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François D’Haene Aims Toward Tor des Géants

François D’Haene Aims Toward Tor des Géants

Feb 19, 2024

It’s true. One of the world’s great ultrarunners is turning his attention to one of the world’s toughest races.

In September 2024, François D’Haene will be at the start line for the 14th edition of Italy’s epic Tor des Géants. The race makes a 330-kilometer (205-mile) loop through Italy’s mountainous Aosta valley, with more than 24,000 meters (78,000 feet) of climbing and descending. 

D’Haene’s list of accomplishments is nearly unrivaled – arguably, the only person who comes close is Catalan runner Kilian Jornet. D’Haene has won UTMB Mont-Blanc® four times, Colorado’s Hardrock 100, and Reunion Island’s Grand Raid de la Réunion four times. He holds the Fastest Known Time on California’s 211-mile John Muir Trail, and a full list of his accolades would go on for pages. 

This past year has been a challenging one for D’Haene, however. He broke his leg – which required surgery and months of rehab – in a rough parapente landing outside his home in Arêches, France– about 90 minutes from Chamonix.

Now, he’s finally back to running, and his plans could hardly be bigger. The French edition of Outside Magazine first shared the news in an article: François D’Haene on the Tor des géants 2024: “The biggest race challenge I have ever dared to try.

Run the Alps’ founder Doug Mayer had the chance to ask D’Haene about deciding to tackle Tor, how it differs from other long-distance ultra races he has ticked off, and his approach to the event. 

mountains on the Tor des Géants route
The Tor des Géants route winds in a loop over dozens of high mountain cols, covering 330 km with over 24,000 meters of climbing and descending. (Photo: François D’Haene)
The big climb up towards Col du Loson on the Tor des Géants photo by François D’Haene
The big climb up towards Col du Loson. At 3,299 meters, it’s the highest col over which Tor des Géants passes. (Photo: François D’Haene)

Here’s what he had to say. 

Doug: Can you tell us about the moment that racing Tor des Géants came to you as a concept as something that you wanted to try?

François: TOR is everything I’m looking for. It’s an authentic race supported by the region through which it runs. It’s a logical race with a loop that looks magnificent. It has alpine trails, which I like– they’re technical and they connect the area together. And then Tor is something that’s scary, beyond your usual scope, and you wonder how your body is going to cope, how it’s going to adapt. You’ve got to set up adaptation strategies, to play with the day and the night, with the mountains, with the conditions. 

In short, it brings together all the reasons why I’ve been running ultra trails for 10 years now. This challenge scared me so much that I preferred to wait until I was sure, until I was ready, until I’d acquired enough experience before embarking on this adventure.

Doug: What is the biggest challenge for you, as you think about racing Tor?

François: I think perhaps it is the process of trying to find my pace. Tor is more than double the distance I’m used to doing in terms of time, and especially in terms of ascent and descent. So, I think I’m going to have to be careful and try to slow myself down. It’s really an adventure, a different sport from ultra trail running, and I’m attracted by the fact that I’ll have to adapt and change to it. The hardest part will be finding my pace and sticking to it to avoid burning myself out, keeping a bit under control, and having to manage the effort and take it as a whole. That’s the biggest challenge for me, but it’s also what attracts me. I find it a bit entertaining, too.

Doug: Will your training be fundamentally different or the same for Tor, compared to, say, racing a 100-mile race, or your Muir Trail FKT?

François: I think my training is going to be a little lower intensity with longer hours out, but not necessarily too different. I’m going to try to smooth it out over time, and not do training blocks too close to the race. I think you need to be even fresher (for something like Tor) than other races. You really can’t take any risks or feel any pain because we’re no longer talking about 20-24 hours, we’re talking about a very long effort. 

So no, my training won’t be very different, but my interaction with this race will be different. That is to say, how I start the race and how I run it, which will have to be different. If you’re prepared to run a hyper-competitive 100-mile race, I think that also means you’re ready to do Tor des Géants, but obviously running the race itself differently. I’ll have to adjust my training some, but more important will be the way I approach the race overall.

the last climb to Col Entrelor called "stairway to heaven" photo by François D’Haene
Tor des Géants is smooth, easy single track. But not all of it! This “Stairway to Heaven” is the last climb to Col Entrelor, between Rhèmes Notre Dame and Eaux Rousses. (Photo: François D’Haene)
Salomon athlete and trail running star in the Aosta Valley, Giuliano Cavallo
Salomon athlete and trail running star in the Aosta Valley, Giuliano Cavallo, takes the final steps up to 3,002 meter high Col Entrelor. (Photo: François D’Haene)

Doug: A lot of Tor runners speak of the Tor race as something fundamentally different, since it’s so long and hard. They talk about “meeting the dragon” – overcoming big barriers both mental and physical. Do you see Tor as fundamentally different, or just a longer version of something like UTMB Mont-Blanc or Diagonale des Fous?

François: I want to experience something new with a completely different approach… to go into the unknown. So, yes, I’m running Tor because I do think it will be different. I hope to experience something different, with different intensities, different moments of life, to experience it on all of these levels. 

I want to see what my body can do, how it can adapt, and how I’m going to cope with all of it, and I hope my body is really healthy and in good shape, so that I can enjoy this beautiful adventure. I know it’s going to be difficult, but I want to be part of it… to live Tor to the fullest extent possible, to feel it, and support my body in this adventure. I don’t think it will be competitive like the UTMB or the Diagonale des Fous, but I don’t necessarily want that. I really want to face the challenge as it comes, and adapt to it as best I can. 

I see Tor as a different adventure and that’s what I want to experience.

Original interview in French. Thanks to Run the Alps’ Astrid Renet for translation assistance with this story. 

François D’Haene with author Doug Mayer
Random Frenchman with author Doug Mayer. About 1 km past Refugio Deffeyes, during the first day of Tor des Géants. (Photo: François D’Haene)

Read More about Tor des Géants

How Tor des Géants® Manages Emergencies on a 330 km Race

Here’s the Research Scientists have Done on Tor des Géants Runners

Meet Ivan Parasacco, The Philosopher King behind Tor des Géants

Edition Zero: Behind the Scenes Developing Tor des Géants

Running Tor des Geants: Courage isn’t Always Quite What it Seems

More François

Ultra Spirit: One Part Trail Race, One Part Carnival, 100% D’Haene

Lead image: François and Gary, all smiles after the long climb up from Rhemés Notre Dame. (Photo: François D’Haene)

Doug Mayer
Doug Mayer is the founder of Run the Alps and lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy. He is the author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB and writes for Outside Online and Ultrasignup News. His upcoming book is a graphic novel about Italy’s 330km long Tor des Géants trail race.