James Walsh: Work-Life Balance from the Podium
We’ve all seen the top gravel race pros—former pro-tour riders, or just full-time gravel aces—savaging the field at all the big races from Emporia to San Diego. It ain’t easy, but when racing is your full-time gig, it’s easier to put together those podium results
But a large swath of the men and women tucked in, hanging tough, snagging wins big and small are 9-to-5ers. People with day jobs that have them pinned to a computer, or chained to work meetings. Kids that have playdates and finding the time to get in the training. People like you and me.
James Walsh is that athlete; a true journeyman. At age 44, the Coast Guard veteran and Obed elite racer from Littleton, CO. is a lifelong endurance sport addict. From Ironman triathlons to ultra-distance trail running, he’s found a love for competition. This season, it’s paid dividends; Walsh has been cleaning up at gravel races near his home along Colorado’s Front Range; first open male at the 230-mile Open Range Gravel, second overall at the Pony Xpress 100-miler, and first overall at the 120-miler at Mad Gravel.
But he also holds down a full-time job, juggling business calls Monday through Friday. And that’s in addition to his biggest job as a dad to Fiona, his biggest fan, who requires rides to and from summer camp and help with schoolwork.
How do you do 'dad life', crush the job AND kill it at the races? We wanted to know… so we hit James with a few questions.
What’s the day job?
I’m a network engineer— I design and troubleshoot global networks.
You already have a nice checkmark in the “win” column with a victory at Mad Gravel. How’s the Colorado Front Range race season been for you?
I’ve been on the podium or won every race entered. That’s kinda crazy. I’m as fit as I’ve been in the past, but racing smarter. So many of these guys in gravel came from a big-time road racing background, and know how to conserve. Getting my teeth kicked in by them last year, was a big ‘ol bowl of watch and learn. This year, I’ve learned to take control of a race. Instead of thinking ‘aw, I shouldn’t be up here with Alex Howes,’ Now I’m like ‘eff it—make it happen.
And that’s fine; they’re doing their thing, and some of these road teams are bringing entire teams into gravel, doing road tactics. And that’s fine; they won’t be worrying about me. I’ll clean up while they’re doing their tactics. But that’s the biggest thing this year—racing smarter.
What does a full day look like for you… one that has training, work, and dad duties?
Thankfully I work from home and have for a long time, well before the pandemic. In the summertime, I get up at 5 am. I don’t have meetings until 10 am, so I'm out the door by 6 am and done by 8 am, with breakfast sitting at my computer, reading emails, and catching up.
When my daughter is with me, I still get up at 5 am, and work straight away until 7 am. I’ll get Fi ready for school or summer camp at 7:45, and either train right then when I drop her off, ride at lunch, or find a lunch block that is minus meetings. The day is pretty flexible, as long as I don’t have meetings. I come up with a rough draft of what my training week should look like, then look at work meetings, and shift stuff around. I always keep it flexible. Two hard workouts and a long ride— where I get them in are where I fit them in. Sometimes I get a meeting and it throws things out of whack a bit, but I just shift things around.
Given that need for flexibility, I guess you don’t have a coach?
Yep. I’ve worked with so many coaches, and to be honest, it would be more stressful to work with a coach. They give you this for this day, and if I have work commitments that make that day’s workout impossible to accomplish, it throws an entire week out for them. To me, coaching myself, I have rough training plans in TrainingPeaks as a six-week block, but it’s totally tweaked and tailored every week.
You’ve done a fair bit of endurance sport, from Ironman triathlon to trail running. While you still trail run a fair bit, what is it about gravel that you dig?
The main thing is I LOVE to race. It’s the competitive thing. I really get the best out of myself racing. For gravel, it’s real bang-for-your-buck racing; the events are long, and you get to race the top guys. It’s different from solo Ironman or trail running, where you’re out there doing things on your own. With gravel, there’s the group dynamic that I love.
And you find your people in those races. You find a group with your same pace and ride in that group all day. Good race, bad race, it doesn’t matter; in every race, you make a new friend. We’re all racing hard, but we end up talking during the race and end up staying in touch through Instagram and becoming friends.
I also get incredible satisfaction with finishing a race. For me, to win a race or finish 10th or 20th, there’s not much separating the stoke. As long as I left it all out there, that’s the feeling I’m after. Of course, I’m trying to win, but it’s really just about doing something hard. And the more competitive it is, the harder it’ll be. I just love it.
Don’t get me wrong; I love adventure riding, but for me, I absolutely love the competitive side of sports. It’s the only time I can get that level out of myself.
We see the pros out there, vanlifing it from event to event, getting their massages, a traveling mechanic, making the thing as pro as it gets. You’re doing the everyman experience, lining up next to these guys. How fun is it to mix it up at the front against these riders?
It’s awesome. You watch them race these big races. And then you race them, and you get to see and feel firsthand how strong they are. Hanging for half the race is like a huge accomplishment; I’m stoked to be there and ride with them. But it’s cool—I’m 44 now and I’m still beating and racing with guys that are 10 to 20 years younger than me. Like, at Ned Gravel Eric Brunner, the reigning U.S. cyclo-cross champion won, and he’s 24. The second was a pro road and cyclo-cross racer, and he 22. Third place was 24. Then there’s me in 4th, the only old dude at 44 years old throwing down with them—they could literally be my kids. To be able to race with them is awesome.
You’ve got a picture of your daughter Fiona on the stem of your GVR. At one race this year, you bailed awards to get her to a pro women’s soccer game that afternoon (but luckily had your award mailed to you). How important is it for you to have that balance?
When we had Fi, I made a promise to myself that if I’m gonna train at the level I want to, there’s never ever going to be an excuse for being tired. If I ride five hours and she wants to go swimming or ride her bike, I’m not gonna let my being tired as an excuse.
And she gets it; she’s grown up around it with me as her dad and her mom as this incredibly fit and successful runner and triathlete. She’s been to so many races and sees the hard work that goes into it. She’s made comments about how hard mom and dad work, which is amazing.
Her sport is soccer, she’s taking that hard work mindset she’s seen from her mom and dad into her own sport. Like, I’ll see her doing band work in her bedroom—she doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she’s after it—and says I ‘wanna play in the World Cup.’ Now I follow the women’s national team.
When I’m racing, her picture on the stem is a reminder. Racing is the one time it’s a “for me” thing, but if I’m spending a day for myself, taking the time to chase this race, I’m gonna empty the tank. I’m going all-in. And it doesn’t matter how small or big the race is, she always asks if I won.
If I didn’t get on the podium, she’ll say "why didn’t you get an award today?" With racing, you fail way more than you ever win, but I’ve controlled the attitude I have after any race; I just don’t have that much attachment to the results. If I have my best race, bury myself and finish 30th I’m just as stoked. Have fun and go hard as I can, if I do those things, I’m happy, and carry that to Fiona every time. To be honest, I can’t tell you the last time I finished a race with a negative thought in my head. With Fi there, it’s always good!
Even when things go totally sideways?
OK, so it was Unbound 2019, I was in the second chase pack, and broke my rim. I called Fi’s mom for a ride… and after an hour and a half, I was in 750th place at mile 68. Fi was there in the crew stop and said, “you’re not gonna quit, are you?” I was like “hell no!” We got it fixed, and I passed like 650 people on the way to the finish. She’s just helped me own the experience and get the most out of it I can.