“I kind of fell into racing at the long end!” –Ultra-runner Lizzy Hawker
After just five minutes’ conversation with Lizzy Hawker, I was in awe. All I could ask myself was how I had managed to go so long without learning about this amazing British runner.
One of the pleasures of interviewing people is when you discover that someone is even more interesting and accomplished than you anticipated when you set up the appointment. That’s what happened when I met Lizzy, who I found to be not only an amazing athlete, but also a genuinely warm and friendly person, modest and unassuming despite her incredible accomplishments.
My first question showed just how little I knew: had she been running for a long time? I also wanted to know about her background, history, and what got her into running and brought her to Nepal. She started at the beginning.
“I first went to the mountains when I was six, on a family holiday to the Alps, and fell in love with the mountains then. The mountains always felt like home; when I was back in London, I was homesick for the mountains, so it was always that way round,” she explained. “I don’t really know when I started running, maybe I never stopped running—because we all run when we’re kids. I don’t ever remember not running, but somewhere in my teenage years it became normal just to run every day. I think it’s because I wasn’t living in the mountains, so it was just my way of being outside, to go for a run.”
Is the kind of running she does specifically in mountains, I wondered, or in all kinds of places?
“No, I did everything, and all through school and university I was running every day, but it never crossed my mind to race or to join a club. So, it wasn’t much later, when I was working, I just decided to try and enter the London marathon because it was home, and it’s not often you can run on the road without cars; it’s something you have to do once. It was a few years before I actually got a place in the lottery (used because so many people want to do it). So, I finally got a place and did it; I think that was about the year 2000. Then a friend suggested, if you like running and you like the hills, why not do a marathon in a hilly place? So, I did the Snowdon marathon for a couple of years, it’s hilly, it’s the highest mountain in Wales, but it was still just a road loop around, it wasn’t on the hills. Then, another friend said, well, why don’t you start running on the hills instead of just running around them? That’s when I tried my first hill race, which was my first taste of off-road running.”
All of this was just personal and casual at the time, and it wasn’t till 2005, when, as Lizzy puts it, “The long-distance running kicked off.” She’d read an article about a race in the Alps, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, and decided to enter it because it sounded interesting, having no idea that this was the point at which her life would change. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a 166-kilometer race that circles around the base of Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, taking the runners up and down mountain passes in a loop through France, Italy, and Switzerland. At that time, Lizzy Hawker was in a completely different line of work with the British Antarctic Survey and was due to finish her PhD in Physical Oceanography that summer before returning to work in the Antarctic. “I thought, if I enter the race it would be an excuse to go out to the Alps, do some climbing, run the race at the end, and then come back to work,” she laughs. Outstandingly, she came in first place, and went on to win it a total of five times—something that hasn’t been done before or since by anyone, male or female.
Ultra-running is the name for the kind of running Lizzy does, which is basically anything beyond the 42 kilometers, or 26 miles, that make up a marathon. There are races up to distances of 50 k, 100 k, 100 miles, or more.
Lizzy also won the 100 k world championships in 2006, and set a new world record in the Commonwealth Championships 24 hour race in 2011. She’s modest as she shares her achievements, “It was really by chance, I mean I never grew up thinking, I want to run,” she says; and yet, this modesty belies the fact that she has worked incredibly hard to get where she is, through injuries: “I’ve been injured, had lots of stress fractures, and each time had to stop running, and then come back to the point where even a kilometer feels a long way, and you think how did I ever run 100 miles, but you kind of just build it back up.”
When I comment on her endurance—she certainly has broken and challenged a lot of the assumptions and stereotypes about what women can achieve in sports—Lizzy further explained, “Having run every day for years just builds up a high level of basic endurance, and even as I child I liked doing things the hard way, to go by foot instead of taking the bus, so the endurance was always there; I never had speed, but the endurance was always there.”
These days, between visits to Nepal, she organizes her own 100 mile race in the Alps, the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, and naturally, she is still running, though she says she is not competing as much as she was.
Of course, then I wanted to know what brought her to Nepal.
“The first time was actually just over ten years ago, 2007. I came to climb Ama Dablam, and then my friends and I ran from Everest Base Camp all the way back to Kathmandu.”
“How long did it take you?”
“That time, I think it took us something like 74-75 hours. But for various reasons, I did it twice again, so the time at the moment for it is 63 hours.”
“You set that? That’s the record time?”
She nods with a smile.
“So you climbed it, and you ran…,” I still can’t quite get over the amazing amount of effort involved in this double-feat.
“It was three of us; two guys ran back with me, the one that summited didn’t finish the run, and the one that didn’t summit because he had a chest infection finished the run, so I was the only one of the three of us to do both—the summit and the run.”
Then, we move on to the Great Himalayan Trail (GHT), which, unlike the trails in Europe we’ve been discussing, or the Appalachian Trail in the U.S., is not actually an officially demarcated route. It’s also a bit controversial, Lizzy explains, because things have changed over the years. There are, of course, any number of ways one can cross Nepal, and the first people to attempt it (the GHT runs across Nepal east-west or west-east) were restricted from entering certain areas and so had to come much further south into the mid-hills for part of it, leaving the actual Himalayas behind. “But then, after 2002 it became possible to kind of link up all the different Himal regions of Nepal. But there is no one way-marked route that’s protected and stays the same; this is Nepal, and things are changing all the time.” In 2017, Lizzy completed the GHT via what is currently considered the highest independent route, solo and self-supported, without the glaciated passes, but otherwise staying as high as possible. At the moment, she tells me, there are two people running, who are calling it an attempt at the FKT (fastest known time) for the GHT, but they’re doing a much lower version route, so according to her, it’s a bit of a misrepresentation. Nepal being what it is, it doesn’t seem possible to fix such firm labels to these places as you can elsewhere.
We then move on to ultra-running in Nepal— is it growing in popularity? Apparently, it is. There have been some races here for years, of course, but longer runs and trail runs are becoming more and more popular now. The site, trailrunningnepal.org, has some great resources and lists of upcoming events for those who are interested.
Lizzy also organizes some races in the Kathmandu Valley, one of which was where she first encountered Mira Rai, whom we wrote about here at ECS Nepal last year and who is really making a name for herself, both at home and abroad. “We’re trying to encourage other girls, too, and build something up, because it’s more popular when there are opportunities. When there are opportunities, they’ll take them. But, like for Mira, if the opportunity hadn’t come for her originally to leave her village and come to Kathmandu to train, she would never have been able to,” says Lizzy. In the West there are more sponsorship opportunities, “but here…we’ve crowdfunded money to get good runners that we know to be able to compete internationally, because until they compete internationally then there’s no chance of any sponsorship because no one’s going to know about them.”
From a tourism angle, she definitely sees great possibilities for trail running and ultra running to gain even further ground in Nepal: “There’s some good races like Manaslu, Mustang, etc., and also here, anywhere that you can trek, you can run, and on the major trekking routes there are lodges set up so you can go super light, don’t need to carry much, and can just stop wherever you want to!”
Lizzy is now writing a book about the Great Himalayan Trail, which will be coming out in June 2019. Since meeting her, I’ve tracked down her first book, Runner: A Short Story About a Long Run, because I was curious to learn more about her story. It took me a while to find, but in the end I tracked it down at Himalayan Map House, and I’m already several chapters in; her writing voice is very much like her spoken one, friendly, modest, encouraging that whatever your dreams might be—even if they differ wildly from hers—you can attain them, too. Somehow, after meeting her, just about anything seems possible.