The Long Road Back: A Conversation with François D’Haene

A conversation with French ultrarunner François D’Haene about his battle with injury since the 2022 Hardrock 100, and his return to health and racing in 2024.

By on February 15, 2024 | Comments

Frenchman François D’Haene has long been one of the biggest names in 100-mile trail running.

In recent memory, he engaged in a gripping head-to-head with, and ultimately finished in second place to, Kilian Jornet at the 2022 Hardrock 100.

This followed his win the previous year, during which he set a then course record, and a win at the 2021 UTMB — his fourth victory at the race revered by many as the pinnacle of ultra-trail racing — a win count equalled only by Jornet.

He also has multiple victories to his name at the Madeira Island Ultra Trail, Diagonale des Fous, and countless more of the highest profile trail ultras the world over.

A master of his craft, D’Haene’s relaxed and seemingly unflappable demeanor makes his achievements all the more impressive to watch. And this is why ultrarunning fans have missed his presence from start lines this past while, as a series of injuries took him out of racing for more than a year after the 2022 Hardrock 100.

However, he has gratefully turned a corner, and is primed for a full return in the 2024 season, with another Hardrock 100 and a debut at the Tor des Géants taking center stage on his racing schedule. We caught up with him to learn about his return from injury, and to get an insight into his day-to-day life as he prepares for the season ahead.

2022 Hardrock 100 - François D'haene - finish

François D’haene at the finish of the 2022 Hardrock 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

The Slow Onset of Injury

For D’Haene, his injury saga began in June 2022, when he felt a pain in his left heel, following a minor fall in a stream, which developed into a persistent niggle. He shared, “I managed to run Hardrock with a bit of discomfort.”

While his initial recovery from Hardrock was fine, and he managed another training race with only mild pain, in late September when he began to ramp up training for the 2022 Diagonale des Fous, the problem became impossible to ignore.

He sought help, and the diagnosis was a large bone edema on the calcaneus — a fluid build-up on the large bone of the heel — which expanded and developed into a fracture.

After making the difficult decision to withdraw from the 2022 Diagonale des Fous, D’Haene took some time to recover from the injury before resuming training — but the saga was not over yet.

François D'Haene - training in Salomon kit

François D’Haene on a training run in the mountains. Photo: Alexis Berg

Upon returning from a training run one day, he suffered a severe collapse of his right ankle, and was taken immediately for x-ray, which showed a triple fracture of the malleolus — the ankle bone — and required immediate surgery, and a roughly six-month recovery period.

The Rehabilitation Road

By January 2023, D’Haene was well enough to attend CERS Capbreton in France, a specialist sports rehabilitation facility, for an intensive two-week program of treatment and rehabilitation exercises. He recalled that he arrived on crutches, and left two weeks later able to resume cycling and get his foot into a ski boot.

Although he was still unable to run, resuming skiing offered some return to normality for D’Haene, who builds a ski season into his training and racing every year, as his home mountains lend themselves well to this mix.

He told iRunFar: “[Skiing is] better in winter and I like to be more seasonal. My hometown in France is Arêches-Beaufort. The ski race Pierra Menta, I live 200 meters from the start line.”

He went on, “The mountain range around my hometown is called Beaufortain, and this is where I train a lot. For many years now, I have chosen races that allow me to train just around my house, so that’s why during winter I try to not participate in trail running races, and just do them in summer. I am happy to be able to train around my house. It’s a very nice playground, with some very nice trails to train on.”

Although returning to the slopes for skiing felt like a huge milestone for D’Haene, he still had to be cautious, and was limited at first to 45-minute sessions. As he gained some strength, he returned to CERS Capbreton for a second, more intense, block of rehabilitation — with a focus on building toward a safe return to running.

His first running steps were taken with the aid of an anti-gravity running machine, which allowed him to practice the running motion, but removed much of the weight and impact. Through patience and perseverance, by early summer in 2023, he was able to run up to 12 kilometers on the flat, and made the first tentative steps in the mountains to return to trail running.

But another setback was in store. A pain presented itself in his lower back, which an MRI revealed to be two new stress fractures in the sacrum — a bony structure in the lower back adjoining the pelvis.

With the ski season over and running once again off the table, the ever-resourceful D’Haene turned to cycling, which was enough to sustain him until late August 2023, when he could finally resume running and join his friend Jim Walmsley in some of Walmsley’s preparation for UTMB.

While naturally his mind began to drift to races he would like to run — and when to time a final surgery, and the downtime that would go with it, to remove the screws and plate in his ankle — he had a goal of a different kind to work toward in the fall.

Organizing the Ultra Spirit Event

Together with his wife, Carline, D’Haene organizes the multi-day trail running event, Ultra Spirit, in the couple’s home mountains, with the event taking place late in September.

As D’Haene described it, “Ultra Spirit is a race but it’s an adventure too. For me it’s very nice to organize it. We discovered another window of the trail running scene to make something a bit different to the other races, with intimacy, authenticity, and encouragement along the way.”

François D'Haene - race directing at Ultra Spirit

D’Haene in race director mode at the 2023 Ultra Spirit. Photo: Paul Viard Gaudin/Ultra Spirit

Ultra Spirit is a team event, and all team members must start and finish together, which D’Haene feels adds greatly to the spirit of it. He went on, “It’s during two days and we sleep in the mountains all together, we look after each other, and at the end of the adventure we are all like a big family.”

Staging the event requires a significant investment of time, but as D’Haene put it, “It takes a lot of time but, like every organizer, if you count your hours in the organization you will do nothing. For us it’s a lot of energy but a lot of pleasure too.”

Returning To Racing at the 2023 Diagonale des Fous

Once Ultra Spirit had been successfully wrapped up, and with a tentative return to running still going well, D’Haene made a last-minute decision to return to an old favorite, Diagonale des Fous, the iconic 100-mile race which takes place on Réunion Island.

Although D’Haene has previously won the race on four occasions, this year his aspirations and motivations for running were very different. “Of course, I approached it differently than my past racing,” he shared, with the run being more about completing the course safely, and rejoicing in the unique ambience of one of his favorite courses.

It was a cautious effort, but he nonetheless managed to finish in eighth place.

François D'Haene - 2023 Diagonale des Fous - finish

A grateful François D’Haene finishing the 2023 Diagonale des Fous in eighth place. Photo: Simon Dugué

One Final Surgery

Following Diagonal des Fous, D’Haene had one more surgery to remove the screws and plate inserted in his ankle. He said, “It’s not a small surgery, but it’s a lot easier than the first surgery. I just took one month to rest, and then at the start of December 2023, I was able to start again on the bicycle and then to ski before Christmas.”

When we spoke in early February 2024, he shared: “Now my training is quite good. I’ve had one month and a half of a lot of skiing, I did more than 100 hours skiing last month, so I think my [fitness] is getting better and better. I still have February and March to get in shape and start my trail running season like usual. So, I’m pretty confident and so happy to be out again.”

Looking Ahead to a 2024 in Sports

Although he has mapped out a season with a number of build-up races, D’Haene revealed, “My big goal this year will be Hardrock 100 and then Tor des Géants. I’m so happy to be back in the Hardrock adventure. I will try to share it with my family this year, and to travel early to acclimate, and to take time in the area. And for me it’s not two goals, it’s one big goal to be able to make the two adventures together.”

The roughly 330-kilometer (205-mile) Tor des Géants will be D’Haene’s longest race yet, and he said: “I have to arrive fresh at Hardrock, because after I have to have a long summer to prepare for Tor des Géants.”

He is enthused at the prospect of venturing into the unknown with Tor des Géants, and said, “It will be a big adventure for me, because I don’t know this race, and it will be interesting to try to make this long, long, long adventure. I’m very excited about it.”

Aosta Valley - 2018 Tor des Geants - Joe Grant

Aosta Valley where the Tor des Géants takes place. Photo: Joe Grant

A Life of Multitasking

Perhaps the secret to D’Haene’s relaxed and balanced attitude to racing is that he doesn’t have the time to be singularly focused. As well as being an athlete, race director, husband, and father of three, he has also been pursuing a business of another kind.

For 12 years, D’Haene and his wife operated a vineyard and wine exportation business. The two are taking a step back from the enterprise now, and he said: “It was hard to do everything, so just around the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to change our lives a bit, and to drive less and to move less, so we decided to stop the wine production. We still have five or 6,000 bottles to sell, to play with, but we don’t do the exportation anymore.”

When asked about how he manages to divide his time between the pillars of business, training, and family life, he shared thoughtfully: “I try to not divide my time, I try to give my time.”

He went on, “For family commitments, my business, and my training, I try to not make any sacrifices and to be present and to be as good as possible — as a father and as a husband — and I try to respond to the media, and to be professional if I can. I try to train a lot and race and to be as good as possible in performance on the trail.”

A life of multitasking certainly works for D’Haene, who said: “I like everything [that I do] and I don’t want to focus on one side, so I try to do it all. I think it’s a balance between all these pillars.”

Having overcome such a tumultuous time without ever losing his cool, the 2024 return of François D’Haene will be a joy for ultrarunning fans to watch unfold.

Call for Comments

  • Have you followed François D’Haene’s career? What are your highlights?
  • Have you ever dealt with a series of injuries like this?
François D'Haene - nightrun

François D’Haene on a moonlit run. Photo: Alexis Berg

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.