In the sleepy streets of Calenzana at 3:55 a.m. on June 3, 2016, a group of people gather wearing headlights and running gear. Others are carrying cameras or just there to support ultrarunner François D’Haene.
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 4:00 a.m., 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. 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: 112 miles of unforgiving and arduous trails
The GR20 is well-known amongst Latin-Europeans hikers (French, Spanish, Italians). The name is an acronym, standing for Grande Randonnée, or "long hike" in French. The GR20 is 112 miles long and covers the mountainous island of Corsica from north to south.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to set and break time records on the trail. In 2009, Killian Jornet set a record of 32 hours and 54 minutes. 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 of 32 hours in 2014. This 32-hour mark was the time to beat for François D’Haene.
With its 8 miles 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 encountered rock slabs, snowy areas and steep ups and downs, rendered even more difficult by the light rain, which turned every step into a dangerous move.
The second half of the trail also had its difficulties. Navigation 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, it could have ended the record attempt. This becomes even more true at night in the dense forest — 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 step in François D’Haene’s career required a lot of preparation, as much on the logistical side as on the physical and mental side. Unlike an organized race, D'Haene had to find the right people to accompany him along the route and map out the trail with possible stopping points. This was not an organized Ultra Trail race — it was 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 and zen. He planned every detail with his team while spending time with his wife and two young kids.
When the running started, the toughest mental challenge for D'Haene was that he was going to be facing off against himself and would have to rely on intrinsic motivation. The only way to complete such a long, grueling trail is by breaking it into sections. When D'Haene left, he wasn’t leaving for one 112-mile-long trail, he was starting the first of 17 segments. Breaking it down was the only way to make it through.
Even though François D’Haene is an accomplished ultrarunner and is prepared for speed and resistance, he had to train in the mountains and in steep areas. Since it's difficult to fully prepare for the high level of sleep deprivation, D'Haene had to rely on stamina and adrenaline to keep going.
Making it through
One of the most frustrating things for an ultrarunner like D’Haene is probably speed management. He can't 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 played a great role since they needed 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 this operation's success.
At 11:06 a.m. on Saturday, June 4, 2016, a smiling D’Haene reached the very end of the GR20 trail in Conca, under the sunshine and in front of a crowd of friends, family, media and officials.
D’Haene did it, the record was his after 31 hours and 6 minutes of absolute perseverance — an unforgettable athletic performance.