Last week Damian Hall set a new FKT on the Pennine way. I’m sure you’re all aware of the story by now; Mike Hartley sets a record of 65 hours 20 minutes in 1989 on the 268-mile route, a mere 31-years later John Kelly comes along and takes a 34-minute chunk off that time by completing it in 64 hours 46 minutes, and then an agonising and eternal wait of 8 days later Damian Hall steps up and almost surgically removes more than 3 hours by navigating the remote boggy trails in 61 hours 35 minutes!
After seemingly taking the sport of ultra-running mainstream and to the masses alongside John Kelly on BBC Breakfast News, we were lucky enough to get few words from Damian as he reflects on the unbelievable feat of human endurance and what is probably the world’s longest litter picking trek!
First things first – how was the week, did you manage to get in sufficient rest and recovery?
With difficulty, to be honest. Above all, after something like this, you need sleep. But I kept waking up with night sweats, which are disgusting, or from pain from tendonitis in my shin. I felt pretty muddle headed too for a few days. I had scratches, bruises, chafes and swelling all over the place. But all that is a small price to pay and a week later I feel 80-90% recovered, and I’ve been for my first (very short and easy) run. But I’m in no rush to declare myself “recovered”. It may take weeks. I value my health. There’s no rush.
More than 3 hours off the record! Was that sort of time range the aim when planning the attempt and before setting off?
I honestly didn’t think of it that way. Breaking the record would be amazing, even if it was just by one minute. Anything above that, anything that made it more comfortable, was a bonus. Otherwise I felt I’d be applying artificial pressure on myself. My schedule was for 64hrs (the previous record was 64:46), the minimum really. Though I did hope to build a buffer gradually. Above all, I wanted to curate a positive mind-set for as long as possible and having a less ambitious schedule gave me that. Essentially I wanted to be ‘ahead of schedule’ the whole time, not fighting to match or be behind, it. That’s not a good mental place. I didn’t look at my schedule all that much to be honest.
What do you think the key to that sort of time was? Shorter stops and rest periods? Or did you get in some sneaky sprints here and there?
It probably looked more straightforward and smoother from the outside. I really didn’t want to do the ‘go out hard and hang on’ thing and I was telling everyone who’d listen in the week before that the second day and night were key and I wanted to be moving well then. But then of course at the beginning you feel at your best and I just felt fantastic so I went with it and didn’t worry about it too much. I had got comfortably over three hours ahead of the record by, I think, the first 24 hours. Inevitably I slowed and had some sleep deprivation issues and used some of my buffer for sleep, which was always the plan. I lost time here and there, but also gained it back at times. I got complacent towards the end and had to work very hard from Torside Reservoir – or at least Nicky Spinks made me work very hard! – to get that three-hour cushion back. All my pacers and crew were absolutely amazing. It was very much a team success. Thank you!
Your pal John Kelly held the record for a grand total of 8 days. You’ve both been supportive of each other’s attempts and achievements but was it tough watching someone set out (albeit in the opposite direction) and literally move the goal posts a week before your attempt?
I do feel bad that John didn’t get to enjoy the record for longer. To enjoy breaking a record that’s stood for so long, for such a short amount of time, is cruel. And he’s being very good about it. I do still feel conflicted about it, but I’ve been thinking about going for it for four years and we both knew we were both going for it. We helped each other too, sharing information and so on. I’d have joined his crew too, if it wasn’t for Covid-19 situation. I’m one of his biggest fans. He’s an amazing athlete and person. But to answer your question, watching his amazing achievement helped me. He showed me that breaking the record was possible. I felt more optimistic after his run.
At one point I think you were 4 hours up on record time, was that a nice kind of “might take my foot off the gas” feeling or did you not allow yourself to risk losing the momentum?
I was struggling in the second afternoon, when I had that buffer, and knew really I needed a power nap, but it’s hard to give up that time! Luckily Sabrina Verjee persuaded me a sleep would be the smartest move and I took her advice (thanks Sabs!). Otherwise I may just have slowed and slowed and let and the good work drip away…
Any particularly tricky moments on the route? Every clip I saw, regardless of distance or time of day, you looked quite fresh, chatty and alert, and more often than not smiling or laughing. Or am I mistaken?
You are mistaken! I was a bit of a wreck by the end. But yes, I wanted to be in a positive place for as much of it as possible. The mental side of it is huge – and I worked with sports psychologist Dr Josie Perry. I tried to be social (some of my pacers can attest to my groan-tastic dad jokes) and just enjoy it and I believe good things usually happen from that place – but other pacers can certainly attest I wasn’t especially social at times (sorry!). I could perhaps learn to be more focused, like John or Nicky, who are both just incredible with being single-minded. I get distracted. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. But you know what, I had a lot of fun out there, running in ace places with ace folk. That was the most important thing.
It’s an incredibly long time to be on your feet and unfathomable distance to be running for most to comprehend. What did your preparation look like for the attempt?
I’ve been working with Shane Benzie on my technique for years and he always finds something I can improve on. I worked closely with sports dietician Renee McGregor in the lead up to the attempt which was really helpful. I’d also used the extra time during lockdown working with Strength For Endurance which I feel sure benefitted me, and also had a bespoke hydration strategy thanks to the guys at Precision Hydration. Great kit helps too of course and I’m lucky to work with inov-8 and had their ace new shoe, the TERRAULTRA G 270, which was genuinely excellent on very demanding terrain. VW also lent me an ace van, which helped my crew be super-organised.
Talk us through the carbon negative aspect of the attempt and how you achieved it?
I’m really worried about our climate and ecological emergency. Shocking headlines about the melting Arctic or the extinction of wildlife in the UK don’t seem shocking any more. We’re in trouble, and governments and corporations need to act now while we still have a chance. I was also just interested in my own carbon (and equivalent greenhouse gas emissions) footprint and have worked with Our Carbon to see what my footprint was last year, and come up with a plan to be carbon negative this year, which has been great fun. So although my Pennine Way Bimble will realistically have encouraged more car journeys that may otherwise have happened, it was still carbon negative overall, with some offsetting. Not perfect, but nothing about our emergency is perfect.
I know it was only a few days ago but..what’s next? Any plans up your sleeve for the rest of the 2020?