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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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