Damian Hall is an Inov-8 ambassador and two time Spine Race finisher. Last year he had an incredible result at the UTMB finishing in 5th place which was documented in the brilliant film; Underdog. Ahead of my attempt next year I was delighted to be able to pick his brain...
How did you get into running ultramarathons and what led you to going for the more adventurous and extreme conditions?
I’m an outdoor journalist and had been pestering a magazine editor to let me write about my first and only marathon in 2012 (which I ran dressed as a toilet – and, yes, I did look a bit flushed). The editor called my bluff and sent me on my first ultra instead. It hurt, of course, but I loved it and knew straight away I wanted more. Even before my first 100 miler (my third ultra) I had signed up for the 268-mile Spine Race. I’d previously trekked the Pennine Way, loved it, and written the official guide for the National Trail. There was something really compelling to me about how bonkers, how pointlessly heroic, the idea of running it in winter was.
How long did it take you to recover after your first Spine Race and what compelled you to go back a second time?
A month or two, I think. It’s common for people to be fatigued by some months afterwards. But the better you train the less of a shock to the system it should be. You live in a bubble on the Spine Race, and you obsess over it for months beforehand too (it kinda ruins Christmas) and then it’s suddenly gone. I really missed it. I signed up again as soon as I could. Plus this time I wanted to be competitive.
How do you prepare for the lack of sleep involved in a multi day, single stage, event? Do you take sleep breaks at all?
It was a shock to the system the first time. I’d only run through the night once before, on my first 100 miler. I slept for around three hours a night, but skipped sleep on the last night to try and catch third place, and turned into a zombie wearing lead boots in quick-sand for many long, dark, cold hours. Second time around I was more experienced, but I also went for more night – including sometimes all-night – runs to get used to that, which helped.
Did you experience any hallucinations during the Spine Race or any multiday events?
During that first Spine Race I had very vivid hallucinations of people setting off red Chinese lanterns in the Cheviots. I felt they were guiding me to the finish. So I followed them and got quite lost. Which is embarrassing if there are live trackers and you wrote the official guide for the route. In daylight, rocks and other shapes often turned into people. It wasn’t as sinister as that maybe sounds. It just felt very… Like it was a dream. Since that, not much really.
The first time you took on an event like this, did you prioritise weight or comfort?
I was rightly nervous about the weather and took enough kit to cope with it. Second time I think my pack was about 2kg lighter.
Knowing that the body will need extra calories during winter conditioned events, what nutrition secrets could you share?
I’m not sure I know any secrets. But bagels have almost three times the calories of an average sandwich. Nuts have a high calorie to weight ratio. I wanted real food, variety, and lots of it.
What key advice would you have for someone doing the Spine Race for the first time?
In training, getting lost somewhere unfamiliar in bad weather at night is better prep than doing loads of aimless miles.
What has been your favourite race memory to date?
Getting to Kirk Yetholm is a very good feeling. The camaraderie and wonderful support you get from the staff is pretty special and I’ve made life-long friends at the race. I also remember reaching the apocalyptic abyss of High Cup at sunrise in the snow and, despite considerable discomfort and fatigue, just feeling unbelievably happy.
Lastly, do you, like many other ultra runners, have a favourite trail poo story (come on.. we all share these around a beer after a race)?
I’m going to sound like a killjoy, but honestly nothing springs to mind. Sorry.
Thank you Damian, it's been a pleasure. Best of luck for the rest of this season.
Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist, ultra runner and coach. The inov-8 athlete has placed 3rd and 4th at the Spine Race and written the official guide to the Pennine Way. you can Follow him at @ultra_damo on instagram and his website http://www.damianhall.info/
[Photos Courtesy of Summit Fever Media]