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French ultraunner Francois D’Haene, 31, spent more than a year conceptualizing and outlining his recent attempt of the 222-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) speed record, which he successfully accomplished on October 17. His speed record arrived less than two months after he set the course record at the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc—his third time winning the race.
Who is the French ultrarunner who has taken the mountain-running world by storm, and how did he go about smashing one of the country’s most coveted FKTs?
Inspired by the Wilderness
D’Haene set his eyes on the John Muir Trail on the heels of another FKT: the GR20, a 112-mile trail with 43K of total elevation gain that traverses the rugged Corsica mountains, on the range’s namesake island in the Mediterranean Sea. Kilian Jornet set the GR20 debut record in 2009–32 hours, 54 minutes—followed by Guillaume Perretti’s 32-hour record in 2014. In June 2016, D’Haene completed the route in 31 hours and 6 minutes, with a five-member crew of close friends.
“After GR20, we decided we wanted to do another trail that was longer and in a new place that we had never experienced,” D’Haene says. “I’d never been to the Sierra Nevada, and found out about the John Muir Trail. I talked to friends in the U.S. and read a book about it. I was sure it was one of the most amazing trails.”
He was drawn to the duration and focus that the JMT would require—more than any trail he could attempt in Europe. “Doing 200 miles in Europe on a trail that is as far from [civilization as the JMT] is impossible,” he says. “It was a true adventure based on survival. Each section is 20 hours: you see no one, and if something happens you have to help yourself. You have to carry everything in your bag. In Europe, you can walk for two hours with water and [reach the next house or town].”
D’Haene and his eight-member team spent a year outlining their plans for the FKT: travel dates, flights, the campervan rental, gear and nutrition.
Vinter and Family Man
D’Haene started running in grade school at age seven, and continued to run noncompetitively, because of the social aspect and how much fun he had with his friends. At 20 years old, he realized he wanted to explore the mountains more: skiing, ski mountaineering, alpine climbing, cycling and travel. “I really liked long distances, adventure and exploration,” he says. “Running is an easy way to travel, because you don’t need too much technique and you only need a pair of shoes to train.”
Five years ago, D’Haene and his wife acquired a vineyard from her family. They’d been brainstorming a business that they could start together and it was the perfect fit. “We like to work together in nature and with our hands. [Creating wine] is a really social business that we can share with people. It is a way of life,” he says. Their production has increased from 3,000 to 16,000 bottles this year, with distributions and special orders to China, the U.S. and Spain.
“We don’t want to grow the business fast,” he says. “We focus on making wine that is better and different.”
Now with the vineyard in full swing, and with two- and four-year-old daughters, D’Haene has a packed schedule. “I take a seat and speak with my wife and sponsor to look at the priorities: my family, children, vineyard responsibilities and dream races,” he says. “Then, I plan my training around those commitments.” Leading up to this year’s UTMB, for instance, he planned on devoting the majority of July and August to training.
Running a business means there’s not always time for an ideal recovery, though. The day after UTMB, he dove straight into harvest week: Five days of hosting and cooking for 50 people while everyone works in the vineyard and celebrates. The next week the kids went back to school, followed by a two-week countdown to his flight to the U.S. for the FKT attempt. He spent time packing and going for long walks, but no intense training.
“It was hard mentally, but ultimately good to not think about training or travel,” he says. “I think it was the best way to recover, so that I felt fresh at the beginning of the JMT.”
The team flew to the U.S. eight days before the attempt, went straight to the mountains to acclimate and ran a 50K distance to get a taste of the terrain.
The FKT—an organized effort
A degree of stress seems synonymous at the start of any grand adventure—Did we pack everything we need? Has the weather forecast changed? D’Haene’s pacers imagined all of the potential obstacles that they should be ready to manage: darkness, cold, altitude, bears, backpack weight (eight pounds or more each) and water access.
One of the biggest challenges, though, would be keeping up with D’Haene.
“During the attempt, the most difficult thing we had to deal with was the pace of François,” says pacer Alexis Traub. “He moved so quickly that it was hard to be at the meeting points on time.”
For the first 40 miles, D’Haene was joined by his brother, Pierre. Traub would join in during the daytime, and on a nontechnical section from John Muir Pass to Selden Pass (mile 83 to mile 131). Another friend, Felix Dejey, paced on the 27-mile section from Forester Pass to Glen Pass and 37 miles from Red Meadow to the finish.
Early on in the attempt, stress was high, as D’Haene thought he was off record pace. But, by mile 83, he was moving well and had a lead on the FKT.
“Everything was so complicated,” says Dejey. “The road access, pacers’ access, backpack weight (13 pounds for me) and the altitude. But as we went on day after day, the confidence increased that we would arrive with the record.”
Even if good health and spirits align, logistical misfires can delay forward progress. After D’Haene’s “first 10-hour section,” he continued past a meeting point when a pacer was not there on time. The pacer had to drive for 12 hours to reach the next possible intersection on the trail. D’Haene ended up waiting for two hours in the cold and dark. “We were very careful, but it was a lot of stress,” he says. “You always think the worst thing: maybe a bear ate him or another accident. There’s no phone service, it’s freezing cold and you’ve been running for 30 hours.”
Sleep came in short spurts: including a 40-minute nap somewhere between John Muir Pass and Selden Pass and 20 minutes at Island Pass.
“François is tough, has a huge capacity for this type of effort and he understands the training,’ says Dejey. “He doesn’t spend a lot of time on the track or the road. He understands and calculates his nutrition beforehand.”
Ultimately, the conditions and risks came together in the team’s favor. “There were not many difficulties on the trail: no snow, no bears, no big rocks and it was easy to run,” says Pierre. “Our principal objective as pacers was to feed François and hold his walking poles. Throughout the FKT, although my brother was tired, he was calm, determined and confident.”
He ultimately reached the finish in Yosemite Valley in 2 days 19 hours 26 minutes, shaving 12 hours off the previous record, set by Leor Pantilat, a full-time attorney and California native, in 2014.
“It was a phenomenal run, and I’m not surprised at all,” says Pantilat, who ran half of his JMT FKT solo. “He is one of the best ultrarunners in the world … [and] I think it’s fair to say that it was the best crewed JMT effort ever. It will be very difficult for the next person to try to set a new supported FKT. It will need to be a person with a lot of resources and sponsorship backing who can put together a tight a crew of people who can mule and move with the person. The [runner’s] sole focus needs to be to get the trail done.”
For D’Haene, the JMT was an amazing trail that he hopes others will be inspired to experience. “The John Muir Trail was what we were searching for: a very intense, emotional and long distance in the mountains,” he says. “We experienced sunrise and sunset every day with only friends. It was the top of the top. It was perfect.”
Colorado-based writer Morgan Tilton is a three-time Finalist and bronze medalist of two consecutive North American Travel Journalists Association Awards Competitions. Follow Morgan’s trails at @motilton and www.morgantilton.com.