Damian Hall talks to Euan Crumley about writing books, creating history and the problems of balancing an ultra running career with his increasing environmental concerns
Back in 2012, Damian Hall wrote a guidebook about the Pennine Way, the long-distance trail which stretches 268 miles (431km) from Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders to Edale in Derbyshire. At the time, he had only ever run just one half-marathon and noted with some incredulity that the quickest time for covering the entire distance on foot had been achieved in 1989 by a man by the name of Mike Hartley, who had taken two days, 17 hours and 20 minutes to complete his journey.
That mark would stand for 31 years, until John Kelly beat it by 34 minutes in mid-July of last year. The American got just a handful of days to bask in his achievement, however, before a rather more athletically experienced version of Hall lowered the FKT – or Fastest Known Time – for the route considerably in a time of two days, 13 hours and 34 minutes.
It was one of three FKTs the Englishman set in 2020 – adding to the 61-mile winter Paddy Buckley Round in Snowdonia and the 73-mile South Wales Traverse in the Brecon Beacons – and just the latest in what has become an ultra-distance running career of high achievement.
“It’s funny how you look back on things,” says the 45-year-old as he recalls putting that aforementioned book together. “I wouldn’t even have called myself a runner then. But I remember putting Mike Hartley’s record into the book and I’m pretty sure I wrote something like ‘it’s not likely that anyone else is going to cover the Pennine Way as quickly as Mike Hartley did in 1989’.
“At the time I just thought it was madness and impossible for most people. I suppose it sowed a little seed…”
Hall, who balances his running with coaching and journalistic work, has since represented his country and featured on numerous ultra marathon podiums. One of his most impressive feats came in 2018 when he finished fifth at the world-renowned Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.
Racing in 2020, however, wasn’t really an option as Covid-19 hit hard and so many of the world’s finest long-distance athletes – Hall included – turned their attentions to the pursuit of an FKT or two. With great success.
FKT is a term for what is essentially a speed record on any given route. Rather than racing other runners, it’s just you against the clock over the pre-determined course of your choosing and there has been an explosion in its popularity.
No fewer than 4,409 FKTs were registered with FastestKnownTime.com in 2020, which represented a 434 per cent increase on 2019.
As of January 3, 2021, 7,589 FKTs from around the world are registered on the website.
There is hope – and some growing expectation – that races and events will start to come back to life later in the year but, even if that does happen, Hall believes his sport could well have been altered permanently as athletes opt to do their own thing on a more regular basis.
“I enjoyed last year and really got something satisfying out of them [the FKT attempts]. I’d already thought ‘I’m going to do more of these, anyway, even if racing is on like normal’,” he says, revealing he has two FKT attempts in mind for 2021.
“There are other runners who prefer to race but I think it will change things and it opens up the sport more as a vehicle to have adventures.
“You don’t have to wait for someone else to put on an event and pay money to them and I think they can be a lot more satisfying [than a race], partly because you’ve done it your own way and you’ve made more decisions.
“You’ve decided when and where and so on. Not always, but you can have more of an adventure. There is a lot of opportunity to be creative and even tell stories.”
Hall shares some of his own running tales in a book due out in May called In It For The Long Run, but he has also found that embarking on distance projects can provide a platform for getting other messages across.
He has become increasingly vocal about climate change and, as part of his Pennine Way attempt, he and his support team of pacers collected litter along the way. The whole event was also certified as being carbon negative.
“It’s quite an easy gesture and not that political, really, but that did seem to capture people’s imagination,” Hall says of his clean-up operation on the run. “That was quite pleasing and helped to raise awareness [of environmental issues].”
He adds: “I have a client of mine who is going to run the South West Coast path this year. She is going to go for the FKT but really her main reason is that she wants to talk more about coastal erosion, climate change and all the rubbish that is ending up on the beaches and in the marine areas. She is running for her values but turning it into an FKT.”
Taking a stronger stance on such issues has brought about big changes for Hall. He is someone who has travelled extensively to race in the past but is now turning opportunities down so that he can practice what he preaches.
He is signed up for another crack at the UTMB later this year but will take a far more circuitous route to the start line in Chamonix by train rather than plane in order to minimise his carbon footprint. Balancing the sport he loves and helps to support his family with against the causes he believes in can be a difficult one, though.
“It takes a lot of anguish and a lot of thought,” he admits. “I suppose there is a feeling of ‘am I being a massive hypocrite if I do any race?’ and I have a runner friend who is adamant he won’t fly ever again. Veganism is big in ultra running, too, and I have a very good friend who is a Great Britain international who won’t be sponsored because of the compromises that that brings.
“He is taking a stronger stance than me and I really applaud all that.
“What I looked at was if I could massively decrease my carbon footprint. I wanted to get independent verification so I went to a company called Our Carbon and we analysed all of my lifestyle and looked at things like switching our power supplier to a renewable energy source, while in terms of my diet I’m more or less completely plant-based.”
He continues: “If I’m honest, as an athlete, I am part of the cog of over-consumption. I’m sponsored by a brand to try and help sell more [Hall is supported by Inov-8]. But I found that hard to give up because it feels very hard-earned and there aren’t many of those opportunities. At my age, I thought ‘how many more years have I got of this?’.
“It’s also part of the way that I support my family now so it was a selfish decision but I’ve reanalysed what I’m going to promote on social media and how often do I promote new things.
“I have looked at four or five lifestyle areas and reduced them all dramatically. We were carbon negative for last year and I’ll do the same this year.
“That’s how I’m dealing with it and to some people it will be hypocritical while for others it might be satisfactory.
‘I’m not trying to tell people what to do. I just found myself in a position where I started mouthing off about stuff and then it’s only right that people would start asking ‘well what are you doing?’.
“I’ve turned away races to Mexico, Nepal… I am turning away lots of very exciting opportunities if I think my overall footprint for the year will be too big.”
It helps, too, that there are so many FKT and event opportunities closer to home which have provided a rich writing seam for Hall to mine. He laughingly describes his forthcoming book, which revolves around his ultra-distance adventures, as “disgustingly self indulgent”, though some of his research proved to be particularly enlightening.
“It starts off with a bit of historical context because what has fascinated me is that this concept of FKTs is often pitched as something new which has come out of racing and that’s it’s an American thing,” says Hall.
“However, the more I looked into it, the more it seemed to be the other way around.
“FKTs have been going on forever, basically, and racing is a more modern concept.
“You can trace FKTs back to when there were professional messenger runners in Greek, Roman and Egyptian times, while some of the oldest recorded running performances are from Egyptian pharaohs who would run at their coronation, alone in front of huge crowds.
“There was one king, Rameses II (1303-1213), who got quite old and as he aged he had to run every few years to prove he was worthy of the throne.
“The whole pedestrianism movement was just wonderful and, especially with the six-day races they used to do, often it was like ‘hey, I’m going to bet a load of people to run from Paris to Moscow and back’ and that’s how people made their living at the time, so this was a whole international FKT culture that has been going on for well over 100 years.
“In Britain we have a huge culture of these non-race – often mountain-based – challenges, too.”
It is a culture which shows no signs of weakening.
» In It For The Long Run (Vertebrate Publishing) will be released in May