‘Free Solo’ Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film

24 Feb

Free Solo won an Oscar for best documentary. Jimmy Chin’s acceptance speech, before yielding the microphone to his wife and co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: “Holy shit.”

Holy shit, indeed. Free Solo, the first true climbing film to reach a mainstream audience, chronicled Alex Honnold’s 2017 solo of El Capitan’s Freerider route. It has already earned almost $19 million at the box office, and won best documentary at the British Association of Film and Television Arts several weeks ago. The film benefited from Honnold’s thoughtful charm on camera, and Chin and Vasarhelyi’s incredible access during Honnold’s years-long training process, including while he was thousands of feet off the ground without a rope.

But, like Man on Wire, which won an Oscar in 2007, Free Solo’s drama isn’t only physical. As Honnold told Lisa Chase last year, Chin and Vasarhelyi could have oversold the physical risks, but instead stayed close to Honnold’s emotional experience, particularly as his friends and girlfriend Sanni McCandless contended with the possibility of his death. Vasarhelyi saw that Honnold was sometimes unreachable, and her intuition made the film great. It has deservedly reached a wide audience.

Still, climbing hasn’t ever been a mainstream sport in the U.S., and it feels unexpected that the two mass-appeal climbs of the past decade are Honnold’s free solo and Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s 2015 first ascent of the El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, which was covered pitch by pitch in the New York Times. Most climbers are sport climbers or boulderers. A tiny percentage will ever get on El Cap, and many fewer will ever solo a hard route.

So for climbers, it may be strange days ahead. After the Dawn Wall, it was important for climbers to point out that Caldwell and Jorgeson had freed the world’s hardest ever multi-pitch sport route, but not the world’s hardest ever free solo or the world’s hardest-ever sport climb. Free Solo’s reception in the broader culture—where all kinds of rock climbing are seen as daredevilry—has been slightly different than in the climbing world, and Free Solo has already created some confusion about Honnold’s status. CNN called Honnold the “greatest rock climber of all time”; The Washington Post said Free Solo was a top-notch mountaineering movie. Honnold was a good person to make a documentary about, but it’s weird that nobody in the real world knows who Adam Ondra or Alex Puccio are. “The bottom line is, free soloing sucks,” Climbing magazine editor Matt Samet wrote in 2017. People die too easily, and climbers know how many free soloists are gone. Climbing will keep covering Honnold because he’s newsworthy, Samet wrote, but not with much enthusiasm.

Anyone who has watched Free Solo has probably wondered how a climber as obsessive as Honnold has held up on a film tour that began in September. (Hopefully he has a good travel hangboard.) Last night, after an evening of pre-Oscars parties, Honnold texted that he was feeling good, and humbled that so many people had seen the film. But the ceremony was “the end of a very long ride,” he wrote. “We’ve been touring with the film nonstop for six months so one way or another it’s pretty great for it to finally wrap up.”

Jim Walmsley Will Shatter the Western States 100 Record

21 Jun

Jim Walmsley is known for two races, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, Walmsley attacked from the gun, at times running as much as 45 minutes under Timothy Olson’s course-record pace. Jenny Simpson, the world champion 1,500-meter runner, used to train with Walmsley in Colorado Springs, and she tweeted updates on his progress, keying in a broader section of the competitive running world. It was a good story: an almost completely unknown runner was dismantling the course record of the country’s most famous ultra. Western States begins at altitude near the Squaw Valley ski area, in eastern California, then drops gradually westward to Auburn, outside Sacramento. By late afternoon, Walmsley was on pace to break Olson’s 14:46 record, but at mile 92 he made a wrong left turn and ran two miles off course. Discouraged and exhausted, he reversed direction at a walk and finished in 20th place. Still, the race was a sensation. Scott Jurek, who has won the race seven times, called to offer a mix of condolence and congratulation, and Hoka signed him to a sponsorship that allowed him to quit his job at a bike shop in Flagstaff, Arizona.

In 2017, Walmsley intended to prove that his race the year before had not been foolish. Myke Hermsmeyer, Walmsley’s friend and unofficial documentarian, produced an emotional short film about the 2016 race, and a group of his fans and friends came to watch and crew; many wore T-shirts that read STOP JIM, an homage to the STOP PRE T-shirts that Steve Prefontaine fans wore in the 1970s. One had been edited to read, in smaller letters, FROM GETTING LOST. In 2016, Walmsley had covered a steep early section of course fast, and in 2017 he went out even harder even though parts were snowed in. Shortly after the start, Ryan Sandes, a top South African racer, asked if Walmsley planned to attack the course record again. Walmsley said yes, and Sandes let him go. By midafternoon, however, temperatures were in the high nineties, and at mile 52 Walmsley’s stomach began to give out. He vomited profusely while leaving the Foresthill aid station at mile 62, and dropped out at mile 78. Sandes won in 16:19.

On June 23, Walmsley will race Western States for a third time. Unlike in either of his previous attempts, he is now both well-known and seasoned, with course records at half a dozen of the country’s top ultras, including the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, where he broke his own record by nine minutes in April. At distances below 100 miles, he is the best ultrarunner in the country. Ultrarunning is a sport that favors a tortoise-over-hare mentality that irritates Walmsley and that his running style challenges. But he still hasn’t won Western States, and the question he has posed to the sport—why can’t he race 100 milers hard from the gun?—will again be the subtext of this year’s race. “He hasn’t stuck it yet,” said Bryon Powell, the editor of running website iRunFar. “He’s going for the 1080 flip that no one has ever done, but he hasn’t landed it.”

Western States “gets brought up every day of my life,” Walmsley told me in May. “It’s almost a part of me, I guess. If you can get it done at Western States, you got a good year.”

Walmsley, who is now 28, is tall and gaunt, even for an ultrarunner. When I met him in Flagstaff on a warm Sunday night this spring, he was wearing sweatpants, sandals, and a large down jacket; Walmsley doesn’t have much body fat. In conversation, he would be a familiar character to anyone who has spent time around a college or high school cross-country program—he’s a running nerd. Over drinks one night a few days later, he took ten minutes to explain that closed-cell insoles absorb less water and are lighter than the open-cell insoles that come standard in running shoes. “I can talk about running forever,” he said.

Walmsley grew up in Phoenix, where he was a state champion cross-country runner and qualified for the Foot Locker National Championships. After graduating, he ran at the Air Force Academy, where he was a second-team all-American in the steeplechase, running 8:41. He had a PR of 13:52 for the 5,000 meters. Those are decent times for a D1 runner, but they stand out in the world of ultras, which more often attracts athletes who have a talent for grinding and suffering rather than running fast.

When Walmsley graduated from the Air Force Academy, he had hoped for a billing as a logistics officer near a major city, but was instead assigned to Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls, Montana, to pull 24-hour shifts supervising nuclear-missile silos. On a day off in 2013, after going for a 40-mile bike ride and a 14-mile run in the morning, he met a friend to go rock climbing. They hiked to a crag but realized they both had forgotten to bring a rope, and retreated to a bar. Later they met the friend’s wife for dinner and split a bottle of wine. On the 90-minute drive back home, Walmsley realized that he was dehydrated, sleepy, and had had too much to drink, and he pulled over to nap. He awoke to a Montana state trooper tapping on his window. After taking a field sobriety test Walmsley blew 0.081 on a breathalyzer and was arrested for operating under the influence. (In Montana, as in many other states, it is illegal to have physical control of a car while intoxicated, even if you are not driving it.)

The Air Force placed Walmsley on probation and pulled him off silo duty. Though embarrassing, the DUI likely wouldn’t have permanently threatened his military career. But around that time, a cheating scandal involving readiness exams for missileers consumed Malmstrom. According to Walmsley and various news reports, many officers viewed the tests as pro forma, and cheating had been common for years. More than 100 officers at the base were eventually implicated, including most of Malmstrom’s senior command and the commanding general, who later resigned. Junior officers were generally spared from serious punishment, but Walmsley had admitted to cheating, and, with the DUI, it became hard for the Air Force to keep him around. He was given a general discharge, a form of separation that is less serious than a dishonorable discharge but still indicates that something in his service went wrong.

Walmsley was humiliated. He returned to Phoenix depressed and suicidal, and moved in with his parents. “It felt like the first time in life that I was failing, that I failed,” he told me. His parents were supportive, and he began seeing a psychiatrist, who recommended that he make running a bigger priority; it seemed to help him cope. Last year, in the video that Hermsmeyer produced before Western States, Walmsley spoke openly about being depressed, and the rawness of that interview has since lead people with similar problems to reach out. But the post-discharge period still feels extraordinarily painful, and he avoids discussing it in detail. “People want me to talk about it,” he told me. “‘How did you get through it?’ In a lot of ways I never got through it. I just moved on.”

In 2015, Walmsley left Phoenix and moved to Flagstaff, and began training hard. He reconnected with Tim Freriks, a 2013 graduate of Northern Arizona University who Walmsley had known in high school, and entered a series of the country’s top ultras. Racing under the radar and without a major sponsor, Walmsley won the JFK 50 Mile, and set course records at the Bandera 100K and Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Freriks and Cody Reed, another NAU runner, traveled to Sonoma with him, and Freriks finished second. After the race, the three started calling themselves the Coconino Cowboys, after the nearby Coconino National Forest.

Last year, Eric Senseman and Jared Hazen moved to Flagstaff, after helping crew for Walmsley at Western States. Both now run with the Cowboys and, with Reed and Freriks, qualified to race Western States this year. Except for Hazen, who withdrew this week with a hip injury, all will be on the starting line in California.

jim whalmsley
(Myke Hermsmeyer)

Hoka picked up Walmsley after his 2016 race, but the Cowboys are members of perhaps the only elite training group that is uncoached and not unified by a single sponsor. (They do have small deals with Squirrel’s Nut Butter, an antichafe balm, and Pizzicletta, where they eat for free on Sunday evenings.) Like small groups of friends across the world, they have the ability to be unambiguously cruel to each other and still sound loving: Hazen, who finished third at Western States in 2015, is called Tank, because he is physically small. At dinner one night, I heard Reed ask Tommy Rivers Puzey, who also trains with the Cowboys, if he would pace him after mile 60; Puzey said no, because he wasn’t sure Reed would make it that far. The next night, as Walmsley signed promotional posters for Squirrel’s Nut Butter, he told me that if Senseman tried to run with Walmsley for the win, he would “crack Eric like an egg.” Hermsmeyer, sitting across from Walmsley and trying to offer a note of moderation, said, “There’s equal shit talking.” Walmsley thought for a moment. “Tim doesn’t talk shit,” he said finally. “He’s a pretty nice guy.”

Without the wrong turn in 2016, Walmsley thinks he would have finished seven or eight minutes under Timothy Olson’s course record of 14:46. There is a consensus among the group, which Walmsley alternately accepts and rejects, that he went out too hard in 2017. (Between the two races, he told me, “I’ve had 165 out of 200 miles go pretty awesome. I’m doing some things well.”) In 2017, after building a nearly 20 minute buffer over his 2016 pace, which was already quick, he gave it all back fighting through snow-covered trails on the descent to Robinson Flats, at mile 30. Then it got hot. By mile 62, he was off record pace but still holding a lead of an hour, and was greeted by a crowd of dozens and a film crew when he arrived.

“I didn’t expect how many people would be waiting,” he said. In retrospect, he should have taken 20 minutes to collect himself, cool down, and rehydrate, but the crowd spooked him. “The publicity and attention I was getting was all brand new,” he said. Instead of waiting, he chugged a bottle of fluid and took off, jogging a matter of feet before vomiting. That was the end of his stomach. (Two months later, with that experience under his belt, he fought off similar stomach distress to finish fifth, behind Kilian Jornet and Francois D’haene, at the 105-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.) “It wouldn’t surprise me if Jim does hold back a bit the first half, the first 30 to 40 miles,” Freriks told me. “Running super aggressive hasn’t paid off for him the past couple years. But who knows. Jim just likes going for it.”

In Walmsley’s view, going for it is the obvious way to win ultras. “You look at track, or the marathon, or cycling, there’s generally a pack,” he said. In those sports, races get broken open late, once fatigue has set in. “Ultrarunning, you can still run off the front from the beginning and get away with it.” Until the sport matures, Walmsley is willing to risk blowing up if it sometimes means winning spectacularly. He is also willing to telegraph his race plans. His approach, he said, is, “Tell them what you’re going to do, and go do it.” This is contrary to the style and ethic of the ultra scene, and helps explain why Walmsley is sometimes regarded as arrogant. “It’s off-putting to some people,” Bryon Powell said. “A hundred miles is a long distance—there are lots of variables, and things do go wrong, and maybe that’s why you should temper your own expectations.”

For the past several years, Walmsley has logged most of his training publicly, on Strava. Despite minor injuries in March and May, Walmsley has put in eight 100-mile-plus weeks this spring, including a 150-mile week with 35,000 feet of climbing. In Flagstaff, Walmsley lives in a room he rents from a retired W.L. Gore and Associates engineer in her sixties named Anita. Half of his bedroom wall is lined with blue boxes of Hoka shoes, and to their right is a framed map of the Western States course, on loan from a friend of Walmsley’s father. In 2017, Walmsley’s run up the early, steep section of the course put him far in front of the field; most everyone hikes this climb, which is the high point on the day, but he ran it. “This year, it would be nice to be a little bit slower, because I can’t fuck it up again,” he said, looking at the map. “But there’s free time right there.”

Lindsey Vonn’s Last Olympic Downhill Medal

21 Feb

As Lindsey Vonn stood in the start gate in Pyeongchang yesterday, waiting to race her final Olympic downhill, NBC declined to show the racer then on the course, Germany’s Kira Weidle, instead keeping the camera locked on Vonn. She took a series of quick, short breaths, and stamped her feet. Bode Miller, commentating for NBC after retiring from racing last fall, grimly noted her isolation. “There’s no one who can help you. You’re alone, at that point,” he said. (Weidle, omitted entirely from the primetime broadcast, finished 11th.) Vonn gave a tight smile, pumped her right hand, and, a minute later, pushed out of the start gate.

Vonn’s run wasn’t flawless. Needing to ski aggressively through the course’s choppy upper section, she played it safe, and lost a tenth of a second to Sofia Goggia, the 25-year-old Italian who sat in the lead. “She’s not taking risks with the line,” Miller said. Vonn thrashed through the next three gates, trying to straighten out, but the momentum was lost and she skied into second place, four tenths behind Goggia. Twenty minutes later, Norway’s Ragnhilde Mowinckel would bump Vonn down to third, where she remained. Behind Vonn, Americans Alice McKennis and Breezy Johnson finish fifth and seventh, in surprising and strong races. Vonn’s bronze medal goes with her 2010 gold, and the distinction—at age 33—of becoming the oldest woman to medal in alpine skiing.

After the race, in an interview with USA Today, Vonn’s formerly estranged father Larry Kildow confirmed Miller’s assessment. “She needed to go for it a little bit more,’’ Kildow said. “She needed to risk more.’’

Well, perhaps. Except that Vonn’s career has been defined to an extreme degree by going for it, and Vonn knows better than anyone what going for it does to a body. On Tuesday, the New York Times published a graphic detailing Vonn’s injuries, which include concussions, torn and broken knees, and fractures to her ankle, wrist, left pinky, and right arm. Several of the downhill’s top contenders in Pyeongchang, including Switzerland’s Lara Gut and Italy’s Federica Brignone, missed gates or crashed out before reaching the finish line, proving Vonn probably judged the risk appropriately. Third is better than another knee surgery. In the aftermath of an Olympic build up that has featured inevitable media hype and also the death of her grandfather and a vicious right-wing troll campaign, Vonn could be excused for wanting to make it off the mountain without calling for a medevac. (Again, not an idle concern.)

Vonn missed the Sochi Olympics due to injury, and has kept her career alive to train for Pyeongchang and chase the overall World Cup wins record. At 81 victories, she's six short of the record, and plans to ski one more season to capture it before retiring. Speaking to NBC after the race, that finality seemed to set in. “I worked so hard, and I tried my butt off,” she said, in tears. “It’s sad. This is my last downhill. I wish I could keep going, you know? I have so much fun. I love what I do. My body just can’t, probably can’t take another four years. But I’m proud.”

Mikaela Shiffrin Can Crush the Downhill, Too

6 Dec

Over the weekend, World Cup skiing phenom Mikaela Shiffrin won a downhill event at Lake Louise, in Canada, the first speed-event victory of her career. Shiffrin, who is 22, is already a skiing star, but 26 of her 33 World Cup wins have come in slalom, which is as different from downhill as the mile is from the marathon. The win clarifies what was an open question until just a couple days ago: Is Shiffrin on track to become the best skier in history, or just the best in slalom?

Lake Louise is sometimes called Lake Lindsey, after Lindsey Vonn and her 18 victories there. On Friday, in the first of two downhills, Shiffrin finished third, behind Cornelia Hutter, while Vonn, who led through the early splits, violently crashed out. On Saturday, a storm that was forecast to hit Lake Louise in the afternoon arrived early, killing power to the resort’s chairlifts and clouding visibility. Shiffrin and the rest of the racers had to be towed to the start gate behind a snowcat, and the race was shortened and delayed by 90 minutes. Shiffrin took first by just a few tenths of a second over Viktoria Rebensburg, a giant slalom specialist. Vonn, skiing on a wobbly knee, finished 12th. Then, on Sunday, Shiffrin finished fifth in super-G. (Vonn crashed again.) Three days, three speed races, three top-five finishes for Shiffrin, and one big shock for the ski-racing community.

Shiffrin has already won a lot of races. Besides her 33 World Cup victories, she owns three world championship titles and an Olympic gold. (FIS, the sport’s governing body, awards a confusing number of honors within World Cup racing: Shiffrin also has four individual discipline titles in slalom and one overall World Cup title.) Because Shiffrin is so young and so successful, she is often compared to the best skiers in history, Ingemar Stenmark and Vonn, who are first and second, respectively, on the overall World Cup win list. Vonn’s total is 77, nine behind Stenmark, a slalom and GS technician who was active in the 1970s and ’80s. Vonn, notably, has won races in all five of skiing’s events and is widely considered the best racer ever. But by age 22, Vonn had only seven World Cup wins.

The Lake Louise results answered other questions about Shiffrin, though none will give comfort to her competitors. Lake Louise is the flattest and least technical downhill on the women’s tour, and the shortened course cut out a long flat section at the top. “[F]rom where we started, most of the way down, it’s fairly technical, and I felt really good about that yesterday, so I took even a little bit more risk today,” Shiffrin told reporters after the race. The change, in other words, made the course more typical of what she’ll find in future World Cup downhills.

Second, the win wasn’t simply a physical accomplishment. It came in bad conditions amid a bizarre power outage. “Most people with Mikaela’s talent just rely on their talent,” Shiffrin’s friend Bug Pech told writer Elizabeth Weil for the December issue of Outside. “That’s why, when the competition gets really serious, they fall apart.” Shiffrin famously thrives on an inflexible schedule, with little socializing and even daily afternoon naps. Saturday’s race went well off script, but it didn’t seem to bother her at all.

Shiffrin and Vonn will be stars at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February, and comparing the two, though probably irritating to Vonn, is useful for understanding both women. Shiffrin told Weil that her goal is become so strong that she can race at 90 percent effort and still win. At her peak, Vonn could do this, too, though at 33 she now finds herself playing catch-up, pushing too hard, and crashing. Crashing is one thing in slalom, but potentially fatal in downhill, where racers occasionally top 70 miles per hour and is what killed French racer David Poisson earlier this year. Shiffrin has been wary of the physical danger of the event. “I’m still sort of a risky investment there,” she told the New Yorker recently.

Well, maybe not such a risky investment after all.

Shiffrin, of course, also won a slalom event in Vermont two weeks ago, and she has two other top-five finishes in GS and super-G already this season. The progression in skiing is from technical events to speed events, and racers rarely move back to slalom once they’ve started winning in downhill. Shiffrin won’t race a World Cup speed event again this year, but for the rest of the women’s field, the worry will be that she can. Competitive skiing is a mess of training, racing, travel, and rest, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to prepare for all the disciplines at once. If Shiffrin ends up winning in downhill like she wins in slalom—without skiing on the edge of catastrophe, unlike Bode Miller or late-career Vonn—she’ll have the World Cup wins record within a couple years.

Rickey Gates’s 4,000-Mile Ultra, from South Carolina to California

21 Jul

When Rickey Gates was 16, he was ­fascinated by A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins’s book about a 1970s coast-to-coast journey. “It was an anthropological look at an athletic endeavor,” Gates says. Gates’s first transcontinental attempt, on a bike when he was 19, fizzled after three days. Now, 17 years ­later and with a decade of experience as an ultrarunner under his belt, Gates is trying again, with a 4,000-mile run from South Carolina to California. 

Ultralong-distance projects have become a thing lately, with Karl Meltzer blitzing the Appalachian Trail last September and Pete Kostelnick shattering the record for a cross-country sprint a month later. But unlike most runners, Gates isn’t focused on speed. He wants to explore. “I’ve been traveling around the world for the past ten years as a professional runner,” he says. “I know so many countries better than my own.”

Gates patched together a meandering route that includes classic trails, rural backroads, and even some urban areas. He began in Charleston on March 1, heading west and south on the Palmetto and Appalachian Trails, before taking a paddleboard north on the Tennessee River. After stints in Oklahoma and Kansas, he stopped in Aspen, Colorado, his hometown. He’ll end sometime in August with all 100 miles of the Western States course in Northern California, followed by the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Although Gates often runs 30 miles a day, he’s almost completely self-supported, carrying a few pieces of clothing, a sleeping bag, and a tarp, and sticking to a budget of $1,000 a month, for food and the occasional hotel room. 

Gates’s route is intended to put him in contact with locals along the way as much as possible. Breaking the ice, he discovered early, isn’t tough. “I show up in short shorts with a weird backpack and this big red mustache,” he says. “You kind of don’t have a choice. Conversation happens.” 

The Gear He Carries 

Gates’s equipment has to be light and totally weather-proof. He’s running in Salomon S-Lab shoes and has been through ten pairs.

He’s using a prototype pack from Salomon that lets him balance weight between his chest and back and makes it easy to grab extra clothes or food without stopping. “I put the pack on and don’t take it off for six or seven hours at a time,” he says. The pack is partially made from Cuben fiber, a water- and windproof fabric designed for sails.

As for clothes, he’s relying on layers of light-weight merino wool and a sleeping tarp, which also functions as a poncho.