Enduring Wisdom of Charley French

This year is the 50th annual Boulder Mountain Tour, a beloved cross-country ski race that begins north of Ketchum, at the start of the Harriman Trail near Galena Lodge, and travels 34 kilometers south, paralleling the Big Wood River and the Boulder Mountains all the way to the SNRA Headquarters. Thousands of racers have made their way down the historic course since its inception, but arguably none more times than local legend, Charley French. This year, Charley will clip into his race skis at the start line of the Boulder for what he estimates to be the 47th time, at 96 years of age. 


Q: You’ve competed in nearly every single edition of the Boulder Mountain Tour – what keeps you coming back?

A: I like to compete, and I like the challenge. I’ve done somewhere between 200-300 triathlons, a few bike races, and a lot of cross-country ski races. 


In fact, Charley earned gold at each of the five Triathlon World Championships he contested, finished first at twelve nordic skiing World Masters competitions, and not only won his age group but set a course record in his first and only Ironman; these are only a few results among time trial and course records that he still holds. Charley didn’t start competing in triathlons until he was in his forties, around the same time he picked up cross-country skiing. After racing, and winning, against younger competitors for years, the Boulder Mountain Tour created a new 90-99 Charley Class age group in 2014.


Q: How do you stay motivated to continue training and competing?

A: I just like to do things; I like to accomplish things. My whole life I’ve always had goals for every day, and I think that keeps you going. You accomplish a goal and have this satisfaction, so you’re always up. I’m continually looking forward to things. In competing I noticed very early on that if you have a positive attitude, you go twice as fast. If you get down on yourself, everything falls apart. I’ve been lucky that attitude still prevails. You figure out that every day we get to be outside doing this stuff is great, you go skiing and even if conditions aren’t perfect you have a good day, you have fun. This year, I signed up to compete in the World Masters cross-country ski races in Seefeld, Austria this March. That’s my goal for this winter.


Q: As a year-round athlete, what is your favorite way to train? What have you found to be the most effective?

A: When I was about 60, I decided to go to the gym for the first time, and said I’d stick to it for a year. My triathlon times dropped by about 10%, so I figured I better it up. This year, I’m working with Kyle Sela, a trainer at Zenergy, to see if I can get stronger in preparation for World Masters. I think it’s working – last year I was able to race the half-Boulder without stopping. 


Right now, I pump iron and cross-country ski. The rest of the year I swim and bike too. I just do what feels good for training, I’ll be out skiing two days a week versus one day inside at the gym.


Q: How did you start cross-country skiing?

A: I was born and raised in St. Louis and moved to California when I was about 13. I started surfing and skiing in California and lived there until 1970. At that point, I realized I’d never spent a weekend at home, because I was always driving to go skiing. That’s when I moved here to Sun Valley , and I skied bumps on the mountain over 100 days each season. One day, I realized I wasn’t going to get any better at bump-skiing, and that I needed a new sport. That’s when I started cross-country skiing, and I haven’t stopped. I’m still learning and improving. To start, I took a free lesson at Galena Lodge, then a mutual friend introduced me to Jon Engen and I started taking lessons from him which helped a lot. I started out when there was only classic skiing, then got into skating – but now I only classic ski. I will just double pole the Boulder.


Q: What changes have you made in your technique through your years skiing?

A: As I age, I notice that every year I’m a little weaker, and I’m not strong enough to skate anymore. I watch the World Cup cross-country races and noticed that when the best in the world are classic skiing, they are either double poling or running uphill. To do classic well, you have to double pole. I can still classic ski, and even a few years ago I could just double pole forever. I raced the Engadin Skimarathon in Switzerland in 2017 (at 91) and double poled the whole thing – my strength is in my upper body and really my core. To get up hills in races, I double pole as hard as I can into the hill, and then stride over the top. For a couple of Boulders, I didn’t wax at all (to have more glide), but now it’s easier to have a little kick wax. 


Q: In cross-country skiing, and all endurance sports, you have to be both physically and mentally tough, how important do you believe the mental aspect of racing is?

A: I just like to compete, and I like to train. I get great satisfaction out of working out – and in racing, well you just have to stay positive throughout. Every time I get to start a race, I just want to win. Here I am, the only one in my age group, all I’ve got to do is finish, and I still get nervous before a race!  Why am I nervous before a race? I try to get myself to relax, but I can’t!


Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Boulder over time?

A: Every year the grooming improves, as does the equipment. As the equipment gets better and better, the technique changes to go along with those improvements. Every year you see little changes in the technique, which are kind of fun to try and replicate. 


Q: What’s your favorite part of the Boulder?

A:  The finish! Not the start! When you get about two thirds of the way through the race, you know you’re going to make it. My favorite part is right after I finish, standing there realizing it’s over.


Q: Do you have a friend you ski with?

A: I ski with Jack Hayes, he also belongs to Zenergy. He’s just a kid, he’s 89.


Q: You’re a lifelong endurance athlete and competitor, can you talk about what keeps you in sport?

A: I’m an athlete because I enjoy doing it. To me it’s a package, it’s the fun of competing and if you do well it’s a result of how much, how well and how smart you’ve trained. I enjoy the whole package. I’m lucky I’ve got the energy and want to go out and do these things.


Charley’s energy and joy for life and skiing are infectious. Just being near him makes you want to get up and go, to not be afraid to try something new, to give it your all. He is an inspiration for many reasons: multi-time world champion, competitive athlete at 96, inventor of the Aero Bars that redefined bike racing, and so much more. In everything he has accomplished, he maintains an enduring humility that shines through in the chuckle at the end of his sentences. Charley, we are so lucky to have you as a role model for our community. You’ve shown us what is possible if we just stay curious.