In the sleepy streets of Calenzana at 03:55, June 3, 2016 a group of people gathers, a lot of them with headlights, in running gear. Others are carrying cameras, or just there for support, but all with the same cantre of interest – François D’Haene, ultrarunner.
Looking at him, you wouldn’t be able to tell that he is about to tackle one of the biggest challenges in his career so far – breaking the time record on one of Europe’s most mythical and challenging trails, the GR20 in Corsica.
Calm, collected, joking around with the pacers – the runners who will be accompanying him on parts of his journey – and with the support crew, he is already impressive to watch.
The officials are there too. This record, if broken, will stay in the books and needs to be well-documented to be valid.
A few minutes before 04:00, François walks to the very beginning of the trail, followed by his pacers, and other adventure-savvy runners who want to take part in the adventure. But they'd better be ready, as soon as the go is given, his long legs start their far-fetched strides up the trail.
What started for the Frenchman as a first big hiking trip amongst friends 15 years ago was about to become a personal challenge and a true adventure.
The GR20: 180km of unforgiving and arduous trails.
Amongst Latin-Europeans hikers (French, Spanish, Italians), the GR20 is well-known. The name is an acronym, standing for Grande Randonnée, or 'long hike' in French. The GR20 it is 180km long and covers the mountainous island of Corsica from north to south.
Over the years, there were many attempts to set and break time records on the trail. In 2009, Killian Jornet set a first record of 32h 54m. After a few failed attempts from different runners, mostly due to weather conditions, it was Corsica’s Guillaume Perretti’s turn to achieve the feat in 32h in 2014. The 32h mark was hence the time to beat for D’Haene.
With its 13,000m in cumulated elevation gain, the trail is a grueling path of 17 segments, taking most hikers at least two weeks to complete from beginning to end. Each section has its difficulty but in general, the northern part can be considered as more technical.
After the first two hours of running D’Haene was about to encounter rock slabs, snowy areas and steep ups and downs, rendered even more difficult by the light but consistent rain, which gave every step important sliding potential.
The second half of the trail also has its difficulties. Navigation then becomes the main challenge, especially at night. Many alternate routes and side trails cross the GR20’s path, making the orientation very challenging.
If François missed a marker and took the wrong turn, that could have meant the end of the record attempt. This becomes ever truer at night in the dense forest – in complete darkness except for the headlamp’s beam, everything looks the same. All senses are repressed and this is where the pacers can play a determining role, as they are helping to find markers and stay on the trail. In the darkness, the GR20 is a true maze.
This logical step in D’Haene’s career required a lot of preparation, as much on the logistic side as on the physical and mental side. Unlike an organised race, him and his team had to find the right people to accompany him along the route, map out the trail and possible stopping points, as well as the whole logistics of the team. This isn’t an organized Ultra Trail race – it’s a true adventure.
Mental toughness is probably one of D’Haene’s greatest strengths. Despite having seen the start postponed for three days and potentially cancelled due to bad weather conditions, he stayed calm, pleasant, zen. He planned every detail with his team, and spent time with his wife and two young kids.
But once the running starts, the toughest mind challenge and main difference with usual competitions was that he was going to have to face only himself, and only rely on the intrinsic motivation. The only way to complete such a long, gruelling trail is to mentally section it: when D'Haene left, he wasn’t leaving for one, 180km long trail. He was starting the first of 17 segments and did them one at the time. Breaking it down is the only way to make it through.
Then comes the physical challenge. Even though D’Haene is an accomplished ultrarunner, and is prepared for speed and resistance, he had to train in the mountains, in steep areas. For the lack of sleep, there is not really any training – one has to rely on stamina and adrenaline to keep going.
Making it through
But one of the most frustrating things for an ultrarunner like him is probably speed management. He cannot go as fast as he would like and probably goes at only 60 percent of his top speed.
That’s also part of the pacers’ job, and this is where their affinity plays a great role, since they need to know when to slow down and when to speed up. That’s when running with the same people for years makes a difference, and what contributed to the operation's success in this case.
At 11:06 on Saturday, June 4, 2016 a smiling D’Haene reaches the very end of the GR20 trail, in Conca, under the sunshine and in front of a crowd of friends, family, media and officials.
He did it, the record is his after 31h 6m of absolute perseverance. This is an athletic performance no one will be forgetting anytime soon.
For more information on D'Haene's GR20 challenge (including a GPS map with times and stops) and races, take a look at his website.