his skimo student. “Jim likes to track his training,” he says, “but I hope that next year he’ll be less focused on times at Courchevel and that together we can do some big days in the mountains!”