FT Masterclass: Ultra-running with Lizzy Hawker

There’s a mood of anticipation in the famous Swiss resort of Klosters. Locals are waiting for snow, so the business of skiing can start again. I’m standing outside the station, an appropriate place to meet a woman who never stops moving. Without fanfare, and bang on time, Lizzy Hawker stops in front of me, hands thrust in the pockets of her coat, blonde hair pushed behind her ears.

At 5ft 4in, and weighing just 100lb, she might look frail, but Hawker, 36, is among the world’s toughest ultra-runners, specialising at distances that make the marathon seem a brief dash. Last September, she ran 246.41km in 24 hours at the Commonwealth Mountain & Ultra Distance Championships. That’s not far off six marathons, back to back. In the process she smashed the previous world record, which had stood for 18 years, by more than 3km.

The race was held in Llandudno, north Wales, on a road course with a 500m straight, a tight turn, and then back 500m in the opposite direction, over and over again. Hawker could stop for drinks and food – even sleep – whenever she liked. All she had to do was cover as much distance as possible. Not only did she break the women’s record, she beat all the men too.

“The strange thing,” she says with typical modesty, “is that I could have run a lot better, if I’d focused a bit more. Knowing how much more I could do means it doesn’t feel like anything extraordinary.” Hawker only decided to run that week, and it was her first road race in months. Mostly she runs on trails, usually in the mountains. “I fancied doing something new,” she says. “No one could have any expectations of me. I just wanted to see what happened.”

Lizzy Hawker isn’t like other world-class athletes. She’s instinctive and largely self-taught. She doesn’t have a nutritionist or a physio. She doesn’t even have a coach – ultra-running is the Cinderella of athletics so there’s no money for one. She doesn’t have a permanent address either, flitting between mountain towns around the world as lightly as she runs. She survives on fresh air, the kindness of friends, teaching courses in ultra-running and a small sponsorship deal with the outdoor brand North Face.

I’m worried she’s exhausted. A few days before our meeting, Hawker had run alone from Everest base camp at a breathless 5,300m in Nepal to Kathmandu – a distance of 320km, with 10km of ascent and 14km of descent – in just two days, 23 hours and 25 minutes, clipping more than three hours off her own record. She would have run faster if she hadn’t needed to wait out a rainstorm for eight hours.

Putting aside the physical fitness required for such a colossal journey – and what it’s doing to her heart – the psychological strength to keep going for hour after hour, day after day, when all you want to do is lie down and sleep, is unimaginable. That’s why I’m in Switzerland, to see what I can learn about Hawker’s exceptional mental attitude.

We head up the valley into the mountains to go running. Hawker fell in love with the Alps as a six-year-old on holiday with her family, and is more often here than anywhere else. She grew up in Upminster, Essex, where her father had an engineering business and her mother raised four children. “Maybe mountains are a reaction to suburbia,” she laughs.

After studying natural sciences at Cambridge she earned a doctorate in polar oceanography, before joining the British Antarctic Survey to work on climate change research. She’s still passionate about the environment, but couldn’t see a future in academia. Instead she followed her heart back to the mountains for some self-actualisation on the grandest scale.

Beating other people isn’t really the point of ultra-running for Hawker. “People often ask me if I think about the competition. I’m aware of it, but I really just put that to one side and focus on my own race. The competition is very much within. I might win a race and still not be happy because I didn’t run the best I could. And while racing is one aspect, there are so many other things I want to do in the mountains.”

Hawker came to ultra-running more as a mountaineer than an athlete. I can see this in the nimble way she places her feet on the steep alp we’re running up above Davos. Unlike on the road, trail running, especially in mountains, takes precision and concentration. The consequences of a trip can be horrendous. Long days climbing hills, she says, got her used “to being on my feet all day”.

As someone with a similar passion for trail running, I know what she means. But Hawker’s mental focus has an almost Zen-like quality. During her record 24-hour run, the husband of another runner offered to help her with food to keep her going. “He was really into the psyche and body stuff, but was bowled over by the focus I had. He said he’d only seen that level of concentration before in a Buddhist monk.”

Lizzy Hawker with Ed Douglas

Living simply is part of her secret. She’s been a vegetarian most of her life, and she wonders about her freakish, lean-burn metabolism. But I can’t help feeling she also has a few mental tricks to fall back on. “At one level, the mind-body connection has to be quite strong,” she says. “You have to be aware of what your body’s saying. On another level, you have to able to let what’s happening go. I remember thinking during the 24-hour race that it hurts to go slowly, so I might as well go a bit quicker.”

Yet Hawker is not someone who simply runs forever. A year ago she broke her personal best for a marathon – around 2 hours and 45 minutes – during a hilly 56km road race in South Africa. That was a world-record time in the mid-1970s. She knows if she concentrated on the marathon she could bring that time down substantially. “The best training for me this winter would be marathon training. But I really don’t have the knowledge about what intervals are going to be beneficial to get the most out of each session.”

Most ultra-runners obsess about the details of their discipline, but Hawker doesn’t concern herself with the faddier stuff. She has tried energy gels, but “they just slosh around in my stomach”. Banana bread is a favourite, but she consumes remarkably little for someone running so far. Often her race supplies will be snaffled from her hotel breakfast buffet. “I won’t drink much up to marathon distance,” she says.

It’s staggering to think the women’s marathon wasn’t included at the Olympics until 1984. Yet Hawker and her ultra-running sisters are making a mockery of the notion long distances might be too much for them. Winning the 24-hour race, she says, was a neat way of showing how the gap between men and women actually comes down the further you go.

Injury has dented her 2012 season, but she’s now preparing for her next big challenge – the Western States 100, the first time she has competed in any of the iconic races in the US. Before she heads off for a proper two-hour training run I ask her if she knows where her journey is taking her. “No,” she says. “But when I’m moving, whether it’s running or being in the mountains, that’s when I know myself more.”

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