François D’haene won the 2016 Diagonale des Fous in dominating fashion for his third win at the event in its past four runnings. In the following interview, François talks about what was difficult for him, how the field whittled itself down, and what it’s like balancing the wilderness of the race with the external demands of the fans and media during Diagonale des Fous.
For more on the race, check out our 2016 Diagonale des Fous results article.
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François D’haene, 2016 Diagonale Des Fous Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m at the finish line of the 2016 Diagonale des Fous. I’m with men’s champion, now three-time champion, François D’haene.
François D’haene: Hello.
iRunFar: Hi, you are sick right now though?
D’haene: It was hard for me yesterday, but I’m really happy. It was an adventure.
iRunFar: Do you think that you’re sick because of how hard you pushed yourself on Thursday and Friday or because of something else?
D’haene: I think yesterday I ate something wrong. I think because I’m very tired, my stomach was not able to handle it. This morning and last night it was just horrible for me. Yeah, I haven’t been able to eat, and now my body needs to recover and rest.
iRunFar: You’re a three-time champion at this race. You have a lot of experience at Diagonale des Fous. How does this year’s race compare to your previous experiences here?
D’haene: It was just incredible and perfect until Maïdo. It was a big ascent at lunch time in the sun. Yeah, I was feeling really good until there because I don’t want to push too much. I have a lot of time until the next runner. It was okay. My quadriceps were getting stronger and stronger and stronger. Yes, it was like a piece of wood at the summit. I was really stressed at the summit. The first descent is 2,000 meters of descent, which is a lot. I was okay. After that it was just impossible on the descent again. I think I finished my muscles on the descent. There were two or three more big descents, two big and one small, and, well…
iRunFar: It was the downhill that hurt you more after that point?
iRunFar: Were you still okay on the ascending?
D’haene: Yeah, it was really frustrating for me because the ascents were okay. I still win some time on the ups. But on the descents, even on the road, I was just able to walk. No, it’s possible, I must go, go, go. I have more than one hour in front. Okay, you can push and try. The last descent has a lot of rocks and scree. I had to use my arms. It was very hard to finish.
iRunFar: I want to rewind a little bit and talk with you about the early part of the race. You were with some other runners for the first 30k or so? Was that how it went? Early in the race, the first 30k, you were sharing the trails with some other runners off and on? How was the night time running?
D’haene: Yes. You see, this race is interesting in particular because we start at 10 p.m. There are a lot of people sharing and everything. We start fast, but we were maybe 20 runners or 10 runners. After some time there were about five runners. Then we go again together. Then a Réunion Islander, Freddy Thévenin, I know him very well. He went alone the course, so I follow him. Then we are just two. Then after three or four hours, he started to go more slowly. Okay, I don’t want to wait. I’ll just keep my pace going and see what happens. I didn’t want to push because it’s long, but we will see. Then the time got more and more between me and the other runners. So I say, Keep going at your own speed, and try to concentrate on your own feelings and not the other runners. So I tried to do that to the finish.
iRunFar: Can you talk a little bit about running in the Cirque de Mafate? It was everything in there. There were some clouds, there was a lot of heat at times, and there was even a little mist. Then of course, there was a very technical trail. Every time we saw you, you looked really well. You looked good in Mafate.
D’haene: Yeah, I really like this place because it’s always totally different between the start. In Piton Textor it was just 3 degrees [Celsius] and a lot of herbs and mud. Then we run in Mafate and it’s a lot of sand and heat. Then you are in the forest like a jungle. You cannot go really fast because it’s technical and it’s really amazing how everything is changing from the conditions to the landscape. Yeah, I really enjoy that. You arrive in Cilaos on a 1,000-meter descent and you see the small city of Cilaos. Then you climb again…
iRunFar: It’s like this harbor in the rocks, isn’t it?
D’haene: Yes, then you go up to Taïbit a little bit and it’s totally different. You arrive in Mafate, and then you pass Maïdo, and then it’s more hard.
iRunFar: When I saw you at 97k just before Grand Place, you were sort of just dancing along the trail. You said, “I feel good, but it’s a long way still.” For me, looking back at your race, that almost felt like a premonition because 25k later, you did start having difficulties. It was clear by the way you were moving that you were really having to focus. Did you feel that coming, or at that time at 97k, you didn’t know it would happen at all?
D’haene: No, I was okay. I was tired, sure, it’s a long way, but no, I felt okay. But just in those ascents—the ascents were nearly two or two hours and a half—at the beginning, it was really, really warm. Yeah, I ate and drink, but 2,000 meters of elevation gain… yeah, it’s the first time that I have this kind of pain.
iRunFar: I want to ask you a question about the culture of the race because it’s so wild. There are so many fans who adore you and chase you, pat you on the back, come up to you and talk to you. But ultrarunning is a very internal sport. In order to have success, you have to constantly be inward focused. What’s it like at a race that demands so much external. You have TV reporters always asking you how you’re feeling in the middle of the race. You have cameras so close to you. Does that dynamic come into play in terms of racing here having to externalize yourself so much?
D’haene: Yes, but like you say, it’s very strange because one part is really wild and one part… yeah, you really need to adapt and be careful. It’s really easy to lose your concentration because a lot of people with cameras and helicopters and everything. Yeah, if you’re not concentrating on your own race and your body efforts, yeah, you could miss your drinks or miss your food and just be focused… Sometimes when you think everything is perfect and so good, after, it’s the biggest descent.
iRunFar: Right after…
D’haene: That’s why with experience and everything it’s better. Yeah, you really need to be careful. Then at the end you must take what is good for you and put out what is not good for you. I remember at the last aid station, Grand Chaloupe, there were maybe more than 200 people following me. They said, “Come on!” I was on a seat like that, I just wanted to sit for five minutes because I hadn’t stopped since the beginning. It was hard, and the night was coming. Saint-Denis is still four hours away. They say, “Come on, François!” For me, I couldn’t sit down. I say, “Okay, I must go for them and go for my assistants.” Sometimes the helicopters and the media… but I think it’s the game for this race. I try to go as best as I can.
iRunFar: Like you say, it is part of what the Diagonale des Fous is.
D’haene: Yes, it’s fair. It’s really particular. I speak a lot with the American people and even with Bryon and say, “You should come and cover it because it’s amazing to see one time.” I’m really happy you are here today. I speak a lot to some international runners, and I think for a trail runner, it’s really important to take part in this race once in your life because it’s just amazing to be here.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you on your third win. I know you have a couple days of vacation with your family, so I hope you can feel better to enjoy it.
D’haene: Thank you very much.