Five-time winner of the 103-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and former 24-hour road running world record holder Lizzy Hawker has been called Britain’s greatest endurance athlete. She talks to Nick Mead about how ultra distance running is a way of life – and how Tibetan biscuits are a good fuel
Hi Lizzy. When did you start running? We were all runners as children, so I can’t really remember not running. I never raced or joined a club when I was younger. It just became normal by some stage to run every day – it’s my way of being outside and moving. It wasn’t until I was working at the British Antarctic Survey that I ran my first marathon – the London marathon – I think I tried a couple of times to get in through the lottery and didn’t, but finally in 2000 I did.
Do you remember how you got on? I’d been at sea for six weeks until not long before the marathon, so I didn’t have the ideal training conditions. I loved the experience but my time was nothing special – around 3hrs 40min – I didn’t really think of doing much more. Then I remember a friend suggesting that if I like mountains and I like running, why don’t I do a road marathon on a hilly route. So I did the Snowdonia Marathon a few times. And then I thought, rather than just running around the mountains, I’ll try running on them.
The Welsh 1000m Peaks was my first non-road race – but I didn’t have any fell-running experience, so I couldn’t enter the running class, and had to do the mountaineers’ class – so that was big walking boots, long trousers and a rucksack. [Lizzy won the women’s race]
How did you get into ultra-distance running? It’s really in 2005 that I fell into long distance – both in the mountains and on the road. I was going to visit friends I’d met doing the Welsh 1000m Peaks during my PhD [in physical oceanography] and they happened to be doing a 40-mile track race – because I was going to be there for the weekend I thought I might as well try it. The England selector was there and asked if I’d represent Britain at the UK 100km championships, a road race, which was just a month later.
I’d read an article about the UTMB and entered it. At the time the event was quite new and you didn’t have to do qualifying races like you do now. I was due to finish my studies that summer and thought that if I entered I could go out to the Alps for a couple of weeks, do some climbing and do the race at the end of it. So it started by chance.
And the rest is history, as they say – five times winner of the UTMB, 24-hour road running world record holder … you’ve been spectacularly successful since then. I doesn’t feel like that to me. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything special and I still feel like there’s more potential to dig out. For me it just feels normal.
When you did the UTMB for the first time in 2005, had you trained specifically for that? Not really, because I had no idea what was involved. When I was standing on the start line I really had no concept. I mean, I knew the figures and things [103 miles of trail through the French, Italian and Swiss alps, including 31,168ft of ascent] – but I had no idea if I could get to the finish line, or if they’d tell me to stop somewhere along the way.
There was no specific training that I’d done – but I’d been hiking in the Alps already that summer and I’d had a trip to Skye. For a race like the UTMB just being out for long hours on your feet is half the battle and I did have that endurance behind me.
When you’re training now, what’s your typical weekly mileage?During the winter sometimes I try to slip into more of a typical marathon-style training. Then in the summer I tend to run more. Last summer there was a week when I did a 70-mile mountain race, and then I was working on a running camp, so maybe another 110 miles in four days around the Tour de Monte Rosa, and then I raced a short mountain race – so that week probably got up to around 180 miles. That might happen a couple of times during the summer.
What’s the furthest you’ve ever run in a race? In a race, it’s probably Spartathlon, which is 155 miles, and that’s more or less the distance I ran during a 24-hour road race [Lizzy set the 24-hr road running world record of 153.5 miles in Llandudno in 2011].
But I’ve just come back from a stage race in Mustang, Nepal, and before that I’d been up to Everest base camp, and run back to Kathmandu, which is something I’ve done a couple of times before, and managed to break my record this time. That’s 199 miles, which I did in 63 hours.
That’s incredible. Were you running the whole time – or did you grab some short naps? I maybe stopped twice for about 20 minutes to lie down – but I didn’t actually sleep. Then in the last 10 miles, coming back into Kathmandu, darkness fell on the third night – and that really hits you. I remember just lying at the side of the road for two minutes. I’m not sure you can call it sleep, but I went somewhere.
What do you think makes you good at running ultras? Have you got something different – or have you managed to connect to something everybody has inside them? For me, endurance just comes naturally. It’s always been a way of life – from before I ever got into racing and long-distance running. Even when I was a child I preferred to walk than to take the bus – to cycle rather than drive. That’s always been there. That’s probably different for most people. With ultra and endurance sports the mental side is really very important, and that’s also part of who I am. I guess we’re all looking for something in life – I find something through running.
What’s the best thing about running for you? I think I just like moving – but under my own power – and of course I love the mountains. The love of running is a little bit separate from that because I’ll run wherever I am, whether it’s pavement or trail. Maybe it’s the physical movement … and the mental freedom.
If someone asks you for a training tip, what do you say?
With long distances, it’s really about staying in the moment. If you can do that, and have the confidence to try a long run, then our limits are never where we think they are. You realise you can go beyond what you thought was possible for you.
When you’re running these enormous distances you must hit ‘the wall’ numerous times. How do you deal with that? I think it’s matter of knowing that there will be times when you feel great and there will be times where you feel really, really not great. It’s one of those truths about life – that nothing lasts, everything is impermanent – so it’s just knowing that those bad patches are going to pass and you’ll come through the other side and trusting in that.
If you stand on the start line of a 24-hour race and think about how long you’ll be running it’s almost inconceivable. You have to take it moment by moment. It’s the same in a 100-mile race – if you think about the finish at the start then you’re probably not going to make it – but if you take it step by step, stage by stage, then you realise it is actually possible to run that far. If I have a race strategy it’s just to run the best that I can at any point in the race.
How about nutrition. What do you eat before a long run, for example, and what would you eat during a run? For breakfast, usually bread and honey and milky coffee. When I’m running I eat real food – I don’t use gels and sports drinks. It’ll be a mixture of stuff, depending on where I am and what’s available. In the Mustang, for example, you get these fantastic biscuits that are made from Tsampa, roasted barley, that are just a little bit sweet – it’s a staple food there and they’re very easy to carry.
And what’s your favourite post-race indulgence? The evening after a race a glass of wine is very nice. But if you’ve been running for 24 hours or longer it can take a while for your stomach to settle down, so it might be a few hours before you feel like eating or drinking much. And it depends on where you are, what’s available …
Do you use any running gadgets? I’m low-tech – as minimal as you can get. I do have a GPS now which I’ll use if I want to make a certain distance in training but I do most of my running without it, and I don’t watch my heart rate or anything like that.
Finally, who do you think is the greatest runner of all time? That’s too hard. I’ll duck out and say something general, like the person who inspired you to run. It could be anyone – seeing other people out running can inspire you to put your trainers on and get out there.
source: The Guardian by Nick Mead