François D’haene, 2021 UTMB Champion, Interview

In 2021, François D’haene won UTMB for the fourth time. In the following interview, François talks about what it was like running with Jim Walmsley and, later, ahead of Aurélien Dunand-Pallaz in the race, how his Hardrock 100/UTMB double victories compare with his UTMB/Diagonale des Fous double victories from 2014, whether he thinks about what he’s accomplished over his running career, and what sort of adventures you may see him taking part in in the future.

For more on what happened during the race, check out our UTMB results article for the play-by-play and links to other post-race interviews.

François D’haene, 2021 UTMB Champion, Interview Transcript

iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with François D’haene after his win at the 2021 UTMB. How are you François?

François D’haene: Yeah very good, a bit sore today but I think it’s normal.

iRunFar: Yeah, I see you walking down the stairs and you are actually a bit sore. It’s nice to know you are human, a little bit.

D’haene: I feel very human this morning.

iRunFar: This is your fourth win at UTMB, how does this compare to the others?

D’haene: Fine, I am not really on the number, but yesterday, I have very nice feelings, I take a lot of pleasure and I push it all the race from the progression to the start line to the race. It was hard for my legs but mentally all the energy and the vitals, was very great.

iRunFar: And your energy was good, with Hardrock being so close still?

D’haene: Yeah, I think my mind, it was hard but I figure because I choose that challenge, a few months, even years ago. So I was ready for that, yeah.

iRunFar: Yeah. So the first half of the race, or through Courmayeur, you are running with Jim [Walmsley]. How was that section?

D’haene: We were hoping running a bit longer together. But at least we did a very nice night together, I think we take the lot of pleasure, we joke a lot, we discuss a lot. It was very nice, I think we made a great job because we can make some gap on the other runners. I think both we feel our legs, like sore earlier than 2017 and we were, whoa, whoa, what’s up, it will be a long night. And then I don’t meet Jim since yesterday but I think he have some stomach problems, I can imagine. I’m a bit disappointed because I know that he really want to finish that race well. At least finish. So I think he will be pretty disappointed and for me, it’s a shame because I like him and I really hope to run more with him.

iRunFar: Yeah. Was Courmayeur the last place that you were together?

D’haene: Yeah, we meet each other in Centre Bertone but yeah, he don’t feel very good.

iRunFar: Yeah, after that you are running alone but for much of the race, Aurelien [Dunand-Pallaz] and for some time Germain [Grangier] were 10 or 15 minutes behind you, did you know that, did you feel that pressure?

D’haene: Yeah, I stopped a bit in Bertone and I saw that Jim was not coming so I say, oh shit, I have to continue but I know that those are not so far so I ask for lots of thing in my head, should I wait or not, my feelings is not very good so I decide, okay I can keep going slowly. So I take it really easy to Arnouvaz, and then when I arrive in Arnouvaz, I said, yeah I will try and go Col Ferret, it looks like I feel a bit better and then the ascent I try to not push but I think I managed to have two or three more minutes on them. So I said okay, I don’t think I feel very good but I’m not so bad. So I have to try and keep going and try to manage the descent not so bad. I was just thinking at me, so finish as good as you can and no matter the position, and then I arrive in Champex and I can start to think, okay, finally I’m sitting first so maybe I can try to make something and then I go back in race mode after Champex.

IRunFar: Yeah? What was that, did you feel, was there pressure? Were you worried or, did you feel in control like I’m in the lead, I have 10 or 15 minutes, I just need to execute?

D’haene: I think it was less pressure than in Hardrock, you know DBo was really close to me and we keep the same, in ascent and descent so I think we were more close. Here, I don’t feel very good in descent and in the ascent I know I can push a little bit more so I have less pressure but for the legs it was very stressful.

iRunFar: It was amazing, often I just see you at the checkpoints, which are more flat or you’re more with your crew. It was fun seeing you on the live trail, just on the last climb with your poles, your whole body, did it feel that way?

D’haene: I think I use my poles more than ever. Now I have to adapt in my legs don’t really want to push, I have to preserve them for the distance, I say, okay push on your poles. It’s funny, I say oh. My shoulder are bit sore, too.

iRunFar: Maybe you need to spend more time in the gym?

D’haene: No but, you can see that your body can adapt, I said, okay my legs are sore but most of my problem, no arm problem, nothing in my mind so, okay keep it and go, go, go.

iRunFar: I mean I think some trail runners who don’t use poles all the time would worry about relying on them so much, that you also do ski mountaineering?

D’haene: If you know how to use poles, I recommend to use poles. If you don’t know how to use poles, I think it could be no, nightmare because it’s taking a lot of energy and something, so it’s not good.

iRunFar: Did you have any points during the race that were really a challenge or a low point mentally or physically?

D’haene: It’s not a low point because I was just there to enjoy it. But I was thinking, yes between Courmayeur to La Fouly, I ask a lot of questions. What I should do, how can I adapt and what’s happened just now? It’s only 100k and I feel already destroyed.

iRunFar: In 2014, you ran, you won UTMB and Grand Raid La Reunion, and now you have even more closely Hardrock and UTMB.

D’haene: I think it’s more close.

iRunFar: How do those two compare, those doubles?

D’haene: I think we can compromise, both are hard, it’s a big challenge but this is what I like in my sport. I already made classic preparation for UTMB, I really want to change, I really want to discover Hardrock and I was not disappointed about that. I was very happy to be there and run and meet all the people here. So now for me, it’s a very good challenge but I explain to people, it’s just one challenge, just one time in a year. It’s not like every month I made a new try.

iRunFar: There was a very specific thing, Hardrock and UTMB.

D’haene: It is very specific here, and you know my last big challenge like that it was seven years ago, it was not seven months, seven years.

iRunFar: And this is intentional?

D’haene: It is very intentional, it’s very hard and now, we speak about my season and I said, okay now I think I won’t have a running bib until next April or May. I don’t know. Because I know that I want to continue, I want to preserve my body and I know that kind of challenge.

iRunFar: And not just for the season?

D’haene: It’s not nothing.

iRunFar: And mentally as well?

D’haene: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a big thing, yeah.

iRunFar: You’re very humble but do you ever think about your place in the sport amongst the greats, or your legacy? You’ve won UTMB since 2012 and again in 14 and 17 and 21. Diagonale des Fous and Hardrock, your career is amazing, do you ever stop and think about that?

D’haene: Yeah, yeah. I think yesterday when I arrived in Chamonix, for the first time I was thinking, okay maybe, I’m not sure I will do it again, like that. So intense. When I rise, okay take it easy and just enjoy that moment and made it so special. But yeah, like as you say since 10 years now I have had a lot of very good memories. Yeah, I want to thank you to the sport and people around there and maybe I, like you was there 10 years ago, too.

iRunFar: Are you proud of that, does that feel good?

D’haene: Yeah, I’m very proud to be part of this family and I think it’s a very nice sport we have to keep it like that.

iRunFar: It is family, it’s personal.

D’haene: It’s family. Even here, as the people, there’s many, many people it’s not like hard work but now because between the runner you can see our smiles at the top of Les Houches or something, we were like very close and family. It was not just passing each other in competition, it was more than that.

iRunFar: I can imagine if Aurélien caught you with 30 kilometers to go, even if he were passing you, you would probably say, give him best of luck.

D’haene: Yeah, yeah.

iRunFar: So what’s left to accomplish? What is left to do?

D’haene: In my mind I have some other things to do, in the US especially I have some very nice challenge waiting for some runner and maybe for me. So I really would like to accomplish it but I’m not like, hurry. I really want to find the right moment in the right place to do it but I’m really interested about something I could try like the Long Trail or Nolans [14]. I don’t know if I will do it alone or maybe I can do it with Jim or someone else. I don’t know. I would like but not in a hurry to test myself or like John Muir Trail on 370k or maybe Tor des Géants or Swiss Peaks.

iRunFar: So even a race, whether it’s a race or an adventure?

D’haene: Yeah, yeah. I want to continue adventure but now, maybe next year I will continue a bit, some 100 miles but I will think about more discovering something else with me.

iRunFar: Yeah, longer multi-days.

D’haene: Yeah, maybe differently. I don’t know. I want to continue to play in the mountains but I think.

iRunFar: What is the draw, what is the attraction for that longer?

D’haene: I think just, if you don’t know if you can do it or know. Even yesterday, I was at the start line, everybody say, you are the favorite, something like that. No, in this race there is no favorite and especially this year because since four years I was not there and because it’s a challenge. So for sure at the start line it was, I’m like you guys, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

iRunFar: In the end it was okay.

D’haene: So yeah, I made four times Grand Raid la Reunion, four times here, I don’t want to say it’s finished, I did it and it’s finished but yeah, maybe I need to try to change.

iRunFar:  Maybe still some races. Maybe even a big race.

D’haene:  I have some alternative projects, no worry.

iRunFar:  Excellent. I look forward to seeing what those are François, congratulations, well done.

D’haene:  Thank you very much.