Taking on the climate crisis in a meaningful, substantive way is a long, hard, painful slog — with no guarantee of success.
It is thus a great thing that British ultra-marathoner Damian Hall, who does long, hard, painful slogs for a living, is on the #ClimateComeback trail. GSB spoke with him about the challenging terrain on the road and in the climate action world.
GreenSportsBlog: I cannot fathom doing a regular, standard-issue, 26.2-mile marathon, much less an ultra-marathon. How did you get into the idea of racing 50 miles per day for multiple days at a time? Were you a competitive runner as a child?
Damian Hall: Well Lew, I grew up in the Cotswolds in the southwest of England. My parents were not sporty at all, but I loved football and ran cross-country in school. Thing was, I loved football more, but I just wasn’t that good at it. After university, I became a journalist, covering football and, later, travel. I traveled and lived an outdoor life in Australia and Latin America. I was living the dream!
GSB: So, how, and when did you get into competitive athletics?
Damian: In 2011 I was 36, back home in the UK working on a book project late into the evenings and felt out of shape. So, I signed up for the 2011 Bath Half Marathon, which I loved!
I did it in 1 hour 40 minutes which was OK for a first time out. The next year I ran my first marathon, in 3:17, dressed as a toilet, fundraising for WaterAid — I guess my first go at using sport for a message.
GSB: HAH! How did folks react?
Damian: It was always the same joke from the crowds: “You look a bit flushed, mate!” Then I did my first ultra-marathon; running 69 miles over two days.
GSB: Amazing that you went from being out of shape to running an ultra-marathon in a two-year span!
Damian: Once I started running, I just loved it. And then I wanted to run more and more, longer and longer distances. In 2013, I ran my first 100-mile race. Then in 2014, I did my first Spine Race, a 268 mile south-to-north course up the middle of England in the cold and wet of winter. You have to do it in seven days; I was able to finish in a little less than five days which was good enough for 4th place.
In 2016, when I was 40, I placed second in the UK Ultra Trail Championships, which qualified me for the Great Britain team for the Trail World Championships in Portugal. It didn’t go great in truth – I suffered terrible cramps for the first time.
Still, by this point I was two races into a four-year consecutive stint at the ultra-Super Bowl, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), with a 105-mile race in the French, Swiss and Italian Alps with 30,000 feet of climb.
GSB: That’s just insane. How did you make out?
Damian: I finished 29th in 2015, improving to 5th in 2018. That year, my race was subject of “Underdog,” which would become an award-winning film by Summit Fever Media.
GSB: How would you describe what it’s like to run an ultra-marathon to a non-runner? What does it feel like? How do you keep going for such long distances?
Damian: I know it sounds a bit bonkers, but we generally travel nice and slow, hike the steeper hills, eat twice our body weight in pizza and sweets and enjoy the scenery.
GSB: That’s hard for me to process but the pizza part sounds great. Not the sweets because my dad was my dentist. But I digress. Were you making your living as an ultra-runner?
Damian: There’s a tiny bit of money in it in the UK, but most ultra-runners aren’t full time. I didn’t live in the mountains; I still worked as a journalist and was supporting my wife and two kids. Yet I was still setting records (or Fastest Known Times/FKTs) on National Trails.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, which led to the cancellation of most races, but I was able to set three records that year. The Pennine Way record had stood for 30 years, but eight days after my UK-dwelling American friend John Kelly broke it, I broke his, which got us both on national television and in the newspapers.
Damian: Thank you! Of course, it was a short-lived record as John broke it again in 2021…
GSB: Still, it’s amazing that you’re able to set records in your 40s…
Damian: I’ve only been running ten years, so perhaps my body hasn’t had the beating that other runners my age have. I rarely drink alcohol, eat a vegan diet, try to sleep eight hours a night, do regular strength work, get massages, and keep my easy runs truly easy.
That said, last year, I had my first ‘did not finish’ (DNF). Prior to that, I had always finished…49 races, in fact….
At UTMB in 2021, I was badly under-fueled and my motivation to finish just evaporated. And then at this January’s Spine Race, I had a 4-hour lead through 180 of the 268 miles but had to stop due to a groin injury. But this is a tough sport and I love it as much as ever!
GSB: And now you’re also using your platform to shine a light on the climate crisis. When did your interest in climate and the environment begin?
Damian: Growing up my parents loved the outdoors and voted for the Green Party, but I wasn’t very politicized.
In 2019 however, Extinction Rebellion (XR) was leading major climate protests in London, with people laying down on the streets, blocking traffic at major intersections. My sister was there; she helped to organize things. And Olympic Gold Medal-winning kayaker Etienne Stott, who is such a hero, was arrested. It was really big news!
That really got my attention and caused me to rethink things. I started reading books voraciously, took a climate literacy courses through Protect Our Winters, saw that the global climate crisis was massive and that taking real action was urgent. I was a bit reluctant to speak out; I fly to my races so there was a vulnerability to hypocrisy charges. Now, I haven’t flown in three years; I went vegan two years ago.
Still, the more I saw of XR, the more it appealed to me. They’re not interested in people reducing their individual carbon footprints; instead, their focus is on driving systemic change through political activism. I started going to XR protests in 2019 and have been to more than 10. I attended COP26 in Glasgow last November and I co-founded The Green Runners earlier this year.
GSB: What an impressive transition, Damian, from not being involved to going to Extinction Rebellion events in what seems like a nano-second! What are The Green Runners about?
Damian: It’s UK-based for now and it’s mostly trail and ultra-marathon runners. We believe that every runner can be a Green Runner! Perfection is not the goal; you don’t need to be perfect, just keep improving by putting the planet first when making decisions. We have four key pillars…how you:
- Speak Out
We ask our Green Runners to pledge to take at least one action annually within at least one of the pillars. For me, speaking out, is the biggest thing.
GSB: I’m with you…speaking out on the need for climate action is the most important thing, and doing so with a positive, solutions-oriented approach. This is especially true for athletes with significant platforms. How have you been speaking out?
Damian: I’ve written and published two books — “In It for The Long Run,” in 2021, which was mostly about my running. Then last month, I published “We Can’t Run Away from This…racing to improve running’s footprint in our climate emergency,” which builds on what we’re doing with The Green Runners.
The book and The Green Runners both are giving my running a different purpose…
I was running to win and set records; now I use my running to change behaviors on climate.
And, if I win and break records, more people want to talk to me.
GSB: What has been the reaction to the new book, from the ultra-community and beyond?
Damian: I’ve been amazed. I was expecting more hostility to be honest, but people have been really supportive, and I’ve been asked to come and give more talks than I realistically can. Which is a great thing.