Letting the mind rule the body

Lizzy Hawker's mental resolve has been key to her rise to the top as an ultrarunner - but also contributed to a recent fall

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 2:38pm

When Lizzy Hawker was five years old, she declared she'd never eat meat again - she's been a vegetarian ever since. Though the 37-year-old seems a complete natural at endurance running, picking up title after title since her first race just eight years ago, it is that mental resolve that has pushed 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 says. 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."

If I'm okay by the end of it, I'm thinking, 'I should be flat on the ground
Lizzy Hawker

But though integral to her rise, her mental strength has played a part in an even greater fall, one which threatens to rule her out of next weekend's Vibram Hong Kong 100.

For much of the past 18 months, Hawker has endured a string of debilitating stress fractures, most recently in her right femur.

"I probably ran on it for 10 days before having it diagnosed, which didn't help." She took two months off running and is slowly on the mend.

Hawker was recently in Hong Kong to lead a training run for next weekend's race but is still in two minds about competing. She won the women's race in 2011 and previously held the course record. "It seems to be fully healed now, but I'm not feeling race fit yet."

Quietly spoken and self-contained, she is Britain's greatest endurance runner. The North Face athlete holds ultrarunning world records around the world and in 2011 set the women's world 24-hour distance record, clocking 247.07km (Japanese ultrarunner Mami Kudo bettered it by 5km last year).

In the same year she attempted to run the Great Himalaya Trail, 1,600km 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 permits and a satellite phone.

I can easily run for three or four hours without eating or drinking anything
Lizzy Hawker

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 2:45.

After discovering a flight from Everest base camp to Kathmandu was cancelled last April, she did what seemed natural: ran the 319km back.

"That's the quickest way back actually, if the weather's bad," she says as if to suggest her 63-hour-and eight-minute jaunt was normal.

When she finally arrived in 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 back to a friend's place for a shower. There was no hot water. She settled for a cup of tea instead.

She doesn't believe what she does is spectacular. "It does just seem normal," she says. "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'. I think it's in my nature to be quite hard on myself."

With such an unconventional entry into the sport, Hawker learnt to throw away the rule book 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 3:40 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: "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 (in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps) - as the first woman in 26:53.51.

Her achievement was all the more impressive given she signed up on a whim and 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 admits 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.

But don't be fooled by Hawker's nonchalant approach. Her modesty should not hide the depths of her resilience and fierce independence.

Endurance is just "naturally there" for 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 (in the Swiss and Italian Alps) 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."

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 Himalaya 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."