Run For The Hills: Meet Lizzy Hawker, England's Queen Of The Ultra-Trail

Lizzy Hawker running the 2009 Trail des Cerces in the French Alps
Lizzy Hawker running the 2009 Trail des Cerces in the French Alps
Bruno Lesprit

CHAMONIX – Bruce Springsteen sang the song, but Lizzy Hawker was actually born to run. She just replaced the New Jersey rocker’s urban jungle for mother nature, open spaces, and most of all– mountains. Lizzy Hawker is the queen of ultra-trail running, an increasingly popular athletic and mystical sport.

Ultra-trail running or ultra-marathon is any sporting event run on trails longer than the regular marathon distance (42.195 kilometers), often more than 100 kilometers. Looking at the petite 30-year-old Brit, you wouldn’t believe that she is the world’s top female endurance athlete.

Hawker defines her activity as a “physical, mental and spiritual journey,” quoting Confucius: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Following a long British tradition of falling in love with the Alps, Hawker has returned to the French town of Chamonix that alpine explorers William Windham and Richard Pococke “discovered” in 1741.

Today, there are more than a thousand English people living there. Hawker lives across the border in Switzerland but feels at home in Chamonix. The 168-kilometer Mont-Blanc Ultra-trail is her favorite run. It is so successful that organizers had to limit the number of participants to 2,300. “This is where I started. My first mountain race in 2005.” In August, she won the women’s race for the fifth time. She ran her best time in 2008 – 24h 56mn 1sec – and ranked 14th overall, just four hours behind Spanish phenomenon Kilian Jornet.

Ultra-trail running’s “First Lady” has won nearly every challenge. She holds the world record for a 24-hour race: 247 kilometers in a day’s running. But she isn’t obsessed with competing. “Competition is only positive if it is within yourself, not with others. You are challenged by nature, the mountains and the environment as well as by your body and soul. Running is a way to get to know myself.” Has she learned anything about herself? “It’s not something I can describe.”

Modest, private, the champion has a very British reserve. As a young girl growing up in London, when she wanted to escape, she had to make do with the modest hills around the British capital. “Running quickly became a natural way for me to go places. I never took the bus and always chose the stairs. It’s who I am.” At age six, she discovered the mountains in Zermatt, Switzerland, and was deeply moved when she saw the Matterhorn for the first time. The return to the British flatlands was hard but her imagination could now take her elsewhere.

Oddly enough, her studies took her away from mountaintops and into the deep ocean. After studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, she graduated with a PhD in physical oceanography in 2005. Her expertise took her on seven expeditions in the Antarctic and the Southern Oceans with the British Antarctic Survey.

One with nature

Hawker describes herself with three words: scientist, writer and athlete. The common link is a specific relationship with nature, influenced by a philosophy close to that of American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the leader of the transcendentalist movement. She particularly likes this quote from the author: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Solitude doesn’t frighten Hawker because she knows that up there, there is no such thing, or at least not as much as in the turmoil down here. She is never alone on the mountain because her pantheism is based on an infinite variety of sensations: hearing the sound of birds singing in the morning, the smell of freshly cut grass, seeing a flower in the cracks of a rock, feeling the wind in her hair, watching the sun set behind the mountains.

She believes that the growing popularity of her sport is “a reaction to the modern way of life.” “People stay at home, with TVs and computers but at the same time, they are increasingly fascinated by extreme and endurance sports.” She illustrates endurance with what the King said to the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s adventures in wonderland: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

According to Hawker, age doesn’t matter in ultra-trail running. “As long as your body, mind and soul can keep up, there is no reason to stop, even at the highest level,” she says. “Marco Olmo, an Italian athlete, won the Mont-Blanc challenge twice at age 58 and 59. With endurance sports, age doesn’t necessarily hamper your capacity. It’s the number of years spent at a professional level that affect your body. If you started early, you’ll stop earlier.”

For now, nothing seems to be stopping Hawker, not even darkness. “I like to run at night, though it can be really difficult, especially in the mountains. It was also tough when I worked on boats in the Arctic Ocean. The hours between 2 A.M. and 5 A.M. are called ‘dead hours.’ And then it’s dawn and the light reappears and gives you energy.” During the 24 hours of the Mont-Blanc ultra-trail, Hawker doesn’t sleep. “On longer races, after two or three nights without sleeping you feel tired; you have to know when to stop. A 20-minute nap will improve your run for the next 12 hours.”

In 2007, Hawker nailed another record to her list. It took her 72 hours and 25 minutes to run the 300 kilometers from the Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu. She won the 2011 Everest Sky Race (200 kilometers) and made the highest ascent six years later reaching the Ama Dablam at 6,856 meters. She also experienced the biggest danger of her life in the Himalaya, during the 2010 Grand Himalaya Trail (1,700 kilometers). “Between two isolated villages, I lost my bag with my maps and satellite phone in it,” she says. “I wasn’t really afraid but I knew I could only count on my own resources.” She survived but had to give up on her dream to “race in the sky.” “The time hadn’t come for me to reach it.”

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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