Lizzy Hawker is one of Britain’s greatest endurance athletes – and given the manner and grace in which she approaches her sport, I’d happily say one of the greatest – full stop.
I had the absolute honour and pleasure of spending an afternoon with Lizzy talking about her achievements and her approach to life a month ago (and she had the annoyance of having to deal with several emails from me post interview following up on fine details afterwards – again – all to which Lizzy responded so honestly, friendly and patiently I felt like hugging her through the screen).
Being not just a passionate runner but a writer as well, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to tell the stories of fellow runners whose incredibly courageous stories don’t play out on TV screens but often late in the night under just the lumens of a headlamp. And not just to tell them, but to tell them well. Capturing the subtle details that make them who they are and able to achieve what they do. What makes them truly, truly brilliant.
Lizzy’s story was finally published this morning , and I was a little disappointed to discover it wasn’t in the way I’d originally written it. I know I’m a professional, and I shouldn’t worry about these things (I mean, I get paid anyway, right?) But I really wanted her story to be told the way I originally wrote it.
So here ’tis. Lizzy’s story. The way I told it.
After discovering her flight from Everest base camp to Kathmandu was cancelled last April, Lizzy Hawker did what seemed natural: she ran the 319 km journey instead. And it wasn’t even the first time she’s taken on such an inconceivable challenge – it was her third.
“That’s the quickest way back actually, if the weather’s bad,” she says, quite seriously, as if to suggest her 63 hour and 8 minute sojourn was normal.
But normal, Hawker is anything but.
Quietly spoken and self-contained, she is Britain’s greatest endurance athlete. The North Face athlete holds ultra running world records around the world and in 2011 set the women’s world 24 hour distance record clocking 247.07km (though Japanese ultra runner, Mami Kudo, bettered it by five kilometres last year).
In the same year she attempted to run the Great Himalayan Trail, 1600km from the east to the west of Nepal in mountainous areas bordering Tibet, only to be thwarted early in her attempt by losing a pouch of valuables, including much needed permits and a satellite phone.
You wouldn’t know it from her lack of sporting garb and unassuming demeanour, nor would she tell you.
She doesn’t have a coach, consult a nutritionist or even have a training plan, instead she trains by “feel”. She can run upwards of 300km in a week and thinks little of a 12-hour training day. She doesn’t know how fast she runs a marathon – she’s never run one competitively – though at 42km into the notoriously hilly 56km 2011 Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa she recorded 2 hours 45 minutes.
When she finally arrived into Kathmandu stadium after running non-stop for almost three days, only a handful of welcoming friends and journalists marked her arrival and new world record. Afterwards she walked – yes, walked – back to a friend’s place for a shower. In typical Nepalese style there was no hot water. She settled for a cup of tea instead.
With such an unconventional entry into the sport, Hawker learnt to throw away the rulebook long ago. Though she’s always enjoyed long runs, she only began competing eight years ago. After dabbling with her first marathon (where she clocked a commendable 3 hours 40 minutes, without training), her passion for the mountains led her to start running in them.
She won her first mountain race, the 2005 Snowdonia marathon, and then her second. She ran a 64km track race while visiting friends in Wales because: “Why not? I had never done anything like it”. She won that, too.
But Hawker’s true talent was revealed when she crossed the finish line of the 2005 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – the world’s hardest and most competitive 165km mountain race – as the first women in 26 hours, 53 minutes and 51 seconds.
Her achievement was all the more impressive given she signed up on a whim, had never run that far before, let alone trained. She competed in brand new shoes and an oversized bag she had to hold in place for the entire journey. She’s gone on to win an unparalleled five times since and has placed second once.
She claims she doesn’t run fast (though her 10 kilometre race pace “around 36 minutes” would rank her among the fastest women in Hong Kong); but she’ll readily admit she runs long, hard and in a zen-like state. She runs because it’s “like a moving meditation” and a chance to connect with the mountains she calls home.
But don’t be confused by Hawker’s nonchalant approach. Her modesty should not be confused for the depths of her resilience and fierce independence.
Endurance is just “naturally there” for 37 year old Hawker. She’s economical with movement. “I can easily run for three or four hours without eating or drinking anything,” she says. During a 100-mile race, she’ll power to the finish on a mixed plate of bread, cheese, banana bread and chocolate milk.
She has a superhuman ability to recover after gruelling mountain runs that would put others on the couch for weeks. “Last summer I did a long mountain race, around 117km, on Saturday. Then I ran around the Tour Del Monte Rosa as a training run – another 140km over four days – and then I raced a 30km mountain race at the end of the week.”
“It’s amazing,” she exclaims. “I think my body thrives on keeping moving.”
But it is her mental resolve that pushes her further and faster than those around her. ”It’s almost just stubbornness that you’re not going to give in, that you are going to carry on,” she explains. And it runs deep. Aged five she declared she would never eat meat again, and has been a vegetarian ever since.
Put simply, Hawker doesn’t believe in the impossible. “We often put limitations on what we think we can do and if somehow you can break that … then what you don’t think is possible, you realise that it’s not actually that out of the ordinary.”
She also doesn’t believe anything she does is truly spectacular. “It does just seem normal,” she says apologetically. “I think that’s the problem. Because it has become normal for me then I’m still thinking I can do better.”
“Even if I think about [setting the 2011 24 hour record]… I’m thinking ‘I knew I could have run further’. If I’m okay by the end of it, I’m thinking ‘I should be flat on the ground or something’,” she says, before admitting, “I think it’s in my nature to be quite hard on myself.”
Though integral to her meteoric rise, her mental strength has played a part in an even greater fall. For much of the past 18 months, Hawker has endured a string of debilitating injuries: a stress fracture in her right foot, followed six months later but one in her right, then a grizzly stress fracture in her left femur.
“I probably ran on it for 10 days before having it diagnosed, which didn’t help,” she berates herself. She took two months off running and is slowly on the mend. Hawker was recently in Hong Kong to lead a training run for the upcoming Vibram Hong Kong 100. She’s in two minds about competing in the race next weekend, which she won in 2011 year and previously held the course record. “It seems to be fully healed now, but I’m not feeling ‘race fit’ yet.”
Time off with injury has allowed Hawker the unusual opportunity of rest and reflection. She’s recently relocated to Kathmandu from Switzerland and says it’s the first of many changes she’s planning.
“There’s a time for everything and I don’t feel like I’ve finished with competition yet, but I can feel a shift.”
“I can see maybe in the next few years I won’t race so much and do some longer challenges.” Like what? “I really feel the pull back to the big mountains.” She rattles off some mountains in Nepal and Pakistan, and even Mongolia. Another attempt at the Great Himalayan Trail is also on the cards.
And perhaps even a small thing like a marathon one day, she says. ”That’s if I don’t get distracted by the mountains.”
A huge thank you to Lloyd Belcher for capturing these images of Lizzy. Check out more of his pics here: http://www.lloydbelchervisuals.com