Published on December 15th, 2022 | by Isabelle Vaurie0
La Diagonale des Fous or Grand Raid: Interview of Antoine Trépant
A Franco-American participant, Antoine Trépant, 42, arrived from St Germain en Laye (right outside Paris) with his family to support him. But why this race instead of vacation in the Reunion?
Before this ultra-trail, what was your sporting background?
I started in a very different sport with rowing, which allowed me to go to the United States and get into the University of San Diego, CA and with the team, I won a silver medal at the national level in the USA. Then I tried triathlon and running. I participated in different marathons, 2h45 in marathon, and then I fell into the world of trails 6 years ago, in California.
You already wanted to come two years ago, how did you prepare for it?
When I wanted to draw up a solid plan ten years ago, professional and family life made it more difficult for me to organize it than I expected. I was not able to do it at the time, but I decided to live the experience one day. I started training for the Diag. in 2019 with a race called SantéLyon, one of the oldest trails in Europe: 80 km at night, St Etienne-Lyon at the beginning of December, with terrible weather, rain, hail, etc. I ended up saying to myself “never again” but I understood how much trail-running required specific training. And then of course, you recover and the project comes back to mind.. but then the covid called everything into question. In the meantime, I had really understood that you couldn’t prepare without taking into account the climatic conditions – in addition to the rest.
At the beginning of January 2022, I therefore started rigorous preparation, with 3 key races: April in the Vosges 50 km with around 3,000 m of elevation gain, then the Lake Annecy race, 90 km/6,000m, in July the Mercantour ultra-trail: 125 km/ 8,000 m. So the idea was to go crescendo there to be fit for the Diagonale des fous of this month of October, 170 km practically and a little more than 10,000 m of elevation gain. That’s more than two “Mont Blanc” roundtrips.
What makes this Grand Raid so unique?
It is legendary! Everyone who talks about it says how unique it is in the world with its extremely technical aspect but also the atmosphere which is extraordinary! I took part in international racing and rowing competitions, so I saw quite a few sporting events, but the atmosphere on the Diag. is extraordinary, especially the start in St Pierre: over about 6 km we had an excited crowd cheering us on and it reminded me of the crowd around the New York Marathon, a buzz that carries you. Which is quite atypical of French culture because for the Paris marathon (nearly 40,000 runners, more than the NYC marathon) the atmosphere in the streets is rather dull to be honest. On the Diag. in many spots there are people who come to encourage you, some of them are probably not runners, they don’t have anyone who is racing but they come to support the runners anyway, it’s very touching, there are even a few bands playing music. It’s all this that makes it so very unique!
You arrived in the first third 763rd out of 2756 registered, while you were counting on being in the first half, congratulations on that, really, but what is your personal assessment after this race?
I think I managed my race the best I could. I had tendonitis in the Mercantour, not in the Diag. I wanted to finish the Grand Raid in a reasonable time, I was hoping for 45 to 46 hours and I was able to do it in 46 hours and 36 minutes. So it’s a very satisfying record, and above all without injuries… there are 32% dropouts, I didn’t want to be part of it, in fact it was out of the question. I had my family and friends, a great team behind me, I wanted to go all the way for them too, the support really means a lot. And then the benefit is that the habits I have taken in terms of food and training will stay with me, I feel healthier; so the outcome is also that there will remain something beyond the adventure, which is that I know how far I can go and that I have a better lifestyle – with benefits in the longer term.
Indeed, 869 did not arrive as far as St Denis, that shows how tough it is. You said that the preparation was really specific, could you explain?
The physical training is nothing like what I was doing compared to road racing, because you have to pace and split, and work on elevation, but also do indoor work to strengthen fragile areas to avoid injuries. As soon as you run beyond 7 to 8 hours you get more vulnerable and take risks of breaking something. Much more than on the road.
I also worked on mental power, because it makes the difference. You can’t do an ultra trail like you would run a marathon. The training helped me transcend myself, and the different races helped me use my reserves and get to know myself better. That’s really it, we push our limits as far as we can. And you have to adapt your diet over the long term, eat differently, have the right resources and have very good core strength. It’s essential, because of the gradients and the difficulties of the race.
Eating differently means eliminating a lot of things?
Not for me, I don’t believe in radical diets, I prefer a varied and balanced diet, a bit of everything all the time, but I have very clearly cut down on what favors inflammatory states, in particular red meat and cow – dairy products (replacing them by goat milk) and I was very strict the 6 months before the race. In my case, it took a good 6 months to know what worked or not. I don’t overdo anything, that’s what counts above all for me.
I had the help of a nutritionist who explained to me, for example, that eggs had virtues in terms of regaining lucidity, I found it amusing, so I always had one or two hard-boiled eggs in my backpack and in times of slowdown at night in technical areas, I ate a hard-boiled egg! I had no accident, maybe it’s thanks to the eggs! I can tell you the trailers do consume eggs.
I also have an osteopath friend who recommended mineral salts to me as a cure, because when I had problems in the Mercantour trail, I was dehydrated (it was already very hot the day before) and I lacked mineral salts, hence tendonitis. After running for a certain number of hours, you lose a lot of water, so you need to add minerals. I ate a lot of cooked vegetables in the period before the race, fruit for vitamins and carbohydrates with pasta and rice. During the race, sodium, water, and enough to eat, otherwise the body will not resist either during the training period or during the actual race. But everyone has to find what suits them best.
You were saying how very special the atmosphere was, could you tell us about it a little more?
Yes, indeed!! On the Diag., there is an incredible number of volunteers and they are very professional, they make us feel like real champions, and there is a very federated community in the trail runners, we are less into the timer because all runners know that the real achievement is to make it to the finish line and that is certainly what profoundly changes the atmosphere. It’s still an extreme race… and when you see people lying along the trail because in the night they’re exhausted and couldn’t reach the next supply point, you feel how mighty nature is. So we help and support each other much more than in a marathon type race. This commits us well beyond three hours, it’s more like two to even three days! And we run at night, it’s also a special atmosphere.
Photos Credit: Antoine and Ursula Trépant
In any case the organisers of the Diag. have always refused to join the world circuit of the Ultra-Trail World Tour to keep its authenticity and its independence, and it does work!
Still, what can attract runners for these trails, which are so extreme, what would be your explanation?
After quite a few races, you want to explore your limits in a different way. For me, doing a marathon in 2:25 instead of 2:45 is not really interesting, the preparation and everything around it remains the same. So there is this notion of challenge, of pushing back your limits and getting to know yourself even better. But I do understand why some people wonder “why???”!
For my part, what really allowed me to understand why we want to do it, is the excerpt from a book called The Rise of the Ultra Runners, by Adharanand Finn: “Most of the time we exist in a constructed world where everything is designed to keep us comfortable, keep us away from the rawness of life. (…) We have become cut off from our nature but deeply buried, we have a need to experience the wildness of life. Ultra distance running can awake a “genetic memory” in us and it brings an intense feeling of existing which in the rest of life we rarely glimpse. (…) after 24 hours in the mountains, (everything that’s organized) ceases to exist. (…) you become so aware of your vulnerability, and of your strength, and ultimately, there, on the edge of survival, you become fully aware of your existence” That sums up what the trailers feel and experience.
Do you think of redoing the Diag.?
I’d love to, but it’s not just about wanting to repeat it: all the logistics and preparation are both very demanding, and with my family life – my three young kids and my wife have tremendously encouraged and supported me and were part of the adventure – and with a very demanding job, it is difficult to organize it all and for the moment, it is hard to plan it again. But I would love to!
Thank you, it really helps understanding it from the inside, and congrats again!