Has the Person of the Month feature ever inspired you to try something new or encouraged you to reach out to someone? Well it did to this month’s POM, ultramarathon runner Damian Hall. He had recently moved to Box and had just run his first ultramarathon when he spotted someone running around Box who looked as if he might be an interesting person to know. That person turned out to be Alex Copping, who was then featured in the Box Parish Magazine. Damian made contact after reading Alex’s POM article and Alex was instrumental in encouraging Damian to keep going on his new career of ultramarathon running – which, as we’ll see, turned out to be rather successful.
An ultramarathon is a running race that is longer than the normal 26-mile marathon; it can last for several days, either non-stop or in multiple stages, and usually has severe course obstacles such as inclement weather, elevation changes or rugged terrain. One of the most famous is the Marathon des Sables, a six-day stage race covering 250 kilometres (160 miles) across the Sahara desert in Morocco – although Damian says that wasn’t the hardest race he’s ever run! The 268-mile Spine Race, non-stop along the Pennine Way in winter, is, according to Damian, ‘a race for people who hate themselves.’ He’s done that twice.
A keen footballer and hiker, Damian’s first running race, as for most people in Box, was the Bath Half in 2011. This escalated to the Brighton Marathon in 2012, which he ran for Water Aid dressed as a toilet. As a sports journalist it was natural for him to write about this experience for a running magazine, which led them to ask if he would run The Wall, a 69-mile ultra-marathon from Carlisle to Newcastle that runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall. He ran it in two days and absolutely loved it. How could he do more?
It was the aforementioned POM feature that led him to Alex and the Bath Bats, an informal running group, and a connected group of runners who introduced him to more running experiences. But the motivation at this point was the story: magazines don’t tend to want stories with unsuccessful outcomes, so if he failed to finish a race he wouldn’t get paid.
In 2016 Damian decided to stop being a writer who runs and start thinking of himself as an athlete first. He entered the UK Athletic Ultra Trail Championship, a 53-mile Highland course, and came second, which got him a place on the GB Team. This enabled him to access sponsorship opportunities and focus on running as his career.
Box, nestled in a valley surrounded by steep hills and lush greenery, was the reason Damian and his wife Amy settled here and now provides the perfect place to run. ‘For me running is all about exploration and it started in Box, exploring the place I had moved to.’ Its steep hills help with the training too! Damian runs 6-7 days a week, with a trip to Brecon Beacons most weeks to provide steeper and more rugged terrain. Most of his opponents live in mountain ranges, are younger, fitter, full-time athletes who don’t have children, so he has to really make the most of Box’s steep hills. You may catch him running round the village or hiking with a weight vest on to strengthen his legs – for the Sahara race he ran in a silver suit which made him sweat buckets in order to re-create the higher temperatures – which got him some funny stares from the dog walkers he passed!
As well as representing Great Britain, Damian holds three records for British challenges. He won the Ice Ultra in 2017 (which got down to -36˚C), but considers his fifth place at 2018’s 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc to be his best achievement. In addition to training, a good balanced diet, sleeping well and regular physio is all he needs. So can anyone do it?
With all the travelling to exotic places, and fancy running gear, ultramarathon running sounded like a middle class, mid-life sport, but Damian says that in Britain it’s more accessible. The entry fee to the main races in Britain are not exorbitant and actually the sport is more gender-equal than other sports. Although only 10-15% of the runners are women they tend to be better at it. If you look at the percentage of starters and finishers by gender, more men don’t finish races. You may also have heard of Jasmin Paris, a GB fell runner who recently hit the papers when she finished the Spine Race in record time – while expressing breast milk for her baby daughter! Jasmin is one of 20 runners currently being coached by Damian.
Damian fully admits that ultramarathon running is his mid-life crisis, taking over his social life (he left a New Year’s Eve party at our house to go for a run!), but it provides the adventure he craves without compromising his safety, something he’s more conscious of now he is a parent. He’s also very grateful for the small kindnesses shown by the race volunteers, the sunsets and sunrises that never fail to lift his spirits and the beautiful landscapes such as the frozen lakes of Arctic Sweden that he’s so lucky to run through.