2016: My Running Year by Damian Hall

A South West Coast Path FKT, UTMB and a GB vest; Damian Hall reflects on his best ever 12 months of running.

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In 2012 I ran my first marathon and ultramarathon. In 2016, I represented Great Britain at the IAU Trail World Championships in Portugal, at the age of 40. Even as I type that sentence, I still don’t really believe it’s true.

As a 12 year old I fancied myself as an international footballer. Even though I usually only made the substitute bench for the school team (a situation that didn’t even involve a real bench), it was a dream I didn’t give up on until I was about 20. Back on 1st January 2016, the idea of being an international sportsperson of any standing was still an absurd idea; in fact, my year began with several disappointments.

My first B race of the year was the ace, always-muddy, local multi-terrain 9-miler, Slaughterford 9; where I placed a frustrating second – five seconds off first – after a three-way sprint finish. The next event had an even worse outcome.

At the Dark Mountains mountain marathon in the Lake District, fell-running veteran Tim Laney and I were storming along nicely in the snow, until around 4am, when we simply could not find a control. We searched for a full hour, until we got cold and decided to go back to HQ for an early cup of tea. But it was still a belting night out and a very useful 12 hours of mountain running.

I enlisted the nous of Marathon des Sables-winner Elisabet Barnes to get me fit and acclimatised for The Coastal Challenge (TCC), a 240km multi-stage race in Costa Rica in February. I loved the green mountains, colourful jungles, beautiful beaches, the croc dodging, and the many fine folk I met there. But as holiday races aren’t usually very competitive, I was a little irked to place fifth. However the four ahead of me included a previous TCC winner, a Badwater winner, two UTMB top-five finishers and a two-time Olympian with a 2.09 marathon PB (whom I beat on one stage).

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It’s funny how seemingly little moments can be big turning points. Post-race I was chatting to top Portuguese runner, the very lovely Ester Alves, who casually suggested I should stop seeing myself as a journalist who runs, and instead as a runner who sometimes writes. She was probably just being polite, but it made me think.

I knew I’d raced more than was wise theprevious year, but I sort of had to, because I've made it my job to write stories about that kind of thing. This year I decided to prioritise athletic performance over work, and through the year I turned away expenses-covered trips to several foreign races. They would have earned me money, but impaired my running. I was also very lucky to be able to start working with US-based Brit, online coach and 100-mile ace Ian Sharman. Ian Sharman knows his stuff.

Around this time I learned that April’s 53-mile Highland Fling would be a trial for the GB trail running team and the UK Ultra Trail Championships. I’d raced in the 2014 trial and barely made the top 20. A British Athletics preview said, “The depth of talent is arguably the best that any UK ultra has ever seen”, but thanks to the TCC and Ian’s coaching, I was fitter than ever. Ian had also taught me how to race more patiently, and to pace myself more consistently.

On a beautiful, cold morning on the West Highland Way I exceeded my expectations, placing second, inside the old course record.

I didn’t have long to savour the result. Two weeks later I started running west from Poole on the 630-mile South West Coast Path. With the huge help of Contours Trail Running Holidays’ co-owner Mark Townsend and the tirelessly thoughtful Tom Jones, I aged myself by about 20 years and gave the custard industry a welcome boost, as I averaged three hours' sleep a night in setting a new Fastest Known Time. I needed a rest after that.

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After a lot of sleeping and fridge emptying, I started building towards UTMB. Ian had me working on my strength; wearing a weight vest, hiking, doing dread-mill sessions and nipping to the Brecon Beacons whenever possible, to run on the kind of gradient my beloved Cotswolds just can’t offer. With the help of Mountain Run I also snuck in a slow Bob Graham Round, and copied Jez Bragg’s trademark UTMB training by running up Snowdon four times in a day.

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In Chamonix I was chuffed with beating my PB by 90 minutes and an improvement of 12 places, finishing 19th (just ahead of the incredible Caroline Chaverot) in 25 hours and 12 minutes. I love the generous crowds, the pointy course, the fact the world’s best ultra-distance trail and mountain runners are there, and the primal thrill of running through the huge mountains under moonlight. I was still three hours-plus behind the winner though. I think I can do a little bit better.

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Lastly, the IAU Trail World Championships were in Portugal in October. With the most competitive field I’ve ever raced in, a stronger second half was always my plan – a tactic that had worked well at UTMB and the Highland Fling. But when I picked up the pace, disaster struck. Cramps. It was a pathetic, self-pitying shuffle from then on. Hugely frustrating. Gnah!

Cramps aren’t well understood, so I’m still trying to work out what exactly went wrong. I was never going to be top 10 there, but I’d hoped to place in the 20s or 30s, to help bring GB a good team ranking. Double gnah!

However after a few days, some perspective sank in. Of the five big races and challenges I attempted last year, four of them went well, and that’s a pretty good ratio in a sport where so much can go wrong.

I’m hugely grateful to the many people who helped me, but especially Mark Townsend, Ian Sharman and Tom Jones. I still can’t quite believe just how wonderful this sport continues to be to me, despite routinely hurting like hell and with the very real potential of dumping me in a pool of my own smelly stuff while blubbering like a baby.

Last year gave me memories I wouldn’t swap for anything, but the feeling of letting my teammates – and even my country – down gnaws away at me, and means that despite being 41 (but only four and a bit in running years) I’ve plenty of fire left in my lungs and legs yet.

Some things I’ve learned this year:

Ticket to Success: At risk of sounding like David Brent, if you want to be the best you can be, go to the best people for advice, and listen to them. Online coach Ian Sharman turned me into an international athlete (of sorts). I also work with Shane Benzie from Running Reborn on my technique, along with registered sports dietician, ultra-runner and author Renee McGregor.

In Therapy: Rather than waiting until I’m injured, I now go to my physio roughly every two weeks. Ian Sharman believes that most injuries come from tight muscles, and it’s surprising how much screaming Matthew Wade-Holmes can coax out of me when I think my legs are perfectly fresh. There’s a cost of course, but the cost of missing a race – especially if international flights and accommodation are booked – is much bigger.

Strong Leg Tactics: My legs were simply too weak for my first UTMB, so I worked a lot on leg and core strength this year, with daily exercises, a weight vest, dread-mill sessions and much more time going up and down mountains. This time at UTMB, rather than being regularly overtaken from Courmayer, I was doing the overtaking.

Roll On: My foam roller and I have become disconcertingly intimate – again to fend off sore muscles.

Less Racing, More Specificity: Running hard hurts muscles and they need time to recover, which means less productive training. Also my B races and challenges had specific purposes (e.g. before UTMB they involved lots of vertical gain).

Making a Commitment: I took time off work to train – including a few half-days and the occasional full day. My alarm went off at 4am more times than I’d like to recall.

Booze Ban: I hardly drink anyway, but I didn’t drink for a month before any big races. I’m not sure how much real difference that makes, but I like the disciplined mind-set it gives me.

Bum Deal: Overall, as well as longer long runs and more focus on recovery, the biggest change to my training this year was regular strength work and as a result my backside is firmer than ever before. I possibly owe most of last year’s relative successes to my butt.

Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist and GB ultra marathon runner, who’s happiest when running or hiking long distances in lumpy places. The Inov-8 ambassador’s new book, /A Year On The Run/ (Aurum), has just come out and there’s more of this sort of self-aggrandising hogwash at www.damianhall.info and on Twitter: @damo_hall

Originally published 16/01/17

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