Interview: Top ultra runner Damian Hall
Ultra runner Damian Hall recently set a new record for the fastest time to run the 268-mile Pennine Way in England. Yet it is only in relatively recent years that the 44-year-old from Wiltshire has become a familiar face on ultra race podiums. I interviewed Damian to find out more about his meteoric rise in the sport, what drives him and his thoughts on the UK ultra running scene.
A speedy progression
Damian, who is also a journalist and coach, ran his first half marathon in 2011 and then, a year later, a marathon and ultramarathon.
By 2015, he was picked to represent Great Britain at the Trail World Championships.
Between 2015 and 2018, he progressed annually through the rankings of the world’s biggest ultra-distance trail running race, the 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, from 31st, to 19th, to 12th and then fifth overall.
He has also medalled at the 268-mile Montane Spine Race, the six-day 380km Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race and the British Athletics UK Ultra Trail Championships.
He holds FKTs (Fastest Known Times) for the Paddy Buckley Round (set in 2019, winter record set in 2020); Britain’s longest National Trail, the 630-mile South West Coast Path (supported, 2016); and the 230-mile Cape Wrath Trail (self-supported, mixed gender with Beth Pascall in 2018).
He has also completed a Bob Graham Round and a Ramsay Round, as well as the Marathon des Sables, the Ice Ultra in Arctic Sweden and placed in the top 10 at several Ultra-Trail Word Tour races.
Why ultra running?
Damian, who is a dad, reveals the three attractions of ultra running: “Big days out in lumpy places, as well as friends and cake.”
Damian confesses that from his first ultra race he was hooked. He said: “I just loved it – and I still do. I straight away thought, ‘This is for me!’
His progression through multiple races and longer distances was partly driven by his writing work. He explained: “Because I did most races as journalism assignments it gave me more reason to finish. If I didn’t finish, I wouldn’t get a story published or paid.
“This also meant that after I’d done say a 100k race, a magazine would only be interested in a story about a bigger challenge. So I went up the distances quite quickly, too.”
Damian has also benefitted from the help of several coaches and has seen great results through self-coaching. He is a UKA coach.
He added: “Consistent training also helps. I don’t get injured much and I am about to clock up four years uninterrupted running.
“In addition, I’m obsessed with ultra running. I read lots of books and listen to lots of podcasts. Perhaps, mentally, the sport suits me too because I quite like the feeling of things starting to get difficult.”
Pennine Way record bid
It was during the Covid-19 lockdown that Damian, an ambassador for inov-8 and Tomax Technology, decided he would attempt his latest record-breaking run.
He had walked the Pennine Way nine years ago and competed in the Spine Race twice on the same route.
He said: “When I first clocked Mike Hartley’s incredible time while walking and researching a Pennine Way guidebook, I wasn’t a runner. I thought it was an incredible time.
“Then, four years ago, I recorded my first FKT on the South West Coast Path and that’s when I started thinking about the Pennine Way.
“But it really intimidated me, so it wasn’t until lockdown came – and then all the cancelled races – that I ran out of excuses…”
Lockdown was obviously good for training. Damian said: “I wasn’t able to travel to train and run in my regular location, the Brecon Beacons in Wales, but I did enjoy other benefits that helped towards the run.
“I enjoyed more family time and there was less work and less work stress, so, I just felt happier to be honest. I was more relaxed. In fact, I had more time to focus on the Pennine Way attempt.”
The preparation clearly worked because Damian smashed the record by three hours.
Post Lockdown record ultra runs
Many other records have been set and broken post-lockdown, including:
- Finlay Wild breaks his own Tranter’s Round record
- Beth Pascall smashes Bopb Graham Round record
- Kim Collison breaks Lakes 24-hour record
- Sabrina Verjee is first female to complete non-stop Wainwrights Round.
Damian said: “Because there have been no races, everyone is looking for something to do. The obvious thing is an FKT attempt. It has made for an exciting, unprecedented summer.”
Damian admires many of his fellow athletes. He said: “They are all stand-out athletes, for a variety of reasons. For example, I love Finlay’s ethics.
“I love how my GB team mate Kim is always smiling.
“Beth is a great friend, so maybe I’m biased, but her achievements should be more celebrated. She was the UK’s top ultra runner last year, regardless of gender.
“And Sabs is hugely inspirational, too. She helped me with some key advice on my Pennine bimble.”
Women & ultra running
In recent years, women have to be closing the gap on the men’s records in longer-distance challenges.
Sabrina was the outright winner of the Spine Fusion Race last year and she has stated that she believes she can set an all time record for the Wainwrights. Jasmin Paris was the outright winner of the 2019 Spine Race.
Damian thinks this aspect of the ultra running world is “really exciting”. He said: “There are several scientific reasons and several anecdotal reasons, but it seems the longer the challenge, the more equalised the genders are.
“Anecdotally again, and generalising a little, women seem to have less ego, which helps them to concentrate on the details more, such as looking after themselves, I think. And to be honest, they’re often just tougher.”
What’s next for Damian?
His answer to my question was non-committing. He simply said: “More cheesecake!”. He added: “The UK ultra running scene seems to be buzzing just now and it is great to be a part of it.”
Find out more about Damian Hall.