Francois D'Haene might be the best ultra-distance mountain runner in the world. But all-out racing isn’t his first priority.
Francois D’Haene is one of those rare athletes who can actually race the Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run. At the 2021 event, the Frenchman broke the previous course record, held by Catalan Kilian Jornet, by running the counterclockwise loop course through the San Juan mountains of Colorado in 21 hours and 45 minutes. Absent from last year’s event, however, was Jornet, who due to concerns over his carbon footprint was limiting his international travel. This year, Jornet, the most dominant ultrarunner of a generation returns, setting up the much-anticipated clash of the titans of ultrarunning on the venerable high-altitude course.
But Francois has arrived in Colorado with a different focus this summer. With more than a dozen solid years of competitive mountain ultrarunning under his belt, D’Haene knows exactly what he’s in for this week as he prepares to defend his Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run title, and he’s putting less pressure on himself to win.
A year after setting Hardrock’s overall course record and then becoming the first to pull off the nearly unfathomable Hardrock-Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc double last August with a win in Chamonix — the 36-year-old Salomon-sponsored runner returns to this legendary race for an attempt at the slightly more runnable clockwise direction of the course.
He’ll face a star-studded men’s field that includes 2018 winner Jeff Browning, 2011 runner-up Dakota Jones, Daniel Jung, Nick Coury and, of course, Jornet. But as every Hardrocker learns, it’s the legendary (and recently lengthened) 102.5-mile course with 33,000 feet of elevation gain and relentless climbing and descending, that is the real challenge. And that means having a balanced approach and being at peace amid the turmoil of the grueling terrain.
“I just say ‘OK, it will be horrible and a nightmare’ because running 100-miles in the mountains at 4,000 meters and higher is crazy,” says D’Haene, who became the first man to win the UTMB four times last summer. “We don’t have any race like this in Europe with such high altitude,” he says. “In France, if you’re running at 4,000 meters, it means you’re running on a glacier. The highest point of Tour du Mont Blanc is maybe the lowest part of Hardrock, and that’s just crazy.”
D’Haene embraces doing hard things, both for the depth of experience each one can bring and how it can inform other difficult moments in everyday life. He’s one of ultraruning’s all-time greats, a star who’s still very much in his prime — and he’s one of the few athletes who have beaten Jornet in the past. But he’s not really amped up about racing, instead taking a much more grounded and down-to-earth approach. While his good friend Jim Walmsley has temporarily moved to France with the intent of winning UTMB in late August — and becoming the first American man to do so — D’Haene has never been so result-oriented about his races and especially not for Hardrock.
“If you take the approach that I just want to smash that course and win that race, then it’s a lot of pressure,” he says. “If I can win the Hardrock, it will be wonderful. But otherwise, I was lucky to have won it last year, and it’s not the only thing for me. If I finish 5th or 10th, I will be at peace with that. Having that approach is a way to have less pressure and give you a balanced perspective.”
Sure, he’s looking forward to the much-anticipated showdown with Jornet in one of the world’s hardest races, but his day-to-day has mostly been consumed with family life — he and his wife, Carline, have three kids aged 9, 7 and 3 — and a new trail running event he’s launching in September called Ultra Spirit. It’s a three-day adventure for teams of three that will include more than 20 hours of running, but also feature 10 unique challenges, shared meals and a structure aimed at fostering community.
“I have had less time to train, so I am a bit less confident compared to last year,” D’Haene said candidly on June 30 before speaking to a gathering of runners at a Salomon fun run in Boulder. “I have actually spent more days at altitude this year in France, but I have less volume.”
That’s not gamesmanship meant to mislead his fellow competitors. He was fit enough to win the 118k Volvic Volcanic Expérience race in France in May, but for D’Haene, coming back to Hardrock isn’t about the imminent racing showdown with Jornet that everyone is expecting — or desperately wanting it to be. He’s not being coy or modest, he’s just not focused on winning as his primary goal.
The community aspect of ultrarunning is what he’s looking forward to experiencing at Hardrock and one of the big reasons he returned this year. In 2019, D’Haene spent several weeks in Silverton training on the course with Walmsley and hanging out with the community of other Hardrock runners who showed up even though the event was canceled in early June because of excessive snow and avalanche debris still covering the course from the previous winter.
“Hardrock is about the beauty of the place, and the landscape and the unique community of people who are fascinated about ultra-trail running,” he says. “In events like this, it’s always better when you run together and share the experiences. In ultra-trail racing, you race yourself first and if you are good enough you can race others. So hopefully I can have a good day and run with Kilian, Dakota, and the other runners.”
So when it comes to the actual race, who’s going to win? Based on the course and their individual strengths, it’s hard to pick against Jornet — even for D’Haene. Jornet won Hardrock four consecutive times from 2014 to 2017, the last of which he ran the last 60 miles with a dislocated shoulder. But Jornet, too, appreciates the togetherness vibe, as was evident when he was content to finish the race with Jason Schlarb in a tie for first in 2017.
“Kilian is a beast,” D’Haene says. “When it comes to Vertical K, 40K, 80K and 100K, I think there is no competition between us. He’s faster than me and stronger than me, especially on technical terrain. But in 100 miles, it’s 20 to 24 hours of running and anything can happen.
“I just hope my training can be enough to have a good day with him and see what happens,” he adds. “If he can win, I’d be so happy for him, and I think if I win, he would be so happy for me too. It’s not about mashing each other and racing each other, we’re just happy if we can have a good day together in the mountains. If we finished first, second, third or even fifth, it means we have a good day and we’ll be happy for each other. And that’s what it’s all about.”