No Place to Rest - Page 2
Throughout those long hours in a rain-swept and obscure Nepalese village, Hawker ponders the wisdom of going on. It’s not as though she is in Nepal for the express purpose of breaking this record. Running 200 miles back to Kathmandu is a bonus in an exceptional year—even by her high standards.
In the summer, she’d won her fourth UTMB. In September, she’d smashed the world 24-hour record by 3.42 kilometers in the Commonwealth Mountain and Ultra Distance Championships held in North Wales. She’d beaten all the men that day too.
A few weeks later, she’d flown to Nepal for a challenge that was left-of-field for a competitive runner but spoke to Hawker’s powerfully deep relationship with the mountains in general, and the Himalayas in particular. Her plan was to make a fast traverse of the Great Himalaya Trail, or at least the section of it that currently exists, across Nepal. The existing route covers more than 1000 miles from gigantic Kangchenjunga in the east of the republic to the remote district of Humla in the west, crossing passes up to 6200 meters along the way. Typically, she planned to run alone, with minimal back-up, linking up with Sherpas working on climbing expeditions to see her safely over the highest passes.
Hawker’s plan foundered when she lost the main trail somewhere between Kangchenjunga and its equally huge neighbor Makalu, just a few days into her attempt. Then, at a stream crossing, the small pack she carried on her front became detached and fell into the water. It held everything that was irreplaceable—satellite phone, permits and contacts book. Her logistics team in Kathmandu spent an anxious few days waiting to hear why she had suddenly fallen silent. When Hawker eventually found a phone, she managed to get a message through. It was over almost as soon as it had started.
Lizzy could have just slunk home to her temporary base in the Swiss ski resort of Klosters to lick her wounds and plan her next move. But that’s not her style. She was in Nepal, so why not make the most of it? After a shower and a good night’s sleep, she looked around for something else humungous to sink her teeth into. Her first thought wasn’t the trail from Everest to Kathmandu. She’d already done that in 2007, setting a new record of 3 days 2 hours 39 minutes with running partner Stephen Pyke.
Instead she signed up for the Everest Sky Race. Organizer Bruno Poirier had been inviting her to the event for a few years and now here was the perfect opportunity. Starting at the town of Dolakha, the course takes in some of the wildest terrain in the Everest region in nine stages totalling 200 kilometers with 11,000 meters of ascent. The finish line is basecamp for one of Nepal’s most beautiful mountains, Ama Dablam.
After the seventh stage, and within sight of Everest, Lizzy led the race, but a chest infection she’d picked up in Kathmandu was taking its toll. After reaching the summit of Gokyo Ri at 5350 meters, her lead had been cut to seven minutes, and she lost it next day crossing the Cho La, a pass of 5420 meters, to the eventual winner, local Jorbir Rai, who also won the race in 2008. Hawker finished third, having won four stages, unprecedented success for a foreign athlete in the event. She pronounced herself satisfied with her effort.
Even so, despite her success and that damned cough, Lizzy wasn’t done. Flying out of Lukla might be the sensible option, but that would mean missing out on more days in the hills. And anyway, the airport was shut. Why not run back to Kathmandu? On their first record attempt, Lizzy and her friends had got lost and wasted time. She knew she could run faster, so why not give it a go?
The first thing she did—and so typical of Hawker—was to email Pyke and Mark Hartell, who had organized but then pulled out of the previous run. Would they mind at all if she had another go? Then she hung out with climbing friends at basecamp in the lee of stupendous Ama Dablam, eating and resting—and waiting for her chest to improve on a course of antibiotics. Feeling stronger, she shouldered her light pack and set out for Everest and the start of her long road home.
A week after her return from Nepal, Lizzy is sitting across the table from me in the Sportzentrum Restaurant on the edge of Klosters, the one town she occupies long enough to call home. The hills through the window are brown when they should be white, and consequently the restaurant is almost empty. Skiing is impossible and the locals are getting anxious for the season to begin. While I plough my way through a heaped bowl of pasta, Lizzy sips at her second cappuccino. In her jacket pocket is a chopped apple she’ll eat later, to keep her going for the two-hour training run she’s planning after I leave.
Before her first Everest to Kathmandu record, Lizzy reached the summit of Ama Dablam on an expedition led by mountain guide Victor Saunders. Now in his fourth decade of Himalayan exploration, Saunders was amazed at how little Hawker consumed.
“I get up pretty early,” he told me, “but, whenever that was, Lizzy would be up before me. She’d nibble on a chapatti and then go off running for several hours. The guys on the expedition just couldn’t stop eating.”
The two adjectives you hear most about Hawker are “private” and “tiny.” There’s some truth in both. At 5 feet 4 inches and 116 pounds, she’s no giant, but she has a strong presence. We had arranged to meet at Klosters rail station, and when I catch sight of her, I realize I’d forgotten how tough she can look. With her feet planted a little apart and her shoulders squared up, she’s not exactly defiant but clearly self-possessed. Her running style is robust and neat, carrying her down the trail like she was on rails. She has an open face that lights up when she smiles, but she can look preoccupied, even worried when she’s thinking.
As for “private,” it largely depends. “She’s quite warm and fun when you know her,” says Mark Hartell, instigator for her first Everest to Kathmandu run. “She may be able to get by on a chapatti a day, but she’s also quite happy to quaff a jug of chang [local barley beer] to lubricate a game of Scrabble or a conversation.”
When I tell her all this between mouthfuls of pasta, she laughs. “I think I must be very efficient at metabolising fat, because I can go through a whole race and not eat. It’s easy for me to forget to eat early enough. I can easily go 30 or 40 kilometers without eating anything but then it’s too late. When I do eat something, it takes a while to get through me.”
On her first run from Everest to Kathmandu, she says, beyond the road head at Jiri, she became ravenous. “I’d have eaten anything that appeared in the road,” she says, laughing again. Although given that she’s s been vegetarian most of her life, I guess it would have to be cheese road kill.
Hawker’s attitude to nutrition reveals her approach to running—and life—in general. She’ll find her own path. When she won the 2006 100-kilometer World Championships in Seoul, she picked up bread rolls from the breakfast buffet and filled them with chocolate spread and honey.
“Things haven’t really changed that much,” she says. “I have tried various gels and bars, but still haven’t found the answer. I was eating banana bread at the UTMB this year.”
She’s pretty restrained when it comes to hydration too. “I won’t drink much up to marathon distance,” she says. “I don’t sweat much so I don’t need to drink as much as others and I find it hard drinking when I’m running fast.”
Doesn’t she ask advice on all that stuff? “I haven’t talked to a specialist at all. I’ve tried various things but I still haven’t found the answer. Some races I manage quite well but in others I don’t manage to take much on. In the UTMB I had an injury in my bum, and because of the pain I wasn’t eating as much as I normally do—and on the UTMB it’s quite easy because you eat during the ascents and digest. The pain really threw me. I was running on empty for a lot that race.”
It’s hard to watch someone when you’re eating and they’re not, but every so often I sneak a glance. She looks a little tired, as you’d expect for someone who has just run 200 miles and then flown a third of the way round the world. She’s suffering from ankle tendonitis too. “I haven’t had any injuries for ages until yesterday,” she says. “It’s just overuse. If I can give it a week’s rest without running on it, the problem usually goes away.”