When Lizzy Hawker first entered the famed Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), a staggering 103-mile race with 31,168 feet of uphill running—more than the equivalent of running up Everest—through the mountains of France, Italy, and Switzerland, it was a simple afterthought to a ten-day climbing vacation. Just ten days before the race, she decided it would be wise to purchase trail running shoes.
“It was my first mountain race,” says the 36-year-old Brit, who now lives in Switzerland. “When I entered in 2005, I had absolutely no idea whether I would even finish. I’d never done anything like that before.”
She did more than finish. She won. Since then, Hawker has won the UTMB an unprecedented five times—a feat that no man or woman has done in a sport where it is difficult to stay uninjured and continually run at the highest levels.
This year’s race was particularly stressful. Strong winds, heavy rain, and snow forced race organizers to shift the course from high passes and shorten the distance to 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) at the last moment. It meant for a faster race, where Hawker’s experience on the course wouldn’t be as much of an advantage. The second-place woman finished 45 minutes off of Hawker’s time. Still hungry to run the full 100 miles, she followed her UTMB finish with a decisive victory weeks later at Run Rabbit Run in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Earlier in 2005, the same year she began making her mark as a top endurance athlete, Hawker was finishing up her Ph.D. in physical oceanography and working for the British Antarctic Survey. She deployed research instruments and conducted data analysis aboard a ship skirting the edges of Antarctica to study climate change, yet her love for mountains kept calling her away from the academic world.
“I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be a research scientist,” reflects Hawker, who altered her life to spend more time in the mountains, either running around them or climbing them. With more time to focus on running, backcountry skiing, and climbing, Hawker began to tap into her incredible endurance with victories at some of sport's most difficult races. In 2007, she set the record time for running 199 miles between 5,361-meter Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu, Nepal, in a record of three days, two hours, and 36 minutes.
Hawker continued to grow as a runner even while fighting injuries. In 2011, she set the women’s world record for distance run in a 24-hour period with 153.5 miles in Wales. She also bested her time to set the overall record on the Everest run—this time with a time of two days, 23 hours, and 25 minutes. In the same year, Hawker attempted to run the entire length of the Great Himalaya Trail only to be thwarted when she lost a pouch carrying her permits and satellite phone.
“I still feel like I have more potential to pull out of myself,” says Hawker. “I’m always thinking that I can do more. It surprises me when I look back at what I’ve done.”
Adventure: A lot of endurance athletes are meticulous with the number of miles they do for training. What’s your approach to training?
Lizzy Hawker: I absolutely have no idea how much I run in a year. I’ve reached a high level of endurance now. I really tailor my training to the race that is coming up. I also do road running. I love a variety of running. If I were to guess, I average 80 to 100 miles a week.
A: Do you do anything outside of running to prepare?
LH: I love ski alpinism and ski touring and cross-country skiing. I love climbing and mountaineering. For me, it’s really important to get some mountain time.
A: Does that help with the running?
LH: It’s good for endurance. Running is so specific that you need to run to train—especially if you are working on speed. At the same time, I believe that all your experiences make you into the person you are. If you’re ski mountaineering a lot, apart from helping with your basic endurance, you are exposed to the weather. You are out for long hours on your feet. The more bad conditions you are exposed to, the more you know you can cope with it.
A: You tried to run the Great Himalaya Trail while carrying all your supplies. That’s a massive undertaking that stretches the length of Nepal. What happened?
LH: I managed to lose the trail. There are lots of old hunting trails. The animals have worn parts [of it] as well. It’s very easy to get off the main trail. I was in really steep old-growth forest. I managed to lose a small bag that had the satellite phone and permits for the entire journey. At some point I realized I was feeling light. I was sending messages back to North Face every day and also to a friend in Kathmandu. I told them to give me two nights' grace. By the third night they would be getting worried. I couldn’t tell them I was OK. If I had sprained an ankle there is no way anyone would have found me.
A: That’s some pretty remote country to be lost in. Were you afraid?
LH: It was a hard experience, but at the same time I knew that I would be OK. It was so disappointing because the journey was going well, and I was loving it. It’s just natural to me to be moving quickly in the high mountains.
A: Do you think you will to try it again?
LH: I want to. At the moment Nepal has said that it’s going to bring a rule of no solo trekking. My dream is to make the journey solo. I might need to have someone with me most of the way. I’d love to go back possibly next year.