François D’haene returns to the 2018 Western States 100, his third attempt at the race. In this interview, a part of the iRunFar Live at Western States show, François talks about his two previous tries at Western States, how this course doesn’t favor him but how he thinks he does have a shot at a good race here, and why he keeps returning to American races and trail running.
François D’haene Pre-2018 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar – Meghan Hicks: We’re at the Coffeebar in Olympic Valley. This is iRunFar Live before Western States. It’s happy hour, Thursday. It’s about 36 hours before the start of the 2018 race. We’re here with France’s François D’haene. How’s it going?
François D’haene: Fine, I’m happy to be here. Hello everybody [waves to the live audience].
iRunFar – Dylan Bowman: So, François, you’re basically a man who needs no introduction, even here in the U.S. You’re one of the great champions of our sport. It’s an honor to have you in the U.S. and running Western States again. You have a short history with this race–in 2015 you had a somewhat-difficult 14th-place finish. Then in 2016 you had a foot injury, if I’m not mistaken, that kept you from even starting the race, even though you traveled all the way out here. Thinking about your career in the last two or three years, those are some of the only blips on your résumé, some of the only races that you haven’t won. What have you learned from your performance in 2015 and your disappointment in 2016 that you think will help you be successful this weekend?
D’haene: This year will be my third time and I’ve learned a lot. But I learn on each trail and every year and every day. I think I was a bit unlucky [in the past at this race]. There are more factors than lucky things and unlucky things, I have always the same season each year. I was a little bit tired at the end of June, so that’s why I think, if you jump on a rock and break a bone, it’s not lucky or unlucky, it’s not your fault. But maybe if you’re more tired.
In 2015 it was really good. I was lucky to run with Rob Krar until Foresthill. It was really impressive. [To Bowman] And you were there in the race. It was incredible. I was really happy to have this experience with him, but then I had a big stomach problem. I discovered it [got it diagnosed] one month later. So maybe that’s it, maybe that’s why [I struggled in 2015]. But I don’t know.
This year, I will try to change it a little bit. I didn’t plan some big race in April. I chose to do some easier races in order to plan to prepare a little bit differently. In May I took two or three weeks of rest and then I go back to running and building up. Normally, my preparation is a little different. Now, for this race, it’s very different from our ultramarathons [in Europe]. The terrain is not the same, and the temperature is really not the same. I don’t know if I’ll be too warm, or if I can make a good race here, but I try to have all the chips with me, in my corner. I’ll try it, and we will see. I hope it will be okay.
If it’s not okay, I have a lot of pleasure in my profession. I’m excited to be here and it will be a nice adventure. We all do this sport to have adventures – sometimes it works out, sometimes it won’t. I’m just happy to try.
iRunFar – Hicks: Because this race is so different from ultramarathons in Europe with the heat and the Western States course being much more runnable, how have you adapted your training and your preparations specifically for Western States this year?
D’haene: I tried to run in heat, but it was hard to run in heat because it was not warm at all this June. I couldn’t train a lot in warm temperatures. I was in Corsica for a little bit, where it was a bit more warm. I tried to do maybe 10 or 20 sauna sessions since April. For me it was hard because I’m not used to that. At the beginning it was just 10 or 20 minutes, but by the end it was 30 to 45 minutes. I think something has happened a little bit in my body [to acclimate to heat] so maybe it can be better in the warm weather on Saturday.
For the training, at the beginning I said, “I have to train more on flats, I have to train how fast I can run on flat terrain.” But I don’t like it. I think a lot about that, and I think that with the way I train, the ascents will be better for me. You have some weaknesses and some faculties, and I will try to use my faculties. I tried to get a bit better on the flats but I didn’t schedule it into my training because even if I could find something flat, I needed long races.
iRunFar – Bowman: That’s interesting. I think a lot of people think about you, obviously, as a world-class mountain ultrarunner who excels at races like the UTMB. People forget that you actually have done well on faster courses, like finishing second at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. That’s one of the most competitive races in the U.S. every year, on very fast terrain. Do you feel disadvantaged on this course compared to guys like Jim Walmsley or Tim Freriks who live and train in Flagstaff, Arizona, with more flat terrain and hotter temperatures? Or do you think you have the capability to run as well here as you do in the mountains?
D’haene: I think I have the capacity to run here like I did at UTMB because we mustn’t forget that it’s an ultramarathon. An ultra is very long and you have to deal with that and many things. Finally, I’m not sure I can run 30 minutes for 10k. I can’t, actually. But I’m sure it’s not necessary for this race. What is hard for me is that with this race, you have to run, run, run and run again. In Europe, you have to run pretty fast, and then walk, then run, then walk. I think I’m better when you have to change everything in your form and method [for the terrain, with climbs and descents]. This is what is maybe hard for other runners, but this is what I really like–races where I can ascend, descend, climb [gestures scrambling with his hands]. Here, where I’ll have to run and run and run, this could be hard. The race pace is not hard, it’s like 14k per hour. It’s not easy, but I can do it. The problem is sometimes doing five hours of running without stopping for a walking break. I think this is more hard than how fast the pace is.
iRunFar – Hicks: I want to ask you about your relationship with the United States. You’ve come here to run so many times now. You’ve come to Western States now three times. You’ve come for TNF 50 Mile. You’ve come to run the John Muir Trail and have a vacation around the U.S. What’s the deal with you and trail running here?
D’haene: It’s a big country, so you have many, many things to discover. I have visited the western part mainly, so I’d really like to discover the North part. There are some nice mountains in Colorado and I’ve only been there one time. They were amazing, and I’d really like to come to Colorado. It’s a very, very important trail. I really liked it. I remember there’s just blue sky with this kind of mountain. Even when you take the highway, everything is bigger. It’s so nice. The trees are different, the roads are different. I really liked it. I really loved the John Muir Trail. [To Hicks] I spoke with you two days after [I set the Fastest Known Time] and it was just like a dream. I really, really enjoy it. I like the Alps but they’re different. There’s more ice. Running here is less stressful. [To Bowman] You know the week before UTMB, the atmosphere in Chamonix–it’s totally different. Here, you are two days before Western States and you can walk here, you can go into restaurants easily. For UTMB, I can’t do that.
iRunFar – Bowman: On the subject of UTMB and the John Muir Trail, you’re the 2017 champion of UTMB. It was one of the most incredible performances I think we’ve seen in a generation. And then doing the John Muir Trail six weeks after what, I’m sure, was an incredibly difficult 170k around Mont Blanc. How did your body and mind respond to those two huge efforts back to back? Did you have to take a lot of downtime after the John Muir Trail?
D’haene: I think this is why it’s really important to keep my normal job, and my family, and a normal social life. After UTMB, it’s different each year but last year I had to be in interviews for thirty hours after UTMB. I was very busy with those, I have a full week of them and could not sleep a lot. I was really tired after that, even more than UTMB. So I can’t think about running for that week. So after UTMB, if you are the athlete type, you have interviews, you have to think about that. For me, thinking about running was impossible during that time. It’s probably not good for the body, but for the mind, it totally took me out of the training mindset.
Then, 10 days after UTMB, I was ready again. I wanted to be out in nature and running again. So, if I had been planning for the John Muir Trail before UTMB, I don’t think I would have been focused for UTMB. After October it is sometimes really cold, so I spoke a lot with you [to Hicks] about that. Your advice was that maybe the weather would be okay, maybe not. Finally, there was a period of two weeks where they sky was like that [clear].
iRunFar – Hicks: The only problem was the long nights and short days.
D’haene: Yeah, during the night it was really cold, but at least there was no one on the trail. It was really nice.
iRunFar – Bowman: You were able to spend time after UTMB with your family.
D’haene: And then we came here with seven friends, and it was like, “Okay, even if I am not here to beat the record, I am just going to have maybe one of the biggest adventures of my life with my friends.” So I started. I said to myself, “if I do three days, I do three days. If I do five days, I do five days.” When you start with these feelings, for sure, your body answers very well.
iRunFar – Bowman: François, thank you so much for coming. It’s great to have you here, racing in the U.S.
D’haene: It was nice to have a champion interviewee, yes? [laughs]
iRunFar – Bowman: Oh, stop it. But yeah, best of luck this weekend and enjoy a nice, long adventure here.
D’haene: Yeah, I’m really excited to run with Jim Walmsley and some of the others. It will be really nice to see them again, those athletes. When you pass through Foresthill, you see how many people are there. There are more members of the public than runners. It’s incredible about this race, there’s something special about it. I’m really happy to be here to enjoy it.
iRunFar – Hicks: Let’s have our live audience give François a round of applause. [Audience applauds off-screen]