Ultra Spirit: One Part Trail Race, One Part Carnival, 100% D’Haene
Much is known about François D’Haene, or more precisely, his accomplishments: four-time winner of both UTMB Mont-Blanc and Reunion Island’s Diagonale des Fous, a course record at Hard Rock 100, the Fastest Known Time on California’s 211-mile John Muir Trail…
But what is he really like… as a person? Give him a mountain range, a blank slate, plenty of time to brainstorm, and you get a very cool answer: Ultra Spirit – one part quirky carnival, one part trail race, and 100% FDH.
Well, make that 50% François, 50% Carline Traub, his wife.
To give credit where it’s due, Ultra Spirit isn’t 100% François— not by a long shot. The entire family plays a role, so much so that their name is part of the web address: www.ultra-spirit-dhaene-family.com, and his wife Carline is an equal partner in the event.
“We wanted to create something like this for some years now– to bring together all the aspects of trail running that we love– a team-based, multi-day event in the mountains, with a warm spirit of friendship and adventure,” explains Carline. “And we wanted to make it even more than just a family event– we brought friends and neighbors into the various aspects of organizing the event, too.”
France’s numerous Covid lockdowns back in 2020 provided just the right opportunity for the two to develop what would become Ultra Spirit. “It was a good time for us to plan together,” she says.
How is the effort shared? “François works heavily with the brand partners, he develops the course and the associated activities. As for me,” says Carline, “I focus on the meals, the relationships with the Mayor’s office, the farmers in the region, I help organize the volunteers, manage environmental issues, and welcome the runners who are taking part.”
Run the Alps took part in the second edition of Ultra Spirit in the quiet village of Arêches, France. We had a three-person team of Guide and Photography Manager Sam Hill, Finance Manager Carrie Craig, and Run the Alps friend and general badass Andrea Mason. (“Badass” is an understatement. Among other epics, Mason has swum across the English Channel, then biked across France and climbed Mont Blanc– all in one go.) Emily Geldard and I both joined to watch for a day, legit excuses in hand for taking a pass. (Her: recovering from a serious ankle injury. Me: recovering from a loop around Aosta Valley known as Tor des Géants.)
Ultra Spirit Stats
Day 1 : 25km, 2200m+/-
Day 2 : 50km, 3300m+/-
Day 3 : 25km, 1500m+/-
Number of members per team: 3
Number of teams: 40 (2024 will have 45 teams)
Nationalities: French, with a scattering of les étrangers— a few Brits, Americans, and other nationalities were represented..
Sounds like a classic stage race— akin to, say, Pierre Menta Été or Transalpine, right?
Not. Even. Close.
Surprise Challenges En Route
For starters, the goal is very different. Says D’Haene, “Above all, this a human adventure. We want to meet you, we want you to tell us who your team is and the reasons behind your desire to participate. We want to understand your commitment to these trails.”
To get to that goal, teams are selected by a committee that includes Carline and François; event organizer Maxime Schuler; Emilien Bochet, the Race Director and Beaufortain region specialist; and Cristelle Robert, Salomon’s global Head of Trail Running. (The brand is one of the event’s main sponsors.)
The concept is unique— the daily distance and vert is adjusted by team and on the fly, so that each team, roughly speaking, gets a challenge that suits them. One result? It might be the only time in your life you finish ahead of Jim Walmsley and his partner Jess Brazeau, who took part in the first day of the event this past year.
“We couldn’t really tell when we were getting diverted,” said Sam. “We were just out there, on the course, and a volunteer would direct us one way or another.” Of course, the team realized later, when another group that had been in front of them was suddenly behind. Being fast could be considered a mixed blessing. “Sometimes we’d end up doing an extra climb,” Carrie explained.
The result, as Andrea says, is that “everyone is out there at same time, practically together. It’s a really nice concept. We’d arrive at a challenge, and there were a lot of people there who had cut across on a shorter route.”
Those challenges to which she refers? Well, that’s the carnival part.
Imagine, for example, that you are running through the peaceful Beaufortain mountains. You turn a corner, and there is a race volunteer with a large wheel of cheese. Local Beaufortain cheese, of course. She asks you, “How many calories are in this wheel? And how heavy is it?”
Or, imagine being asked to unclip a head-scrambling variety of locking carabiners from a specially designed wooden board. And do it with one hand. Then being asked to reassemble it. (This, courtesy of Ultra Spirit sponsor Petzl.)
Or maybe you and your two partners are asked to step into a shared pair of skis and then asked to walk-ski-slide across a grassy pasture. As quickly as possible, of course.
Oh, and there is a judge there to score you at each station, too. “I thought we did pretty well at pretending to be an ibex,” Andrea confessed. “But I was a little disappointed we only got 8 points,” she laughed.
As for those points, each team finished the day with a cumulative score that carried all the way through to the finish line on the third day. So, were there winners? Absolutely. Not that most folks cared, for Ultra Spirit is an event where camaraderie outweighs competitiveness from start to finish. Or, “le coeur avant le chrono,” as the French might say.
Ups and Downs of the Second Edition
“The trails are amazing and the organization… I’m not sure I’ve been to an event that was so well organized. There were volunteers at the top of every climb,” said Andrea.
The downside to the second edition? Uncooperative weather. The first of three days brought good weather, but day’s end brought falling mercury, wind, and some of the fall’s first snowflakes. By the time the Run the Alps team arrived at the bivouac location, it was cold enough that even someone who has swum the English Channel craved a warmer core temperature. “I really would have loved a hot shower,” said Andrea.
As euro trail events become increasingly homogenized thanks to international interest, Ultra Spirit feels entirely French. Which, for foreigners, can be both a pro and a con. The exposure to a different culture helps build bonds and deeper understanding— but sometimes important details can be lost in translation. “We had to do a bit of translating, and to be honest, we didn’t understand explanations all the time,” said Carrie. It’s a complex equation, of course: celebrating the local culture, being inclusive, and doing it all with volunteers. Arguably, it’s a lot to ask.
And, there is the cost. At €400 per person, Ultra Spirit is not cheap. But it’s a multi-day, fully catered event, with tents set up in remote locations for runners, and plenty of healthy, fresh and local food. All of which comes at a cost.
To be fair, it’s a challenge that trail running events face universally— including here at Run the Alps. Finding a balance between providing great service and keeping an event accessible can be difficult. At €130 a day for healthy meals and a place to sleep, plus a great event in the mountains, Ultra Spirit costs less than many other events.
Who is Ultra Spirit for?
Perhaps most importantly, you need to be ready to have fun. To be specific, points out Andrea, “Type 2 fun.” That is, it might be hard in the moment, but you’ll smile as you look back on it. It’s a type of fun that ultrarunners relish.
And, with events like a three-person ski and a fromage caloric challenge, it’s definitely not for someone who takes themselves too seriously.
Nor is Ultra Spirit for someone who is new to trail running in the mountains. “It’s quite hard,” says Sam. “There are sections that are off-trail. Some of the trails are pretty technical. And even if you run a shorter course, you’ll be in the mountains for a full day, each day.”
Because D’Haene is behind it all, the event also has a fun mix of top trail runners from the Alps. Besides Walmsley and Brazeau, 2022 UTMB Mont-Blanc winner Katie Schide, Canadian Salomon athlete Marianne Hogan, and others joined in on the fun. It was a mighty strong assemblage of trail runners. “I looked around and I didn’t see any slackers,” says Carrie. “You know what that means, right?” Adds Sam. “We’re the slackers!”
What’s next for Ultra Spirit?
Do the D’Haenes want to grow it? “We’re not interested in creating a huge ultra event. We want an event that feels appropriate for our region. We want something where participants can meet each other, and have wonderful conversations at a human scale. That only happens,” says Carline, “If the numbers aren’t too huge.” Traub adds, “We want to minimize our environmental impact, too, and not leave a scar of the event behind us.”
It’s working, too. With 40 to 45 teams of three, Ultra Spirit is low-key, with an “off the radar” feel to it.
Take, for example, the evening spent at the runners’ high camp in the meadows far above Arêches. A circus-sized tent was packed with tired and dirty trail runners, who nonetheless found a way to carry the party forward into the night. Despite the frigid temperatures and snow, the enthusiasm showed no sign of waning. Wine from the D’Haene’s old Beaujolais vineyards flowed, and chefs served up enormous plates of local dishes— which were inhaled by hungry runners.
Ever the carnival’s barker, Francois D’Haene ran around the circus tent and MC’ed the equivalent of a pub quiz held in the mountains above the Beaufortain. Part pop culture, part name-that-song from 1980 to today, a boisterous and somewhat wine-dazed crowd shouted out answers. The winning response won an extra point for their team– though it’s not clear that most folks cared or were keeping track.
All of this gets back to the question of what kind of person is François? If Ultra Spirit is any indication, both he and Carline are warm, friendly, supportive, inclusive and— as we all know— pretty darned tough when it comes to tackling big days in the mountains.
In French, the word is chaleureuse— a warm feeling of friendship. Ultra Spirit is quirky, fun, and filled with camaraderie. But if you take part, bring lots of energy. This is a die-hard crowd. As for me, I slept a bit too late the next morning— cold, tired, still apparently recovering from Tor des Géants and a bout of Covid that hit the day after I crossed the finish line. I wandered up the hill to see the racers, only to find the pasture empty. They were already out on the course, moving over the technical terrain high above France’s Beaufortain, another devious game from the D’Haene family awaiting them on the other side of the next hill.
For all the details and how to apply, visit Ultra Spirit.
(Top photo: Damien Rosso, DROZ PHOTO, Ultra Spirit 2023)