No Place to Rest - Page 3
Hawker training in her stomping grounds of the French Alps, near Chamonix.
Lizzy turns 36 this year, and I ask her if she feels she’s still getting stronger. “I think so. I’m noticing recovery is a bit different these days. I have to be a bit more careful now, whereas when I started I could get away with anything.”
That’s an understatement. “Even among long-distance runners,” says Stephen Pyke, “Lizzy’s unusual for her speed of recovery.” After their Everest to Kathmandu run, Pyke says his feet stayed swollen for a week. Two weeks after reaching Kathmandu they met again at a local fell race, he says. Pyke and Hartell managed to get round in a time 10-percent down on their usual effort. “Lizzy won the women’s event and set a new course record.”
Hawker is typically modest about this. “I do manage to race a lot more than people say I should,” she says. No kidding. She kicked off last year—on January 1st—with the Annapurna 100, run over the fiercely steep hills above the lakeside resort of Pokhara in Nepal. Then, having trekked in double-quick time around the 300-kilometer Annapurna circuit, she flew to Hong Kong for another 100-kilometer race, on January 15. In March she ran the TransGranCanaria, 123 kilometers across the island and 11,000 meters of ascent. As she counts these races off on her fingers, Lizzy doesn’t mention she was the first female home in all of them.
A month after the Canaries she flew to South Africa for the republic’s two most famous ultras, Cape Town’s Two Oceans in March and in April the 89-kilometer Comrades Marathon, run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Both draw thousands of competitors. At the second split in the 56-kilometer Two Oceans, taken at marathon distance, Hawker realized she had broken her personal best for a road marathon of 2 hours 45 minutes—and this on a hilly course. (“I really must work on my marathon time,” she says as an aside.) She finished Comrades in seventh place, three places behind fellow Brit (now living in Canada) Ellie Greenwood.
After that it was back to Europe for her favorite Alpine races, the Zermatt Marathon in early July, where she came in second, and three weeks later the 78-kilometer Swiss Alpine Davos, where she holds the course record. Lizzy won, her first victory since 2007, dedicating her success to local runner Jasmin Nunige, who had beaten her in Zermatt but was reduced to firing the starting pistol at Davos because of illness.
Interspersed with these races were coaching commitments that saw her clocking up huge distances above and beyond what her training program required. Hawker has taught at the Laufschule Scuol in the Engadine Alps of Switzerland for several years, the school’s star tutor in ultra distances. If you want insider tips on running the UTMB, Scuol is the place to go. Apart from her deal with The North Face and occasional writing assignments, this is how Hawker sustains herself.
In August Hawker lined up for the race that made her name, the UTMB, winning in difficult circumstances. Europe’s premier mountain ultra had been abandoned in 2010 because of bad weather (see “UTMB Fun Run,” March 2011, Issue 71) and as a consequence athletes were required to carry more protective gear. They needed it. A powerful front moved through the French Alpine resort of Chamonix at the scheduled time of departure, so organizers put back the starting time by five hours. Then there was that hip injury that almost saw Hawker quit at 70 miles. She slipped on ice and the bruise was so painful, she thought she’d suffered a stress fracture in her pelvis, an injury she’s overcome once before, in 2007.
Yet when I ask her about the race, her first response is unexpected. “It was beautiful up there. I was bowled over by it. I was on the second high pass when dawn came, and it was magical.”
While the renowned Spaniard Kilian Jornet (see “Just Kilian,” December 2011, Issue 76) was putting on every stitch he owned, and the race organizers were frantically altering the route after an aid station got taken out by the storm, Hawker was running in her own private winter wonderland.
Leading from the start, she took the changes in her stride, as the athletes were diverted via Martigny, adding extra distance and height to the course. “We had all four seasons in that race,” she says. “Rain, snow, ice, cold and, in Martigny, it was like an oven.” Hawker crossed the line in 25 hours 2 minutes, almost two hours ahead of the next woman to become the first person, man or woman, to take four UTMB titles.
Four weeks later and fully recovered from her hip injury, Hawker was in North Wales for her record-breaking 24-hour race. She hadn’t run on the road since South Africa but rather than take the safe option of sticking to the trails, she opted for the 24-hour road race, a discipline she’d never attempted before, running one-kilometer laps in the faded Victorian seaside resort of Llandudno.
Not only did Hawker win, she beat all the male competitors too, and set a new world record. By the time the 24 hours was up, Hawker had run 246.41 kilometers, just over 153 miles, breaking the previous record by 3.42 kilometers. How did she feel about being a world-record holder? “The strange thing is I could have run it a lot better, if I’d focussed on it a bit more. I’d only made the decision to run the week before. I fancied doing something new, completely new. No one could have any expectations of me. I just wanted to see what happened. I didn’t feel I had run extraordinarily well.”
You’ll have got the message by now that Hawker is almost pathologically modest—even to a British ear—and equivocal about her direction. “I’ve watched her wrestle with some of these challenges,” says Hartell. “Should I focus on the marathon, should I aim for the UK 100-kilometer team, should I follow my heart in the mountains?”
She doesn’t talk like a dedicated athlete. In broadcast interviews after her fourth UTMB she comes across as reserved and thoughtful, where you might expect her to be jubilant and expansive. She is almost apologetic about her determination to win, and deeply reluctant to discuss those she runs against. Mixing it with the opposition away from the trails is just not her style.
When I try and quiz her on her rivals, she’s respectful but won’t be drawn. “People often ask me if I think about the competition. Usually I’ll know the top women. I’m aware of it, whether Krissy Moehl’s is going to the UTMB for example. But I really just put that to one side and focus on my own race.”
But don’t for a moment imagine Hawker lacks the inner steel of a born competitor. “I think it’s quite well hidden, but I can’t imagine you’ll come across anyone more competitive than Lizzy,” says Pyke. “If she hasn’t run the best race she possibly can, she’ll be annoyed at herself.”
For evidence, look no further than her 2006 100-kilometer world crown. Hawker led from the start and, with 20 kilometers to go, led her nearest rival, Italian Monica Carlin, by six minutes. But Carlin fought back and with 200 meters to go—after seven-and-a-half hours of running—was just where she needed to be, almost on Hawker’s shoulder. Hawker could easily have folded, but she didn’t. She dug in and hung on, beating Carlin by four seconds in a sprint finish, the closest margin in the race’s history, and likely to remain so.
By any standards, 2011 was a great year for Hawker—arguably her best. Ellie Greenwood might have been tearing up the trails in the U.S., her win in the Western States 100, the American River 50 and the Chuckanut 50K earning her whispered comparisons with Ann Trason, but Hawker’s world record and a fourth UTMB was a classy haul.
Greenwood describes herself as “a big fan” of Hawker. “It is so refreshing to see someone who just wants to live a simple mountain life and push herself to the absolute limit just because that’s what she loves to do,” says Greenwood. She admires the mental toughness that allowed Hawker to focus on a dull one-kilometer tarmac course to take the world 24-hour record. “The fact that she was prepared to give it a shot and attempt a world-record time shows that must have a solid self confidence. I think Lizzy is an amazing example. She lives an exemplary lifestyle and stays true to herself. She pushes herself to extraordinary limits. If she ever sets herself a challenge but falls short, you know she has done everything in her power to succeed.”
Renowned ultrarunner Kami Semick also holds Hawker in high admiration, saying, “Lizzy wants to get the best out of herself in every single event, whether she is racing the men, for example, at UTMB, or attempting a record in the Himalayas. She is a fierce competitor and an inspiring athlete, but wrapped in a package of humbleness tied together with passion. I don’t think she is chasing medals or titles—she is chasing her dreams.”
Hawker could have gone into winter training full of confidence that she could add a fifth title and take back the course record from rival Krissy Moehl. But she didn’t. She headed for Nepal and her dream of running the Great Himalayan Trail. The question is—why?
The answer to that has its roots in her fascination with mountains. Hawker doesn’t just love running up them. From a young age, mountains became her natural habitat, shaping her own psychological landscape. She was born in Upminster in northeast London, as far from wild nature as you could imagine. Her father ran an engineering business, her mother stayed home to raise their four children. “Maybe mountains are a reaction to suburbia,” she says.
Hawker first saw the Alps on a family holiday when she was six. She says she cried on the train home when the Matterhorn slipped from view. That passion for mountains expressed itself more as a hiker and climber than a runner, although she says she “can’t remember not running. I enjoyed cross-country more than standing on a netball court. I knew I wanted things I could do alone.”
A top student who loved schoolwork, Hawker won a place at Cambridge University to study Natural Sciences, a popular first degree for doctors. Lizzy thought about medicine but preferred to be outside in nature than stuck inside a hospital. So she studied oceanography as a post-grad. Her PhD was on the circulation of the Nordic seas. That led to a contract with the British Antarctic Survey, offering oceanographic expertise in modelling biological changes prompted by climate change.
The subject area was right up her street, and she could have settled into a useful career but Hawker quit academic life. “I didn’t have enough faith in the research I was doing to move on and get promoted and write papers.” For Hawker, the mesh of workplace politics, of nurturing a career, was a net to trap her. Plotting ocean currents on board an icebreaker and then pounding away on a treadmill after work was a far cry from the freedom of the hills.
She’d run her first marathon in 2000, and began connecting the mountains with running while she was studying for her PhD. She entered races like the Snowdon Marathon and took on challenges like the 15 Welsh 3000ers. Running in the mountains, she realized, was the best way she’d discovered to experience the environment that left her fulfilled and inspired.
Her writing is full of these ideas. After the Annapurna 100 in January, during her fast tour of the Annapurna Circuit, she wrote: “There was solitude, a time to think and a time just to be in the moment. Walking literally from the pre-dawn until dusk, not running in order to save myself for the next race, the journey became for me almost a ‘moving meditation.’”
Some runners find this kind of talk a little whimsical, as though Hawker were avoiding the subject. But it’s right at the burning core of what propels her. When she says, “My heart’s in the mountains,” she means it, although by “heart” I think she means “preferred state of mind.” There’s something genuinely Zen about her. “When I’m moving,” Lizzy tells me, “whether it’s running or being in the mountains, that’s when I know myself more. Running is just part of me.”
The secret to Lizzy Hawker is her focus on the moment she’s in. She’s arranged things so there’s little to distract her. She doesn’t have a car or a house, or many possessions beyond her laptop and her running shoes. She has the loan of her small apartment in Klosters and when that goes, she’ll find a perch somewhere else. She makes what money she needs from sponsor The North Face, writing and coaching. She’s got lots of friends, is warm and engaging and open to the idea of relationships, but there’s something undeniably restless about her, as though anxious that something just out of view might slow her down.
Competing in mountain races is obviously important to her. No one runs that far and fast while feeling doubtful about it. Yet the discipline of racing can be constricting. She doesn’t seem at all comfortable with the athlete’s need to focus on the self, the endless self-interrogatives. How am I feeling? What should I eat? Will I succeed?
Even now, sitting in the restaurant in Klosters, I know she wants to get moving. The Nepal-based runner Richard Bull, who runs a blog on running in the Himalaya and trekked in with Hawker to the start of the GHT, puts his finger on it. “She likes space. She wants to sleep near the window, preferably with it open. At the long trekking-lodge table she sits at the end. She doesn’t like being in the lower valleys, she wants to be above the trees and in the mountains. She is friendly to people, but keeps a good distance. When making a journey, she likes the ease of being on her own, not having to compromise with another person.”
It isn’t all plain sailing. “If Lizzy gets her teeth into something you won’t meet anyone more determined,” says Pyke. “But at the same time she can have bouts of uncertainty.” Figuring out her path hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes she’s hesitated between different priorities. She had a promising academic career, but it didn’t fulfil her. She’s flirted with road running and had a serious go at the marathon, but working up her speed left her body damaged. The mountains—and the freedom they offer her