François D’haene’s Supported John Muir Trail FKT Interview

In October 2017, François D’haene reset the supported fastest known time (FKT) for the 223-mile John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada at 2 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes, an improvement of more than 12 hours on the previous record and in a time that dips way below the three-day barrier. The previous supported FKT was set in 2014 by Leor Pantilat at 3 days, 7 hours, and 36 minutes. In this phone interview, conducted five days after his effort, François talks about why he set his sights on the John Muir Trail, how wild the route is, what new things he learned through this ultra-long effort, and if he thinks he’ll adventure in the U.S. again.

Francois D'haene - 2017 John Muir Trail FKT 1

François D’haene sets off from the Whitney Portal, the southern side of the John Muir Trail, on his record attempt. Photo: Droz Photo

iRunFar: Congratulations! How are you doing?

François D’haene: I’m fine, tired, but I’m fine. I’m really happy to have a run like that.

iRunFar: You had an incredible run on the John Muir Trail. Have you had some good nights of sleep since then?

D’haene: Yes, the first two nights were really complicated, but now it’s a bit better.

iRunFar: I want to ask you about how you learned of the John Muir Trail. How did you discover it for the first time and decide you wanted to do the trail?

D’haene: After the GR20 in Corsica, we decided to make something new with my friends, with the same team. We wanted to discover some new places, some new adventures, new ways, new limits of the body, and maybe something more long and intense—something new. Then I started reading some books, and I saw the John Muir Trail. The distance looked good, and everybody said it’s one of the best trails in the world. Then I emailed some people like you and Bryon [Powell] and other American runners and they all encouraged me. They said they thought it was a most beautiful trail and I should do it. Then we started to organize it. Step by step we got organized, and it was really, really nice.

iRunFar: It seems like you are pretty meticulous in the way you plan for your events. You do very structured training blocks. You organize details very thoroughly. What was it like trying to organize all the details for such a long trail so far from home?

D’haene: It was hard to organize something in the USA. It was hard to get permits. It was hard to know if we could do it or take pictures or some things like that. It was tough to organize the travel for all the people and to rent a camper van. Then when we arrived in San Francisco, we went directly to the mountains to try to see the John Muir Trail. It was unbelievable. We’d planned on a four-hour drive, but it was a 12-hour drive. There were no markers on the trail, it was a very small track, most of the trail was really wild with no one on the trail. But it’s what I like. I really like that. I think it was a little bit difficult for my friends. Then during all the week, we tried to organize some different parts because of Peter Bakwin from the FKT website, he sent us some emails to say we had to be careful of this part and this part and this part and this part because you can lose your way on these parts. So we tried to organize these different parts from this conversation. We tried to organize all the different access points and junctions for all the pacers. During all the recce, it was just, “Wow, it’s so beautiful!” I was a little bit tired, but when I saw the trail and how it was so beautiful—we were not sure how it could be so nice—we were all really motivated.

Francois D'haene - 2017 John Muir Trail FKT 2

François with his support team. Photo: Droz Photo

iRunFar: When you got to California and you spent that week organizing and seeing the trail—not a lot of markings, no signs at some trail junctions, so remote, not a lot of people—did that make you nervous or excited or both?

D’haene: I was really happy to see it was really wild and not a lot of people because when they say there’s permits and maybe you won’t have it and maybe there will be too many people, I was afraid it wasn’t really wild and very used. But when we arrived, wow, it was true. It was really natural and it was really wild. Finally, it was incredible to be able to run more than 200 miles and never cross a road. You just see one time a forest road. It’s incredible. You are always on a singletrack for more than 300k. It’s crazy.

iRunFar: When you are on the John Muir Trail, you spend a lot of time in what America designates as a “wilderness,” which is our highest level of protection for land. When I talk to Europeans who come over and run through our wildernesses, they’re always very surprised how truly wild it is. When you get back to France and people ask you, how will you describe the difference between American wildernesses and places in Europe?

D’haene: For me in my mind, I already know that. I try to convince people that the U.S. is not like what it seems because people think it’s big cities and that everything is very connected. They don’t think about the wild space. The first thing they think about the U.S. is not about wild space, but for me it’s not like that. For sure I will explain to them how wild it is. The [European] Alps are really beautiful; they are very big. If you go into the Alps, it’s very long. You can never imagine the atmosphere when we are on the summit of each peak and on the John Muir Trail. You can see no lights, no cities, and no people. In France, even if you are on the top of Mont Blanc, if you turn your head, you can see some cities and some lights. On the John Muir Trail, it’s totally wild. If you break your ankle, you have to walk 50k to touch the road, but there’s nobody at the road. You have to be careful. I think it’s a real adventure. And everywhere in the U.S. is the same, I’m sure, because we went in the camper van and I say, “Okay tomorrow, we go to a big campground and there will be showers.” And then we arrive in Red’s Meadow and there’s nothing. “Okay tomorrow we will arrive in Tuolumne Meadows and we will have a restaurant and a coffee.” And there is nothing! Each day was the same, but that’s what was really great. Yes, it’s good to know there is some big landscape where there is nothing.

Francois D'haene - 2017 John Muir Trail FKT 3

Taking a break the first night. Photo: Droz Photo

iRunFar: That’s funny. “Tomorrow we will have a shower and a coffee.” “Nope, not tomorrow either.” I want to ask you about your logistics of being on the trail. In following your tracking beacon, it looked like all throughout your time you were just steadily chipping away at the previous FKT. It didn’t look like any particular section you were going too much faster or too much slower. The trail itself has lots of different characteristics—very high terrain, very rocky terrain, some meadows down low or valleys you can run through. Did you feel pretty steady the whole time?

D’haene: Yeah, it was really like you say, it was really different, because sometimes it was really rocky and really technical, sometimes it was even icy and snowy, and sometimes it was just meadow and you could run fast. This is what I think I like with trail running because it’s never the same. It was really different from the first part to the last part on the John Muir Trail. Sometimes it was steep and sometimes it was not as steep. It was really different on the passes. I try to keep the same effort for all the trail. Sometimes when it’s rocky you go slowly, and sometimes it’s easy to run and you go faster. I tried to manage my effort and to give the same pace all the way.

iRunFar: One of the challenges of doing something that’s so much longer than a 100-mile race that you have a lot of familiarity with is figuring out the pace you can maintain the whole way, figuring out how to rest and when to rest. This distance was a new experience for you. How did you plan those things, or did it come more organically as you were feeling it out there?

D’haene: I really wanted to discover something new with me and with the others. The first day it was hard to find the pace. I tried to go slowly. I said, “Okay, I have three days, not just one day.” I had programmed some rest places to sleep or to eat or to sit down, and I didn’t know how I would feel after that because I’ve never stopped for one hour or two hours or three hours. I was wondering what could be the benefits of stopping. Then after 10 hours, near Onion [Valley,] near Kearsage [Pass,] somewhere like that, my friends met me with some hot soup and some sandwiches, and I sat for 45 minutes. When I arrived, I was a little bit destroyed in my feet and some things. I changed my clothes, I slept 10 minutes, I ate, and when I started again, I felt like new. I thought that maybe I could have a normal UTMB pace—like not a faster ultra but a slow ultra. I was walking every ascent and taking time. I really wanted to be able to run until the last meters on the flats and the descents if it’s possible because I know there are long, long, long flats and long descents. My main goal was to be able to run until the end on these spots. I just kept that in mind. When I could stop, I’d stop and sleep 20 minutes, 10 minutes, or sometimes one or two minutes. It was really interesting to know I would be refreshed.

iRunFar: You took one longer break, I think I saw on your social media, after two days at Red’s Meadow. You took your longest break, right?

D’haene: Yes, I think it was the most difficult part for me because I’d had a very long and hard night arriving in Red’s Meadow, and I still had 100k to go. But it was nice because Tim Tollefson, he came there, all my friends were there. I ate some eggs and bacon, I sat one hour and a half, and I said, “Okay, you have all the day to go to Tuolumne Meadows, and then we will finish all together.” I said, “It’s like a long walk. You can touch it.” It was I think the worst time for the mental side. It was really hard to know that it’s still 100k to go.

Francois D'haene - 2017 John Muir Trail FKT 4

Putting in the miles. Photo: Droz Photo

iRunFar: Converting from running UTMB just a little over a month before doing this, I think many people would not be able to recover as fast as you did. Do you have any thoughts on your recovery from UTMB?

D’haene: I think what was good is because after UTMB, three days after, I was already at harvest in my winery, and we were 50 people at home. You have to take care of them, make food for them, you have to do really hard work. With the grapes, it was hard too. During 10 days, I was not able to think about trail running. It was totally out of thought. Even after UTMB, I made a party and spoke about it sometimes, but I was really focused on the winery. I don’t think I thought about trail running. When I got back to thinking about trail running, it was, Oh, yeah, cool. Maybe I’d like to put my vest on again and something like that. I’m sure if I had not this winery, my recovery wouldn’t be the same because 10 days after UTMB you don’t want to wear the vest again. Because I was doing something very different and something else, I think my recovery was good. Then because of this project being totally different than an ultra, it was really a collective and creative thing, I was really motivated about this project.

iRunFar: The experience of being out on the John Muir Trail for the time you were, you must have something you’re going to remember for a long time—an encounter with wildlife or the night or something. Can you share a story?

D’haene: I think it’s been something for me that I picked a project that is so big and with so many friends so far from my house. For sure I’ll remember it for such a long time. Yeah, it’s really nice because it’s nice memories for sure, but it’s opened for me some perspective, because I understand if you rest for two or three hours then the body can go again and maybe you can go for a long time. It’s incredible to see I can run 350k. Ten years ago I never would have imagined. It’s opened some perspective because now it’s not one week after and even three days after, I can walk like normal. I’m really tired, but I have no big pain and no injury. It’s so cool to have this understanding.

iRunFar: The world becomes even bigger?

D’haene: Yeah.

Francois D'haene - 2017 John Muir Trail FKT 5

François and his support team arriving to the northern end of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite Valley in record time. Photo: Droz Photo

iRunFar: You’ve been away from home for about two weeks, and you’re just about to jump on a plane to go to your family. You must be excited.

D’haene: Now, my wife is coming with my children to the U.S. I join them in San Francisco, and we stay in the U.S. until the fourth of November.

iRunFar: Now you’ll have a family vacation?

D’haene: We will make a road trip. We will drop the camper van in Las Vegas on the fourth of November. Yeah, I think the children were really sad without me. We will have two days in San Francisco. I think it will be perfect, and I will really enjoy this holiday.

iRunFar: That sounds fantastic. My last question for you, have you looked at some of your dreams or made any plans for 2018?

D’haene: Some new dreams? I don’t know yet. Yesterday I was in Boulder, Colorado and it was funny because there were many, many athletes there like Scott Jurek and Anton [Krupicka] and Joe Grant and yesterday afternoon we made a beer mile. It was really funny.

iRunFar: You did a beer mile?

D’haene: It was so nice. Yeah, we spoke a lot about what are the possibilities in the U.S. They say it’s just infinity. I really liked how it was wild here. For sure I will try to find a new project in the U.S. For sure my friends will be happy about that because it was an incredible week for us. I don’t know when, but I’m sure we will plan something here.

iRunFar: Very cool. I love that you did a beer mile.

D’haene: It was an ascent beer mile at Joe Grant’s place with 200 meters elevation gain. It was really nice. There were 25 participants, so it was really, really nice.

iRunFar: Fantastic. Thanks for your time this morning. I appreciate it.

D’haene: You’re welcome.

Francois D'haene - 2017 John Muir Trail FKT 6

At the completion of his journey in Yosemite Valley, François touches pavement. Photo: Droz Photo

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 30 comments

  1. John Vanderpot

    Congratulations to you — from the JMT FKT to the Beer Mile in one visit, talk about living the (American) dream!

    We have this thing called the AT, and the PCT, you can ask your friends about it?

    JV

  2. Max

    That would be pretty exciting if he were to compete in a major ultra in the US next season. Already seeing Caroline Chaverot finish first woman at Hardrock this year was awesome, and a good sign that Europeans could do great things around here (not that anyone had a doubt). And only natural now that Americans have become more prominent themselves in Europe races.

    1. Andrew S.

      Francois has done Western States. If I’m remembering correctly, he struggled to keep pace with Krar after Foresthill. The United States’ most competitive 100 (Western) does not seem particularly suited to the amazing Euro runners.

      1. Max

        Oh you’re right, I didn’t know he participated. Twice actually. It seems like in the one you mention (2015) he had serious issues after 100k and fell behind. That said he still finished 14th overall.

        Both years he participated (2015, 2016) there were 2-3 Europeans in the top 5, so I don’t really agree with your last sentence, if you mean that they wouldn’t perform well. It’s just that they did not participate much this past year or before 2015. I suppose part of that is due to having enough races in Europe for European runners to pick from: D’Haene actually won four ultras this season (including UTMB), all in Europe. In that sense yes, US races are not “suited” to Euro runners because the logistic becomes more complex.

      2. John Vanderpot

        What is this, Mr. Trump’s America comes to iRF day or something? It seems to me that Kilian guy’s done pretty well around here, as have many others, and as those of us who were standing there that day may recall, by FH no one could keep pace with Mr. Krar, the guy rolled through on fresh legs, didn’t even stop to re-fill his water bottles…

        JV

        1. Andrew S.

          Wow – I didn’t intend for that to come across in the way that was taken, and the political shot upset me to say the least. All I meant is that most of the Euros thrive on more technical courses with more climbing. Obviously they are still superb runners, and have done well in the States. However, it’s not the same level of domination we’ve seen from the Euros at a race like UTMB.

  3. Iain

    The idea of human competition, and human boastfulness, especially with highly capitalistic motivations (one need only check the Salomon Facebook page for proof that this was only a little more than an enormous advertisement), is completely against the idea of wilderness and mars the notion of an area truly free from human influence. These ideas may be difficult for Francois to grasp, as he comes from a country with no real wilderness, but it’s incredibly disrespectful to those of us who appreciate these places for what they are meant to be. It is unfortunate that the Yosemite officials didn’t know, or didn’t decide to cite Francois, but I suspect there are many who feel the same way as I do. If you want to go run 200 miles, or set a record, and/or take pictures of yourself to use in shoe advertisements, feel free, there are many places in the world you can do this without disturbing others, but keep it out of our wild places.

    1. Vincent

      “These ideas may be difficult for Francois to grasp, as he comes from a country with no real wilderness”
      ??? you don’t seen to know much about the French Alps, Pyrenees and the rest of Europe. Coming from Europe, I can tell you that what motivates us to come here is the idea of seeing these landscapes and enjoy the moments in nature. Yes Salomon pays the bills, but so what? How does that change anything about the motivation of these runners. If you had talked to any of these folks, this would be more apparent to you.

    2. Rory

      I agree. This is why, when I visit wild places, I do so naked, as God intended. That way no one can mistake my sartorial choices as any form of capitalist endorsement. I also make sure to avoid passing water or wind, or setting foot on the ground at any point, to ensure that my human influence on the area is minimal. Instead, I float serenely on a cloud of self-importance.

      How sad that only you and I understand the sanctity of the wilderness. Perhaps the only answer is to bar entry to the ignorant, and the French. Or, at the very least, prevent them from disturbing our sensibilities by banning them from posting about their visits on social media. After all, if a run is not recorded for posterity on Facebook/Strava, did it really happen?

  4. John Vanderpot

    I’m sorry, Iain, but it’s not clear to me, which are you suggesting he did?

    I get up there every summer, sometimes more than once, and while I don’t do social media, etc., based on the pics above I can’t see any difference between him and anyone else with the obvious exception that they’re in better shape and, of course, made better time…

    JV

  5. JB

    Thankfully, my interpretation of the statute is the same as the Park Service which differs from your opinion. The Park Service has a long history of recognizing that the intent of that statute doesn’t preclude activities such as endurance / first ascents / speed attempts, etc. — none of which are sanctioned events but rather personal efforts. But you are entitled to your opinion even though it differs from the Park Service – just don’t expect them to be enforcing your own personal interpretation anytime soon.

    1. Iain

      Great Smoky National Park doesn’t contain any designated wilderness, so your example of the SCAR event is irrelevant. I wouldn’t assume the NPS’s silence is an endorsement of this activity. It’s much more likely that they did not know about this event. I am not suggesting that endurance runs or first ascents are illegal, but that this event, which was quite clearly organized and endorsed by Salomon for the purpose of selling shoes, is an abuse of wilderness.

      I have visited this places every summer, and spring, and fall, and winter. I have no objection to someone running on the trail. My objection is to blatantly corporate-funded competition in a wilderness area, which I am claiming is illegal and should not be tolerated.

        1. JKL

          It’s not about the shoes. If you read the interview, he never tries to sell the shoes. Even moreso, he was actually wearing a pair of shoes that are not available for purchase. I wonder what John Muir would think – is his name being used to promote wilderness in the USA?

    2. JB

      You can claim it’s illegal, but my own decades of experience in the Sierra wilderness, climbing, hang gliding and backpacking — seeking records and watch other seek records (with personal sponsorship and full knowledge of the Park Service) says you’re claim is irrelevant. Good luck with any endeavor to get your claim enforced.

      1. Iain

        Then why was Scott Jurek cited after his Appalachian Trail tomfoolery? Why do trail races in Tahoe avoid the wilderness areas? Don’t equate lack of enforcement/awareness for these smaller activities with endorsement. I don’t seek to have my claim enforced, but rather to make it clear that not everyone appreciates corporate bastardization of our wild places like this. Hopefully Francois (and any other FKTers) will stick to the frontcountry. Keep the wilderness wild! Don’t buy Salomon!

        1. Sean

          Scott was cited because he didn’t follow a Baxter State Park rule. Note, that is a state park, which differs from a national park and national wilderness area.

          Western States Endurance Run is in the Tahoe area and it does not avoid the Granite Chief Wilderness Area; in fact, an act of congress is what allows WS to go through said wilderness area.

          Any more?

          1. Iain

            I fail to see the difference between breaking similar rules in a state park versus in a national park / wilderness area. I’m sorry, I was mistaken about western states. The fact that it required an act of congress to grant an exception for this race seems in line with everything I’ve argued thus far. This is just an exception, not the norm.

            1. Sean

              National parks and wilderness areas don’t have rules that state you can’t drink alcohol in them; Baxter State Park follows Maine state law that “prohibits the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places”. That was the rule that Scott broke.

              While an exception to the norm, Western States isn’t the only trail race that is allowed in a wilderness area.

            2. JB

              // “I fail to see the difference between breaking similar rules in a state park versus in a national park / wilderness area.” //

              Really? Just a bit ago you were denying my comparison of the SCAR with the JMT based on designations and now when it’s reversed and someone tells you Scott’s situation wasn’t a wilderness area you fall to see the difference?

  6. JB

    These JMT FKT attempts are just a west coast version of the SCAR (Smoky Challenge Adventure Run) where the GSMNP takes the same position … have fun. This is not an isolated policy interpretation, this is SOP.

  7. Xavier

    The only negative outtake I can think of from all of this is that he and his family are deciding to go to Las Vegas, of all places.

    1. AC

      I completely agree. Seems a shame these comments have descended into negativity. The Salomon brand didn’t even pop into my head until I started reading the comments above. Maybe I’ll go buy a pair to see what the fuss is about.

      Top notch effort Francois. You’re a massive inspiration to many.

  8. Andrew S.

    I know he can’t win Ultrarunner of the Year, but can anyone chime in if he can win FKT of the Year? It likely wouldn’t be voted above the AT FKT even if he can, but surely would be a contender. Francois won me over as a fan as a completely gracious and classy winner at UTMB.

  9. Chad

    No disrespect to Francois, I am amazed at his abilities and he is a true champion. However, his supported FKT does not remotely compare to that of the unsupported AT FKT by Joe McConaughy. To beat out heavily sponsored runners who were fully supported like Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek is truely an amazing feat of both preparation, physical ability, and mental fortitude. I get what Iain is saying in earlier posts here. These sponsored, fully supported FKTs are essential making a personal supported race course out of a wilderness area. I’m hoping in the future the ultra running community will only recognize unsupported FKTs, especially in designated wilderness areas regardless of what type. In more established outdoor pursuits like alpine climbing, it used to be considered impressive to climb Everest with giant teams of porters and fixed ropes. Now no one in the alpine climbing community cares about a millionaire who buys his way to the top of a mountain. It’s the bold climber who is self sufficient, light, fast, and takes some risk that is recognized. Hopefully ultra running will follow this ethic sometime.

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