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An Ultrarunner's Long Journey Back To Running

Lizzie Hawker running the Swiss Alpine Marathon in 2007. (Photo Credit: Arno Balzirini/AP)

British ultrarunning legend Lizzy Hawker recently ran somewhat more than 125 miles including more than 15,000 meters of elevation gain on trails encircling Nepal’s capitol, Kathmandu, in 35 hours, 39 minutes and 22 seconds. In one go. Without sleeping, or lying down. With a headlamp, and some sandwiches. On her 40th birthday. After three years of injury.

That was the easy part.

Soft-spoken and cerebral, Hawker is a paradox. She runs in her head rather than on her feet, she moved continuously for almost 36 extremely physical hours but claims to be far from fit, and values the journey over the destination. When she talks about “making a long journey,” it’s not always clear whether she’s talking about the slow return from what seemed a career-ending injury, the ultramarathon of life, or the 36-hour circuit of the city she increasingly calls home. “This was as much the journey to get to where I could do it, as doing it,” she said.


Ultrarunning in the competitive ranks is not kind to its members. Races are brutal, training is demanding, careers are short. So when Hawker—whose impressive endurance resume spans 11 years and includes an unprecedented five wins at the 104-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc—started getting stress fractures at age 37, it seemed like the years of pushing her body had caught up to her. For most ultrarunners, that would have signaled the end of the road. That Hawker was able to return to running extreme distances after seven stress fractures and three years of on-and-off injury flags her as an outlier in a sport of outliers.

Seth Wolpin, a self-described amateur adventure thrasher, pioneered the Kathmandu rim run that Hawker did, but his route was about 110 miles to Hawker’s 125 miles. She nonetheless finished over 14 hours faster than he had.

“It’s like an amateur woodworker watching a professional cabinetmaker do something he’s struggled with,” said Wolpin by phone from Seattle. “Lizzy is an elite runner; she has this innate ability to run with finesse and speed. It’s beautiful to watch. She did a harder, longer route. I sat down and had dinner while I was out there. I had a beer, I took four or five magic naps [10-minute lay downs]. I probably walked 50 percent of the time I was moving, certainly on the climbs. There’s a ridiculous amount of vertical gain. When I got back, I was really wasted. I staggered up the stairs to my apartment [in Kathmandu] and was pretty happy to see the couch.”

Hawker chatted via Skype from Kathmandu about how one makes a really long journey.


Sarah Barker: Congrats! How are you feeling?

Lizzy Hawker: Good, no ill effects. I wasn’t going quick enough to get sore. My body’s used to going long and slow.


You’ve been injured for a long time. What was the deal?

Six separate stress fractures. I’d take two months off, and it would heal, but when I started training again, I’d get a different one. When I got the seventh one, the advice was to take drugs or take six months completely off running.


That must have been frustrating.

It was hard. The more times it happened, the harder it was to trust I would come back. I wondered if I’d ever run again properly.


What did you do differently after the seventh stress fracture? How did you get back in shape?

We’re still unsure what was at the root of the stress fractures. It might not have been anything to do with running at all. And if you ask me, I’m nowhere near in shape. I don’t feel fit, certainly not race fit.


But I did take six months completely off. At this time last year, March 2015, I started running again, 10 minutes per day. When you’ve had a spell of no running at all, 10 minutes felt long. Yeah, it was discouraging. I thought, How did I ever run 100 kilometers or 100 miles?

Oh crumbs, I can’t remember the name of it, but there’s a small wood near here [in Kathmandu] with a very short loop around it. At first, I jogged one or two loops and walked home. I gradually built up to where I could go out to the Ring Road, about 8K. In April, I helped mark the route for the Mustang Trail race. It was mostly hiking, but good time on my feet. I went back to the Alps in the summer [Hawker established her own trail race, Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, in Switzerland] for training camps, and in July we made the full route of Monte Rosa in four days. It was a nice slow easy pace, about a marathon per day.


Do you go to the gym? Yoga? Weights?

I generally try and do yoga every day, though not enough. I go through phases with that. I do some stretching using body weight, but no gym. I should, but no.


After seven stress fractures, were you wary?

It’s a very distinctive pain—I’d know immediately I had another stress fracture. It took a long, long time before I could go out for a run and not have that fear that this would be the run when I’d feel that pain.


When did you first think you could attempt something really long again?

A friend first mentioned doing the Kathmandu valley circle back in 2011, so it’s been on my mind a long time. In November 2015, I made part of a loop around Manaslu [trekking route around a 26,781-foot mountain]. It was the first time in three years I’d run through the night alone. I got to a point just before dawn—it was super cold, over 4,500 meters, going up to the last village. I’d take a few steps and then sit down on a rock and shut my eyes and doze for a few minutes, walk a few steps and sit down again. I had to make myself get up again. I did that for an hour, hour-and-a-half. It was the first time I’ve actually been worried that I couldn’t get myself where I was going. Once you start on this route, you’re committed; there are no other roads. I mean, I could have banged on doors of lodges and slept for a couple hours. Or I could have stayed there on the trail and eventually someone would have come along. But it scared me because it was the first time I questioned what I was doing or whether I’d be able to do it.


As soon as dawn hit—it wasn’t even spectacular—that light coming back changed everything. Instantly, I got up and carried on. It’s not physical, it’s something more primal than that. I was out about 36 hours then, in late November, and thought, Maybe this is something I can do in the spring.

But I wanted to get to know the trails, not just follow a GPS route. I had a really tough time in January and needed something to focus on. About six weeks before I ran the whole thing, I remember sitting on the roof of a bus I’d taken across the valley. I left home at 7 a.m. and it took me ‘til half-past 10 to get to the other side of the valley. I was out running late and a really poor family took me in because there was no place to stay. This journey of learning the trails took me out for long, long days: I met people and really got to know this place where I’m living. I really enjoyed it.


Why your birthday, March 10th?

I wanted to do something positive with that day, and was lucky those were beautiful days. I would have run even if the weather wasn’t good because it wasn’t about making a fast time. For me it’s simply about making the journey. I came into running from loving to move in the mountains, making a journey under my own power, the satisfaction and empowerment of getting yourself from point A to B. I sit here in Kathmandu and look at the hills, and to know I can get myself around—it’s kind of special, you know. I do a lot of my running alone. I can push myself when there are no people around. Even when I’m racing, the competition is from within. I’m not motivated to run by racing; races happen as a side effect.


What did you bring with you?

A fairly decent sized rucksack. It was slightly big, and after 12 hours of sweating, it had rubbed my back raw. I brought a fair bit of food for the first day so I could be self-sufficient and not need to stop much—one cheese and lettuce sandwich, one hummus sandwich, and banana bread.


No gels or energy drinks?

[Laughs] No it has to be real food. I had two head torches and a lot of spare batteries. I’ve made this mistake before in races: If your batteries start going and the light dims, you start slowing down. At first, I thought it was because I was fatigued, but it’s actually because I couldn’t see. If the torch is good, I don’t slow down, so I carried an excess of batteries. I had a normal phone, but kept it switched off except to take a photo. I had a light battery pack to charge up the tracker, a light waterproof in case it rained, a half duvet jacket, and an emergency blanket. If you twist an ankle or have to slow down, you have to be careful.


I carried a liter of water at a time, buying more as I went along. Oh yeah, I had some money, because you pass through villages. I stopped for a lot of tea, only 10 or 12 minutes at a time, and two tiny bowls of chickpea curry. That was enough—I didn’t eat all that much. I had powdered orange juice—Tang. It’s sweet and makes water taste slightly nice. It does the job, but I don’t want any Tang for a little while. The second day, I was sort of longing for a sandwich—but that’s okay. I didn’t sleep or lay down. The thing is, I’m used to going through a night. Had I gone through a second night, I would have found it hard—I was scared of that.

I started at 5:30 Thursday morning and a friend joined me at half-past eight Friday morning, so I’d run more than 24 hours alone. He ran with me for a long time, but stopped to pay in a tea shop while I went on ahead and he went the wrong way. He and another friend met me again before the last climb, and another friend came out 4K from the finish point, so in the end, there were four of us together.


How did you celebrate?

The four of us sat in tea shop and had a beer. I had expected to walk home [into Kathmandu, about five miles] but we took a taxi—it was quite civilized. When I got home, I finished the other half of the beer. I was filthy, absolutely filthy, and really wanted a hot shower, but the power wasn’t on when I got back. Kathmandu has 12- to 18-hour power cuts in the winter. I heated up a jug of water and had a wash. I didn’t have enough water to wash the raw bits and by morning they had scabbed over and didn’t sting so much—one of the benefits to not having electricity. I woke up really early, 4 a.m., because the alarm was still on.


What’s next?

I’ll never go back to racing with the intensity I had. That was one period of life I don’t think I’ll go back to. If I can get myself physically fit, there’s still races I’d like to do—the 24-hours [Hawker once held the world record for 24-hour road running], Hardrock. I’d love to go back to UTMB, and of course my race, UTMR ... maybe once it can take care of itself. On the other side, long journeys are what’s exciting to me. Later this year, I’d like to make a crossing of Nepal from east to west in one push. Before [she attempted the Great Himalayan Trail in 2011] I was set on making the fastest time possible. At the moment, it’s about making the journey, making connections with people along the way, having time to talk and discover villages. Different cultures, different landscapes, different people—there’s too much to ignore. The whole point of that journey is to be part of it.


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