Last updated: 04-Apr-19
By Luke Jarmey
A recent gallop along Britain’s longest National Trail, the infamous 630-mile South West Coast Path (SWCP) has earned Damian Hall a hard fought and much coveted fastest known time (FKT) of 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes. After the battle smog cleared, we had a chat with Damian to learn more about this tumultuous challenge and his background in ultra running and outdoor journalism.
Q. So five weeks on from your finish Damian, how are the war wounds clearing up? To put it mildly, you must have been feeling rather creaky…
A. Heehee. Yes, I gave myself a day off afterwards, but I’ve been worse. During the run, every niggle I’d ever had came back to haunt me. But thankfully then went away again. It was amazing how the body adapts and sort of submits to the task. I guess it’s a bit like breaking a horse in. I remember my legs feeling fantastic on day eight. My feet did get a bit grumpy towards the end. But then feet can be like that. A bit self-centred and whingey.
Q. Before we dive into the SWCP, tell us a bit about your general background?
A. I’m a busy freelance outdoor journalist, with two young children who aren’t the least impressed with any of my running exploits. I returned to the Cotswolds in 2010, where I mostly grew up, after seven years of travelling and living abroad – where I was robbed by both a Peruvian policeman and a possum, though not at the same time. Other than time with my kids, I’m happiest when travelling long distances in lumpy places. I think I just heard you yawn?
Q. (Don’t be silly… utterly engrossed!) Ok, so when did you enter the world of ultra running? And was it onwards and upwards via the classic path of half marathons to marathons, etc?
A. Sort of. I enjoyed cross country at school, but preferred football, even though I was never any good. In 2011 I was feeling unfit so I signed up for my first half marathon and absolutely loved it. The next year I did my first marathon (dressed as a toilet). I pestered Outdoor Fitness to let me write about it and the editor called my bluff and sent me on my first ultramarathon instead, The Wall. Again, I totally loved it: the camaraderie, the scenery, the sense of achievement, all that cake. I was hooked. Before I knew it, I’d done my first 100km, first 100-miler and was doing the 268-mile Spine Race. That first full year of ultras was wonderful, repeatedly standing at start lines hugely daunted and unsure if I was able to complete the distance. Before I ran I also loved long-distance walking, which I’ve done all over the world, and that background really helped me enjoy ultras too. They’re both about long days out in wilder places, being self-reliant while trying to ignore chafes in your bathing suit area.
Q. Just to give your ego a good burnish, you’ve got some exceptionally good race placings in the bag: The Coastal Challenge, Spine Race, Dragon’s Back, UK Ultra Trail Championships etc. Tell us about some of these results? Clearly they’re drastically different races, but overall which ones ruined you, both physically and mentally, the most?
A. You’re very generous. But I honestly still feel like a novice at all this. There’s so much to learn about the sport. My first big one was the Spine Race in 2014, which was punishing, but hugely satisfying to finish – and on my beloved Pennine Way, too, which I’ve written the official guidebook for. I somehow finished fourth and was so stunned that I did it again the next year to prove to myself it wasn’t a massive fluke, finishing third behind the remarkable Eoin Keith and Pavel Paloncý. It seemed logical to try the UK’s next toughest race, The Dragon’s Back in 2015, which again I loved. It’s the perfect running holiday. Big days out in rugged terrain with great people. But as it’s a stage race this time you get a chance to relax and socialise – the Spine in contrast is a pretty lonely race. The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica was a wonderful experience too, really beautiful, really mixed terrain, camping by spectacular beaches most nights, plus crocodiles. I loved that too and it set me up nicely for this year. In April I ran the Highland Fling which doubled as the British Athletics Ultra Trail Championships. I placed second and was subsequently selected for the GB and NI team for the World Trail Running Championships in October. I still can’t really believe that last sentence is true. Ian Sharman has been a big help with his coaching, while Shane Benzie from Running Reborn has patiently taught me run with much better, more natural and efficient technique.
(For more detailed information check out Running for free and The Biomechanics of Running by Shane Benzie)
Q. Beautiful stuff. Away from running for a second, how did you get involved in outdoor journalism?
A. My first grown-up job was as a football journalist. Then I went travelling and started writing about that, ending up living in Sydney and editing a travel magazine. I was never interested on hotels and restaurants though and my travelling was increasingly adventure travel – long-distance trails and falling down mountains. When I moved back to the UK in 2010 I called myself an outdoor journalist – there’s an Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, so it seemed the most fitting title. I love being in the great outdoors, preferably doing something testing or adventurous (I’ll learn the names of every flower and bird when my knees pack in). That naturally led to peak-bagging type challenges, then ultra-distance running. I love doing these things anyway, but they usually double as magazine stories. I feel very lucky to spend long days and nights in the hills and mountains and call it work.
Q. Which publications do you contribute to? And what’s been your most compelling commission to date?
A. Outdoor Fitness are the most generous to me, but I’m fortunate to have a monthly column in Women’s Running, while Men’s Running and Trail Running charitably take my ill-gotten words most months. I also contribute to The Guardian’s Running Blog, Runner’s World, Running Fitness, ULTRA, Country Walking, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, The Independent, The Telegraph and stuff like that. No wonder the print industry is in decline, eh? I’ve written a few books, too, and my first running book, A Year On The Run will come out later this year. My most compelling commission may have been my first ultramarathon, in that I was so frightened that it’s probably the best read. A travel magazine once asked me to cover naturism in Australia in an involved way. But that’s another story…
Q. Right, now for the main event. How did you end up running the South West Coast Path?
A. Yes, who can I blame? That would be my good friend Mark Townsend from Contours Trail Running Holidays. We met at the Spine Race – where I meet all the best people – and he fancied running it and attempting a new FKT. He wanted to, partly to help promote Contours Trail Running Holidays, but more pressingly he used to have the record and wanted it back. I needed some persuading to join him though. 630 miles is quite a long way.
Q. Did you specifically train for it? If so, how did your training plan differ from your usual affair?
A. My coach Ian Sharman, is very focused on recovery and strength, and I think those two things have helped me a lot. I didn’t do big back-to-back runs, but I did concentrate more on ascending – the SWCP has around 111,000 ft of climbing. It seemed to work.
Q. I heard Mark Townsend had to drop out mid run. What happened?
A. Mark had a knee problem before we started, a non-running accident only a few weeks beforehand – too late to reschedule. He’s a stubborn sod and managed over 300 miles, but he was in a lot of pain and we were moving slower and slower until we slipped behind the then FKT. Those were the worst two days, trying to work out if and how he could carry on.
Q. That must have been emotional, how was it running the rest solo?
A. It was. I was really sad because the run meant a lot to him, more than it did to me in truth. But it made me all the more determined to set a new FKT on his behalf. Sometimes I preferred running solo, as I could pick the pace and make all the small decisions, such as how many ice creams to have. But when it got to midnight in the rain on a slippery cliff-top path, my inner wimp rather wanted him to be back running with me.
Q. Talking of emotional… I read that your regularly harnessed some good honest sobbing during the run! Did this act as sort of mental release?
A. Heehee. I was never in real pain or considered giving up. But I did feel some pressure and sometimes the task felt relentless. Yes, you ran 60 miles today. But you still have 240 to go. I think I cried because I was very very tired – I averaged three hours’ sleep a night – I missed my kids and felt bad about being away from them for so long. They became my power sobs, usually just five seconds of self-pitying patheticness, and then, magically, I would feel fantastic, almost immediately. Usually I’d then have my best spell of the day. I recommend a swift daily weep to everyone.
Q. There must have been some magnanimous highs and terrible lows during it all? …and a healthy amount of giggling too?
A. I love (and hate) the emotional journey of it all, that rawness you experience, how a small gestures of kindness, or tiny insignificant setbacks, can cause sweaty eyes. Another friend from the Spine Race, Tom Jones, was crewing for us and he was amazing at keeping spirits up – aside from all the incredible behind the scenes work he was doing for us. His meals made me laugh. He seemed to love cooking and even if we had a takeaway he would always add something to it. Usually honey-coated peanuts. I’ve still no idea what was in his custard surprises. He won’t tell me.
Q. How about the physical effects of it all? And regarding nutrition, what did you cram in to sustain yourself?
A. Physically niggles came and went but the last 20 miles were some of my fastest, so I’ve clearly got a good coach in Ian Sharman. And I’m sure good technique comes into it too. The registered sports dietician author of the excellent book Training Food, Renee McGregor advises me on nutrition and she encouraged me to eat something every hour, but also not forget about fat and protein. I ate twice my normal amount. I craved different things: fresh fruit, cheese, salad, meat, vegetables and Tom did his best to find what I craved. CLIF Shot Bloks were good for those late afternoon lulls and the highlight was pizzas on Friday night in Newquay. The eating side of things was well brill.
Q. Everyone loves some gear geekery; what trainers were you running in? And what bits of kit did you find indispensable?
A. I mostly ran in Inov-8’s Race Ultra 290s. Their cushioning is really good and my knees would be much grumpier now otherwise. Inov-8 shoes tend to have a wide toe box as well, which is good for when your feet swell on long-distance challenges. My Suunto Ambit3 Peak was excellent. It can record GPS data for up to 200 hours without charge. It was vital to us that our FKT was transparent, so we needed to record as much data as possible. I could also upload it to Movescount and social media via a smartphone app. I could even have message notifications on my watch – but that was turned off as it was the kind of thing I was trying to escape from.
I wore Pro-Tec Athletics Shin Splints Compression Wraps, which Scott Jurek wore on his Appalachian Trail FKT to ward off tendinitis in the shins, which I often get on multi-day efforts. They worked really well. Inov-8’s Race Ultra 10 BOA pack and Race Elite Windshell also performed well. As did Injinji socks and Camphor Spray.
Q. I won’t ask you how you felt at the finish line, as let’s be honest, that’s pretty obvious! But looking back, is there anything you would do differently? And if someone set a new FKT, would you go back for a second crack?
A. I’d just try to enjoy it more. I got too caught up in counting the miles and forgot to enjoy where I was and what I was lucky enough to be doing sometimes. And I’d sleep more – and hopefully run faster. Someone will beat it sometime of course and I doubt I’d go back in the near future. It’s a big time commitment. If someone beats it, I know how hard they will have worked, so I’ll certainly doff my cap in their direction and offer sincere congratulations.
Q. Finally, what’s the rest of the running year holding for you, Damian? Any particularly scrumptious races or challenges on the horizon?
A. I am eyeing up another FKT for next year. But my immediate priority is UTMB in August and then the World Trail Running Championships in Portugal in October. I have a lot of hard work to do, then hopefully I can relax and enjoy these two great races.
Excellent stuff and good luck in that, we’ll be closely following you!
Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist and ultramarathon runner who’s happiest when travelling long distance in lumpy places. You can find more hogwash at www.damianhall.info, and on Twitter (@damo_hall), Facebook, Instagram (ultra_damo) and Strava.
All images: Summit Fever Media/Contours Trail Running Holidays.