Damian Hall has just completed a hat trick of record-breaking trail running rounds. During 2020, he has set new Fastest Known Times (FKTs) for Snowdonia's Paddy Buckley round in winter (January), the Pennine Way (July) and the South Wales Traverse in the Brecon Beacons (October). In this interview Damian tells his story and explains what FKTs are all about.
Look out for part 2 of this interview, in which Damian talks about carbon negative running, why it's better to be a climate hypocrite than an ass, and what we can all do to try to ensure the next generation don't look back at us as the most selfish in history.
Damian's hat-trick of FKTs
The South Wales Traverse, Brecon Beacons
Distance: 73 miles
Vertical Gain: 5,480m
Damian completed it in 14h 13m 18s on October 15 2020
The Pennine Way
Distance: 268 miles
Vertical Gain: 13,300m
Damian completed it in 2d 13h 35m 15s on July 24 2020
The Paddy Buckley Round, Snowdonia (winter)
Distance: 61 miles
Vertical Gain: 10,590m
Damian completed it in 21h 30m 6s on January 29 2020
BMC: Your name seems to be coming up increasingly regularly in the FKT department over the past year or two. How long have you been a runner and what do you like about it?
DH: While some kids were quicker than me to discover cider and cigarettes, I did win some cross-country races at school, but there wasn't any coaching or track sessions. Other than to keep fit for football, I didn't run again till 2011, when aged 35, I ran my first half marathon. I ruddy loved it and in 2012 I ran my first marathon (dressed as a toilet) and my first ultramarathon, the Wall, which I loved even more; the camaraderie, the scenery, the sense of achievement and amazing aid stations.
"I love that it legitimises the intake of more cake"
Four years later, my midlife crisis had got a little out of hand: I was in the GB Trail running team, placing on the podium in ultras and setting FKTs. Running is a mostly healthy addiction. I love the sense of freedom, I love getting muddy, I love the competitive side, I love that it can be a solo or a team thing, I love that it’s so flexible, I love that it enables adventures, and I love that it legitimises the intake of more cake.
Damian setting a new FKT for the 73-mile South Wales Traverse in the Brecon Beacons on October 15 2020. Photo: Lee Proctor/inov8
When, why and how did you get fast? Do you have a flexible job, a built-in Strava-like competitiveness, a great coach - what’s your secret?
I placed third at both the [268-mile] Spine Race and [236-mile] Dragon's Back Race in 2015, but 2016 was probably my breakthrough year (second at the UK Ultra Trail Championships at the Highland Fling, my first FKT (the South West Coast Path) and top 20 at the [106-mile] Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. That was after about four years into the sport, without many pauses through injury (and no injuries now, since early 2017).
"I placed third at both the Spine Race and Dragon's Back Race in 2015, but 2016 was my breakthrough year"
So, a few years of quality training built on top of one another was probably key. I say quality training, because I’ve worked with coaches a fair bit, including Marcus Scotney, Elisabet Barnes, Ian Sharman and currently David Roche, but also had some of my best results (fifth at the UTMB) while self-coached – and I’m a UKA Coach now, too. My work is flexible now, but it didn’t used to be (run-commutes for the win!).
Above all, I think it mostly comes from passion and overenthusiasm. I just ruddy love this stuff and am obsessed with how we can become better ultra runners. I pretty much only read books about running, only listen to running podcasts, and my wife and family would say I only talk about running. To non-runners, I'm incredibly boring. Probably to runners, too.
The Pennine Way FKT goes down in July 2020. Photo: @inov_8 / @davemacfarlane
FKTs seem to have exploded during the year of coronavirus. For those who don’t know, what is an FKT and what are the rough rules? - If I’ve got this right, you just pipped the Winter Paddy Buckley by seven minutes, but were running unsupported, whereas the previous record-holder, Jim Mann, had run supported; for the South Wales traverse it was the opposite - you had support and just pipped the previous record by seven minutes, set by Dan Doherty, who had run unsupported?
That’s right. And my Pennine Way FKT was very much a team thing, too. I love the purity and independence of doing something solo and unsupported. But sometimes that might not be enough for me to beat a record and a bit of help may be needed. Plus, I’ve learned this year that it’s really rewarding to share these things with people, too.
When trying to set an FKT, runners can choose to be supported (which could be pacers and a support crew with food and so on), self-supported (no supporters but you can pick up supplies en route) or unsupported (carry everything you need, bar water).
Why's it called an FKT? Other than the obvious fun of all the available puns...
There’s some debate in the UK now about why we don’t simply call them 'records'. 'Fastest Known Time' is a US term and fastestknowntime.com is a great resource for checking rules and verifying a successful attempt. But we have the Fell Runners Association here, plus for the three big 24-hour rounds an independent club or person to verify and keep records.
"I love the purity and independence of doing something solo and unsupported"
Tell us about the South Wales Traverse - for those who don't know, this is a 31-summit, 73-mile challenge. Why did this route appeal particularly, and how much recceing do you do before trying for an FKT?
I live just inside Wiltshire, near Bath, but love mountain races, so I’ve been training in the Brecon Beacons for a few years. It’s a special place. I had a go at the South Wales Traverse a few years ago and stuffed it up comically, missing a couple of summits in the dark. So I’d always wanted to do it again and better. I was looking for one more project this year, hopefully for a hat-trick of records, and this one was closest to home and familiar to me.
Dan Doherty had the record and he’s an absolute beast – we train together sometimes. The route’s fiddly in places though, so I recced several bits again and as I only broke the record by five minutes, it ultimately came down to route choice. This record is only on loan. Dan’ll be back soon enough to take it back off me!
What was your highest high moment on the route, and lowest low?
The first hours were blissful, as they should be. Just me on the hill, playing in the clag and the wind and being handed tea and good cheer by Tim and Mark, my ace road crew. But as the day went on it became harder and harder to keep to the schedule and required a lot of mental energy and some self-scolding to stay honest. The Black Mountains, the final leg, were awash with beautiful autumnal light, which I tried to enjoy, but it was a struggle up there. Thankfully Dan Summers was an amazing pacer for the final stretch and was ace with nav. It was close though.
Damian's key kit for the South Wales Traverse
What kit and food did you end up taking?
I was torn between inov-8’s (my sponsor) new Mudclaw G 260 V2, which is perfect for British fells. But there’s a long road section and harder trails towards the end, so I prioritised comfort over grip and went for the inov-8 Terraultra G 270, which served me so well on the Pennine Way and were ace again here. It was a bit boggier than anticipated though and if I did the SWT again, I’d switch pairs half way.
I try to do these things without animal products, creating plastic waste and picking up litter too (there was almost none, thankfully). I ate fruit, hummus and avocado sandwiches, Delushious flapjacks, Outdoor Provisions natural energy bars, Lucho Dillitos jellies (both come in compostable wrappers), used Precision Hydration electrolyte tablets, plus a load of tea (and cola).
"The Pennine Way and me have a fair bit of history. I’ve cried on it, gone a bit mad on it, but also had moments of indescribable euphoria on it too"
Which of your three FKT’s this year was your favourite and why?
It has to be the Pennine Way, really. I completed this one nine years after I first trekked the National Trail and four years after I first started thinking about it. I’ve also written a guide for it and done the Spine Race twice, so the Pennine Way and me have a fair bit of history. I’ve cried on it, gone a bit mad on it, but also had moments of indescribable euphoria on it too. Plus it has a special history, linked to the 1932 Mass Trespass. That record intimidated me the most and meant the most.
What are your tips for keeping chafe- and blister-free?
Don’t be shy with the Vas! I rarely get blisters and I think that’s because inov-8 socks and shoes really suit me. Blisters come from moisture and/or friction and we’re all a bit different, but it pays to experiment and and find the best fit for you.
You also race - which of the events that you’ve entered has been the most memorable and why?
I’d probably have to go with 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), the Champions League final of mountain ultras, which I completed over four consecutive years, 2015-2018, improving from 29th to 5th. My most memorable moments were when my kids have joined me for the final 100 metres, twice (even if they were a bit fast for me at the time).
Damian's kids joining him for the final stretch of the UTMB a few years ago
Are you the type who got through lockdown by running marathons in their garden, or more of a hideaway and read a book person - did you train/run through lockdown, and if so, how?
I found running felt both more irrelevant than usual (against the bigger issues in the world), but also paradoxically really precious (especially when we were only allowed out once a day). I had some of my most enjoyable ever runs, exploring more locally, taking new paths. It was a great reminder of the pure enjoyment of running just for the sake of it. Lockdown was a reminder of what’s really important too and I found I was more relaxed and happier (nicer to be around, I was told).
What’s the best social media link for you - are people best following you on Instagram or are you more of a Twitter guy?
I'm on it, but Twitter is mostly people shouting and no-one listening. But I like Instagram (ultra_damo). It's usually a simpler, happier place (full of implicit lies, but positive ones!).
Damian Hall is a UKA Coach and an ambassador for inov-8 and Tomax Technology. His book about records/FKTs will be published by Vertebrate early next year.
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